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Laptops to get 5G, AI in 2019 as market share fight with smartphones intensifies

PC-makers and chipmakers are taking a page from smartphones when upgrading laptops, outfitting some 2019 models with 5G, advanced smart assistant capabilities and OLED screens that feature greater display quality.

The upgrades are designed to keep laptops constantly connected to Wi-Fi or cellular networks like 5G wireless broadband, without compromising battery life. The manufacturers' goal is to bring the ease-of-use found in smartphones to laptops and push back against eroding market share as mobile broadband usage grows, analysts said.

A handful of laptops with chips from Intel Corp. and Qualcomm Inc. will have integrated 5G modems in 2019, analysts said, with more expected to hit the market in 2020. The chipmakers demonstrated prototype 5G laptops with their chips and modems at CES 2019 in January but did not provide release dates for those systems.

TECHnalysis Research chief analyst Bob O'Donnell, who tested some of the devices, said the new laptops' thin-and-light design philosophy was clearly drawn from smartphones, and 5G connectivity brings direct access to new types of broadband and communication services.

In addition to chip shortages, the growth of smartphones as a computing device is one reason PC shipments declined by 1.3% in 2018 compared to shipments in 2017, according to a study by market research firm Gartner.

Manufacturers want to create a new class of laptops with 5G and artificial intelligence features that brings the "mobile" experience to users while retaining the experience of a PC as a workhorse for video editing, gaming and productivity applications.

"People are realizing that PCs have an unquestionable role. For certain environments — gaming being one of them — they need a dedicated machine," O'Donnell said.

4G LTE is not as popular as in laptops as Wi-Fi. Cellular modems are also scarce, in less than 10% of laptops, and it is difficult to find dedicated pricing plans from wireless carriers for laptops, O'Donnell said. Laptop users today get on cellular networks by tethering with smartphones.

Intel previously found it expensive to integrate 4G modems in laptops, but is now designing 5G chips with PCs in mind, O'Donnell said. Apple Inc. uses Intel's 4G LTE modems in its iPhones. Intel is adding hooks to laptop chipsets so 5G can be easily latched, and the company's XMM 8000 series 5G modems are designed for a wide range of devices including PCs, tablets, phones and cars.

A handful of companies such as ASUSTeK Computer Inc., Samsung Electronics, Lenovo Group Ltd. or HP Inc., could ship 5G laptops sporting Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips, said Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

Sag believes these companies will be the main players in the 5G laptop market until 2020.

Beyond 5G, chips from Qualcomm and Intel that will be in laptops in 2019 have dedicated artificial intelligence features, which could spur wider usage of smart assistants like Inc.'s Alexa and Microsoft Corp.'s Cortana among PC users.

"I believe Cortana was the first step, but we're starting to see more AI-enabled smart assistant capabilities like Alexa. I believe this can also start to find its way into security applications as well," Sag said.

The integration of these new features requires significant improvements in battery life, without which convertible tablets and phones will continue to take PC market share.

"Right now, Qualcomm Snapdragon PCs are really the only ones delivering on the promise of extra-long battery life with the added bonus of constant connectivity as well," Sag said.

Intel has an ongoing research effort called "Project Athena" to improve battery life, add artificial intelligence and put 5G in laptops. The company has said the first Project Athena laptops will be available in the second half of 2019.

As the gaming market grows, laptops in 2019 will also be loaded with improved multimedia features including better screens and sound, said Frank Azor, vice president and general manager for XPS and Alienware products at Dell Inc.

OLED panels, commonly used in high-end smartphones, will be a differentiating feature in new XPS and Alienware laptops, Azor said.

Dell declined to comment on whether it would release a 5G laptop.