Why CES 2021 was filled with business laptops and Chromebooks
It was a year when practical concerns overtook cool new designs, mostly.
Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
When we look back on the virtual CES 2021, we'll mostly think about what didn't happen. No memorable Las Vegas meals, no celeb sightings in the convention center, no crazy in-person demos of fantastic new prototypes. Instead, what we saw through our browser screens was mostly a procession of practical products, designed not to inspire or delight, but to just help us get through the next several months of mask-wearing, working from home and waiting for our turn on the vaccine line.
Most years at CES, I'm excited to show you the latest concept pieces and gaming laptops, or talk about trends I see coming up, like flexible screens or secondary displays. If I talk about straightlaced business laptops, it's usually as an afterthought. They're usually not very tied into the rah-rah excitement of Las Vegas.
Then 2020 happened. It turns out the biz laptop people were actually the most important people in the room right now, and their products dominated at CES 2021. Some of the biggest PC makers, including Dell and HP, announced mostly commercial laptops, adding and fine-tuning features for the semipermanent work-from-home crowd. I don't think I've ever given as much thought to Latitude and EliteBook laptops during CES. But work-friendly laptops were one of the big themes of the show, along with a few other standout topics.
Because of the long timeline required to develop new computer hardware, it's not like PC makers had a whole new lineup of COVID-era machines to show us. It's more a shifting of emphasis, taking the biz laptops already in development and pushing them to the forefront, tweaking features and pointing out that these machines have the better webcams and mics, and more advanced security features, that full-time home office types need.
Chromebooks usually make a decent showing at CES, but again, this year brought them to the forefront. So many remote-learning students got on the Chromebook train during 2020 that the ratio of laptops per family member got pretty close to 1:1. Families that might have had kids share a single laptop, or let children borrow a parent's machine, were forced to go out and buy one for each remote student.
Chromebooks won out because they were almost universally a less expensive, easier to use alternative to Windows laptops and MacBooks, and they work easily with the tools most school systems use (Google Classroom, Epic, Khan Academy).
Last year, at CES 2020, we saw a lot of cool, crazy prototypes and concepts, from folding screen laptops to Alienware's handheld (and very Switch-like) gaming PC. This year, things were more practical overall, but we also saw a few more polished outré devices. And after years of missed attempts, dual-screen laptops may finally be a real thing that's actually useful for people.
Asus' newest revision of the ZenBook Duo concept really floored me. It's got a bigger second screen, with smarter placement, but more importantly, it's figured out something actually useful to do with it. With Adobe app integration, I loved using jog wheels and shortcut buttons in Premiere and Photoshop, while regaining screen real estate on the main display.
I also loved the bigger, more useful E Ink display on the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 i (that's a mouthful of a name), because the back of your laptop lid is frankly a lot of underused real estate. Here, it becomes an E Ink display, like a Kindle, that can keep your calendar or some notes or even an email inbox front-of-view, and allow for simple note-taking as well, all with very minimal battery drain. The current Kindle app integration isn't especially slick, but it feels like a few tweaks away from being a really useful airplane laptop.
My favorite part of CES most years is the rush of new PC gaming hardware and accessories. This year, it's hard to get too pumped up about that, with both the PS5 and Xbox Series X still so shiny and new.
That said, new Nvidia laptop GPUs (the 3000-series, first introduced in desktops in 2020) are coming to gaming laptops such as the Acer Triton 300 and Lenovo Legion 7 Slim, and most of these new systems are surprisingly subtle-looking. In part, that's because new, more efficient GPU and CPU hardware allows for thinner designs and fewer fans -- previously you kinda needed big lights and glowing alien heads to cover up the fact that your gaming laptop had to be the size of a compact car.
Even now, a modestly priced gaming laptop is more powerful and has more future performance overhead than the new living room game consoles, but it's also hard to beat $500 for state of the art console hardware right now. Over the next few years, while the PS5 and Xbox age in their locked-in configurations, PC gaming will return to the forefront.