Opinion | Intel and Nvidia's stagnation might be the best thing to happen to notebooks in years
It used to be that you needed to buy a new laptop every year or two if you wanted to continue playing the latest games or running the most cutting-edge software. CPUs and GPUs were getting faster and more power efficient with each iteration, and it wasn't uncommon to see anywhere from 20-100% performance increases in certain use-cases.
The jump from Nvidia's Maxwell to Pascal finally put equivalent power of a desktop Nvidia card into a laptop with lower TDPs than the previous generation; Braswell (5th gen) to Skylake (6th gen) saw huge increases in integrated graphics performance as well as some impressive efficiency improvements. In the past two years, we've seen major leaps forward due to core count increases (if not efficiency): Dual-core 7th gen U-series saw their core-counts doubled with Kaby Lake-R, while Intel's 7th gen H-series went from 4 to 6 cores with Coffee Lake (8th gen) — unsurprisingly, multi-core performance increased accordingly.
But in the last year, we've seen the major players, Nvidia and Intel, struggle to offer compelling upgrades: Except for some highly suspect articles telling consumers to "just buy it", very few in tech media could honestly recommend upgrading from Pascal to Turing. As popular YouTuber Dave Lee iterated not once, but twice in video, RTX laptops just don't seem to offer the performance increase over the 2-year-old Pascal to make them worth the significant price premium. Intel's struggles moving from 14nm to 10nm are well-documented, as delays have meant that Intel has been on the 14nm process for an astounding 5 years now.
It wasn't until Dell's XPS 13 9343 and XPS 15 9550 dropped in 2015 that the major OEMs had anything resembling the slick unibody designs of Apple — but those designs have been languishing for 4 years now, seeing the same drop-in hardware upgrades year after year. Manufacturers can no longer just throw in the standard iterative upgrade from one generation to the next and expect them to sell like hotcakes.
So how can OEMs keep releasing products and expect them to sell without any persuasive offerings from Intel or Nvidia? By designing better laptops. And judging by the releases I've seen during Computex and the last few months, that's finally what they are doing.
There used to just be a handful of choices if you wanted a PC notebook (especially one with a powerful graphics card) that had the look and feel to compete with Apple's machined aluminium, but I've been very impressed with some of the designs coming out this year. Asus, in particular, is really stepping their game up in terms of designing notebooks that are attractive to consumers for reasons beyond more powerful specs.
I like the professional and minimal design language of the Asus ROG Zephyrus and Asus Studiobooks (especially in comparison to the red plastic junk that previously was dominating), but there's a lot more interesting going on with some recent notebook designs beyond a sharp-looking exterior. One year ago, Asus debuted their version of a touchpad doubling as a second touchscreen. It was a bit janky in its first iteration, but it's clear from this year's Computex that they've put a lot of work into improving it.
Then there's the ZenBook Pro Duo, which one of the most innovative takes on laptop design we've seen in years. It does look a bit like a first-generation design, but as a writer, the idea of having room to put two additional workspaces to refer to while I work sells itself. Unlike Apple's chaffy TouchBar, it's clear that there's something special about the idea that could really change the way people work on the go.
Intel seems to think so, too, because their prototype "Honeycomb Glacier" takes the idea to the next level by adding a second hinge and allowing complete articulation of both displays independent of the keyboard deck. Is it going to become the reference design for all the notebooks we'll be buying in the next year or two? Probably not. Is it one of the most exciting takes on the idea of a laptop since Microsoft developed the Surface reference design? I think so.
This year's Computex also brought us Dell's newly redesigned Alienwares and the new (and newly delayed) XPS 13 7390, HP's Envy with a (partially) wood chassis, and Intel's other take on a dual-screen-no-keyboard design, the Twin River. I don't recall seeing this many interesting designs in notebooks in years, and I can't wait to see how designs will improve even more over the next year. I think we have the stagnation of CPU and GPU performance to thank for it.