Dull. Uninspiring. Incremental change. Evolutionary, not revolutionary. Those words and phrases describe my forecast for technology in 2017. Hopefully, a surprise piece of hardware or software proves me wrong, because this looks to be a mediocre year for tech geeks.
The Christmas season revealed a few trends likely to continue throughout this year.
The most surprising trend was the runaway success of the NES Classic gaming console from Nintendo. After the disappointment of the Wii U and a ho-hum reveal of the new Switch, it looks like Nintendo’s future rests with its past. The publisher expects smartphone games with old characters to contribute the majority of revenues in 2017. Rumors persist that a Super Nintendo (SNES) might be unveiled following the success of the NES Classic.
The Wii was an interesting game console with a niche market. The motion-controlled sports and racing games were fun and easy to play. The family-friendly market still exists, as the NES Classic proves. Nintendo could have sold two lines of consoles, one for casual gamers and one to compete against Sony and Microsoft. Instead, Nintendo’s Switch looks to be a disappointment that appeals to nobody. If Nintendo had maintained the Wii Mini for $50 to $75, with lower licensing for game titles, they would have had something interesting. Then again, maybe a Wii Classic will follow the SNES Classic.
Other trends were less surprising than the NES Classic.
Sony and Microsoft offered slightly better game consoles. Any announcements for 2017 are likely to be incrementally better graphics for gaming. Most gamers still attach consoles to HD televisions. That might change in 2017.
People bought a lot of “4K” televisions during the Christmas season, especially UHD/HDR models with screens larger than 50 inches diagonally. Ultra-high definition televisions are typically 3840 pixels wide by 2160 pixels tall. Digital Cinema 4K is 4096 pixels wide, and closer to the theatrical viewing experience. The high dynamic range (HDR) color of new televisions offers brighter colors and greater contrast.
Though more pixels, better contrast ratios, and brighter colors are nice, notice that these televisions are moving away from gimmicks such as 3D and enhanced border colors. People want great image quality first and foremost. One of the concerns I have is that many of the new televisions use OLED (Organic LED) screens, which have a shorter lifespan than LED screens. Did consumers know they were buying great screens that might fade within two to three years? Another technology, QLED, offers a rich color solution via “quantum dots” with a lifespan similar to traditional LED screens, but QLED panels are costly and in limited supply. I don’t expect QLED to replace LED until 2018 or 2019.
Screens are also an important aspect of computing devices. Some OLED tablets have started to ship and one or two “all-in-one” Windows computers offer OLED screens. I’m concerned the screens will disappoint users before the devices would otherwise need to be replaced. The new Lenovo tablets feature stunning screens, as long as you don’t let an image “burn in” on the screen. Burn-in had ceased to be a problem for computer screens until OLED brought back this annoying issue. Use a screen saver if you have an OLED screen. Better yet, set the screen to power-off when not in use.
Microsoft and Apple seem convinced tablets are the future of personal computing. As a result, their tablets are getting more powerful while there is relative stagnation in the desktop and laptop markets. In 2017, expect more tablet news. Some anticipate Google also entering the high-end tablet market directly, instead of relying solely on companies like Samsung to make Android devices.
The Microsoft Surface Pro is interesting, but its $2,700 price tag for an Intel Core i7 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD places this “convertible” tablet-laptop in a niche market. It isn’t quite a “pro” laptop computer, so maybe it is a professional tablet. Is there a sufficient market for professional tablets? We might find out if Apple also introduces a more powerful tablet that overlaps its laptop systems.
The laptop market shows few signs of innovation as 2017 begins. Today’s laptops run only slightly faster than 2014 models, primarily because consumers appear to value battery life and low weight over speed.
Yes, there are exceptions among creative professionals, who want more speed, memory, storage, and ports for connectivity, but that’s a small market.
Apple’s top-tier laptop, the 15-inch MacBook Pro, has failed to impress creative professionals. However, the computer is setting sales records and is likely to help Apple achieve a record-setting sales pace as the year starts. Apple, like Microsoft with the Surface, stuck with a 16GB memory limit thanks in large part to CPU supplier Intel. The chipmaker now promises new high-performance laptop and tablet CPUs by the end of 2017, nearly two years later than promised. Apple could have included more RAM in their laptops, if they had opted for “desktop” memory that consumes more power and runs much hotter.
The Touch Bar, another OLED screen, replaces the function keys familiar to computer users since the 1980s. When I edit audio or video, I use a lot of keyboard shortcuts. Curiously, none of these are function keys. I do use “escape” frequently and wish Apple had left that key alone. Honestly, I’m not buying a new laptop for the Touch Bar.
One promising technology Apple and Dell laptops support is the external GPU. Many years ago, in 1992, Apple shipped the Duo: a portable computer that slid into a larger, more traditional case. The Duo case included more memory, expansion slots, and better video. The Thunderbold 3 ports on Apple Dell laptops can attach to external cases reminiscent of the Duo. These external “cages” typically house a high-end Graphics Processing Unit card. If external cases do allow thin, power-sipping laptops to become full-strength workstations at a desk, I’m interested.
Overall, it seems likely that 2017 isn’t going to impress us. I can’t recall the last piece of software that surprised me and my 2012 MacBook Pro works well enough for editing short video projects. I don’t expect to replace my computers with tablets, either. As for gaming, I enjoy the “retro” trend and don’t want or need more realism to be entertained.
Maybe a company we haven’t heard of will ship something exciting. We’re overdue for some technological magic.