Who Needs Ports? Displays Step Back

Who Needs Ports? (Answer: Consumers)

Remember the days when PC geeks sat around and laughed at Apple fanboys for, among other reasons, the complete lack of ports? I mean, what are they thinking? Paying over a grand for a couple USB and a video connection no one uses? How stupid is that?

Savor those days, because if the ultrabook has its way, they’re coming to a close.

Connectivity on the first generation of ultrabooks is nothing to brag about. Most offer two or three USB ports, HDMI, Ethernet – and that’s about it. If you need to plug in more devices you’re going to need to buy all manner of splitters, adapters and other nonsense.

This is an important point because connectivity is important to the average laptop buyer looking to purchase one as their only machine. Such a person is likely to have an external mouse that runs off USB. Add an external hard drive and that’s it – you’ve already used all the USB connectivity that is offered on the Acer Aspire S3. And what if they’re using a USB printer? Uh-oh.

Here we see Intel stumbling because it’s buying into the idea of what a laptop should be, rather than what it actually is. At Intel’s CES press conference the company showed us pictures of happy, attractive, friendly people taking their laptops all around their home and outside. There was even a ridiculous picture that showed a young woman sitting in a beach chair that was so close to the ocean that the tide was beginning to sweep across the chair’s legs – and she was using an ultrabook. In this fantasy, laptops are hip and cool devices that are purchased primarily for their portability and design.

Back in reality, many laptops are just desktop replacements – and even ultraportables don’t make it outside the home regularly. For a computer to work as a desktop replacement it needs to have enough connectivity to handle more than a couple peripherals. 

Veteran readers may note that I’ve praised things like wireless power because I see wired connectivity as something that is going to go away entirely. I still hold that view. But we’re at least several years away from the point where we can start to neglect wired connectivity entirely. Until we see the world’s first fully wireless laptop announced at CES or some other conference, connectivity will remain a boring but important detail. 

Displays Take Another Step Back 

It’s no secret that laptop displays aren’t very good. The problem is so common that dealing with it is one of the challenges of regularly reviewing laptops. How can I say that the display is bad without sounding like a broken record? And is it fair to say a display is bad, if all the other displays offered by competitors are equally poor? 

Still, there have been some glimmers of hope recently. Most of the Sony Vaio and HP Envy laptops now offer decent or even great quality. Even the display on the tiny HP dm1z recently impressed me. But then I saw the new line of ultrabooks at CES – and my hopes were dashed.

Ultrabooks cause problems for displays from two angles. One is size. The strict limit on a laptop’s maximum thickness places strict limits on what will fit inside the laptop – including the display panel. 

Another issue is cost. At CES I asked a representative of a manufacturer that produces both laptops and tablets why they can squeeze such awesome displays into their tablets, but can’t do the same in their laptops. His response? The other components in a laptop are too expensive.

You could see the results of this on the show floor. Over at Samsung, for example, I checked out the new Series 5 and Series 9 ultrabooks. They were both nice. But I was struck by the Series 7 Chronos, a more conventional line of laptops. These laptops offer brilliant high-resolution displays that seemed to have much better viewing angles than the displays on Samsung’s ultrabooks. 

This is an issue not only because of other laptops, but also because of smartphones and tablets. While laptop display quality has been stalled for years these more portable devices have been making huge strides. Several 1080p tablets were shown at CES, while smartphones are dabbling in 720p. It’s also not uncommon to see tablets and smartphones use IPS display technology. 

Eventually, consumers are going to start wondering why they can view 1080p video on their $600 tablet but not on their $800 ultrabook. And as consumers notice this, they’ll start to more strongly prefer tablets to laptops for content consumption – which probably isn’t the result Intel is hoping for.

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