More power for new ways of computing
Given the state of computing today, it's tempting to argue that most users don't need more processing power. Most modern laptops have no problem handling high-definition video, juggling lots of browser tabs, and playing games on Facebook or other websites. Unless you're a hardcore gamer or a creative professional with high-end photo or video software, current-generation processors are good enough.
The PC and chip makers I spoke with, however, believe that a new stage of computing is at hand. All of the burgeoning input methods mentioned earlier--particularly voice and gesture recognition--will require more processing power if they're to be handled without any lag. Advances in video and screen resolution will demand more oomph as well.
Gary Richman, a director in Intel's PC Client Solutions division, sees even more opportunities coming to light in the next five years. He imagines that PCs will become more context-aware, enabling them to detect other nearby devices and interact with them automatically. He also believes that PCs will become more like personal servants that can perform tasks even when they're not directly in use. For example, a laptop might be able to grab a video from your camera, transcode it, and upload it even when it's resting in a laptop bag.
"Our goal is to be able to enable those things," Richman says. "We need good enough performance, which is pretty great compared to where we are right now."
AMD's Kevin Lensing sees two ways that the future of the PC may unfold: In one scenario, workloads don't change, and PCs become smaller, less expensive, and more commoditized. In a second scenario, new modes of computing require chip makers to focus on increasing processing power rather than on developing thinner and lighter machines.
"The key is, we've got to decide whether a new era of the PC is on the horizon," he says.
The argument for the traditional clamshell
Many of the experts I spoke with believe that hybrid devices will come to dominate the laptop market in the next five years. But that doesn't mean traditional laptops are going away. Users may still want to own a portable computer with a larger screen; and even if touch becomes standard across PCs, convertible devices may not work especially well with larger laptops.
"If you can do everything you can do with clamshell, in the same size, at the same cost, sure it's less interesting, but we have a long engineering road to go before we're at that point," Intel's Gary Richman says.
Around 2018, users will see a "bifurcation of devices," says AMD's Lensing. When users need more power than a tablet or hybrid can provide, they'll turn to laptops, but even those devices will be slimmer and more battery-efficient. He expects laptops that are thicker than an inch to all but vanish, except for high-end gaming rigs and design workstations.
"Much like people said desktops would go away, the traditional notebook is not going to disappear," Lensing says. "But the average device the user carries for basic everyday computing is likely to be a much thinner device--and potentially one of these no-compromise devices."
As Nvidia's Mark Aevermann points out, it's okay that no single mode of portable computing will completely dominate in the next five years. Though he thinks that low-cost tablets and hybrids will revolutionize the industry, Aevermann still sees plenty of room for a multitude of devices to survive, including the premium notebook.
"I do think this one-size-fits-all mentality is a thing of the past," he says, "and consumer choice is the way of the future."
As laptops work through their identity crisis, it's a comforting thought: Some things will change, but some things will always be the same.