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The pandemic has blurred the lines between laptop categories

HP had one of the most expansive laptop launches of this year’s CES. The headliners included two Elite Dragonfly models, a whole gaggle of Windows 11 Elitebooks, and a dump of gaming laptpos and desktops (as well as accessories). We saw the usual spec upgrades: better chips, smaller bezels, better battery life, bigger touchpads, etc.

But a few newer themes ran through HP’s releases and through those of many other major laptop manufacturers as well. Less obtrusive, chic-er looks. Heavier duty chips in chassis that are thinner, lighter, and easier to take from place to place. AI features meant to prevent snooping in public places. Better conferencing technologylines that have resisted adding webcams for years finally have them. These aren’t changes limited to the business sphere. We’re seeing these trends in consumer lines, gaming lines, workstation lines, and even Chromebooks.

It’s clear what these companies’ market research is showing: people want to work on the move more than ever before, and their definition of “work” is expanding.

That’s certainly what HP has found. “People are working differently,” Alex Cho, HP’s president of personal systems, told The Verge. “People are going to create even more. They’re going to be getting entertained and playing differently. They’re going to connect with other people differently.”

It’s hardly a no-brainer that remote work has exploded around the world since early 2020. But there’s certainly been some question as to whether that explosion would lead to temporary trends or longer-term changes to the laptop sphere. Per this CES, it appears that the market has spoken: consumers expect that conferencing and on-the-go work are here to stay.

HP has found that “75 percent of people are now saying they want to set up their permanent home office,” Cho says. Meanwhile, “80 percent of conferencing rooms in the office are being upgraded, because you’re recognizing that ‘I will now be working from home on a permanent basis, and when I go back into the office, I need that office to be far more around collaboration.’” Cho added that 75 percent of people have admitted to judging others based on their appearance on video calls, per HP’s findings.

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The new demands extend beyond webcam quality. COVID-19 has driven swaths of people in some countries (the US included) from full-time jobs to freelance work. This means the demand for devices that can serve both as workstations and personal drivers — workstation power in a small, attractive chassis — is higher than ever.

“We’re seeing that a lot of people are having more personal gigs,” says Cho. “They’re creating a lot more on their devices. They’re doing a lot of custom work.”

While many of the biggest “creator” laptops of the past few years have looked more like a gaming laptop than an XPS 13, last year saw a few creation-oriented ultraportables (Acer’s Swift 3X, for example) that tried to bridge the gap. Expect to see more of those in 2022; Cho hinted that HP is prioritizing better screen technology this year to target that market.

Gaming is also a rapidly growing segment, which the pandemic has accelerated. “It’s not just a lot of people, but there’s new segments,” Cho says. HP has found that 60 percent of new gamers, for example, are female. But gaming, for many of these new users, is more of a social affair than it has been in the past — the isolation that COVID-19 imposed upon many people has made some turn to gaming as a source of virtual interaction.

“Gamers game because they want to connect,” says Cho. “People are going online … at set times — ‘Hey, why don’t we all get on at 8PM?’ We see that in multiple age demographics.”

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Not only does that mean more people want laptops that can game; it also means gamers are looking for better keyboards, webcams, and other peripherals that have previously been more of a focus in the consumer laptop sphere. There’s more demand for gaming laptops that can also work, and personal laptops that can also game.

Much marketing for personal technology (laptops included) makes reference to a “hybrid world,” an “era of remote work,” and the like. Those terms are being used to describe an American workforce that consists of, by recent estimates, less than 50 percent remote or hybrid workers. While many people have permanently altered their lifestyles and are upgrading their home offices, there’s still a large segment that needs (or wants) to work in person. Do companies like HP expect to split their products between those segments or focus on products that accommodate both?

Cho didn’t directly answer that question. “There are needs that are converging because you want some consistent type of experience, but there are distinct needs in each of the spaces for which we’re continuing to innovate,” he said. Noted. But the broader point — that the needs of the business, consumer, gaming, and creative laptop spaces are converging and will likely lead to more laptops that bridge those categories — is well taken.

That comes with all sorts of questions. For one: laptops in the business, gaming, and workstation sphere are traditionally much more expensive than consumer laptops of similar quality. There’s certainly a question of whether the needs of these customers’ encroaching on the consumer sphere could make the category as a whole less accessible. (HP’s Elite Dragonfly Chromebook, for example, positioned as one of these work-and-play devices, is expected to start at $999, which is not at all cheap for a Chromebook.)

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Multiple established lines have also made significant compromises to keyboard and touchpad quality this year in the name of thinness and portability — compromises that have been, at least in part, positioned for the benefit of work-on-the-go use cases. That may be a sacrifice the new generation of workers is willing to make, but the MacBooks of the last decade certainly beg to differ.

And then there’s the problem of security — using the same laptop for work that you use for freelance gigs, gaming, or the like, is something IT departments have been begging people not to do since the dawn of time. It has the potential to compromise your privacy (IT can see everything you’re doing on there, after all) and your company’s information (what if you accidentally copy and paste the wrong thing?).

These are likely bridges we’ll be crossing further down the line — laptop production is often a multiyear cycle, and while some features can be added or tweaked on the fly, it may take some time for the market to see any drastic reimagining of a laptop’s role in the workplace. But within the next five years, Cho hopes that the ideal laptop will be one that “easily transitions”. It will recognize “that you use that device to work, but you’re not just working — you’re checking an email, you’re shopping.” That certainly appears to be the case for many people. I just hope that’s a feature of today’s market, not a bug.

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