FOSTER CITY, Calif. – Ask anyone who knows the least bit about tech, and they’ll probably tell you that 5G is all about smartphones. Well, eventually, sure, but don’t be surprised if the first device you buy with support for the next-generation wireless network built-in is actually a notebook PC.
In case you haven’t heard, PCs are on a roll. Big tech market research firms IDC and Gartner just announced last week that worldwide PC shipments increased in 2019 – it’s the first time that’s happened since 2011. On top of that, some of the most interesting announcements from this year’s CES show were related to PCs.
Looking for foldable displays, accelerated AI functions, sustainable manufacturing techniques, and, oh yeah, support for 5G? It’s the latest generation PCs that deliver on those fronts – along with greatly accelerated performance driven by a wider range of powerful chips than we’ve ever seen from companies like Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm.
In addition, the first announced device to support the complete 5G standard – that is both the millimeter wave (mmWave) and sub-6 GHz variations (see “5G service is here, but do you really need to get a 5G phone now?” for more details) isn’t a smartphone, it’s Lenovo’s Yoga 5G. This new laptop PC, first announced at CES, features an ARM-powered chip from Qualcomm called the 8cx as well as a Qualcomm 5G modem.
Yes, we’ll see smartphones that support the full 5G standard soon (and some of them may ship before the Lenovo Yoga 5G does). However, the fact that the first “fully 5G” device is a PC says a lot about the state of innovation that’s been occurring in the PC industry over the last few years.
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At the same time, what’s particularly interesting about 5G in PCs is that they don’t need support for the full 5G standard to benefit from the fast, new wireless connections that fifth-generation networks enable. Most PCs are used indoors, which means they’re best suited to working with the “sub-6” variant of 5G, which can easily penetrate building walls and windows, just as 4G LTE signals currently do.
Smartphones, on the other hand, are used all over the place – both indoors and outdoors – and can potentially benefit from both sub-6 and mmWave 5G signals, which are primarily available in outdoor environments. For this reason, most of the 5G-enabled PCs announced at CES – including models from HP and Dell, as well as other models from Lenovo – are currently supporting only sub-6 5G, in part because of the complexity of making mmWave work inside a PC, but also because of the potential battery drain from the technology.
Unlike with smartphones, however, this limitation is actually OK with PCs because it’s the only technology that PC users will need in most situations. Plus, it’s a much better match to the availability of 5G services in the US. Sub-6 5G signals are the ones that carriers like T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint are using to make 5G service available to a wider range of customers because the technology enables significantly broader coverage of 5G than mmWave does (albeit, at much lower speeds).
But even the speed limitations aren’t that big of a deal for PC users because most have had no experience with a cellular-connected PC – remember that 4G and 5G cellular service is very different from Wi-Fi. Cellular-connected PCs don’t depend on a hotspot (or the hassles associated with finding one, getting the password, logging in, switching to another Wi-Fi network at a different location, etc.).
Instead, a 5G-equipped PC will give you the ability to have an always-on connection no matter where you are without ever logging in. Plus, even though the speeds of the sub-6 5G networks may not be much faster than today’s best LTE networks in their initial implementations, it turns out those networks have advanced to the point where they are as fast (and sometimes even faster) than many Wi-Fi networks you have become accustomed to using.
Yes, you will have to pay for the privilege of using a 5G network with your PC, but it’s the kind of capability that, once you’ve tried it, is hard to ever imagine being without. Also, carriers have finally started to get more realistic about pricing their data plans for additional devices like PCs at reasonable levels (especially now that smartphone shipments have started to decline), so it shouldn’t break the bank.
Given all these factors, as well as all the other impressive innovations that have made it to today’s newest laptops, it should be easy to see why the first 5G-connected device you buy really should be a PC.
USA TODAY columnist 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 Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.