Touching the Future: The Evolution of Notebook Computers

Also: Expert Reviews in Full-Size, Ultraportable & Hybrid Models

By the end of 2014, most new notebook computers will include a touch screen, and we’ve seen an increase in hybrid notebook computers that convert into tablet computers. Meanwhile, the latest ultraportable notebook computers have better battery life than ever before.

Email to a Friend

When Microsoft released its Windows 8 operating system in October 2012, it introduced the first touch-screen-based user interface for notebook computers, and no wonder. Sales of touch-screen-based tablet computers were expected to surpass sales of desktop computers and notebook computers by the end of 2013, according to BitChemy Ventures, which is a market-analysis company. Microsoft hoped that its touch-screen-based operating system would recharge the sales of notebook computers, but the launch has been rocky.

The primary problem with Windows 8 is that it includes two new interfaces for users to learn. The touch-screen-based interface, which is known as Metro, opens when you turn on your computer and displays your applications in a series of colorful tiles that you swipe with your fingertips to move or open. We found that if you don’t have a notebook computer that has a touch screen, it’s difficult to grab the tiles, maneuver them and open apps by using a mouse or a touchpad. Windows 8 also has a “desktop” interface, which is based on the traditional Windows interface that allows you to click and drag folders by using a mouse. We found that this interface was difficult to enter from the Metro interface, and it lacked the toolbars and search features that have been a standard part of Windows operating systems since 1995.

Microsoft received so many complaints about Windows 8 that it released a free upgrade, Windows 8.1, in October 2013. The upgrade allows users to boot directly into the desktop interface, adds improved search options and returns the old “start” toolbar that allows you to see and open apps easily. However, when you search for files or apps, the desktop interface redirects you into Metro automatically. In other words, you either have to get used to Metro or you have to figure out how to configure your desktop manually to avoid Metro altogether. We found that manual configuration is a complicated process for the average user. Tom Mainelli of International Data Corp., which is a market-research company, tells us that most industry experts have found it confusing as well.

“A lot of people are flummoxed that [Windows 8.1] has two user interfaces,” Mainelli says.

Happily, you still will be able to buy a new Dell, HP or Lenovo notebook computer that has Windows 7 installed until October 2014. After that, all Windows-based notebook computers will run Windows 8.1.

In the Air: Controlling Notebook Computers by Gesture

Read Now

At press time, Windows 7 models cost the same as do identical models that have Windows 8 installed, and three experts whom we interviewed expect that to continue. Unfortunately, you can’t find a Windows 7 model in a brick-and-mortar store. They’re available only directly from the three manufacturers. What’s good news is that Microsoft says it will continue to support Windows 7 until 2020, which means that Windows 7 users still will receive operating-system updates and will be able to contact either the computer manufacturer or Microsoft if they have related technical questions for the next 6 years.

If you want a touch-screen notebook computer, you have no decent alternative to one that runs Windows 8 or Windows 8.1. Apple so far has made no indication that it will put a touch-screen-based operating system into its notebook computers. (OS X 10.9 Mavericks—Apple’s latest Mac operating system—was released in October 2013. It adds apps and a revamped Safari Web browser that allows for 1 hour of battery life more than it did before, but no touch-screen capability.) A few Android notebook computers that have touch screens exist. They cost no more than $400, but we found that they’re slow and lack basic features, such as mouse support.

SHAPESHIFTERS. The launch of Windows 8 was flanked by the simultaneous release of touch-screen notebook computers from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Toshiba. Those models cost at least $900 when they were introduced. Now, the least expensive touch-screen notebook computer costs as little as $400, and most notebook computers that are in all price ranges will include a touch screen by the end of 2014, according to experts. Consequently, we expect prices of touch-screen notebook computers to fall even lower in 2015.

Back to Article