Plenty of new designs and fresh ideas at CES 2014

Don’t believe the pundits. There was plenty of PC news coming out of this year's Consumer Electronics Show if you knew where to look.

One of the storylines coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month was the absence of the PC. It’s true that the largest computer companies no longer bother to exhibit. And for the big consumer electronics companies that do exhibit, laptops seem like an afterthought. It also didn’t help that Microsoft was a no-show after a year in which--as CEO Steve Ballmer repeatedly put it--the company launched more major products that at any other time in its history.

All of this prompted a fresh round of post-PC stories. This can be misleading because much of the action at CES takes place off the show floor in hotel suites, at press conferences and in smaller showcases such as CES Unveiled, Digital Experience and Showstoppers. Here the PC players were busy showing of new designs and fresh ideas that they hope will jumpstart the market.

Here are some of the notable PC announcements from the show:

HP announced a wide range of all-in-one desktops including the Slate21 Pro, its first Android all-in-one for business. The $399 Slate21 Pro has a 21.5-inch 19280x1080 touchscreen, Nvidia Tegra 4 processor, 2GB of memory, 16GB of storage (plus 50GB of Box online storage) and Android 4.3. It also comes with Citrix Receiver pre-installed for running Windows applications with XenDesktop, as well as XenMobile for managing access to Android apps. Android on the desktop was one of the themes of this year’s show. Intel announced plans for a dual-OS platform and Asus demonstrated the Transformer Book Duet TD300, a 13-inch convertible that switches between Windows 8 and Android.

HP also unveiled several Windows-based all-in-ones. The HP 205 is an 18.5-inch business all-in-one based on AMD’s E-Series processor that starts at $449; the Intel-based ProOne 400 G1 comes with either a 19.5-inch display ($649) or a 21.5-inch touchscreen ($799). The company updated its 27-inch all-in-one workstation, adding a touchscreen and Intel’s Thunderbolt for rapid file transfers. The HP Z1 G2 starts at $1,999 and offers professional features such as fourth-generation Xeon and Core processors, ECC memory, RAID hard drives and Nvidia’s Mobile Quadro GPUs.

On the mobile side, I liked the looks of the EliteBook Folio 1040 G1, which HP first announced at an event in December, but was showing during CES. This 14-inch Ultrabook is only 0.6 inches thick and weighs 3.3 pounds, but the machined-aluminum case feels solid and meets military specifications for tough environmental conditions. Designed to compete directly with the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and the Dell Latitude 6430u, the Folio 1040 G1 starts at $1,299 with 1600x900 display, Core i5 processor, 4GB of memory and a 128GB drive. HP also announced a new x2 convertible with Intel Core processors, the Pro x2 410, which is supposed to be available now starting “at or under $899.”

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Lenovo announced several new laptops, 2-in-1s and tablets. The standout is an updated version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon with an optional WQHD (2560x1440) multi-touch display. This version also replaces the Function keys with an adaptive keyboard that shows different icons depending on the application. Although this is a 14-inch laptop, it is only 0.5 to 0.8 inches thick (front to back) and has a starting weight of 2.8 pounds. It will start at $1,299 with the 1600x900 display, Core i5-4200U processor, 4GB of memory and a 128GB SSD, but the WQHD model costs a whopping $2,099, though that also gets you a faster processor, 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD.

Lenovo also introduced a ThinkPad 8 business tablet with an 8.3-inch 1920x1200 display, Intel Atom Bay Trail processor and up to 128GB of storage running Windows 8.1 Pro. This tablet has a novel cover with a camera flap that makes it easier to snap quick photos. The ThinkPad 8 will be available later this month starting at $399, though the cover and other accessories such as a wireless keyboard cost extra.

For home users, Lenovo announced a Miix 2 Windows 8 convertible with a display that can sit in the keyboard base in a reverse Stand Mode for watching videos or displaying photos. There will be two versions: a $499 10-inch 1920x1200 model with a Bay Trail processor and a $699 11-inch 1920x1200 model with a Core i5 processor. Lenovo also announced new versions of its Yoga convertible with fourth-generation Haswell processors and lower prices. The Yoga 2 Pro 11-inch 1366x768 will be $529 with a Pentium processor, 4GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive and the 13-inch 1920x1080 will be $999 with a Core i7 chip, up to 8GB of memory, a 500GB hybrid hard drive and backlit keyboard. At the low-end, Lenovo announced Flex 14- and 15-inch convertibles using AMD A6 processors.

Like HP, Lenovo is experimenting with Android. The Lenovo N308 is a 19.5-inch 1600x900 all-in-one with a Tegra 4 processor that runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. The N308, which is only 1.3 inches thick and weighs a little more than 10 pounds, has a battery rated for up to three hours and is designed to be moved around the house. The screen also folds flat for sharing.

Lenovo says the N308 will start at $450, but the current model is $599 online with 2GB of memory and a 320 hard drive plus 8GB of flash for storage. Lenovo also updated its 27-inch Horizon Table PC (which I previously tested ), making it thinner and lighter, adding NFC for connecting with other devices and improving the Aura software. The other new 27-inch all-in-one, the Lenovo A740, is billed as the world’s thinnest (the guts are in the base) and has an optional 2560x1440 multi-touch display. It will be available in June starting at $1,499.

Toshiba got lots of press for its 4K laptops. The Satellite P50t and the Tecra W50 workstation have a 15.6-inch 3840x2160 display. These won’t be available until mid-2014, and Toshiba hasn’t released details yet, but both will be based on Intel Haswell Core processors, and the Satelite P50t will have a touchscreen while the Tecra W50 has Nvidia Quadro K2100M professional graphics. On the subject of 4K displays, several PC companies announced more affordable 28-inch 4K monitors including the $699 Dell 2815Q, and the $799 Lenovo ThinkVision Pro2840m and Asus PB287Q. These should be available sometime this spring.

Toshiba also updated its Kirabook 13.3-inch premium ultraportable with Haswell Core processors boosting the battery life to what the company claims is nine hours--short battery life was one of the chief complaints with the current version (here's the CNET review). The primary selling points of the Kirabook are its 2560x1440 display--available with or without touch--and its sleek, high-quality magnesium alloy chassis, which is 0.7 inches thick and weighs only 2.6 pounds. It will be available next month starting at $1,500.

At the opposite end of the price spectrum, Google’s Chrome OS seems to be gaining some traction. Acer, HP and Samsung already offer Chromebooks. At CES, Toshiba announced its first one, a model with a 13.3-inch 1366x768 display, Haswell Celeron processor, 2GB of memory and 16GB of storage for $280 starting February 16. As with all Chromebooks, you also get 100GB of Google Drive storage. LG Electronics demonstrated its Chromebase, the first Chrome all-in-one PC with a 21.5-inch 1920x1080 display, Haswell Celeron processor, 2GB of memory and 16GB of storage. These Chrome OS devices are targeting not only home users, but also schools and businesses that want “thinner clients.”

One other operating system made its debut at CES: Valve’s Steam OS. At the show, Valve announced that 14 gaming PC companies--including Alienware, Cyberpower, Falcon NW, Gigabyte, iBuypower and Maingear--will be offering first-generation Steam machines. These are basically purpose-built PCs-cum-game consoles that allow Steam’s 65 million subscribers to play their existing PC games rather than having to invest in a new console and game library. The hardware and prices will vary widely. AMD and CyberPower were showing off a Steam Machine with an A6 processor and Radeon R9 270 graphics for $499; others had configurable systems costing thousands of dollars that will rival top gaming PCs. Dell’s Alienware said it will release both a dedicated Steam Machine game console and a Steam version of its X51 desktop in late 2014, but provided few details.

The bottom line: there’s still plenty going on in PCs. The market isn’t growing, but it remains more than 300 million units each year and there continues to be a need for Windows. At the same time there is a tremendous amount of experimentation going on with both hardware design, and the operating systems and software. The PC may be changing, but isn’t dead. That was the real story at CES.