TAIPEI — Greetings from tomorrow! I mean that both figuratively and literally, by the way: The 12-hour time difference between Taiwan and the east coast of the United States may have been wreaking havoc on my sleep and work schedules for the last week, but it’s afforded me my first opportunity to visit Computex, Asia’s largest technology trade show and the second largest in the world (after CES). It’s been a fascinating week, of not only experiencing first-hand how a culture very different from mine views and uses technology, but also of seeing where the tech world as a whole is headed (or thinks it’s headed).
While I’ve been here, I’ve observed a lot and learned even more, so it only seemed fair to share some of the most important of those lessons with you.
1. Ultrabooks are here to stay — for now
Surely I can’t be the only person who doesn’t appreciate or, OK, understand the appeal ofultrabooks? Granted, I’ve never been much of a laptop lover in general: To me, if you’re going to spend a lot of money on a computer, there are far more important features than if you can carry it around with you. So the last year’s move toward lightweight, long-battery-life laptops with debatable processing capability strikes me as little more than a revival of the failed netbook model. But given how gung-ho Intel and major system manufacturers like Acer, Asus, and MSI are about it, though, maybe I’m wrong. Every speech, every booth display, every press release is riddled with pomp and circumstance about these laptops and how they’re going to continue revolutionizing the way users interact with their computers.
Absent from most of these mentions is a strategy for precisely how that’s going to happen (to my mind, “Windows 8” is not in itself a business plan, but whatever) and why it’s a good thing, but the hype here is such that it can’t be ignored. So, at least until next year, and maybe well into 2013, ultrabooks will be a hot topic, whether they’re done straight, with a hidden (physical) keyboard as on the MSI Slider S20, with a removable tablet portion as on the Asus Transformer Book, or with displays on both sides of the lid as on Asus’ Taichi. Whether they’ll stick around over the long term remains to be seen, but I for one won’t be surprised if the excitement dies down a little: Do most of us have much call for a non-tablet device positioned between your phone and your laptop in the tech pecking order? Time will tell.
2. AMD is hanging in there, especially on the budget side
It’s been a pretty rough year for processor and graphics giant AMD. After a couple of disappointing, or at any rate underwhelming, launches toward the end of last year, the company has been lying pretty low, staying out of the news while Intel has captured lots of headlines and Nvidia’s 600-series video cards have been stealing their competitors’ thunder. But if the people who work there are at all disillusioned or uncertain about their direction, you couldn’t tell it from the press conference they held on Wednesday.
Centering on the theme “Life More Brilliant,” it went all out to demonstrate what Senior Vice President and General Manager of AMD Global Business Units Lisa Su said, “An APU is really taking the best of both worlds.” APUs (or Accelerated Processing Units), which unite video and processing hardware within the same chip, have been praised by reviewers for their prowess with the former, which was superior to what Intel was able to deliver with its Sandy Bridge CPUs last year, but have had struggled competing on the latter end. (And sorry, AMD, but your silly videos showing an unspecified APU competing against an unspecified, ostensibly Ivy Bridge chip in DiRT Showdown and Adobe Photoshop didn’t convince me that’s going to change with this generation. Do you seriously want to sell your APUs exclusively as being useful for video acceleration?)
That said, the company’s focus on its second-generation E-series APUs, aimed at low-power laptops costing less than $600, seems smart: Won’t it be easier to feel better about your ultrathin (AMD’s term for “ultrabook,” let’s face it) if you can play games on it with some minimum of credibility? Plus, AMD has been committed to value above raw performance for years, so from the outside this looks like a match made in ultrathin heaven. Who knows whether the gamble will pay off, especially given Intel’s own enormous ultrabook push, but if AMD is abandoning the high end to its competitor, owning this segment would be an excellent consolation prize.
3. Even manufacturers know desktops are where it’s at
I had to travel more than 8,000 miles in order to have it proven to me, but I’ve finally verified that tech companies know what’s long been an open secret here on the ground: Gaming laptops are, for the most part, a laughable misnomer. Jackie Hsu, corporate vice president and general manager of the Worldwide Sales Open Platform Business Group at Asus, came right out and said in his introduction of the new Tytan CG8890, and this is a quote, “The ultimate gaming PC is still the desktop PC.” Thank you, Mr. Hsu. Now may we all finally stop pretending? Granted, this occurred at Asus’ own Republic of Gamers press conference, so the company was obviously highlighting its own high-power products (including two new gaming motherboards, a video card, and even a sound card). But if truly terrific frame rates are what you’re after, and the ability to tweak and overclock and get the most out of all the hardware you’ve paid good money for is important to you, a desktop isn’t just the best way to go — it’s the only way to go.
Although I have no doubt that more mobile computers will eventually “win” and wipe stand-in-place computers off the map entirely, it’s not going to happen until they give hardcore computer lovers all the same freedoms desktops allow. The press people in attendance weren’t fooled — it was easy to get a photo of the new ROG G55VW gaming laptop, but you couldn’t elbow your way within ten feet of the Tytan. It looked better, and everyone knows — even without firing it up — that it plays better.
Kudos to Asus for admitting the truth. If only the rest of the industry would follow suit.
4. Components aren’t dead, or even dying
Asus’ dedication to powerful gaming components is admirable, but lots of companies exhibiting at Computex showed off just as many. Some you’ve certainly heard of if you follow the scene (ASRock, ECS, Gigabyte, Rosewill) and others you probably didn’t even know existed (Aresze? Bitspower? Super Flower? Templarius?), but building computers still matters to a lot of people all over the world. So don’t let anyone bearing a sexy little notebook — even with the backing of a major corporation like Intel or AMD — convince you that DIY is DOA. It’s not. You still have tons of choices, regardless of what kind of system you want to build, and you will for years to come.
5. You’ll like Windows 8 (even if it has to be shoved down your throat)
Obviously the companies at Computex heard that I partially came around to Windows 8 as a touch OS, because it is everywhere at the show in Taipei. Everywhere. A couple of colleagues said, not even joking, that it’s the biggest news of the show, and they were right: You can’t find a system here that isn’t touting how compatible it is with Windows 8 or how Microsoft is on the cusp of changing everything with this release.
Acer’s day-zero press conference was particularly polluted with superlatives: “This is a historical moment in the Windows ecosystem,” “This is truly unique — no other competitor can match it,” and, my personal favorite (and the most chillingly true), “Maybe it will take some time for users to really appreciate, but it’s a huge breakthrough done by Microsoft.”
This is par for the course in some ways, but astounding in others — it’s an incredibly coordinated circling of the wagons. Whether it will amount to anything in the marketplace remains to be seen, but users aren’t going to have much of a choice, so does it matter at all? Probably not. I still think any suggestion of the thing as a non-touch OS is lunacy — and someone at a major manufacturer agreed with me (sorry, I’m not dropping any names here) — but there’s going to be no avoiding it until well after we learn whether the Mayan calendar was wrong or right. Meanwhile, as far as my desktops and laptop are concerned, you’ll have to pry Windows 7 from my cold, dead fingers.
6. Windows 8 can only get better from here
Speaking of which, from the You-Can’t-Make-It-Up Department, Asus Chairman Jonney Shih ran into problems with Microsoft’s OS during both his own speech as part of his company’s press conference on Monday and when he appeared as a special guest in an Intel keynote. Maybe the trouble was with Shih rather than Windows 8 — which, of course, was installed on every device within a five-block radius — but seeing how difficult he found it to view pictures one day and increase the volume on a music player the next did not instill in me additional confidence about Windows 8’s ease of use. For Microsoft and Asus’ sakes, I hope these are isolated incidents. But I have my doubts.
7. Diversification is key
Did you know that Gigabyte makes cases? Or that ECS makes tablets? I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t until I encountered these products (and hundreds more) at Computex. But beyond being surprising, this is a good thing: Not only do companies that make their own hardware maintain stronger control over how it’s made and how it’s used, but it lets them play in lots of different markets and earn more adherents than any single discipline alone could manage. Maybe not every manufacturer is quite as successfully diverse as Asus (or quite as showy about it), but many of them do much more than you may realize. So if you like one type of product a company makes, why not check out another, too? You’ll be supporting the company while you’re sticking with a name you trust. I can’t wait to try a Gigabyte case, myself…
8. A lot goes into making a laptop
While in Taipei, I got to take some reps from MSI up on an offer to take a tour of their offices and learn more about how the company functions on the laptop side. It was quite an education. I’d never exactly taken for granted the work that goes into design any piece of technology, but it had never occurred to me that an obsessive-compulsive audio company like Dynaudio might have to rework the entire sound system if one component changes in the chassis, or that anyone would build a wind tunnel expressly for the purpose of testing a laptop’s venting. Yet both are true with MSI’s laptop division. I’m still a grudging bystander to this particular world, but I do find MSI’s model convincing: make fewer numbers of more compelling products with high-quality parts (did you know its top gaming machines are now outfitted with SteelSeries keyboards?) because they’re what users truly want.
I loved my glimpse at MSI’s exclusive R&D lab: I can’t tell you about everything I saw, but it was full of laptops with unusual designs (like the Slider S20), in-the-works finishes, and accoutrements that show the company’s willingness to take chances and play the long game. Plus, it’s just fun to witness how a product evolves from its earliest conceptual stages to a final for-sale machine over the course of two or three years. (Although, of course, some early ideas never see the retail light of day.) This was a good reminder that with technology, as with so much else in life, the hardest part is always making it look easy.
9. Taipei takes it showgirls seriously
Having been to CES and a number of other tech trade shows a number of times, I thought I was decently well versed in the “booth babe” phenomenon, but Computex takes it to dizzying new heights. Showgirls — and they’re even called that in the official show literature! — are a cottage industry here, and in some cases an even bigger attraction than some of the products. (AMD, in particular, made no bones about it, featuring them prominently in its press conference.) At the Nangang Exhibition Center, whole groups of them even participated in elaborate musical numbers. Say what you will, they definitely generated a lot of crowd attention. Of course, how much of that translated to increased interest in the products they were hawking, I have no idea…
10. No news can be big news
All things considered, Computex 2012 didn’t generate that many scintillating headlines — a lot of what was announced has been, at best, open news in the US for a while now — but it was still enough to fire up technology lovers from the four corners of the Earth for a week. It fulfills an important role, the significance of which can easily be lost on those of us who live with this stuff: giving a glimpse of how tomorrow is being delivered today. Even if there wasn’t much in the way of eye-popping discoveries or bowl-you-over new products, what was there proved that technology is constantly moving forward. Whether you necessarily like where it’s going is another question. (I reiterate: Really, ultrabooks?) But there’s no denying that companies big and small alike are taking seriously their charge of creating a shinier, speedier, more satisfying, and more productive world.
If the biggest story to come out of Computex is that there was no big story, that’s not nothing — and it reinforces how this is all becoming ubiquitous in the best possible way. I’m not sure whether I’ll be back in Taipei next year, but if I am, I’ll have a richer understanding and deeper respect for how the tech industry extends and promotes itself, and operates on the forefront of an exciting, unpredictable future.