Let’s Make PCs First-Class Citizens of the Connected World

The PC industry is in the doldrums. Shipments continue to decline, and consumers and business buyers are holding on to their existing hardware for increasingly long periods of time. Fast new processors haven’t caused them to upgrade. Nor have thinner, touch-enabled form factors. And new operating systems no longer move the needle. So what’s it going to take? As a frequent business traveler, I can tell you this: the single most important feature that I want in my next notebook is one that I simply cannot get on even the best products in the world: a cellular radio. It’s 2016, and it is high time that my most powerful, most productive, and most expensive mobile computing device got its own full-time cellular connection.

Tether This!
Let’s get this out of the way up front: Yes, I know I can use a mobile hotspot. Yes, I know I can tether my notebook to my phone. Yes, I know WiFi is widely available. And yes, I know that I’m going to have to pay my mobile carrier for yet another connection.

I have a mobile hotspot. It’s pretty great, except the roughly 50% of the time it is dead because I left it turned on the last time I used it. Or, worse, it’s not in my bag because I left it charging on my desk. In a pinch, I often tether to my phone. And it works ok most of the time. But invariably, when I’m in a hurry, I find myself turning the phone hotspot on and off, or turning my notebook’s WiFi on and off desperately trying to get my notebook to talk to the phone that is sitting three inches to its right. Best case, I eventually connect and then proceed to run down my phone battery.

Connecting to WiFi is even more hit or miss. Public hotspots are increasingly plentiful but are consistently inconsistent in terms of stability and speed. More frustrating still is the semi-private WiFi in every corporate conference room I’ve ever set foot. I shudder to think about how much time and money we, as a population, waste while people in conference rooms “try to get connected.” That’s why I’d gladly pay my carrier an extra $10-$20 per month to access my existing shared data plan. And I’d also happily pay the $50-$100 it would cost the vendor for the radio. It would pay for itself in a matter of months.

Several years ago I got my first cellular-connected tablet. It has clearly spoiled me. I can’t imagine ever having a non-cellular tablet again. No matter where I go, I’m always connected. And I’m not alone: In 2015 about 36% of tablets WW shipped with cellular connectivity. About one-third of Apple’s iPads ship with cellular connectivity and it charges an extra $130 for the feature! Today you can find cellular-enabled tablets for less than $200. So why can’t I get that feature in my high-end notebook?

Waiting for….What?
I’ve made this argument to a wide range of companies within the PC ecosystem. From silicon makers to hardware vendors, and few disagree with my sentiment. But nobody wants to go first in a big, bold way. Some of the PC vendors offer a few commercial-focused models with a cellular modem as an option, but none has rolled it out as an add-on to their flagship products. I’m not suggesting that it should show up in every sub $300 PC that ships into the market. But let’s make it an option on vendor’s top-of-the-line products.

Apple’s MacBook is its thinnest, most mobile-focused notebook to date. But there’s no cellular option. Dell’s XPS-13 is one of the finest Windows notebooks on the market, yet there’s no cellular option. Microsoft’s Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 detachable products are clearly targeting mobile professionals willing to pay top dollar for their hardware, and yet there’s no cellular option. Same for Lenovo’s Yoga 900. And HP’s Spectre. And the list goes on and on.

I guarantee that once companies realize the productivity benefits of a giving their most mobile employees connected notebooks, they’ll start buying more of them. And that’s before you consider the potential security benefits of never having to connect to a strange WiFi access point. Or the notable cost savings of that employee never having to pay for connectivity in a hotel again.

I get it. Adding cellular brings a wide range of technical and regulatory hassles. It costs money to design in the radio and then pay for the part, and so far the silicon guys haven’t made integrating it a priority. And it means working with a wide range of carriers all over the world. But it is time that the industry bites the bullet and moves this forward. Everyone is trying to figure out what buyers want, but many users just don’t know yet that this is what they want. Give them the option to find out. Let’s get the ball rolling on this now, so that when 5G arrives every PC will ship with that next-generation connectivity as a standard feature.

Published by

Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

27 thoughts on “Let’s Make PCs First-Class Citizens of the Connected World”

  1. Whoa. I didn’t realize the Surface didn’t have a cellular option. How strange. But honestly, with my latest iPad purchase of a 12.9″ iPad Pro I bought it without the LTE option–my first iPad without it. I always have my iPhone on me so why bother with a separate LTE connection on the iPad when it takes a single click in the settings app to enable WiFi tethering from the iPhone. I’ve never had a single problem with it and I never get close to using all my 3 GB on my phone anyway.

    1. Surface 3 does, Surface 4 was using an very new Chip+chipset; either they’re having issues integrating LTE? or there wasn’t enough demande for the LTE Surf3 to justify making an LTE Surf4.

      1. I recall that there were 3G cellular enabled laptops even in the NetBook era (pre-iPad ~2010). This cnet article from 2010 confirms this.


        I would therefore assume that the companies that ignored Tom Mainelli’s advice, actually had several years of hard-earned experience that proved cellular-enabled laptops were NOT a good idea. Maybe they were just too polite to openly disagree.

        I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea to call PC vendors too coward to “go first in a big, bold way”, when it could equally have been that they were actually too polite to snicker at you.

        1. Agreed. There are already easy and cheap ways to add LTE capability to any laptop (Apple included). It would seem the ‘LTE accessory’ solution (tether, dongle, portable internet stick/hub) works better than building in LTE capability.

          1. Not quite though
            – you’ve got those wonderful laptops with a single port, so charge OR connect (whatever: data, flash, HDD, sync phone…), you gotta choose. Or lug around an unsightly + cumbersome hub, which is what everyone on the road wants to do.. NOT.
            – data perfomance and reliability is very dependent on antenna size. So either you get a large unsightly+cumbersome dongle ripe for breaking, or a small one that sucks.

            The “unsightly+cumbersome” theme makes it ungood for both aesthetes and practical-minded customers.

          2. Edit + pic: yep, they’re huge to the point of being impractical, and few (dlink and huawei) and issues w/ supported bands.

          3. I don’t think Space Gorilla means “works better” in the sense that it is the more beautiful, reliable and seamless solution. Instead, he probably means that it works better commercially; that this is the solution that is good enough and actually selling.

            The way I understand it is, the mobile broadband solution is not perfect, but consumers perceive it as much better than equipping a notebook with a cellular modem. Hence the sales. If somebody had a better idea of how to do it, then laptops with cellular might become a popular solution. However, it is not just a matter of the PC vendors being “bold” as Tom suggests.

          4. That’s a good summary of what I meant. There are already multiple solutions to this problem, so why bother building it in? And sales numbers would seem to support that theory. If demand changes it is obvious we will then see widespread adoption of LTE capability built in. Perhaps the next generation of LTE could spur this, I don’t know.

          5. I could easily be missing something here, but it seems, wouldn’t shell material have an affect on a cellular radio? Apple laptops, for instance, are all metal. They already redesigned the iPhone to accommodate that.


          6. Good point. I would guess there are ways to design MacBooks to accommodate this, but again, if hardly anybody is demanding LTE capability be built in and we have multiple solutions for LTE accessories, why bother?

          7. This is definitely a road warrior feature. I don’t know who else would think it necessary since they already are using their other devices for any mobile activities.


          8. That’s one model of MacBook, out of three. Get an Air or a Pro then (choose choice). Or, just use tethering or a hub (a portable hub fits easily in your bag, a pocket, lots of places, you don’t “lug around” a hub). The dongle is just one solution. If you don’t like it, there are other solutions, even for the MacBook with one port, gasp!

  2. I think you’re projecting your LTE connectivity needs onto the wider world.

    – Most people don’t really need it nor care.
    – Some have occasional need for it, and are OK with tethering the few times they do need it.
    – Those who need it a lot get laptops with LTE built in.

    Let me guess, you’re on a Mac, and instead of telling off Apple for not offering the option, you’re generalizing your issue to every user and the whole industry ?

    For the rest, you can even get Chromebooks, Surface Free, Thinkpad Carbon X with LTE: , HP Elitebook…http://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/need-to-work-from-the-road-heres-the-5-best-laptops-with-lte/ http://checklaptop.com/cheapest-ultrabook-laptops-with-4g-lte-cellular-connectivity-273/ . OEMs are well aware of what the demand is: they only have to look at sales of those models. Except Apple. Choose choice ?

    1. Does anyone have sales numbers for those LTE laptops? I would guess they’re low, hence Apple’s decision to not include LTE, especially when you can tether or buy a cheap dongle or use an internet stick. If demand increases Apple can add the option. There’s already three easy options to get LTE on your Mac if you need it, and if demand is very low, why build it in? All three non built in options are probably cheaper.

      1. There’s also the problem that the OS needs to be taught to know that not all data connections are the same, otherwise you’re going to have the OS blowing your monthly data plan doing cloud backups or downloading software updates. I have read that re engineering Mac OS or Windows to know better than to use metered data for its routine housekeeping tasks is not a trivial change.

        1. I didn’t know that, thanks. It does seem that some kind of LTE accessory makes a lot more sense. The data plan aspect is another problem I didn’t touch on, but I expect it might make more sense to build in this capability when/if mobile LTE plans become reasonable, which they are not currently, data caps are too low.

          1. See my answer above: Windows already has what it takes to handle LTE/metered gracefully.

          2. I have no idea what is built into OSX but you can use TripMode on your Mac, it’s an app that does what you’re talking about, lets you manage what can connect and what can’t when you’re using a metered connection. But I’m confident there’s one or two nitpicks you can find that will mean TripMode doesn’t count. Have at it.

            I think the larger point is that there just isn’t that much demand for LTE capability built into laptops. However, if you do need that, there are solutions, even on the Apple side, including managing the connection.

          1. I wasn’t aware that all Windows laptops came with LTE capability. Are you sure about that? Interesting, if true.

  3. As for 30% of tablets having 3/4G, that simply cannot be true. You must be using US-only, premium-only data, and even then, I’m more than doubtful.

  4. Please tell us what kind of power connector your mobile hotspot uses? If it doesn’t use some form of USB, then I think it’s time for you to buy a new one. If it does use USB, then you should be able to connect it to your PC USB port and get power from there. As long as you have a charge on your laptop, you should be able to get power on your mobile hotspot.

    Also, there should be USB stick type cellular modems to add connectivity to your laptop, if you don’t want to create a WiFi network.

    I imagine one of these should solve your issues with tethering.

  5. Interesting, on the BestBuy website, out of 508 laptops for sale, there’s a single LTE model available. Maybe consumers just don’t care about having LTE built in. What happens if the built in module stops working, or isn’t compatible with some new wireless technology? Seems like an LTE accessory (tethering, dongle, portable hub) is a more practical solution. Easier to swap out or upgrade, and likely cheaper for everyone, OEMs and consumers.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. I think the idea that “PC’s are dead” vs mobile is a ridiculous reading of the decline of PCs. The mobile revolution should be a shot in the arm for PCs especially mobile PCs. People are computing more. People are more accepting of having several devices with differing form factors than they have ever been.

    It would be a fantastic time for Apple to aggressively pursue PC Wars 2.0 with cellular connected super mobile laptops like the MacBook. They have so much global marketshare and profits to gain from the Wintel failures of the last decade.

    If Apple ramps up the performance of their ARM processors, along with cellular capability, they could get very aggressive on price too, while maintaining quality control and margins.

  7. Many corporate notebooks have WWAN support. Just about every Dell Latitude does, they just don’t put it in the consumer designs because the attach rate would be too low and certifications are expensive.

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