Sometimes it takes real world frustrations before you can really appreciate the advances that technology can bring. Such is the case with mobile broadband-equipped notebook PCs.
Before diving into the details of why I’m saying this, I have to admit upfront that I’ve been a skeptic of cellular-capable notebooks for a very long time. As a long-time observer of, data collector for, and prognosticator on the PC market, I clearly recall several failed attempts at trying to integrate cellular modems into PCs over the last 15 years or so. From the early days of 3G, and even into the first few years of 4G-capable devices, PC makers have been trying to add cellular connectivity into their devices. However, attach rates in most parts of the world (Western Europe being the sole exception) have been extremely low—typically, in the low single digits.
The primary reasons for this limited success have been cost—both for the modem and cellular services—as well as the ease and ubiquity of WiFi and personal hotspot functions integrated into our smartphones. Together, these factors have put the value of cellular connectivity into question. It’s often hard to justify the additional costs for integrated mobile broadband, especially when the essentially “free” alternatives seem acceptable.
Despite all these concerns, however, we’ve seen a great deal of fresh attention being paid to cellular connected PCs of late. Specifically, the launch of the always connected PC (ACPC) effort by Microsoft, Qualcomm, and several major PC OEMs (HP, Asus, and Lenovo) this time last year brought new attention to the category and started to shift the discussion of PC performance towards connectivity, in addition to traditional CPU-driven metrics. Since that first launch with Snapdragon 835-based devices, we’ve already seen second generation Snapdragon 850-based PCs, such as Lenovo’s Yoga C630, start to ship.
We’ve also seen Intel bring its own modems into the PC market in a big way over the last few months, highlighting the increased connectivity options they enable. In the new HP Spectre Folio leather-wrapped PC, for example, Intel created a multi-chip module that integrates its Amber Lake Y-Series CPU, along with an XMM 7560 Gigabit LTE modem. Conceptually, it’s similar to the chiplet-style design that combined an Intel CPU and AMD Radeon GPU into a single multi-chip module that Dell used in its XPS 15 earlier this year, but integrates a discrete modem instead of the discrete GPU.
Together these efforts, as well as expected advancements, highlight the many key technological enhancements in semiconductor design that are being directed towards connectivity in PCs. Plus, with the launch of 5G-capable modems and 5G-enabled PCs on the very near horizon, it’s clear that we’ll be enjoying even more of these chip design-driven benefits in the future.
Even more importantly, changes in the wireless landscape and our interactions with it are bringing a new sense of pertinence and criticality to our wireless connections. While we have been highly dependent on wireless connections in our PCs for some time, the degree of dependence has now grown to the point where most people really do need (and expect) reliable, high-quality signals all the time.
This point hit home recently after I had boarded a plane but needed to finish a few critical emails before we took off. Unfortunately, the availability and quality of WiFi connections while people are getting seated is dicey at best. But by leveraging the integrated cellular modem in my Spectre Folio review unit, I was able to do so no problem. Similarly, in a long Lyft ride to an airport on another recent trip, I leveraged the modem in the Yoga C630 for similar purposes. Plus, in situations like conferences and other events where WiFi connections are often spotty, having a cellular connectivity alternative can be the difference between having a usable connection and not having one at all.
Admittedly, these are first-world problems and not everybody needs to have reliable connectivity in these types of limited situations. In other words, I don’t think the extra cost of integrated cellular modems makes sense for everyone. But, for people who are on the run a lot, the extra convenience can really make a difference. This is another example of the fact that many of the technological advances that we now see in the PC market are generally more incremental and meant to improve certain situations or use cases. Integrated cellular connections are in line with this kind of thinking as they provide an incremental boost in the ability to find a usable internet connection.
In addition to convenience, the increase of WiFi network-based security risks has raised concerns about using public WiFi networks in certain environments. While not perfect, cellular connections are generally understood to be more secure and much less vulnerable to any kind of network snooping than WiFi, providing more peace of mind for critical or sensitive information.
Of course, little of this would matter if network operators didn’t make pricing plans for cellular data usage on PCs attractive. Thankfully, there have been improvements here as well, but there’s still a long way to go to truly make this part of the connected PC experience friction-free. The expected 2019 launch of 5G-equipped notebooks will likely trigger a fresh round of pricing options for connected PC data plans, so it will be interesting to see what happens then.
Ultimately, while some of the primary concerns around the connected PC remain, it’s also becoming clear that many other issues are starting to paint the technology in a light. Always on, always reliable connections are no longer just a “nice to have,” but a “need to have” for many people, and along with the technology advancements, increased security and lower data plan costs are combining to create an environment where connected PCs finally start to make sense.