LAS VEGAS — Now that the drones are nestled back in their Styrofoam nests and the enormous TVs are sailing back to Asia, it’s time to reflect on what emerged from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.
Fitness sensors dominated the exhibit halls, and robotic cars whizzing around a parking lot offered a glimpse of the future. But I’d argue that this year’s sleeper hit was the personal computer. Despite coming to see the next big thing, visitors seemed particularly taken by the latest models of this 40-year-old gadget. You wouldn’t have guessed it a few years ago. The PC industry appeared dead in the water, with sales falling and companies like Sony pulling out of the business. Everyone seemed enchanted by the iPad and eager to move beyond yesterday’s computing platform. It didn’t help that Microsoft bobbled Windows 8, giving people another reason to hold off buying a new PC. I think they’ll change their mind and give PCs another chance this year as the attractive and reasonably priced models on display at CES start appearing in stores. Over the past few years at CES, PC makers chased the iPad with laptops that twisted and rotated into a slate, or had screens that detached and operated as a touch-screen tablet. They were back this year with more of these “convertibles” but those devices didn’t seem to attract as much attention as quasi-traditional laptops and desktops shown by Hewlett-Packard, Dell and other stalwarts. Some of this is the normal cycle of the PC business, but PC makers have upped their game this time around. Take the ultrathin laptops unveiled last week, which were built around smaller and more power-efficient Intel processors. Referred to as the “Broadwell” family, it’s the fifth generation of the familiar “Core” processor line, and it took longer than expected to get into production.
It was worth the wait. The laptops look great while having screens as nice as the latest TVs. PC makers also are updating their lineups ahead of a new operating-system release from Microsoft. Windows 10 is well on its way, with test versions out and a more complete version due to be revealed Jan. 21.
Microsoft’s chief liaison with PC makers said new systems at CES are on the “innovation road” to Windows 10, but they were designed to run first on Windows 8. “Clearly, as we go forward, new operating systems have new capabilities that bring new hardware design opportunities,” Nick Parker, vice president of Microsoft’s Original Equipment Manufacturer division, told me at CES. “But all of the innovation you see here will be delivered on (Windows) 8.” Microsoft is playing it safer this time and making sure that Windows 10 works well on desktops and laptops, responding to complaints from consumer and PC makers about the touch-centric, tablet-oriented design of Windows 8. After showing me a new Windows 8 “all in one” desktop with a 3-D camera and gesture controls, Charles Wang admitted he still runs Windows 7 on his own PC. Wang is a senior product manager at the Beijing headquarters of Lenovo, the world’s largest PC maker. Wang likes what he has seen so far of Windows 10, but he wonders how Microsoft will persuade people to move beyond Windows 7. “Right now, Android and other OS’s are more and more hot,’’ he said. “Microsoft, they will be challenged, so they should work hard to catch up.” Yet Wang is optimistic about the direction the PC business is heading, particularly as Windows 10 arrives and Intel rolls out yet another version of its PC hardware called “Skylake” in the second half of this year. “People still need a computer in the home,” he said. “Either you are using it for productivity or content consumption — it’s better than a tablet.” Wang also sees an opportunity for the PC to serve as a control center for people adding sensors and other wireless devices to make their homes “smarter.” HP showed a desktop with a 3D-camera — its “Sprout” system, which scans objects when placed on a large touch pad. Even more radical, perhaps, are the “Mini” desktops that HP unveiled. The candy-bowl-size computers start at $179, run a full version of Windows and can power two monitors. Consumers are already warming up to PCs again, according to Mike Nash, HP vice president of product management for consumer PCs. “It’s about having products that are innovative,” said Nash, who previously worked on Kindles at Amazon.com and before that spent nearly 20 years at Microsoft.
A turning point was the iPad’s debut in 2010, Nash said. Instead of killing the PC, it raised the bar and pushed the industry to try new approaches. “You look at the spectrum of devices, from phones to tablets to detachables, notebooks, desktop towers, all-in-ones. People do everything across those devices,” he said. “Really, the question is, how do you make sure the experiences are more consistent up and down the line, how do you make sure that the experience on every one of them is just excellent,” Nash continued. “That’s been the focus, and realizing it’s more than just hardware. It’s how the hardware and software come together to make sure you have a great customer experience.” It’s taken awhile for the old-line PC makers to get the hang of this approach. Hardware advances have also enabled makers to build a small, powerful desktop PC for less than $200. After being punished by investors spooked in part by the PC downturn, Dell took itself private in 2013 and kept at it.
Dell showed up at CES last week with barnburner systems like XPS 13, an ultrathin laptop with a “borderless” display, 4K resolution and a 5.2 millimeter bezel. The 2.6-pound laptop starts at $799, uses the fifth-generation Intel Core processor and has a battery that runs for up to 15 hours. The XPS 13 and other PCs benefit from new display technology that’s also behind 4K and 5K TV sets, noted Stephen Baker, vice president at research firm NPD. Baker said it’s not clear whether vivid screens, thinner cases and better designs will be enough to make PCs cool again. “Clearly for niches, those products are very cool, but for the mass consumers, more and more what you see, [is] they want a good notebook and they want a phone, but the phone is the thing they have with them all the time and accessorize,” he said. Even so, NPD saw a rise in PC sales last year and expects more growth ahead. “We’re pretty bullish,” Baker said. “We don’t think there’s any reason people should be thinking about abandoning the PC market. It’s still pretty vibrant this year and alive.” Maybe the best endorsement for the new PCs at CES came midway through the show. Perhaps hoping to counter the buzz around all the thin and handsome new PCs at the show, details began to leak from Apple about a new version of the MacBook Air laptop that’s coming out soon with the same Broadwell processors. One way or another, it looks like 2015 will be a buyer’s market for new computers.