The techs to watch in 2013

Chipmaking
Chipmaking

With the January sales looming, you might be wondering whether it's time to grab a bargain, or whether you should  hold out a little longer and see what technologies the new year brings. I've been closely watching the industry in 2012, and keeping track of announcements for the coming year - and below you’ll find my predictions of what’s going to happen in various areas of technology in 2013.

Desktops

Desktop sales have been in decline for some years, and it’s hard to imagine Windows 8, with its emphasis on touch interfaces and full-screen applications, will turn that around. Intel’s forthcoming Haswell CPU architecture is mobile-focused too: the big emphasis is on extending battery life, which won’t exactly give desktops a new lease of life.

In fact, Haswell will probably reduce the benefits of the desktop format over laptops. The new architecture brings significantly increased graphics power over its predecessor, making discrete cards progressively less necessary. It’s also reported that Haswell chips will be surface-mounted rather than socketed – a logical consequence of the new design that binds the chip and motherboard together more tightly than ever before. That’s another upgradeability advantage of desktops over laptops that will be lost.

Spectre

For these reasons, I don’t expect 2013 to be a good year for the conventional big-box PC. Instead I anticipate we’ll see more and more touchscreen all-in-ones that work sensibly with Windows 8. For businesses and budget-conscious consumers we already have compact systems such as the Intel NUC and the Apple Mac mini, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more designs along those lines appearing in the new year.

Laptops and hybrids

I don’t think Windows 8’s fully ambiguous “Is it a laptop? Is it a tablet?” approach will take off in the way Microsoft hopes. It simply doesn’t appear currently possible to come up with a hybrid design that’s compact and light enough to work really satisfactorily in tablet mode – and I’m not aware of any developments in the pipeline for 2013 that will change that. I expect the popular compromise will be conventional Ultrabooks with touchscreens.

The exception might be Microsoft’s Surface Pro, which has generated enough interest and anticipation to be a minor hit, but price could well be a stumbling block: the 128GB version will reportedly cost $999 in the US, which probably means £799 or more over here. That feels like a lot to pay for such a device that looks and feels so much like a £400 tablet.

Surface

In terms of what’s inside, again, the big news is Haswell, expected to arrive in the second quarter of 2013. In the absence of a breakthrough in battery cell technology (which doesn’t appear to be on the horizon), Intel’s new energy-efficient design is our best bet for improved battery life. Note though that Intel’s headline-grabbing claim of a “20x reduction in power consumption” applies only when the system is sitting idle. In practice I expect to see something closer to a 20% improvement.

For those who don’t need the full power of an Ultrabook, Atom-based laptops are coming back too – and in 2013 they’ll be much more usable than the netbooks of yore, with decent screens and much snappier performance, partly thanks to the improved responsiveness of Windows 8 itself. I had the opportunity to play with a pre-production Atom-based system at IDF 2012 and was impressed.

You don’t need psychic powers to see the Retina display filtering down into the MacBook Air range

What of Apple? You don’t need psychic powers to see the Retina display filtering down into the MacBook Air range, but these panels still appear to be pretty expensive: right now the 13in 2.5GHz MacBook Pro with Retina display costs a whopping £450 more than the one without. That also covers an SSD and an extra 4GB of RAM, but it’s a strong suggestion that – alas – we won’t see a Retina screen on a sub-£1,000 MacBook Air in the next 12 months.

I also doubt we’ll see touchscreens on MacBooks in 2013. Apple has surprised us before with dramatic changes of direction, but so far with OS X devices it’s consistently preferred to build gestures and swipes into the touchpad rather than the screen. If I’m right about touchscreens becoming de rigueur in the Windows world, this will represent a major divergence: it will no longer possible to buy a MacBook and a copy of Parallels and truly get the best of both worlds.

On the flip-side, I expect Retina-like screens will start to come to Windows 8 laptops. We’ve already seen several Android tablets appear with high-density panels, and the new Windows 8 app framework is designed to scale to arbitrarily high resolutions. Things on the desktop might not be so smooth, though: third-party application support for high-DPI screen modes is distinctly hit and miss. It might be worth sitting out the first generation of “Retina” Ultrabooks to allow for bugs to be ironed out.

Tablets

I don’t personally think Windows RT tablets will catch on. The platform is too dependent on an app store that’s too empty – and, so far as we can make out, growing very slowly. Maybe in time the Windows Store will mature into a credible rival to Android and iOS; but for the foreseeable future I think x86 hybrids, which aren’t wholly reliant on tablet apps for their usefulness, will be a lot more successful than “true” RT tablets.

What of the established players? As with Apple’s laptops, I think the iPad Mini must gain a Retina screen at some point – but again I won’t be surprised if it happens later rather than sooner, or comes in at a premium price. Bigger changes are hard to envisage: on paper it might seem to make sense to extend the screen to match the iPhone 5 and better accommodate widescreen video, but I’m not sure the result would be ergonomically sound. It’s been hinted that the next edition of OS X might include Siri and Apple Maps, so perhaps the focus in 2013 will be on yet-greater integration between mobile and desktop devices.

On the Google side of things, Android 5 (codenamed Key Lime Pie) is expected to arrive in May, but as yet the feature list is shrouded in mystery – and it’s a depressingly safe bet that few older tablets will ever receive an upgrade. So if you want to get your hands on the latest and greatest version of Android, your best bet might be to wait, or to buy an official Nexus tablet.

Smartphones

I scoffed when I first laid eyes on the Samsung Galaxy Note with its 5.5in screen, but I’m seeing more and more of them about – and regular smartphone screens have been getting bigger too (witness the iPhone 5, or the Galaxy S III with its 4.8in display). That’s probably because today’s big phones are powerful enough to serve as realistic alternatives to a tablet, and I expect the market for oversized handsets will grow in 2013. Screen densities will probably keep creeping up too, as in the tablet market.

Naturally the focus of these moves will be Android (as Apple chooses to offer only a very narrow and stable range of phones); but I suspect it won’t be all positive news for the platform in 2013, as the problem of malware in the Play Store grows bigger and more conspicuous. Although Google is working on the problem, the necessary technical and educational measures will take time, potentially making 2013 something of an annus horribilis for Android.

For Apple users, we can assume an iPhone 5S will pop up in the autumn, presumably with a few whizzy new software features, but as with the iPad, there’s no great pressure on Apple to mess with the formula, especially so soon after a major update. Activity will probably be focused more be in the accessory market, as audio and video accessories are updated for the Lightning connector.

The unknown quantity is Windows Phone 8. Microsoft’s new mobile OS hasn’t taken the high street by storm, but it’s received praise for features including its parental controls and the Data Sense tool that lets you monitor the data usage of apps. With HTC, Nokia and Samsung all invested in the platform, I wouldn’t write it off. It’s just a shame it doesn’t use the main Windows 8 Store: porting apps for the Windows Phone Store is easy enough, but the platform-agonistic appeal of iOS and Android is lost.

For those still using Windows Phone 7, Nokia has started rolling out an upgrade to version 7.8, which brings much of the Windows Phone 8 UI to older phones, but since 7.8 won’t run Windows Phone 8 apps it doesn't have a long-term future.

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