By Mark Coppock for Digital Trends
We called 2016 the “year of the beta” for the PC market, because so many of the most important technologies and innovations were in their earliest and most unproven states. In 2017, some of these PC trends took a step forward, while new developments made the year a bit disturbing. This year, we saw a lot of promise alongside signs that some changes could do as much harm as good.
AI remains the dominant player
Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere. We included AI as a top trend in 2016, and it remains one for 2017. It’s made in-roads not just in the personal technology we use every day, but has also become more important in systems that impact us in ways beyond how we use technology.
On a more personal basis, digital assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant became even more ubiquitous, with Google’s Home line of smart speakers expanding, and Amazon’s various Echo products dominating the home assistant market. Microsoft finally joined in with its own Cortana-powered entry in the Harman Kardon Invoke, although that company’s strategy is unclear given its partnership with Amazon to tie Cortana and Alexa together. Chances are, though, that if you don’t already have at least one digital assistant somewhere in your home, you’re using one on your smartphone, and this form of practical AI is becoming an important part of your life.
AI continues to get smarter and become more adept at accomplishing individual tasks. Smart cars are perhaps the most visible example, as we’re seeing live versions running around town with various levels of success. AI is also beating us at our most challenging games. Google’s AlphaGo not only beat the best human player 3-0, but also taught itself to get better.
Indeed, AI is becoming so competent that in 2018, and beyond, it will threaten jobs. If your career is in one of a few areas – such as technical writing, taxi cab driving, or accounting – there’s a good chance that an AI will take your place in the near future. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as AI also augments human capabilities in important ways, such as helping doctors more accurately diagnose illnesses using genetic information.
Security took a tumble
2017 taught us our most sensitive data isn’t safe. No matter how it’s stored — on our PCs, our business networks, or in the cloud — there’s a nefarious party somewhere with the desire and tools to gain access to it. The result has been a general angst, which makes us wary of using the very services that make PCs so valuable to us.
The scope of these attacks is frightening, with none being of more concern than the Equifax hack that exposed some of the most vital financial and personal information of more than 145 million Americans. In another example, the infamous Yahoo data breach was discovered in October to have affected three billion users.
It wasn’t just hacks that made us afraid to turn on our PCs. Ransomware, where nefarious parties encrypt a PC’s data and demand payment for the key to unlock it, was also rampant in 2017. The worst example was the WannaCry attack that struck in mid-year, infecting hundreds of thousands of machines, locking away data from individuals to commercial concerns to government agencies. It’s only recently that “cyber affiliates” of the North Korean government have been implicated as the culprit behind WannaCry, showing that even nation-states might be getting in on the action.
AR and VR grew as prices dropped
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) was nothing new in 2017, but this was the year the technologies took a step toward being more affordable. And it’s not just major players like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift dropping prices, though those systems are less expensive than ever before.
Microsoft’s own Windows Mixed Reality products became real this year, impacting the AR/VR market in two important ways. First, there’s a new wave of slightly more affordable headsets from a variety of traditional PC manufacturers, promising greater hardware competition based on the unified AR/VR platform built into Windows 10. Second, Windows Mixed Reality requires lesser hardware than the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift systems, running with reduced functionality on lower-end PCs, and ramping up the performance and quality on faster systems.
There wasn’t any significant news in 2017 about Microsoft’s HoloLens system, but that doesn’t mean the HoloLens has no future. Rather, as we learned in February, Microsoft has pushed the HoloLens timeline out a bit, with its commercial release looking more likely in 2019. Whenever it arrives, it could incorporate a dedicated AI chip that should make it an even more compelling solution.
Another player entered the market at the very end of 2017, or at least made its first appearance. That’s Magic Leap AR, which was finally unveiled in December. The distinctly cyberpunk aesthetic was something of a surprise, and while its overall capabilities remain unknown, it’s another promising step in the advancement of AR.
PCs continued to get more flexible
We noted that in 2016, PCs were better than ever, with a solid selection of machines ranging from thin and lights, to gaming notebooks, to incredibly flexible 2-in-1s. What last year began, 2017 has continued in earnest, with a slight twist — some of the best advances occurred in the 2-in-1 space, while the traditional clamshell notebook seemed a bit stale.
Lenovo’s best mainstream systems were in its premium convertible 2-in-1 lineup. The Yoga 720 13 and Yoga 720 15 are true workhorses, with the latter even sporting an entry-level Nvidia GTX 1050 GPU. And the Yoga 920 is one of the best notebooks you can buy, receiving an Editor’s Choice award. HP put a ton of energy into its convertible 2-in-1s. The most recent Spectre x360 13 is a case in point, providing a notebook experience that’s unparalleled while offering the usual 2-in-1 flexibility. Finally, Microsoft just introduced the long-awaited sequel to the Surface Book and its Performance Base variant, the Surface Book 2.
The 2-in-1 has transitioned from a tool for people who like to write on their displays and use them as tablets, to notebooks that rival the best clamshells as traditional machines, while offering that extra punch of flexibility.
CPU wars heated up
Prior to 2017, Intel dominated the processor scene. That’s not to say that AMD had no decent alternatives, but chances were if you wanted to build a gaming PC, or something that could churn through your video editing chores, you’d be watching the news for what Intel released next.
All that changed in 2017. AMD released its new Ryzen CPUs based on the Zen architecture, and the price-performance dynamic shifted in AMD’s favor. Intel CPUs still provide the absolute performance advantage, but you’ll pay significantly more to get it. Buy an AMD Ryzen CPU, however, and you’ll get great performance at every price point, from the lower-end Ryzen 5, all the way up to the monstrous Ryzen Threadripper. AMD is even poised to compete strongly in the mobile market, with its newest Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) solutions making their way into notebooks at the tail end of 2017.
And that’s not the only development putting pressure on Intel’s CPU hegemony in PCs. Qualcomm and Microsoft partnered up in 2017 to introduce the Always Connected PC concept, which pair Qualcomm ARM processors with an optimized version of Windows 10 that promise mobile-like battery life, instant-on capabilities. They’re not on store shelves yet, but the first models were announced, and will be sold in spring of 2018.
Intel won’t take these developments sitting down, but there’s new competition in town that’s challenging the status quo. That’s good news. Competition should mean faster, more affordable processors for everyone.
2017 was an important year for the PC. Computers are more flexible and functional than ever, thanks to the 2-in-1’s rise to popularity. Yet there’s also more to do with high-end hardware – like enjoy the latest VR games – and more new hardware to choose from. We expect those trends to continue in 2018, and hope problems like security flaws and AI advancement don’t take away from the fun.