2014's Laptops, Ultrabooks And Hybrids: What Should We Expect?

Let’s pull out the roadmaps and gauge how developments in processors, display and operating systems are shaping the slimmer, faster, more power-efficient laptops of 2014.

Twist It, Flip It, Spin It

The lines between laptops and tablets will further blur in 2014. Thin and light Ultrabooks will lead the way in dedicated clamshell designs – increasingly with touchscreens and voice control — but we’re definitely going to see a parade of updated takes on the convertible tablet/laptop hybrid.

They'll be lighter, too.

Sony, LG, Acer, Lenovo and MSI now have their own ‘slider’ style models. Many big names, including Asus and HP, also use both detachable and swivelling designs. Plus: Microsoft and Dell have tablets with Surface-style cover keyboards. Most unique, however, are the Asus Taichi and Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga (with second screen on the lid) and the back-flipping display of Dell’s XPS 12 Duo.

We’ll cover tablets specifically in an upcoming article.

We’re looking forward to new models at CES in January, but it’s what Intel has planned for mid-2014 that could really slim down laptop designs…

Laptop Processors

Intel’s new 4th generation Core processors (code-named Haswell) have given laptops a welcomed jump in battery life and integrated Intel graphics power.

More: Computing Brought to you by The Kickass Processors That Will Power Your Next Computer.

Intel isn’t done, of course. At IDF in September, CEO Brian Krzanich claimed that Haswell’s successor – ‘Broadwell’ – will deliver “30 percent power improvement,” as he demonstrated a concept laptop from HP. “And that’s only what we’ve tested so far.” Laptops based on the 14nm chip family are expected to arrive in the second half of 2014, and will very likely be unveiled at Computex next June.

Then there are Bay Trail (‘Silvermont’) processors: Intel’s pet name for its newest system-on-a-chip (SoC) designed for tablets, officially the Atom Z3770 line. Competing directly with ARM-based chips from Qualcomm (Snapdragon) and Nvidia (Tegra), these cost-effective quad-core processors are set to arrive inside Android and Windows 8.1-based hybrids / tablets with force for Christmas.

More: Intel Bay Trail — Laptop-Tablet Hybrids Might Actually Keep Up Now.

In 2014, Bay Trail will help upcoming 2-in-1 detachable and hybrids come closer to regular laptop performance. On the cheaper side, the chips also support sub $US200 fanless tablets.

We love AMD desktop graphic cards, but it feels like ages since AMD has been super competitive in tablets or laptops. That could be slowly changing. In September, the company officially launched its 2013 Elite Mobility processor line (code-named Temash) touted as “the world’s first quad-core x86 system-on-a-chip designed for tablet and hybrid PCs. ‘Kabini’ and ‘Richland’ processors will also continue to find homes in midrange notebooks and powerful ultrabooks, respectively. Kabini’s successor, ‘Beema’ is expected early-to-mid 2014.

More: These New AMD Processors Could Be Your Next Laptop's Brain.

Display Advances

Intel has now added touch to the Ultrabook specification – so going forward, an ‘Ultrabook’, by definition, needs to include touch. At IDF in September, Intel’s president said the category was “on the way to 100 percent.” It actually makes sense when you consider continued improvements in CPUs, GPUs, touchscreen prices and Windows 8.1. Indeed, DigiTimes reports that brands like Dell and Asus are ramping up orders for 2014.

Windows 8.1 also addresses some DPI scaling issues most noticeable on super HD / retina laptop displays. If you’re a fan of the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s retina display but prefer PC laptops, it’s hard to go past the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus. Its stunning 3200x1800 (qHD) 13.3-inch display packs a pixel-per-inch (PPI) density of 275, more than the MacBook Pro’s 2560x1600 (227 PPI) display — and the Samsung is a touchscreen as well. The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina has a 15.4-inch IPS 2880x1800-pixel (220 PPI) display. Current rumours suggest that Apple may be looking at Sharp’s 15.6-inch 4K IGZO laptop display tech for its next model. Question is: Will we see this at the iPad launch in late October, or have to wait until 2014?

As far as we can tell, the Google Chromebook Pixel (2560x1700; 239 PPI) is ahead right now; though feel free to correct us if we’re wrong there. Other super high-res laptops include the 13.3-inch Toshiba KiraBook, Asus Zenbook Infinity, and Acer Aspire S7. HP is also planning a 3200x1800 version of its Envy 14 TouchSmart Ultrabook.

Chromebooks

One of the most exciting changes heading to the Chromebook platform is the launch of next-gen Haswell processors from Intel. In September, leading hardware manufacturers including Acer, HP and Toshiba showed off Chromebook models running on the new architecture and the results are pretty impressive. Users can expect up to 50 percent more battery life compared to the current generation (which started shipping to Australia in July) and overall performance is significantly improved by the new chipset.

If the models we've seen are anything to go by, vendors are also making a concerted effort to 'sex up' the appearance of these cut-priced laptops — expect vibrant finishes, ultra-slim form factors and style trappings usually reserved for pricier offerings. HP’s Chromebook 11, for example, arrived in Australia just in time for Christmas in a choice of five colours.

Laptop Cameras

If you think laptop cameras are only good for Skype and grainy selfies, think again: one of the hottest announcements at IDF in September was a Kinect-style motion tracking camera that will be integrated into Intel-powered laptops and ultrabooks from the first half of 2014. This will effectively turn the laptop into an artificially-intelligent 3D workspace that can sense movement and even track emotion. (For more information on this intriguing technology, check out our hands-on at Computex.)

In other laptop 3D camera news, HP has announced that it will be bringing the gesture-controlled Leap Motion gizmo to its laptops. The bespoke Leap Motion sensor will first appear in HP's ENVY 17 Leap Motion Special Edition ultrabook which will land in the US next week.

Business Laptops

Microsoft is ending technical support for Windows XP in April 2014, which will very likely trigger a rise in companies replacing laptops, and could see Dell overtake Acer for third spot in global PC sales. The timing is actually pretty good as Intel rolled out its 4th generation Intel Core vPro processor at IDF in September, along with 70 upcoming designs: 2-in-1s, Ultrabooks, laptops, all-in-ones and desktop PCs aimed at businesses.

The updated vPro platform supports data encryption, anti-theft alarms, Intel Pro Wireless Display, Intel Pro1500 solid-state drives, no password VPN log in and indoor location-based services. Tablets based on this enterprise spec will arrive in early 2014.

Close-up of human hands working on laptop image courtesy Shutterstock

Windows And OS X

So Windows Blue was actually Windows 8.1, which arrived in Australia back in October.

You’ll be able to boot to the desktop. The start button returns (but only) to jump you to the start screen. There are smaller tiles and you can group them. DPI scaling should be improved. You’ll be able to keep the start screened pinned to one monitor and use new gestures. Search has been also overhauled. Microsoft will be requiring certified Windows 8.1 laptops to include a 720p webcam, higher quality speakers and microphones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

More: Windows 8.1: Everything You Need To Know.

Beyond 8.1, Microsoft has pretty much only referred to Windows 9 in job ads. But reading the tea leaves, 2014 could see Microsoft merge the Windows / Windows Phone app stores, support Kinect-like gestures aided by the cameras discussed above, deeply integrate the Xbox One experience, and introduce ‘Fast Access Login’ using face plus voice, the latter in partnership with Intel. Mcrosoft is also said to be building a Siri-like personal assistant named Cortana after the artificially intelligent character in Halo. Meanwhile, Google Now is coming to your desktop via Chrome, but Siri isn’t joining the Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks party.

The Gold Master of 10.9 has been released to developers, so it’s only weeks away. Mac users can look forward to full-screen apps, menu bars over multiple displays, extended desktops over AirPlay, tabbed finder windows, iCloud keychain and more.

As for OS X 10.10 Syrah? Expect a design focus to match the look of iOS 7/8.

More: Apple OS X Mavericks: Everything You Need To Know.

It’s also worth noting that some brands like Asus are experimenting with dual Android/Windows laptops. More: Asus' New Three-in-One: Crouching Windows PC, Hidden Android Tablet.

Also Look Out For...

Memristor Storage Arrives? A fourth circuit element called memristor (the first three being resistors, capacitors and inductors) has been proposed since 1971. Back in 2008, HP finally made a working physical model. The net result for laptops: Machines that remember the state of RAM when shut off your machine, instantly booting back up where you left off. HP has said that 2014 could be the year that Memristor storage tech finally becomes productised. If so, it would reinvent the way we think about storage.

More: HP's Future Computing Vision: Flexible Displays And Super-Fast Storage Circuitry.


Faster Thunderbolt: Intel’s updated version of the interface supports 20Gbps in both directions (up from 10) – fast enough for 4K video. Definitely a spec to look out for in laptops come 2014.

Thinner Hard Disks We’re talking the boring spinning variety here, not solid-state. HDDs are still more cost-effective to use for cheaper laptops, and it’s nice to know that thinner HDDs are doing their part to facilitate thinner budget laptops. Western Digital now has the world’s thinnest 1TB hard disk (7mm), while Seagate has an even thinner 5mm 500GB alternative. More shrinkage to come.

Phones That Become Laptops: First we had the Motrola Atrix Android phone accessory that turned the device into a Chrome OS laptop. Then Asus tried the Padfone. Fast forward to IDF in September, and Acer’s ‘Extend’ prototype has revived the idea of a phone connecting with a keyboard/screen shell to become a laptop.

Gaming Laptop Mini Screens: Another revisited idea that is probably too niche to become an outright trend, but is interesting all the same. Remember the Razer Blade from 2012? It had an awesome multi-touch trackpad that also doubled as a 4.05-inch screen. It wasn’t the first, and if MSI’s GS70 gaming laptop concept is anything to go by, won’t be the last.

What other specs do you expect to change in 2014?

Also: Next Year's Smartphones: What Should We Expect?

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