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5 innovations that pushed laptops forward at CES 2021

5 innovations that pushed laptops forward at CES 2021

Cooler, better, faster, stronger

Credit: Asus

CES 2021 may be virtual, but the event still offered up a trove of PC innovations, and that goes doubly so in the mobile space. Intel, AMD, and Nvidia all announced new laptop CPUs or GPUs, which in turn unleashed new generation of cutting-edge notebooks from every major vendor. We’ve covered our favorite PC hardware announcements in our best of CES roundup.  

Beyond specific products, we wanted to highlight some of the most fascinating laptop advances on display during the show. We didn’t see as many wild-and-crazy concept PCs as we normally do at CES—chalk it up to the difficulties of the past year. Nonetheless, several features and trends point to a bright future for notebook buyers, especially if you’re in the market for a gaming PC, as so many people are these days.

Without further ado, these are the best laptop innovations we witnessed at CES 2021.

Asus ROG XG Mobile

The Asus ROG Flow X13 is a diminutive 2.8-pound, 13-inch gaming laptop. Despite that small, slender profile, Asus claims the Flow X13 can outpunch desktop-replacement-class notebooks that weigh significantly more. How? With the companion ROG XG Mobile dock that Asus offers.

asus flow x13 rog xg mobile Asus

The Asus ROG Flow X13 in action, with the tiny ROG XG Mobile graphics dock behind/to the right of it. 

Asus equips the actual laptop with up to a Ryzen 9 5980HS, paired with a GeForce GTX 1650—a discrete graphics card, but one capable only of modest gaming. The magic happens when you connect the Flow X13 to the XG Mobile, which includes Nvidia’s new GeForce RTX 3080 inside along with an array of helpful ports. Now, boosting laptop gaming with external graphics docks is nothing new—that’s the Razer Blade Stealth’s whole schtick. But most of those efforts revolve around large docks that handle bulky desktop graphics cards.

The ROG XG Mobile instead opts to use Nvidia’s mobile RTX 3080. That means it can’t be upgraded, but it also lets Asus craft the dock using a tiny 2.2-pound design that slips easily into a custom travel bag designed to fit both the docks and the Flow X13. That’s easy enough to haul around if you need to—unlike other external graphics solutions. Better yet, the versatile design means you can schlep the bare laptop around all day without throwing out your back, then plug into the ROG XG Mobile for hot and heavy gaming sessions at home, or hot and heavy creation sessions at the office.

Laptop displays level up

Our other favorites are trends rather than discrete products. The most noteworthy? Laptop panels are leveling up big-time in 2021, most notably in gaming rigs, but actually across the board.

razer blade 15 adv e 2021 top large Razer

The upgraded Razer Blade offers some of the most impressive display options around, starting with high refresh rate panels with the ability to get even faster at 1080p, 1440p, and 4K.

Most gaming notebooks tend to offer a couple of standard options: A 1080p 60Hz display, maybe a 144Hz panel if you’re lucky, and often a premium 4K 60Hz option, all in a standard 16:9 aspect ratio. Your options are about to get a lot more varied.  

Most exciting? The sudden availability of laptops with 1440p displays, thanks to Nvidia's advocacy with panel makers and laptop vendors. We lamented the lack of 1440p laptops just last year, but at CES 2021, we saw 1440p gaming laptops announced by the likes of Lenovo, Acer, Razer, and Asus, among others. Finally.

Faster displays became far more common as well, with virtually every major vendor expanding its refresh rate options. Speedy 144Hz and 300Hz+ 1080p display used to be a luxurious premium upsell, but those now come standard in laptops like the MSI Stealth 15M, the Alienware m17, Acer’s Predator Triton 300 SE, and Razer’s upgraded Blade. Several gaming notebooks offer blistering 240Hz 1440p options as well, marrying both trends.

hp elite folio workspace 2 HP

The HP Elite Folio dumps the standard 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio for a more productivity-focused 3:2 configuration, paired with screen-obscuring privacy features.

Beyond gaming, usability was a focus for the laptops of CES 2021 as well. The Lenovo Legion 7 offers a 16:10 aspect ratio, and the HP Elite Folio opts for a 3:2 display, bucking the widescreen 16:9 ratio that’s become ubiquitous. More vertical screen space means more real estate for spreadsheets. The HP Elite Dragonfly G2 pairs a blazing 1,000-nit display with a SureView privacy feature to keep prying eyes at bay. The Alienware m17’s 4K option can be paired with Tobii eyetracking. Lenovo partnered with TUV Rheinland on a panel with reduced blue light levels to keep your eyes from becoming strained. Keep the options coming, y’all.

Webcams don’t (always) suck anymore

With everyone working and schooling via Zoom, it wasn’t surprising to see webcams get more love in the 2021 crop of laptops, but it sure was welcome. Most gaming notebooks still come with ho-hum 720p webcams, sadly, but the MSI GE76 Raider Dragon Edition and Alienware’s new laptops bump that up to 1080p.

hp elite dragonfly max workspace HP

The HP Elite Dragonfly Max is designed for our new workday of serial videoconferences, with extra mics, some new audio enhancements, and a 5MP camera. 

But HP leads the pack here, with a strong focus on webcam performance in its more business-focused laptops. The HP Elite Dragonfly Max packs a 5MP webcam with over 4X the pixels of your standard 720p model, paired with a manual camera switch to ensure it’s disabled, and not one, not two, but four microphones for better audio as well. “In addition to all this hardware, HP builds in a raft of audio enhancement technologies including HP Audio Boost for noise reduction, HP Sound Calibration to optimize the signal to your hearing, and HP Dynamic Audio to adjust the sound quality for speech, music, or movies,” we wrote in our coverage.

The consumer-focused HP Envy 14, on the other hand, sticks to a 720p webcam with a physical shutter, but surrounds it with “HP Enhanced Lighting”—a selfie light display intended to make you look better in all those video meetings. Both of HP’s laptops, as well as the Elite Dragonfly G2 discussed earlier, bake in AI tools to filter out background noise coming through the mics, because your audio feed should be just as clean as your video. Hopefully other vendors will follow in HP’s footsteps as the year goes on.

Cooler, faster gaming laptops

We won’t dive too deeply into the technical weeds here, but there were a pair of extremely geeky gaming laptop trends worth highlighting: Resizable BAR for laptops, and the exploding popularity of liquid metal compound paste on the CPU.

nvidia resizable bar Nvidia

Resizable BAR lets the CPU tap fully into the GPU’s memory, offering performance gains in some scenarios.

AMD kicked off interest in the PCIe specification’s Resizable BAR feature when it introduced Smart Access Memory in its Ryzen 5000 CPUs and Radeon RX 6000 GPUs on the desktop. It’s underpinned by the standardized (but previously unutilized) PCIe option. Resizable BAR (and Smart Access Memory) lets your CPU tap into the full memory capacity of your GPU, rather than limiting it to 256MB chunks. The resulting performance gains depend greatly on your game, your resolution, and even your settings, but as our testing with the Radeon RX 6900 XT showed, the feature can improve performance up to a very noticeable 10 percent.

Now that free extra performance is coming to laptops. Nvidia said its new GeForce RTX 30-series laptop graphics chips support Resizable BAR. Intel explicitly called it out for its new 11th-gen Tiger Lake H35 chips as well. AMD didn’t mention Resizable BAR or Smart Access Memory during its Ryzen 5000 Mobile introduction, but given that the company's own desktop chips sparked this trend, consider it a lock—especially since Nvidia claims its Resizable BAR implementation will work on all the newly announced chips from both Intel and AMD.

Moving on, liquid metal is picking up steam. Liquid metal came into vogue among desktop overclocking enthusiasts because it offers superior cooling performance compared to standard thermal paste. Unfortunately its fluid nature and reaction to aluminum makes it difficult to use in mass production. Laptop makers need to prevent the highly efficient and mercurial-like liquid metal from flowing onto the surface-mounted chips near the CPU die. Asus and Lenovo have figured it out, and Lenovo announced its use in Legion gaming laptops. Asus is applying it in every ROG-branded notebook. Asus actually started doing that when Intel’s 10th-gen mobile processors came out, but it’s interesting to see such a nerdy feature become more mainstream. The companies' laptops might have quieter fan noise and longer turbo boost speeds as a result.

Swappable Surface SSDs

Microsoft surface pro 7+ image 4 Microsoft

The new SSD tray in the Surface Pro 7+.

Microsoft revealed the Surface Pro 7+ at CES 2021, a business-friendly version of its flagship convertible. It packs goodies like Intel’s new Tiger Lake chips and LTE options, but we want to highlight how the Surface Pro 7+ has been rejiggered to allow users to replace its SSD.

That’s nothing new for the vast majority of laptops, but since the Surface joined Apple in leading the anti-upgrade charge in premium thin-and-light laptops, we’re crossing our fingers that this signifies a new trend for Microsoft, and that future consumer Surface models will include swappable storage. Please?

Bonus: What’s next for Wi-Fi

linksys axe8400 back01 Belkin

The Linksys AXE8400 Wi-Fi 6E router features a 5Gbps WAN port and four gigabit ethernet ports.

This hot new technology wasn’t found in many laptops at CES 2021 but expect to see it soon. On January 7, mere days before CES kicked off, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced its Wi-Fi 6E certification program, unleashing the wireless technology on the 6GHz spectrum. Those relatively uncrowded airwaves should offer a speed boost over devices that currently use the congested 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.

Router makers jumped on the announcement with an arsenal of Wi-Fi 6E routers to get the ball rolling. Of the major laptop vendors, we spotted Wi-Fi 6E onlyon the luxurious MSI GE76 Raider Dragon Edition at CES, but expect to see it become more common soon. Note: Other notebook vendors touted Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, but that doesn’t open up the 6GHz spectrum like Wi-Fi 6E. Instead, it’s a rebranding of the existing protocol formerly dubbed 802.11ax. It’s fast, but it's not Wi-Fi 6E.

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