2010-2019: Hello, goodbye and hello again, computer
A decade at CNET has shown me how computing has changed, from the rise and fall of the laptop -- to its eventual return in new forms.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
When I started at CNET 10 years ago my beat was laptop reviews. I admitted, even then, that I wasn't terribly interested in laptops, and I'm still not. What I was excited about was the fuzzy zone where
promised to swoop in and take over. Or a time when
could transform into computers that do everything.
The first inkling that the fuzzy zone could happen came on Jan. 27, 2010, when
introduced its first
. Technology reporters saw a very large
. Everyone else saw a relatively affordable tablet that brought an easier way to look at the web, or movies.
Apple's vision won many people over. But it wasn't the entire answer. In 2010, I still used a laptop at work (a ThinkPad), and a 2008
at home. Our office stored files on servers that we accessed in directories, but I kept a lot of things offline. It was a Mac and PC world, peppered with app store possibilities on the fringes. And though I bought that first iPad in 2010, using it to play games and type up notes with a keyboard, I wished it could be even more of a laptop replacement.
Ten years later, I still feel that way, and I've learned an important lesson. The last decade has turned our idea of computers inside out -- after all, phones are our computers now -- but in other ways, things are more similar than I ever expected them to be.
Come with me on a little memory trip.
Remember the Netbook
Cheap plastic laptops powered by
Atom-based processors were the thing to get back when I started CNET in 2009. In fact, they were so popular that I seriously felt that Netbooks were better than iPads. Once upon a time.
Netbooks were pretty terrible to work on, although I once filed all my CES stories from one. But they were also a sign of the future: cheap laptops for everyone. When I looked through some of my very first stories at CNET from 2009, I remembered that Netbooks, while popular, weren't tablets, and they only ran Windows XP or Linux.
Netbooks were the laptops for kids, and the casual laptops for everyone else. Their low price opened the door for cheaper tablets like
Fire and Apple's lower-end iPads. And for
Chromebooks, which have become the modern equivalent of the $200 Netbook.
Laptops used to be so unwieldy you needed a backpack or computer bag to carry them properly. And battery life was awful. After the MacBook Air, Intel's ultrabooks initiative led the way to slimmer, longer-lasting laptops that started using solid-state storage instead of spinning hard drives. We don't call them ultrabooks anymore. We just call them computers.
Tiny cellular-enabled netbooks that were quick to connect, like phones: That was the idea behind smartbooks, which ended up being a marketing term from Qualcomm. I wrote a good handful of smartbook stories, before it became clear that these little netbook-like things were going to get ignored.
Google's Chromebooks proved the cloud was everything
Google's mission to make a thin, browser-based computer seemed a little crazy at first. I reviewed one of the first Chromebooks in 2011, and while it was nicely designed (it was based on a
netbook), it felt like way too much of a compromise: It was fast and simple, but it didn't work offline and it had very little storage and few everyday apps that weren't just glorified browser links.
But Google was on to something. Chromebooks took over as the cheap laptop that both families and a surprising number of schools use. My kid hasn't used a MacBook, but knows how Chromebooks work.
Google's cloud-based vision of office work is now the main place where I live. My office migrated to a corporate Google Drive-based system years ago. I write all my stories in Google Docs. I plan meetings in Google Calendar and Sheets. I do most of my office work in a Chrome browser. I'm writing this story in Google Docs right now.
My life in Google's apps makes a Chromebook, today, a lot less absurd. Google won the infrastructure. Eight years later, as I'm reviewing Google's latest Chromebook, I realize that nearly everything I do on a laptop is through a browser. While Chromebooks still aren't perfect for everyone, they're proof that Google rewrote the rules for how work is done.
I'm living in Google's world, whether I'm using a Chromebook or not.
Enter the iPad
CES 2010 showed off something else that I've never forgotten: Lenovo's U1 hybrid laptop concept. The U1 was my favorite thing at in Las Vegas that year, and it hinted at a laptop/tablet world to come.
But CES was completely overshadowed by Steve Jobs' unveiling, just a few weeks later, of the first iPad.
With its simple design, the iPad went for a different approach: Instead of putting PC software in a tablet, it adapted the iPhone's software for a larger display. It was more iPhone than Mac, and it had its own custom Apple processor, a mobile chip that hinted at the PC-running-on-ARM trend to come.
The iPad hasn't become a MacBook, and Macs and iPads still haven't fused. But iPads have become as powerful as other computers, and are clearly capable of doing a lot more. I'm still waiting for an iPad to become my main computer -- but at home, it's the only thing my family uses besides a Chromebook.
Microsoft blew the PC apart and reassembled it again with Surface
While Apple has pursued two separate paths with iOS and Mac, Microsoft decided to reinvent the touch PC. The Microsoft Surface, unveiled June 18, 2012, promised a whole new Windows world that worked on tablets. Instead of splitting into two families, Microsoft focused on having all devices work in the same OS.
Windows 8 took a dive into touch computing that year, and ended up unleashing Windows laptops to do some really weird things. Hybrid laptops, laptops, detachables and lots of other bizarre forms blossomed in the next few years. Surface devices turned into large-screen touch desktops, and modular pro laptops. Windows laptops never disappeared, but touchscreen Windows computers are so normal now that we don't even think about them.
Phones have become more powerful than anyone could have possibly imagined, but they're still not a place where all work gets done. Many people have tried to fuse phones and laptops. I remember the Motorola Atrix in 2011, which docked a phone into a laptop chassis. In 2015, Microsoft thought it could turn a phone into a computer, too, with Continuum: It promised that a Windows phone could end up transforming into a computer... if you had a keyboard and monitor.
I reviewed Samsung's phone-to-PC DeX dock in 2017, which promised the same dream, and was surprised that it (mostly) worked. Promises of multiple devices seamlessly streaming and beaming content from watch, to phone, to the big screen -- like the conceptual and never-realized Neptune Suite. The promises, and even capabilities, have clearly been there. And yet it hasn't happened.
Nothing's made me do my actual laptop work through a phone: not while wearing smartglasses, or connecting to a dock. The phone does a lot of things, but for the rest, I've got the laptop I'm writing on right now.
Maybe that moment is on the horizon. Microsoft's dual-screened folding tablets, Surface Neo and Duo, look like other bold steps towards a blending of
, where perhaps phones will become our laptops, and will transform as needed. I've seen these pitches before. I'll be patient.
Weird computers and interfaces, there have been many
I've seen a ton of bizarre ideas in computers, some of which have caught on.
has been the source of most of them: The second-screened Razer Blade was way ahead of its time. The Razer Edge, which was a gaming tablet that could dock into a TV, predicted where the Nintendo Switch would go next. Razer's Project Christine imagined modular PCs that could effortlessly swap parts, and well -- in some ways, PCs are that modular now thanks to external plug-in graphics and fast-throughput Thunderbolt 3 cables.
The computer world's flirtations with VR and AR as new interfaces for office work haven't make a difference for most everyday people, even if the tech has been making strides in enterprise. VR has become a powerful creative tool for 3D work, but at the same time, I don't see anyone in my office with goggles on. But connecting via quick video chat has become so normal that the idea of telepresence is already embedded in office life. Maybe holographic telepresence is yet to come.
Despite all that, I'm writing this decade-long computer retrospective on a laptop. My fingers are typing away on its very real physical keys, and I'm looking at words on a browser on my very flat but high-resolution screen. Yes, I'm working completely in a cloud-based app. Notifications keep popping up from my phone, which basically dovetails with my laptop in ways that make it hard to draw the line where one ends and the other begins.
I've been bored by laptops since at least 2011. But also, I'm OK with that. The future of how I connect with things -- computers, watches, glasses, tablets, smart speakers and who knows what else -- is still ever-changing. It's just a more gradual process than I expected.
Watch this: Are the Surface Pro X, Samsung Galaxy Book S the future of PCs? (The Daily Charge, 10/7/2019)
Razer's mid-2019 Blade gaming laptops glide along the cutting edge