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Bill Bennett

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Computer revolution underway behind the scenes

Yesterday’s review of the Dynabook Satellite Pro says the laptop computer looks and feels dated next to modern MacBooks and Surfaces.

This was not a flippant remark.

Modern MacBook and Surfaces include smartphone technology. The M1 processor in today’s MacBooks derives from an Arm chip Apple developed for the iPhone.

Microsoft uses Arm in its latest Surface Pro models.

Power sipping Arm processors

Compared with the Intel processors used in more traditional laptops, Arm sips power. Computers made with Arm can go the best part of a day between charges. The M1 MacBook Air battery gets close to 24 hours.

Another company, Huawei, offers the MateBook which is a neat laptop containing technology developed for phones.

There are a handful of 2-in-1 and similar devices from HP or Lenovo. While they might not derive directly from phones and may include Intel processors, they have many phone-like characteristics.

Old-school computer

In contrast, Dynabook and the other more traditional computer designs descend from flip-lid laptops.

It’s a format that has been around since the mid-1980s. Yes, the Dynabook is slimmer than those models. It is way more powerful and its batteries last longer. It is better.

But its pedigree comes from the old breed. Not from the new phone lineage.

Blurred lines

Phones and personal computers have been on a converging path for at least twenty years.

For much of that time, computer sales were in decline while phone sales soared. Last year’s lockdowns saw a move to working from home that temporarily confused matters. Despite this, there are now many more phones in the wild than PCs.

The phone is the computer people use most often. That’s as true of people who own phones and computers as it is of those who have just a phone.

Computer tasks

Computers remain important for creative tasks. You could edit a movie or write a book on a phone. Yet who would want to when these jobs are easier with a big screen and a keyboard?

Phones and phone-derived devices are pushing into new areas all the time.

You can view tablet computers as big phones.

Apple makes iPads with slots for Sim cards, there are Android tablets that do the same. Technology doesn’t get much more phone-like than that.

While tablets are not designed for voice calls, that’s no longer a phone’s primary function.

Phoning it in

When 5G mobile is everywhere and wireless bandwidth is cheaper and plentiful, you might wonder how you ever computed without an ever-present internet connection.

Apple blurs the lines between device classes. It uses Arm processors everywhere. iPhones, iPads and MacBooks share a lot of common technology.

Microsoft has an issue running Windows apps on an Arm processor. Few developers have rewritten Windows app code for these devices. The next version of Windows should fix that.

Yet Windows 11 can now run Android applications. That is, apps that were made for phones. The convergence is underway. Likewise, Apple’s new Macs can run iPhone apps.

The next generation

Arm processors are at least a generation ahead of anything Intel has. The traditional chip maker is in a tailspin and does not have a plausible roadmap.

MacBooks and Surfaces sit at the high end of the portable computer market. Chromebooks live at the opposite end. They come from a different tradition, in effect, they are cloud computing terminals dressed up as laptops.

Chromebooks may be simple, but in their own way they are every bit as modern as MacBooks and Surfaces.

Always connected computer

There’s not much phone hardware in a Chromebook. Yet they share one important characteristic with phones. Both sets of devices need a constant internet connection to be any use.

You could work with a laptop on an internet-free desert island. A Chromebook is pointless without a connection.

Chromebooks, MacBooks, Surfaces, tablets feel like progress in a way an old-school Windows laptop can not. We’ve gone past an important turning point. In a few years we’ll look back and it will be obvious.

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