Will 5G laptop computers become mainstream?

November 27, 2019 12:58
Intel has announced a partnership with Taiwan chipmaker MediaTek to develop 5G chips for cellular-connected computers. Photo: Reuters/AFP

There's no doubt that 5G is the emerging trend in the technology sector. According to Qualcomm, global smartphone makers expect to ship 450 million 5G handsets in 2021 and another 750 million in 2022.

On Monday, Intel announced a partnership with Taiwan chipmaker MediaTek to develop 5G chips for cellular-connected computers.

As part of the partnership, Intel will define the specifications for the 5G computer chip and MediaTek will develop the cellular chip. Intel will also ensure that the chip works properly and optimally, as well as help computer makers integrate it into their products.

MediaTek is a key player in the mobile processor business and a direct competitor of Qualcomm. However, the company has been trailing the US firm as its chips are mainly used in low- to mid-tier 4G smartphones.

The partnership with Intel should help the Taiwan firm to narrow its gap with Qualcomm in terms of market share.

Intel, on the other hand, has been a dominant player in the desktop computer processor market for decades. However, its efforts to tap into the mobile market have not been as successful.

Most makers of Android smartphones and tablets are not using Intel products. The only key customer of Intel's mobile baseband chip is Apple, which has been trying to diversify its supply chain for the chip.

Since the launch of the iPhone 7 series, Apple has been tapping both Intel and Qualcomm as chip suppliers. Its latest iPhone 11 series is still using the Intel 4G chip, although it is not as good as the Qualcomm products in terms of the quality of the signal reception.

The partnership between Intel and MediaTek is expected to take 5G technology beyond smartphones and into the personal computer.

According to Intel, both companies are working on the development of modems for always-connected PCs, a new category of devices with integrated cellular connectivity.

"Always connected" means PCs can have internet access in any location and, at the same time, enhanced security as there is no need to connect to public Wi-Fi.

The development of cellular modem technology involves years of investment and expertise. As Qualcomm has a significant advantage in this respect, Intel needs a partner to support its 5G product roadmap.

This becomes even more urgent after Apple took over its 5G modem development team early this year with the aim of developing its own baseband chip for its mobile devices.

MediaTek already owns key technologies and know-how in building a 5G baseband chip. On Tuesday, MediaTek launched its next-generation Dimensity 1000 5G flagship chip, which demonstrates its capability to compete directly with Qualcomm in the high-end market.

Actually, the concept of Always Connected PCs is not new. Qualcomm has partnered with PC brands to launch such laptops with 4G connectivity. In fact, HP, Dell, Samsung and Lenovo already have such products.

Such products, however, are not the best-sellers in the market. That's because most laptop users find a Wi-Fi connection at their favorite coffee shop sufficient for their needs when they are working outside.

Also, users need to pay an additional service fee for 4G connectivity, which may also deter users from opting for such a computer.

Therefore, PC makers may need to work with mobile operators to provide special offers that will encourage 5G always-connected PC users to subscribe to their mobile data plans.

As mobile devices have become the popular choice in the workplace, Intel wants to ensure its PC customers will have new mobile experiences using its technology. Analysts believe Intel’s relationship with PC manufacturers will be key to making the new product mainstream in the market.

HP and Dell are expected to be the first PC brands to launch laptops with Intel-MediaTek 5G chips in 2021. It's interesting to see whether other PC brands like Lenovo, Asus and Acer would join the bandwagon and turn the 5G laptop into a mainstream product in the market.

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EJ Insight writer