CES 2019 Is a Case Study in Why No Product Has Been Able to Kill the Laptop

Don't call it a comeback.

Rumors of the laptop’s death have been greatly exaggerated. This has already been apparent during the early days of CES 2019, the annual gadget show being held in Las Vegas this week, where the faithful form factor was proudly on display amid a whirlwind of laundry folding machines and smart blocks of wood.

Predicting the laptop’s demise is an annual tradition, and is based on the thinking that smartphones and tablets have ushered in a new era of computing. AOL declared from CES 2013 that “the PC is dead” and “long live the handheld.” The Washington Post stated that CES 2014 “proves” that the PC is dead. In June 2018, PC Mag claimed that “the traditional laptop is dead” as there are “no innovations on the horizon.”

How wrong they were. A slew of lightweight designs, powerful machines and premium materials show there’s still life in the laptop yet. Some manufacturers have focused on thinning out the bezels around the screen, while others are using Thunderbolt 3 to connect with powerful graphics processors at home without sacrificing portability.

One of the standout stars of this year’s CES is Huawei, which unveiled the $999 MateBook 13 as a direct competitor to the MacBook Air that Apple announced in October. It’s thinner than the Air at just 14.9mm versus 15.9mm, while packing an eighth-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. The $1,299 model comes with an i7 chip, double the storage, and even includes a separate Nvidia MX150 graphics processor. Its 2,160 by 1,440-pixel touchscreen also beats the Air with a 4.4mm bezel.

Asus' ZenBook S13.
Asus' ZenBook S13.

On the more premium end, Asus introduced the Zenbook S13 with a 2.5mm bezel on its 13.9-inch 1080p display, offering a staggering 97 percent screen-to-body ratio. Unfortunately, it also uses a notch poking out of the top to house the webcam. It uses the Nvidia MX150 graphics chip and an eighth-gen Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, all in a body that weighs 2.47 pounds and measures 13.9mm thick, which Asus claims makes it the slimmest and lightest laptop with a discrete graphics chip.

For those looking for a little more screen space, LG also wowed attendees with the $1,699 Gram 17, a 17-inch laptop that weighs 2.95 pounds. It lacks a discrete graphics card, but that enabled the firm to add more battery to reach a life of nearly 20 hours.

LG's Gram 17.
LG's Gram 17.

There’s also something for performance fans. Lenovo’s Legion powerhouses pack a yet-unannounced Nvidia graphics chip alongside an eighth-gen Intel Core chip and up to 32GB RAM, with the Y740 weighing 4.8 pounds in the $1,749.99 15-inch version and 6.3 pounds in the $1,979.99 17-inch version, and the Y540 weighing five pounds and costing $929.99.

Lenovo Legion.
Lenovo Legion.

It’s impressive stuff, but for the really exciting changes in laptops, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Intel proved this with its “Ice Lake” processor series, a series of chips with tiny transistor gates measuring just 10 nanometers. The chip will support standards like Thunderbolt 3 and the ultra-fast Wi-Fi 6, but it’s on the battery life side that laptop owners may see the most benefits. Intel has been touting advancements like a smaller motherboard that allows for more battery capacity and a screen that uses 50 percent less power to just one watt. These changes could result in laptops that last longer than 25 hours on a single charge.

Contrast that with the suite of available tablets, which were meant to kill the laptop, but whose category is relatively quiet this year. Huawei unveiled the $299 MatePad M5 Lite with neat features like a posture detection sensor that asks users to move the screen away from their face, while the Asus CT100 Chromebook tablet is aimed at students. Samsung was also in the tablet spirit, with a 2-in-1 Notebook 9 Pro that flips into a Windows 10 laptop. None of them directly compete with the iPad Pro, with its rather lonely focus on high-performance tablet-only computing.

The iPad Pro.
The iPad Pro.

When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, Walt Mossberg described it as “pretty close” to a “laptop killer.” Nine years later and the laptop seems as alive as ever, with traditional PC sales actually growing 2.7 percent in the second quarter of 2018. Laptops sold 162 million worldwide in 2017, a slight decline from its 201 million sales in 2010, but sales are actually predicted to rise to 165 million by 2022.

Smartphones may be ubiquitous, but for more involved computing it seems there’s still a big appetite for a simple clamshell you can flip open and start typing upon, free from any fiddling with docks and keyboard attachments. If CES 2019 is anything to go by, laptop makers have a lot of ideas for how to make that undead clamshell even better.

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