With South Korea and the United States going live with their 5G networks last month, and Australia set to follow in June, the 5G era has kicked off in earnest. A slew of new 5G-ready devices are ready to hit the market, designed to take advantage of the faster speeds and low latency that the next generation mobile network promises to deliver.
And while 5G smartphones have dominated the conversation, they’re far from the only devices that will use the network.
PCs will also be getting 5G, opening the door to a whole new world of possibilities that could reshape the way we use computers.
Evolution of the always connected PC
Firstly, before we get into why 5G will be such a game changer for PCs, it’s important to understand what 4G connected laptops currently offer.
Cellular-connected PCs have been around for a decade, but they have only recently started to gain some traction, as smartphone chip giant Qualcomm’s arrival on the scene helped introduce a new category of PC known as the “Always Connected PC” (or ACPC).
By using a smartphone processor instead of a traditional computer processor powered by Intel or AMD, an ACPC brings all of the creature comforts of a smartphone to the PC. Your emails and notifications automatically download in the background even when the laptop is closed in standby mode, the machine turns on instantly and can last days, and you get a light and fan-free design.
Most importantly, cellular connectivity is included out of the box allowing up to gigabit speeds on 4G networks. No need to worry about using unsecure public Wi-Fi or the inconvenience of tethering your laptop to your smartphone and wreaking havoc on your handset’s battery life in the process.
Some ACPC models feature both a traditional SIM card slot and any eSIM you’ve signed up for using the Windows Mobile Plans app, which makes the process of signing up with a new provider or switching between existing ones seamless and pain free. It’s particularly handy if you’re travelling as you can use a local provider without having to seek out a physical card.
The problem with ACPCs, or with any thin and light notebook for that matter, is that they largely eschew performance for the sake of portability. While they can mostly keep up with the day-to-day tasks of an average user such as web browsing, sending email, editing a Word document, watching Netflix and light photo editing, running more demanding applications is off limits.
This is where 5G comes in. A faster cellular connection translates to and more responsive connection to the cloud, meaning that high-end applications and games streamed from an online service will feel like they are running locally on your PC. It changes the paradigm on what a thin and light notebook, tablet or convertible can deliver and in many ways eliminates the need for a high-end expensive PC.
The age of super apps
The types of experiences you can have on a 5G smartphone will always be limited as you are confined to a small touchscreen. Those restraints don’t exist on a 5G connected PC, making it a much more tantalising proposition. Offloading processor-intensive apps to the cloud will also drive longer battery life with thinner and more radical form factors.
Microsoft believes that a 5G connected PC will birth “super apps”, enabling more complex and responsive apps running off a super computer in the cloud streamed seamlessly to your PC.
“The higher performance, higher density and lower latency of 5G is something that very few people can wrap their head around. We tend to get stuck in poor coverage, or bad hotel Wi-Fi, and at best we see 20-30 Mbps,” a Microsoft spokesperson said.
“We underestimate how many trips back and forth to the cloud happen all the time on these devices. So even with the evolutionary aspects of 5G we’ll see people raise their expectations of always being connected to the cloud; 10x to 100x improvements that will just make devices feel faster and change expectations across the board.
“Expectations changed radically when we went from Ethernet to Wi-Fi, they’ll change again as we move to 5G.”
In other words, your everyday consumer PC will start to function more like a thin client which has become a staple in the enterprise market, where most major applications run on the cloud already.
Now that idea is quickly spreading to consumer apps, including games which traditionally require a lot of processing and graphics power to run locally on a machine. The likes of Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud look to deliver on that front. Rendering video and working with huge photo files will also become a possibility once the likes of Adobe offload the processing requirements required to run its Creative Suite to the cloud.
Barriers to adoption
In order for the 5G PC dream to be realised, three things need to happen. Firstly, the prices of ACPCs need to come down drastically.
The cheapest ACPC available for purchase in Australia is the recently released Galaxy Book 2 from Samsung for $1600, with most models sitting well above $2000. With the 5G tax on smartphones likely to be as high as $500 more than a comparable 4G model, a 5G-enabled PC isn’t going to come cheap when it eventually lands on store shelves at some point next year.
Secondly, mobile data caps need to go up and prices need to come down. At Mobile World Congress, Lenovo’s VP of Global Consumer Marketing commented that over half of its ACPC customers hadn’t even activated the 4G LTE service on their devices. This trend will only continue if mobile data plans don’t become more affordable.
Finally, 5G coverage will need to become as ubiquitous as 4G, which considering the incredible amount of network infrastructure required to deploy 5G networks, isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Still, a lot of those barriers will be addressed in the fullness of time and, at the very least, PCs are about to get interesting again.