Future tech 2013: the PCs, tablets and cutting-edge hardware of tomorrow

Tablets that perform like high-end PCs. TVs with gesture control. Big sensors in small cameras.

The forward march of technology moves at a dizzying pace. Yesterday's gadgets look like quaint antiques. Today's gadgets are already tainted by the mark of familiarity. And tomorrow's gadgets appear to be magical, enchanting, engineering wonders.

That is, until they become today's gadgets, at which point, "meh."

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Yes, we're suckers for new and shiny tech toys at PCWorld, so we gathered up all our reporters and set them loose on digging up details about the PC, mobile, and home entertainment hardware of 2013 and beyond.

Disagree with any of our findings and predictions? Enter your own comments at the bottom of this article.

Laptops

The line between laptops and tablets is rapidly blurring. Five years from now, the line may have vanished entirely.

Today's tablets and laptops are very different gadgets. The ideal consumption devices, tablets are frequently used for passively browsing the Web, watching video, and reading on the go. Laptops are better suited for productivity. In the long run, these two different devices will become aspects of the same hardware. Tomorrow's laptop and tablet will be one and the same--and that's why this section is as much about tablets as laptops.

The first phase of that transition is already under way--Windows 8 hybrid systems show a little of what's possible. Lenovo's Yoga 13, Dell's XPS Convertible Touch, and the Sony Duo 11 are already combining elements of tablets and laptops. But these systems remain more laptops than tablets overall. The Sony Duo 11, with its 11-inch screen, is the lightest of the bunch, yet it still weighs nearly 3 pounds. Today's pure tablets have smaller screens and limited storage, and lack the performance of full-fledged laptops.

The future will be tablet-centric. Larger tablets, with screens up to 13 inches, will become lighter and thinner, and will be adaptable for productivity by means of a separate, wireless keyboard. Touch interfaces will improve, though external-pointing devices such as pens and mice will still be needed for precision work.

What technologies are emerging to create this tablet-centric future?

An improvement in persistent memory technology (better flash memory) is one key component. Even as cloud storage becomes more important, having large-capacity local storage is critical, particularly if you're on the go in areas that don't offer reliable wireless broadband. You'll need to have those big presentations on local storage; and for video and photo editing, ample storage is key. Improvements in cloud storage, along with a decreasing cost per gigabyte, will be important, however, in keeping files and settings in sync between multiple devices.

CPU improvements, of the type we'll see with Intel's Haswell CPU, will permit tablets designed to dock and become full-fledged PCs easily. CPUs will use less power, for longer battery life, without giving up the performance we see in today's mainstream Ultrabooks. One key improvement that Haswell and other future processors will bring to the table is better graphics performance, even as power consumption decreases. Today's tablets and Ultrabooks offer limited performance in 3D games, for example. Better 3D performance may mean a wider range of gaming options for tablets.

Connectivity must improve as well. Today's mobile broadband speeds are improving, but bandwidth continues to be expensive per gigabyte. Consumers will crave access to higher-capacity wireless broadband, and if the carriers can't deliver that capacity at a more reasonable cost, alternative solutions will likely emerge. Metered connections aren't going to disappear, but prices need to drop well below the levels we see today.

Also coming soon are better tablet docks, tuned to the needs of business users. Such tablet docks will include a full-size keyboard, support for multiple monitors, and additional storage.

The traditional clamshell laptop won't completely disappear, however. Some users will still need access to larger screens, robust keyboards, and higher levels of performance. Engineers, professional graphics designers, and others may need 15- to 17-inch systems while on the go. But they will constitute a niche market focused on business users. Mainstream consumers are driving tablet adoption today, and those users will flock to the converged devices of the future.

In the long run, the two extremes will coexist. Users will have a powerful desktop system that connects and is synchronized via the cloud to mobile devices that every user will own. People won't need bulky laptops, but instead will carry lightweight tablets whose performance will exceed today's Ultrabooks. As a result, consumers will have the best of both worlds: a powerful PC at home, and a tablet with docking options that will offer enough performance and capability for their on-the-go needs.      --Loyd Case

All-in-Ones and Desktop PCs

Predictions about what will happen at the end of the PC era have been floating around for years now, and they become more dramatic and more inaccurate with each claim. Why would desktops die off now, especially when they're becoming so cool?

Sure, drastic changes are afoot, and perhaps the desktops of the near future won't look at all similar to the desktops of the present. But change and evolution are facts of life in the tech industry, and adjusting to the new is a necessity.

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