Certain pieces of technology tend to stick around. USB has been the connector of choice for all manner of peripherals for two decades, and ATA hard disks, first parallel and now serial, have a history back to 1986. Over the last few years, however, we’ve started to see real alternatives to these technologies hit the market, with NVMe storage and Thunderbolt 3 for attaching devices.
Similarly, touchpads have gone from dumb mouse emulators (often using the venerable PS/2 interface) to complex multi-finger pressure sensing devices with the Precision Touchpad specification.
We’ve also seen formerly niche capabilities, such as biometric authentication, move into the mainstream. Both facial recognition and fingerprints continue to become familiar parts of the hardware landscape.
Accordingly, our platonic ideal of what a laptop computer should be has shifted somewhat. As we head into 2017 and all the systems that will inevitably be announced at CES, we felt it would be useful to describe what we’re looking for. “Thin and light” is no longer enough. Systems have to do more than that to justify a premium price.
Connectors inside and out
Thunderbolt 3 is non-negotiable. Intel’s Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt 3 controllers add a ton of utility, and while you may not use every feature, there’s sure to be something that’s valuable. The headline capability, of course, is the 40 gigabit per second interconnect that is fast enough to support docking stations that’ll work with any Thunderbolt 3 machine, exotica such as external video cards, or Thunderbolt mainstays such as high speed storage arrays. The connector can also carry video signals, opening the door to 4K (or higher resolution) screens that also sport USB 3 ports. With power delivery, the monitor can even be used to power and charge the laptop.
Alpine Ridge’s Thunderbolt 3 output can also be converted to DisplayPort 1.2 or HDMI 2.0, with the latter important for 4K60 displays.
And even if none of that matters, it has a final trick up its sleeve. The USB 3.1 controller integrated into Intel’s chipsets and systems on chips is, currently, a generation 1 controller, topping out at 5 gigabits per second. The Alpine Ridge controller is a generation 2 controller, for 10 gigabits per second. Even if you don’t end up ever using the fancy Thunderbolt capabilities, Thunderbolt 3 systems will be the best regular USB systems for the time being.
Hand in hand with Thunderbolt 3 is USB Type-C, but the do-it-all connector has some unfortunate complexities. While some Type-C ports are do-it-all, offering Thunderbolt 3, DisplayPort, USB 3.1 generation 2, and charging all from one port, others offer nothing more than USB 3.1 generation 1, with no real way of telling which is which. We nonetheless feel that the time is right for the new connector. This isn’t to say that systems shouldn’t ever include the old Type-A connectors—there’s an undoubted convenience to being able to use memory sticks and other peripherals without needing any dongles—but we’d like to see more than a single Type-C port, and we’d like it to offer more than USB 3.1 generation 1.
We want to see a change in how things are connected on the inside, too; SSDs should be using the NVMe interface and not SATA 3. Some vendors, such as Apple, have already done this across the board, but from others we’re still seeing the older, slower interface popping up. In the early days of NVMe, several OEMs we spoke to suggested that it was slightly more power hungry than SATA 3, but, with NVMe-equipped systems topping our battery life tests, we don’t believe this to be a significant issue any longer.
Input and authentication
Windows has integrated basic support for biometrics since Windows 7, but it’s with Windows 10 and its Hello capability that biometric authentication feels like a fully integrated operating system feature. The facial recognition systems used on, among others, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book and HP’s latest Spectre x360 is effortless to use and beats the pants off typing a long password every time you want to unlock. Modern fingerprint scanners are also easy to use, with none of the finicky swiping that they used to have; the ones in the new Mac Book Pros with Touch Bar are very easy to use, for example.
As such, there’s really no good reason not to include support on any new system.
The Precision Touchpad spec makes PC touchpads more consistent in their acceleration, sensitivity, and gestures. Importantly, the spec also means that touchpads actually get better with updates: it pushes multitouch gesture handling into the operating system, rather than doing it in device firmware and proprietary drivers. This means that new features or algorithmic enhancements can be added in operating system updates, and Microsoft has used this ability to add new features to suitable systems with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update.
This combination of upgradeability and standardized gestures—any Precision Touchpad system supports the same range of gestures—makes it a must-have feature. We don’t want to see the Synaptics driver on new machines.
It may be considered a little contentious, but we’d also expect to see touch screens as standard. Systems with 360-degree hinges or tear-off keyboards will obviously meet this requirement, but touch screens are worthwhile on conventional laptops, too. Once you get into the habit of scrolling and tapping on-screen buttons with touch, it’s hard to go back. Touch won’t ever be the primary way of interacting with a laptop, but a touchless machine feels lacking.
What’s striking is that of 2016’s laptops, even otherwise solid systems, like the Dell XPS 13 or HP Spectre x360, are missing one or more of these capabilities. We’d expect cheaper machines to fall short of this ideal because savings have to be made somewhere—Thunderbolt 3 adds $6-$8 for the controller alone, and that’s a lot for a $400 machine—but when you’re paying $800, or even $1,800, for a computer, skimping in these areas is inexcusable. And in 2017, we’re going to stop excusing it.
Listing image by Aurich Lawson