A new lease of life for the personal computer

A year ago, pundits were declaring that the personal computer was dead. Smartphones and tablets were cannibalising sales, and the once-revolutionary PC seemed unnecessary — and boring.

A new lease of life for the personal computer

Sure, a smartphone is great for checking emails, snapping photos, and playing games.Tablets are perfect for watching videos and shopping online.

But don’t count the PC out just yet.

Manufacturers are crafting high-resolution, curved screens for desktops and other new features you can’t get in a handheld device, while trying new laptop designs that mimic the tablet’s appeal.

“For the last couple of years, mobile devices have been the hot commodity,” acknowledges Dell executive Neil Hand. “But we’re seeing a re-emergence of innovation in the PC space.”

For years, PC innovation consisted mostly of putting faster processors or a bigger hard-drive inside the same basic box.

That didn’t really matter when the personal computer was a mostly unchallenged commodity. Global PC shipments peaked at more than 365m units in 2011.

But then sales fell off dramatically as tablets stole hearts and wallets.

PC sales plunged 10% in 2013 alone, according to the research firm Gartner, marking the worst annual decline in the industry’s history.

They slipped a little further last year, to about 314m units.

PC makers say they understand the need to evolve, and at the annual gadget show International CES in Las Vegas this week are showing off many new features aimed at wooing back consumers.

Depth-sensing cameras, for example, are popping up in high-end desktops and laptops.

Intel vice-president Navin Shenoy said his company’s RealSense camera can recognize its owner’s face and unlock a PC without requiring a typed password.

Intel is also promoting software that uses the camera in games that respond to a player’s head or hand movements.

PC makers are borrowing ideas from tablets, with laptops that are increasingly thin and lightweight, with longer battery life.

Dell’s new XPS 13 notebook has a screen that extends nearly to the edge of the frame, like the screen on many tablets.

By eliminating wider borders, Dell says it can fit a larger screen into a smaller frame.

Several companies have hybrid or convertible devices that resemble a tablet with a physical keyboard attached.

Lenovo, the Chinese company that has become the world’s biggest seller of PCs, is rolling out several new models of its Yoga hybrid, first introduced last year, with a keyboard that fully folds back so you can hold the display like a tablet.

Chief executive Yang Yuanqing said the new “convertible” hybrids will eventually replace the laptop computer for most people, because they are lighter and have longer battery life.

“Now it’s only a cost issue.”

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