Not so long ago, laptops were the lesser sibling of modern tech. While phones are beloved for their portability and desktops can be configured with more power and utility than you could ever need, laptops are stuck in the middle. They’re not as portable as our most pocket-friendly tech, and they are often too underpowered to take on more intensive tasks.
But that was then. Over the past two years, laptops of all stripes have grown phenomenally more powerful. For a little over a thousand dollars, you can now buy a compact notebook PC that can match the power and performance of a bulkier desktop computer. The leap in performance is most evident in games, where beefy GPUs are required to play the most demanding titles. Now, laptops can game like a desktop. Graphics processor manufacturer Nvidia claims its mobile GPUs are so close to desktop-class cards that the company no longer distinguishes between the two in marketing or product naming. An Nvidia Geforce GTX 1070 graphics processor in a desktop tower is functionally the same as a 1070 crammed into a notebook.
Designing a computer has always been about compromises–to add some brawn here, you’ll need to sacrifice power efficiency or weight over there. In a sense, that line of thinking still holds true, but significant leaps in engineering have helped reduce those compromises.
“It’s the convergence of a couple of long-standing trends,” says Vivek Gowri, senior systems engineer Razer, which makes laptops and peripherals for gamers. “Transistors are becoming smaller and more power efficient. High-end enthusiast [graphics cards] have reduced power consumption by over 50 percent while offering massive jumps in performance.”
That convergence, Gowri says, has helped laptop makers overcome two historically tricky design problems: energy use and cooling efficiency.
Keeping It Cool and Calm
Batteries are a key component to look at when seeking energy gains. Federal regulations have put a soft cap on the size of laptop batteries, so those exceeding 99 watt-hours can’t be taken on a plane unless they’re installed in a medical device. Manufacturers have responded to that limit by maximizing efficiency. This is done through improving transistor designs and circuit layouts, but also, everything from the operating system down to the purity of the metals used on printed circuits can have a major impact on efficiency.
Once you’ve got power use under control, you can start looking at the next big problem: heat. When you start packing dozens of high-end parts into a tiny space, you’re also limiting airflow, which is still the main method a laptops’ internal components get their cooling. One solution currently being used to cool chips in tight spaces is the use of vapor chambers.
Most of the time, fans and vents are used for cooling. They move a stream of fresh air over a small bit of silicon that vomits heat. Not too complicated. By giving that chip a heatsink, you can dramatically increase the surface area and dissipate that heat more quickly. The problem with heatsinks, however, is poor distribution of thermal energy. Some areas of the chip will end up hotter than others, and that can make the whole thing tougher to cool.
One effective way to combat overheating is with the use of vapor chambers. These thin and flat vacuum-sealed chambers are partially filled with a special fluid. They are installed on top of chips so the fluid inside can absorb the heat from the silicon. The fluid vaporizes, and the gas scurries around the sealed vacuum chamber looking for a cool spot to condense and dump its warmth. After condensation, a special wick carries the fluid back to the bottom of the chamber where it can suck more heat from the chip. It sounds mundane, but the effects are staggering. A one-square-centimeter vapor chamber can dissipate several hundred watts of heat.
Where the Chips Fall
The laptop market has exploded in the last few years, seeing 900 percent growth. “It’s incredible,” says Mark Aevermann, a product manager at Nvidia, who credits breakthroughs like cooling technologies and more efficient batteries with allowing manufacturers to finally be able to build the machines users are clamoring for. “People want lightweight, powerful PCs that can go with them anywhere. And it’s now possible to make that happen.”
The industry saw a similar growth spurt a few hardware generations ago when quad-core mobile CPUs first entered the notebook space. It enabled chip manufacturers to create modest notebook CPUs that were optimized for day-to-day tasks. You can buy one of those laptops now, each one with a CPU as efficient as the next. But our laptops still need to be able to handle some intensive applications (like games!), so manufacturers have increasingly pushed more of the limited power available towards the GPU, the specialized processor that mostly handles graphics and video. That shift leave less energy for CPUs in laptops. So while these notebooks can handle normal stuff fine, if you’re running an application or game that needs a lot of CPU power, the electrical energy just isn’t there anymore.
Professional Counter Strike: Go player Stephanie Harvey says that what few games and programs are CPU-limited have suffered under this new paradigm. “Counter Strike: Go is pretty much all on the CPU, so even with these new cards and laptops, I can’t stream without [problems].”
So while some creative professionals and video editors will also be better served with a traditional tower, just about everyone else–from business folks looking for a little more oomph from their ultraportables all the way up to Overwatch-loving college students–is about to see their laptops get a lot more versatile. Years of incremental advancements are rapidly changing what we can and will be doing to pass the time on flights for years to come.