It’s 2020 and PCs are Alive and Kicking
It’s getting to be a familiar theme. As with last year’s event, some of the most interesting announcements from this year’s CES in Las Vegas are focused around PCs. In fact, this year, there are probably more PC developments from a wider variety of vendors than we’ve seen in quite some time. From foldable displays, to 5G, to AI silicon, to sustainable manufacturing, the latest crop of PCs highlights that the category isn’t just far from dead, it’s actually at the cutting edge of everything that’s expected to be a hot topic for this new decade.
On top of that, some of the most important advancements in PC-focused CPUs in a long time have also been announced at the show, promising big leaps in bread-and-butter performance metrics for the coming year as well. In short, it’s a real PC renaissance.
Probably the flashiest new PC from CES is technically one that’s already been hinted at before, but whose final details were just released at the show: Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold. Leveraging a plastic OLED display from LG Display (similar in concept to what’s used on foldable phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr), the X1 Fold shrinks a 13.3” screen down to a small leather-wrapped portfolio size when it’s folded in half. Unlike the phone displays, however, the X1 Fold supports pen input from the included active stylus.
In addition, the Intel Hybrid Technology (formerly “Lakefield”)-powered X1 Fold supports several different modes of operation, including a completely unfolded tablet-style mode, and a partially folded traditional notebook style, which gives you the option to either use a soft keyboard or treat the display as two separate screens. Importantly, the $2,499 device includes a magnetic Bluetooth keyboard that functions as you would expect but can also be stored and charged inside the X1 Fold when it’s folded. That’s critical for the many people who have had challenges with (or simply stayed away from) early experiments with dual-screened notebooks. In addition, Lenovo plans to offer optional 5G support. The first version of the X1 Fold is expected mid-year and will run Windows 10, but the company also plans to offer the ability to run Windows 10 X (the forthcoming dual-screen and foldable-optimized version of the OS that Microsoft announced when it previewed its Surface Neo foldable device) later this year.
In conjunction with Qualcomm, Lenovo also showed what they claimed was the world’s first 5G PC, the $1,499 Yoga PC. The new notebook is an Arm-based Qualcomm 8cx-powered device that—somewhat surprisingly—supports both sub-6 and mmWave variations of 5G, thanks to some advanced antenna development work by Lenovo.
HP had a number of interesting new announcements at this year’s show, including an update to its super light-weight 13.3” DragonFly notebook, which features an integrated sub-6 GHz 5G modem (from Qualcomm), as well as another version that offers a built-in Tile device, for easily locating the notebook in the event it’s lost or stolen. (Unfortunately, however, both options use the M.2 slot, so they don’t have one that offers both yet.) The Intel-based DragonFly Elite G2 supports an optional 4K HDR display and an optional integrated privacy screen via the company’s Sure View Protect that prevents the screen from being read at an angle. Even more importantly, several components of the DragonFly are built from recycled materials, including the speaker enclosure, which is made from 100% ocean-bound plastics, and the chassis, which is 90% recycled magnesium.
For content creators and gamers, the company also debuted the first all-in-one desktop system featuring Nvidia’s RTX technology for real-time ray-tracing support. The HP Envy 32 AIO features a 31.5” 4K HDR-enabled display, the Nvidia RTX 2060 GPU, 9th generation Intel Core CPU and a Bang & Olufsen designed audio subsystem for a robust multimedia experience.
Dell showed off an updated version of its groundbreaking XPS13 that now extends its nearly bezel-less Infinity Display to all four sides, as well as a number of very cool-looking concept PCs, including its own foldable design and a gaming-focused device. In addition, Dell’s new Latitude 9750 2-in-1 is a 15-inch device weighing 3.2 pounds that features integrated sub-6 GHz 5G. The 9750 also leverages a number of AI-based features designed to subtly improve the performance and battery life behind the scenes thanks to some new Intel-developed software.
On the gaming side, Dell also unveiled the new $799 G5 SE notebook, which leverages AMD’s latest mobile CPUs and GPUs as well as its new SmartShift technology. Essentially Smart Shift allows the discrete CPU and GPU to function more like an integrated APU, thereby improving performance and increasing battery life.
Samsung is also kicking its PC and related peripherals business into higher gear with the official debut of the $849 Galaxy Book Flex α, the latest in its line of thin, QLED display-equipped 2-in-1 notebooks, as well as new gaming-specific monitors. (QLED technology is the same that the company uses in their current high-end TVs, including their new 95” 8K model, the Q950TS. On notebooks, QLED delivers brighter displays and, according to the company, longer battery life.) The Galaxy Book Flex α is 2.26-pound, Intel-based, pen-equipped device that, somewhat confusingly, is in addition to the already announced (and more powerfully spec’d) Galaxy Book Flex 2-in-1, which was announced last fall, but has yet to start shipping in the US. The company also introduced one of the first Intel Project Athena-verified Chromebooks, the Galaxy Chromebook, including one in a slick-looking red color.
For gaming monitors, Samsung is also leveraging QLED technology but in a 100° curved format that’s designed to match the peripheral vision range of the human eye. Available in both a 49” version with 32:9 Dual Quad HD resolution (that’s 5,120 x 1,440)—the G9, or 32”/27” versions with 16:9 Quad HD resolution (2,560 x 1,440)—the G7, both lines of monitors feature 240 MHz refresh rates, response times of 1 msec, and support for both Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync technologies.
Speaking of which, AMD and Intel both announced their latest generation CPU architectures at CES. Additionally, while Qualcomm debuted its latest PC CPUs last month, it made a point to say at their press conference that its biggest news for this year’s CES was in PCs (in part because of the Lenovo 5G PC mentioned earlier).
In AMD’s case, the company debuted the first mobile parts based on its Zen2 core, the Ryzen 4000 series in three different variations: ultrathin, gaming, and high-performance. In the desktop world, AMD’s 7nm Zen2 core-powered desktop CPUs have surpassed Intel in performance for the first time in about 20 years, so many people have been waiting for these mobile versions and early benchmarks provided by the company looked impressive. In fact, for the Ryzen 4800H version, which is a 45W mobile part, AMD showed it outperforming Intel’s top-end 95W desktop part.
Speaking of desktop, AMD also extended its Threadripper CPU line with the Ryzen Threadripper 3990 (also priced at $3,990) that offers a staggering 64 cores and 128 independent threads for performance on ultra high-end and demanding applications, such as editing 8K video. It’s clearly not for everyone but demonstrates the impressive levels of performance that AMD has been able to achieve.
In Intel’s case, the company formally unveiled its Tiger Lake CPU line, based on its 10nm+ process technology and, more importantly, a new CPU design. One of the most interesting bits of news about Tiger Lake is that it incorporates a new integrated graphics solution called Xe that’s based on the work the company has been doing on its upcoming, first-ever standalone GPU, codenamed DG1 (which was also demo’d at their press conference). Intel is claiming speed improvements across all aspects of its architecture with Tiger Lake, with a particularly large boost in AI processing. Up until now there’s been little focus on AI-specific tasks on PCs—particularly compared to smartphones—so it’s good to see the company highlighting that development for PCs. Finally, Intel also showed off a new prototype foldable PC design, codenamed “Horseshoe Bend”, featuring a future version of Tiger Lake that folds out into a 17” touchscreen display. Intel also discussed extending its Project Athena PC experience spec for a new line of foldable devices that the company expects to see this year and beyond.
In all, it was an impressive showing for a product category that many predicted would barely even make it into this decade. Based on the news from this year’s CES, it’s probably a safe bet that we’ll be talking about PCs as we enter the 2030s as well.