The Apple Factor
Apple’s huge success with the iPad, iPhone, and MacBook Air has prodded traditional PC manufacturers to explore new designs. Although Apple hasn’t significantly eroded Windows’ market share on the desktop, Apple’s laptop sales have gained ground. The current generation of iMacs has established the standard for all-in-one systems, while the MacBook Air is the poster child for ultrathin, mobile computers. The popularity of the Air likely spawned Ultrabooks--the skinny, lightweight laptops that Intel is currently pushing PC manufacturers to build. Over the next month or two, Intel anticipates a wave of Ultrabook releases, with dozens of new models flooding the market.
The new MacBook Pro with Retina display brings 2880-by-1800-pixel resolution--which translates to a pixel density of 220 pixels per inch--to Apple's premium laptop line. PC manufacturers aren’t as far behind as they seem to be, though: The new crop of 13-inch Ultrabooks with 1080p displays offer 160 ppi. It’s clear that the bar has been set.
On the software side, Apple’s AirPlay, which allows easy streaming of content to home entertainment systems, has defined ease of use for wireless displays; Intel’s WiDi (a wireless laptop-to-TV connection) has been less successful. At this year’s E3 gaming trade show, Microsoft announced SmartGlass, which aims to accomplish the same goal but will use bidirectional streaming so that it isn't just a one-way street.
The Laptop Landscape
Intel’s Ivy Bridge processor delivers mainstream x86 CPU performance at a much lower power budget than previous generations of CPUs. While Ultrabooks first saw the light of day with the earlier Sandy Bridge CPUs, it’s Ivy Bridge that truly delivers on the promise of longer battery life and new PC shapes and sizes, most of them sleeker, lighter, and more efficient than past designs. At the recent Computex trade show, laptop makers showed off a plethora of PC designs--some radical, others consisting of only minor changes to existing designs. The Asus Taichi, for example, is a laptop that has a second touchscreen on the outside and works as a tablet when it's closed.
Companies are also experimenting with exotic materials to reduce weight. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Gigabyte’s X11 both use carbon fiber as the main chassis material. Toshiba is readying a 21:9-aspect-ratio system with a native resolution of 1792 by 768 pixels, which can present widescreen movies in their native format.
It’s unclear which designs will win consumers' hearts, but it’s good to see serious experimentation after years of boring, 15.6-inch look-alikes.
Despite the trend toward mobility, desktop PCs are still going strong. But they too are changing rapidly. All-in-one systems are becoming a larger part of the mix, and manufacturers are experimenting with other variations. The Lenovo IdeaCentre A720, which will ship later this year, offers a multitouch display that can lie completely horizontal; you might think of it as a big brother to Microsoft’s newly announced Surface tablets. Ultrasmall units are also becoming popular in offices, homes, and industrial settings. Inspired by the interest in the Raspberry Pi (the tiny, supercheap PC-like device built around a system-on-chip and running Linux), Intel is building its NUC (Next Unit of Computing), which carries an Ivy Bridge-class dual-core CPU in a tiny, 4-inch-square case smaller than the Apple TV.
Even the most hard-core PC users, including serious gamers and performance enthusiasts, are looking beyond the familiar PC box. The Alienware X51, for instance, packs fairly serious PC gaming muscle into an Xbox-size chassis.
What Is a PC?
All of this experimentation forces us to reexamine what a personal computer is, and what it could become.
Obviously, a desk-side tower with attached display and peripherals is a PC. All-in-one machines running Windows certainly qualify, as do most laptops. But what if the device is a tablet running Windows RT, Microsoft’s upcoming OS for ARM-based systems? No one would call the iPad a PC, yet the Microsoft Surface RT and similar Windows RT tablets will include some flavor of Microsoft Office--an application that’s strongly associated with PCs.
An Ultrabook running Windows is certainly a PC. But what about a Chromebook running Chrome OS? It’s almost always connected to the cloud, and doesn’t run Windows--but it’s certainly capable of running applications that most business PC users would recognize. And the new Surface Pro may be extremely thin and light, but it’s a PC all the way down to its x86 CPU and its ability to run most Windows applications.
As the PC evolves, we'll see the emergence of new products that push the definition of the personal computer. In some cases, hardware that most of us wouldn’t call a PC will run applications traditionally associated with personal computers, just like those Windows RT tablets that run Office.
If the new PC generation simply consisted of experiments like Lenovo’s IdeaCentre A720 and marketing initiatives like the Ultrabook, we’d see the PC as merely evolving with the times. Windows 8 and Microsoft’s Surface tablets, however, lay out a different vision of the PC’s destiny. Apple may have defined what the tablet could be with the iPad, but Microsoft is defining the future soul of the PC.