In case you hadn't noticed, things are different out there. People are travelling again. Many are going back into the office, and many are trying to figure out exactly how to make the hybrid work concept achieve its full potential.
At the same time, it's hard to miss the sudden shift in mood surrounding PCs and the PC market. After two-plus years of impressive, pandemic-driven growth, the brakes have been hit hard and forecasts of strong growth have quickly turned into concerns about big declines.
Yet, despite the worries about PC shipments, there's little doubt that PC importance is going to change. The one clearly lasting benefit of the pandemic is that people have a profound new level of respect for what PCs can do and how important they are for day-to-day life.
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The pandemic changed personal computers forever
Another important thing we all learned during the pandemic is that constant connectivity is absolutely essential. While it never felt good to be unconnected - either for work or personal purposes - prior to the pandemic, it now seems almost unbearable to lose that digital link.
Right or wrong, we are now as dependent on an internet connection as we are the power grid and running water.
Logically, then, it appears to be the right time to recognize the opportunity - as well as the challenges - for what seems like the perfect product for our time: The 5G-connected PC.
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What is a 5G PC?
A laptop PC with a built-in 5G modem that allows you to remain always connected to an internet connection anywhere you are gives you a degree of functionality, freedom and flexibility that really is hard to beat.
Imagine, for example, never, ever again having to ask about or worry about what the WiFi password is, whether you're at a work-related function, hanging out at a coffee shop or even sitting in a car. Like your smartphone, as long you're in a coverage area, a 5G-connected PC can always connect to the internet and whatever site, app or service you want or need.
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What models are 5G PCs?
There are some 5G-connected PCs that are available on the market, but honestly, the choices right now are fairly limited (though getting better), and many are expensive.
One of the versions of Microsoft's newly announced Surface Pro 9, for example, includes the 5G hardware necessary to make the connection possible.
Specifically, the version built with Microsoft's SQ3 processor - which is based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 platform - but it starts at $1,399 vs. $999 for the version without it. One of the unique benefits of Qualcomm's processor is that it includes a 5G modem built into it, which inherently makes it capable of being an Always Connected PC, the category name that Qualcomm created for it.
Several other PC vendors, including HP and Lenovo, also offer PCs using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 8cx Processor and the Arm-based instruction set technology that powers it.
Initial market response to these Windows on Arm-based PCs has been modest, however, because of both initial performance limitations and concerns about software compatibility. Both issues are now being addressed, thanks to the evolution of the chip's architecture along with a great deal of effort on software development.
What about 5G software for PCs?
Microsoft just released a new suite of software development tools and a new hardware reference platform for Arm-based, Qualcomm-powered PCs formerly called Project Volterra.
Not only is Project Volterra, or the Windows Dev Kit 2023, focused on making Arm-based PCs as capable as traditional x86 architecture driven units (with chips from Intel and AMD), it is also designed to leverage the unique advantage of AI acceleration that only the Qualcomm chips currently have.
This means that PCs will finally start to get access to the AI-powered software capabilities that smartphones have enjoyed for several years.
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What laptops are 5G capable?
For those who still prefer an Intel or AMD-powered PC, there are a few options for PCs equipped with standalone 5G modems from Qualcomm or Mediatek built by major players like Dell, HP and Lenovo.
Interestingly, though Apple offers 5G support on its iPads, it currently has no 5G-equipped Macs.
The problem, again, is that 5G-equipped PCs are often several hundred dollars more expensive than similar models without the 5G modem built in.
Does your data plan include a 5G PC?
On top of this, what none of the 5G-equipped PCs - whether based on Qualcomn, Intel, or AMD chips - include is 5G data plans. As with smartphones, you have to sign up for a separate data plan with your phone carrier, such as AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon.
The problem is that many people still consider PCs secondary devices, so the extra data plan costs are perceived as more of a burden than an enabler. And unlike a smartphone, which you'd never get without a data plan, there are some people who will use 5G-capable PCs without a data plan.
So, how do we solve this problem? Well, there is no short or easy answer.
The cost of 5G components and data plans aren't cheap, but they have to be somehow incorporated into the cost of the device.
However, at the end of the day, this is really a business model problem, and there are certainly creative ways that the various industry players could come together to create a more compelling and cost-effective solution for solving this problem.
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When will the price of 5G PCs go down?
What I believe needs to happen is that the cost of 5G PCs needs to come down in two different ways. The delta for the addition of the modem needs to decrease, but equally important, at least several months of a data plan need to be included in the price of the device.
Just as with the Amazon Kindle, the connectivity needs to be part of the solution, because it is so essential to its operation.
To achieve these price reductions would likely require each of the vendors to spread their costs out over a long period and to share longer-term revenue. Once people have experienced the benefits of an always-connected PC, the likelihood of them continuing to pay for the service is quite high.
It's these revenues that could potentially be doled out in a creative manner to offset some of the initial costs.
Admittedly, the calculations necessary to keep all parties happy won't be easy, and it will definitely require some different ways of thinking. However, I'm convinced it's a great win-win-win opportunity for PC makers, carriers, chip vendors and, most importantly, the customers themselves.
Having enjoyed the benefits of using a 5G-equipped PC recently for my business travels, it's amazing how much it has improved my productivity.
From being able to do email during a long Lyft ride to filling in when the hotel WiFi stopped functioning to being able to get a connection in a crowded conference where the network was overwhelmed (and without having to get the WiFi password!), there are numerous very practical examples of what an always connected PC can offer.
The time for 5G PCs is clearly here. I say to the industry, let's make it happen!
Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Amazon, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why now is the right time for you to take 5G PCs seriously