The shakeup Microsoft made by unifying the touch UI and desktop elements in Windows 8 have received their fare share of criticism. So much so that enthusiasts and the productivity-focused are not only sticking it out with Windows 7, but will go to extreme lengths to configure a brand-new system WITHOUT Windows 8.
Obviously MS is listening to users and eying Windows 8 sales numbers closely. Consider that the enterprise, loaded with desktops and notebooks, is their major cash cow. Then add the millions of home users with notebooks and DIY desktops. There are bound to be major changes due when Windows 9 arrives sometime in 2015.
This is what happens when the tail tries to wag the dog. Apple thought they could change the PC market with the iPad. Instead, it was Microsoft that changed the tablet market with the Surface. Now there are rumors about of an iPad Pro. So who is chasing who now? At the end of the day, mobile and desktop has to remain separate - it's just impossible to create a device that mimics desktop productivity and functionality using a touch UI and smartphone OS. It will never happen!
Of course, the way in which the slate landscape continues to change will have little, if any, bearing on where the notebook is headed. Both desktops and notebooks remain necessary tools, and manufacturers will continue to support the platform with new hardware and software for a long time yet.
What can notebook users expect to see in 2014 with the advancements happening? Here's my quick list of some of the stuff I expect to find in the coming months:
4K is here! It may not be mainstream yet, but that's just a matter of time. And while the cost of 4K may be high today, that should also fall as more panel manufacturers get on board. Toshiba has already promised two 4K notebooks using a Sharp 15.6" panel due out sometime this summer. Once these models hit consumers hands, expect to see more 4K offerings from other notebook manufacturers follow quickly.
mSata is great, but m.2 is even better. The new format should take off in 2014 as production from memory vendors ramps up to meet consumer demand. Samsung has already shown off its m.2 OEM solution, indicating that a consumer product is not that far off. Given the physical space benefits of using m.2 versus the traditional 2.5 inch SSD form factor, this should become the primary storage for many notebooks, especially ultrabooks and models that would otherwise use a second 2.5" drive.
Maxwell has hit the desktop, so it's a safe bet to assume nVidia plans to let loose its mobile variants in 2014 as well. Naming conventions aside, those 4K panels will certainly benefit from the increased graphics horsepower, especially when paired in SLI for 3D gaming.
Intel's Haswell line of mobile CPU's has been a huge hit on the notebook front, not only with its integrated graphics capabilities, but in efficiency improvements leading to extended battery times. The 14nm Broadwell refresh due out in the second half of 2014 should further continue the trend, and with the various ULV SKU's, allow notebook manufacturers to push the design envelope yet again.
802.11ac is now the standard for notebook wireless in 2014. While product availability was spotty in notebook models from last year, the flood of mPCIe offerings from Intel and Broadcom now lets notebook manufacturers outfit any current model with the fastest wireless connectivity. That's great news for users who have made investments in new 802.11ac routers in their home.
Audio has been a major focus by manufacturers in notebooks in years past, just take my Toshiba Qosmio X305 as a prime example. While the attention has moved away somewhat, I still see hope as manufacturers have made big advances in motherboard audio of recent. And while incorporating the circuitry may seem doable today, the choice of speakers/subwoofer in a notebook is ultimately just as important. Not everybody wants to plug in their high-end cans for a decent music experience.
Backlit keyboards may have been the envy of high-end models in years past, but I see these becoming standard fare in 2014. It's just common sense to have something that the user is going to need in a dimly lit environment, whether they are working at night or don't want to keep a light on.
8. Operating System
Last but not least, I have to mention the choice of operating system, as this is something that notebooks all come off the assembly line with. It's a tough spot to be in when you have a consumer demanding Windows 7 and manufacturers pushing WIndows 8.1. Boutique builders have had an easier time here, yet there's no reason why the big box names like HP, Dell and Toshiba shouldn't also offer consumers a choice. Enthusiasts in particular have the know-how to replace Windows 8.1 with Windows 7, all the manufacturer needs to do is provide the key hardware drivers necessary for it to work.
In the 13 years that I have been working with notebooks exclusively, I don't think there has been a time that I am more excited than I am now. 2014 promises to be the biggest year yet for notebooks to really move forward in both hardware and design. The only cloud to cast a shadow is that nagging issue of the operating system, and why it may be the boutique builders who win more sales in 2014.
Then again, I am still pondering the thought of a mini-ITX build - a system that would solve ALL of my notebook concerns, for both now and the future. The jury is still out.