Culture

Are you bored by laptops?

Are laptops in need of a top-to-bottom design overhaul?

As I began my 130th or so laptop review at CNET this week, I stopped to pause on what it all means. Samsung Series 9 open on my lap, I looked at its curved lines and flowing form and wondered: is this enough?

I wondered if I was getting bored with laptops.

Moreover, I wondered if the laptop industry wasn't simply getting lazy amid a period in time that's seeing a computing revolution everywhere else.

Our current age is awash in new portable computing gadgets. Smartphones, now tablets. They get smaller, more advanced, and their designs keep changing, even on a monthly basis. Their OSes are fluidly redefining themselves--Android and iOS are adding new features and spreading their capabilities yearly. Windows 7 and OSX, meanwhile, feel frozen in time.

Of course, I'm extremely aware that manufacturers want you to feel that way. The iPad, tablets, and even new thin sliding convertible laptops...they're products to grab your money. They're not always what we need. I recognize that even as I cradle my iPad everywhere: it's a great gadget to use, but technically it's often superfluous.

Still, that venerable laptop--the computer Steve Jobs likened to a truck not so long ago--feels like the product of a bygone age. Too many laptops I review feel too similar to each other: subtle variations on a theme, adding a little RAM, a little hard drive space, a brighter screen, a slightly better battery. Few of them take risks and adopt new designs. Firstly, new designs are expensive. Secondly, new designs don't necessarily make a product better.

The current laptop industry has some big advantages in its favor: your average mainstream laptop is extremely functional, aggressively priced, and more than ample for anyone's everyday needs than it's ever been before. That's exactly what makes them hard to replace, or to even redesign. They're the best buys in the portable tech landscape.

However, I find myself using my home laptop less and less. If I'm commuting, I use my phone: at home, some combination of my phone and iPad. Days may pass before I open the lid of my old notebook, only to discover that I let its battery drain away in standby.

And yet...and yet, iPads can't be used as standalone devices. They require syncing to computers. I need my computer for certain tasks and advanced programs that simply don't exist on tablets or phones yet. So, I turn back to my computer for these odd jobs, which have become increasingly less common. If there's one device I'd need over any other in my home, the vote would still go to my laptop.

But for how long will this still be true for me? And, I wonder, can laptops reinvent themselves more aggressively to counter the growth of other gadgets?

It's a debate that I go back and forth on in my head, but the answer I keep coming to is always the same: laptops should take pains to catch up to where smartphones and tablets are heading, or risk becoming tech fossils.

The shape of a laptop is largely defined by its function: the size of its screen, a keyboard underneath, a hinge to hold it together--thus, the boxy, rectangular shape of a laptop. The essential design's changed very little since laptops first emerged decades ago. Meanwhile, the average touch-screen smartphone bears practically no resemblance to the massive flip-to-talk phones of the 1980s. Can laptops take a design leap in another direction--slide-out keyboards, more modular designs? Or, have sparser touch-screen devices simply one-upped the laptop's form? Are devices like the Sliding PC 7 and Acer Iconia the answer, or thin, longer-life laptops like the MacBook Air and Samsung Series 9? Or is a good, old-fashioned all-around laptop still the best design of all, stylishness be damned?

What do you think--do laptops need redefining, or are they still the best way to get stuff done on the go? Do you prefer a good, affordable laptop, or are you a phone-and-tablet type of person?