In case you haven’t noticed, things are different out there. People are traveling again. Many are returning to the office, and many are trying to figure out exactly how to make the hybrid work concept reach its full potential.
At the same time, it’s hard to miss the sudden mood swing surrounding PCs and the PC market. After more than two years of impressive growth fueled by the pandemic, the brakes have been slammed on, and forecasts of strong growth have quickly turned into concerns about big declines.
However, despite the concerns about PC shipments, there is no doubt that the importance of the PC is going to change. The only clearly lasting benefit of the pandemic is that people have a deep new level of respect for what PCs can do and how important they are to everyday life.
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The pandemic changed personal computers forever
Another important thing we’ve all learned during the pandemic is that constant connectivity is absolutely essential. While it never felt good to be offline, whether for work or personal reasons, before the pandemic, it now seems almost unbearable to lose that digital connection.
Right or wrong, we now rely as much on an internet connection as we do on mains electricity and running water.
So, logically, the time seems right to recognize the opportunity, as well as the challenges, for what appears to be the perfect product for our time: the 5G-connected PC.
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What is a 5G PC?
A laptop with a built-in 5G modem that allows you to always stay connected to an Internet connection anywhere gives you a degree of functionality, freedom, and flexibility that really is hard to beat.
Imagine, for example, never having to ask or worry about your WiFi password again, whether you’re at a work-related function, hanging out at a coffee shop, or even sitting in a car. Just like your smartphone, as long as it’s in a coverage area, a 5G-connected PC can always connect to the Internet and any site, app, or service you want or need.
What models are 5G PCs?
There are a few 5G-connected PCs that are available on the market, but honestly, the options right now are pretty limited (although they’re getting better) and many are expensive.
One of the versions of Microsoft’s recently announced Surface Pro 9, for example, includes the necessary 5G hardware to make the connection possible.
Specifically, the version built with Microsoft’s SQ3 processor, which is based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 platform, but starts at $1,399 versus $999 for the version without it. One of the unique benefits of the Qualcomm processor is that it includes an integrated 5G modem, which inherently makes it capable of being an always connected PC, the category name Qualcomm created for it.
Several other PC vendors, including HP and Lenovo, also offer PCs that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx processor and the Arm-based instruction set technology that powers it.
However, initial market response to these Windows on Arm-based PCs has been modest due to both initial performance limitations and software compatibility concerns. Both of these problems are now being addressed, thanks to the evolution of the chip architecture coupled with a lot of effort in software development.
What about 5G software for PC?
Microsoft has just released a new set of software development tools and a new hardware reference platform for Arm-based PCs powered by Qualcomm, formerly called Project Volterra.
The Volterra Project, or Windows Dev Kit 2023, is not only focused on making Arm-based PCs as capable as units powered by the traditional x86 architecture (with chips from Intel and AMD), but is also designed to take advantage of the unique advantage of AI acceleration that only Qualcomm chips currently have.
This means that PCs will finally start to get access to the AI-powered software capabilities that smartphones have enjoyed for several years.
Which laptops support 5G?
For those who still prefer an Intel or AMD-powered PC, there are a few options for PCs equipped with standalone 5G modems from Qualcomm or Mediatek made by major players like Dell, HP, and Lenovo.
Interestingly, while Apple offers 5G support on its iPads, it doesn’t currently have 5G-equipped Macs.
The problem, again, is that 5G-equipped PCs are typically several hundred dollars more expensive than similar models without the built-in 5G modem.
Does your data plan include a 5G PC?
In addition to this, what none of the PCs equipped with 5G, whether they are based on Qualcomm, Intel or AMD chips, include 5G data plans. As with smartphones, you must sign up for a separate data plan with your phone provider, such as AT&T, T-Mobile, or Verizon.
The problem is that many people still consider PCs to be secondary devices, so the additional data plan costs are perceived as more of a burden than an enabler. And unlike a smartphone, which you would never get without a data plan, there are some people who will use 5G-enabled PCs without a data plan.
So how do we solve this problem? Well, there is no short or easy answer.
The cost of 5G components and data plans aren’t cheap, but they have to be factored into the cost of the device somehow.
However, at the end of the day, this is really a business model problem, and there are certainly creative ways in which the various players in the industry could come together to create a more compelling and cost-effective solution to this problem.
When will the price of 5G PCs drop?
What I think needs to happen is that the cost of 5G PCs needs to come down in two different ways. The delta to add the modem should go down, but just as importantly, at least several months of a data plan should be included in the price of the device.
As with the Amazon Kindle, connectivity must be part of the solution, as it is essential to its operation.
To achieve these price reductions, it would probably be necessary for each of the providers to spread their costs over a long period and share the revenues in the longer term. Once people have experienced the benefits of an always connected PC, the likelihood that they will continue to pay for the service is quite high.
It is this income that could potentially be creatively divvied up to offset some of the start-up costs.
It is true that the calculations required to keep all parties happy will not be easy and will definitely require different ways of thinking. However, I am convinced that it is a great win-win-win opportunity for PC makers, carriers, chip vendors, and most importantly, the customers themselves.
Having recently enjoyed the benefits of using a 5G-equipped PC for my business trips, it’s amazing how much my productivity has improved.
From being able to send emails during a long Lyft ride, to filling in when the hotel Wi-Fi stopped working, to being able to get a connection at a crowded conference where the network was saturated (and without having to get the Wi-Fi password!) -Fi!), there are numerous very practical examples of what an always connected PC can offer.
The time for 5G PCs is clearly here. I say to the industry, let’s make it happen!