Future Tech 2013: The PCs, tablets and cutting-edge hardware of tomorrow

Tablets that perform like high-end PCs. TVs with gesture control. Big sensors in small cameras.

The forward march of technology moves at a dizzying pace. Yesterday's gadgets look like quaint antiques. Today's gadgets are already tainted by the mark of familiarity. And tomorrow's gadgets appear to be magical,A enchanting, engineering wonders.

That is, until they become today's gadgets, at which point, "meh."

Tech trends for 2013

Yes, we're suckers for new and shiny tech toys at PCWorld, so we gathered up all our reporters and set them loose on digging up details about the PC, mobile, and home entertainment hardware of 2013 and beyond.

Disagree with any of our findings and predictions? Enter your own comments at the bottom of this article.

Laptops

The line between laptops and tablets is rapidly blurring. Five years from now, the line may have vanished entirely.

Today's tablets and laptops are very different gadgets. The ideal consumption devices, tablets are frequently used for passively browsing the Web, watching video, and reading on the go. Laptops are better suited for productivity. In the long run, these two different devices will become aspects of the same hardware. Tomorrow's laptop and tablet will be one and the same--and that's why this section is as much about tablets as laptops.

The first phase of that transition is already under way--Windows 8 hybrid systems show a little of what's possible. Lenovo's Yoga 13, Dell's XPS Convertible Touch, and the Sony Duo 11 are already combining elements of tablets and laptops. But these systems remain more laptops than tablets overall. The Sony Duo 11, with its 11-inch screen, is the lightest of the bunch, yet it still weighs nearly 3 pounds. Today's pure tablets have smaller screens and limited storage, and lack the performance of full-fledged laptops.

The future will be tablet-centric. Larger tablets, with screens up to 13 inches, will become lighter and thinner, and will be adaptable for productivity by means of a separate, wireless keyboard. Touch interfaces will improve, though external-pointing devices such as pens and mice will still be needed for precision work.

What technologies are emerging to create this tablet-centric future?

An improvement in persistent memory technology (better flash memory) is one key component. Even as cloud storage becomes more important, having large-capacity local storage is critical, particularly if you're on the go in areas that don't offer reliable wireless broadband. You'll need to have those big presentations on local storage; and for video and photo editing, ample storage is key. Improvements in cloud storage, along with a decreasing cost per gigabyte, will be important, however, in keeping files and settings in sync between multiple devices.

CPU improvements, of the type we'll see with Intel's Haswell CPU, will permit tablets designed to dock and become full-fledged PCs easily. CPUs will use less power, for longer battery life, without giving up the performance we see in today's mainstream Ultrabooks. One key improvement that Haswell and other future processors will bring to the table is better graphics performance, even as power consumption decreases. Today's tablets and Ultrabooks offer limited performance in 3D games, for example. Better 3D performance may mean a wider range of gaming options for tablets.

Connectivity must improve as well. Today's mobile broadband speeds are improving, but bandwidth continues to be expensive per gigabyte. Consumers will crave access to higher-capacity wireless broadband, and if the carriers can't deliver that capacity at a more reasonable cost, alternative solutions will likely emerge. Metered connections aren't going to disappear, but prices need to drop well below the levels we see today.

Also coming soon are better tablet docks, tuned to the needs of business users. Such tablet docks will include a full-size keyboard, support for multiple monitors, and additional storage.

The traditional clamshell laptop won't completely disappear, however. Some users will still need access to larger screens, robust keyboards, and higher levels of performance. Engineers, professional graphics designers, and others may need 15- to 17-inch systems while on the go. But they will constitute a niche market focused on business users. Mainstream consumers are driving tablet adoption today, and those users will flock to the converged devices of the future.

In the long run, the two extremes will coexist. Users will have a powerful desktop system that connects and is synchronized via the cloud to mobile devices that every user will own. People won't need bulky laptops, but instead will carry lightweight tablets whose performance will exceed today's Ultrabooks. As a result, consumers will have the best of both worlds: a powerful PC at home, and a tablet with docking options that will offer enough performance and capability for their on-the-go needs.A A A A A --Loyd Case

All-in-Ones and Desktop PCs

Predictions about what will happen at the end of the PC era have been floating around for years now, and they become more dramatic and more inaccurate with each claim. Why would desktops die off now, especially when they're becoming so cool?

Sure, drastic changes are afoot, and perhaps the desktops of the near future won't look at all similar to the desktops of the present. But change and evolution are facts of life in the tech industry, and adjusting to the new is a necessity.

All-in-one desktops were once seen as a luxury that couldn't possibly support the needs of the average computer user. They lined the walls in sci-fi movies and boasted futuristic-looking programs that had no discernible purpose. Today, they have become centerpieces for PC companies to showcase the glamorous side of desktop computing. Vizio, for example, strayed away from focusing on televisions and media players to create the new CA24-A2, a beautiful touch-enabled media marvel. Even so, many all-in-ones continued to ship with some corny apps and software installed--there are, after all, only so many ways you can pretend to paint; playing Tap-a-Mole gets old, and so does challenging someone to a spirited game of knock-off Pong.

Cheaper and stronger with every new generation of processor, all-in-ones are becoming viable power PCs. In past years, you'd have been hard-pressed to find anything of decent quality even at $1500. Today you can find tons of options below $1000, allowing people everywhere to enjoy these models' benefits without breaking the bank. In the future, nearly all PCs will be equipped with a discrete graphics card to power basic games at an adequate frame rate, and they will boast such built-in media capabilities as Blu-ray and video-on-demand apps.

In addition, more families will adopt PCs as their center for entertainment, with touch controls that every user can access easily, regardless of PC experience level. PCs will migrate away from the dark, lonely corners of home offices and storm into living rooms, kitchens, and other main gathering areas to provide endless family enjoyment in the form of streamed movies, television, creative applications, and games.

The conventional desktop systems of today--the tower units that are either parked under a desk or displayed prominently like a show car--will remain popular with certain niche groups (such as gamers and business owners, at opposite ends of the PC user spectrum). They will remain the cheapest option for basic computing and office-oriented productivity when glamor and graphical power aren't necessary. Physically, however, they will begin to shrink. Indeed, just this past year, we've seen business computers dwindle to the size of a shoebox, and some models, such as the Lenovo ThinkCentre M92P, can even be mounted under a desk in a space-saving hiding spot.

Enthusiasts' computers, on the other hand, will continue to grow to the size of a minifridge to accommodate extra video cards and water-cooling equipment. Some of them will glow and shine with custom paint jobs and interior lighting, modified to become impressive works of art. The Digital Storm Aventum is one such product that takes pride in its size and crushing weight--it almost doubles as a table for a family room. They will be proudly displayed next to a desk bearing multiple monitors and enough gear to make it look like a space cruiser's command deck. My biggest hope is that games of the future will be able to catch up to the power that some computer enthusiasts will be wielding.

The future of desktops is bright and ongoing, no matter what radical claims to the contrary are made. Though most people may resort more frequently to their phones and tablets to get work done quickly on the go, true computing power will continue to come from that thing plugged into a wall.A A --Alex Cocilova

Tablets

Tablets have evolved at a lightning-fast pace. And for 2013, we expect another year of rapid and significant change in areas ranging from performance and displays to battery life and price.

Just two years ago, the tablet market that is so large today was in its infancy, dominated by Apple's first-generation iPad. Android tablets were barely getting off the ground, and were saddled with an inappropriate cell-phone operating system slapped into a tablet's larger case.

Today, we have competition and diversity. Apple's iOS-based fourth-gen iPad and iPad mini still dominate, but Android-based tablets are finally making inroads. Leading the way is Google's own Nexus lineup, consisting of the affordable 7-inch Nexus 7 (which starts at $199 and goes up to $299 with HSPA+ mobile broadband connectivity), and the 10.1-inch Nexus 10 (with its crazy-high resolution). Amazon's Kindle Fire HD, a competing $199 tablet built around Amazon's media and services and running Android apps sold through Amazon's own store, has done well, too. And now Windows 8--based tablets are here, led by Microsoft's own Surface With Windows RT tablet.

So what lies ahead? Big growth, for one thing: Research firm IDC expects worldwide tablet shipments to hit 165.9 million units in 2013, up from 117.1 million in 2012. And by 2016, IDC says, worldwide shipments should reach 261.4 million units. This growth will come at the exAApense of traditional laptops and desktops, and it will foster a growing acceptance of tablets as tools in everyday life, whether as a "second screen" to accompany your TV viewing, as an e-reader, or as a productivity tool.

One of 2013's big stories is likely to be an impending processor battle. That may sound strange--after all, you rarely buy a tablet for its processor alone. And you get what you get--not a lot of customization or variation can be had for any particular model. But that circumstance doesn't lessen the vigorous competition over tablet performance, and the processor inside can make all the difference in how snappy your tablet feels, or how well your favorite games play.

That's where Nvidia's expected refresh of its Tegra 3 system-on-chip platform comes in. This quad-core (plus a fifth, low-power core) processor has been a favorite choice in leading Android tablets for the past year, and it's ready for a refresh.

A leaked roadmap that surfaced in 2012 indicated that the next platform, code-named Project Wayne, will incorporate four ARM Cortex-A15 processors, up from the Cortex-A9 in use in Tegra 3. Its use of A15 will put Tegra on a par with the Qualcomm S4 Pro and Samsung's Exynos 5. With the new processor, we anticipate better system and graphics performance, along with better power management, which should translate into improved battery life, and LTE support. You can exAApect to see additional tablets based on Qualcomm's S4 Pro as well as on ARM's Cortex-A15 in the next year.

You won't see more tablets running Texas Instruments' OMAP platform (currently on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD). TI pulled out of the highly competitive mobile market to focus instead on embedded systems.

Another processor battleground in 2012 pitted the aforementioned ARM-based platforms, with their efficient battery life, against x86-based platforms like Intel's Clover Trail Atom and AMD's Hondo. These processors may possess more performance oomph than the ARM processors, but battery life can lag. Their big benefit for Windows 8 tablets is that they can support full Windows 8 and all legacy applications that run in desktop mode. Few Clover Trail tablets shipped in 2012, but look for a deluge in 2013.

Microsoft Windows 8--based tablets will be 2013's biggest tablet wild card. With Apple's iOS tablets firmly enAAtrenched, and Google's Android challengers looking more polished and appealing than ever, can Microsoft tablets hold the same allure and appeal? That remains to be seen. However, the confusion between Windows RT and full Windows 8 tablets may worsen once Microsoft unleashes its highly anticipated

tablet, expected in January 2013.

We expect more high-pixel-density tablets to hit the market in 2013, continuing a trend begun by Apple's iPad With Retina Display and furthered by Barnes & Noble's Nook HD. Look for 1280-by-800-pixel resolution to become the norm on 7-inch tablets, and 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution to pick up steam on 10.1-inch tablets. Optical bonding, which eliminates the display's air gap, should become more common, too.

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