Tech companies have been working toward delivering “always on,” and “always connected” computers for years. Now they’re kind of here… but it’s unclear how big a market there is for them.

The first Windows 10 on ARM computers with Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chips started shipping earlier this year and promised super-long battery, quick resume from sleep, and always-connected capabilities thanks to an integrated 4G LTE modem. But they were so sluggish that it was hard to justify the relatively high price tags.

Recently we started to see new models with faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 chips. And next year we should see laptops, tablets, and convertibles with the even-faster Snapdragon 8cx, which the company says is competitive with Intel’s Core i5 chips.

That’s exciting for folks hoping for thin, light, and fanless devices with all-day battery life. But it remains to be seen whether people really care about the cellular capabilities.

Not only does an integrated 4G (or 5G) modem drive up the cost of the hardware, but in most markets you’ll either need to sign up for a new cellular data plan or pay extra to add a laptop or tablet to your account.

In the US those plans can be expensive and come with restrictions on usage (including data caps and/or limits on what you can actually do with your data).

Say you pay $800 for the Lenovo Yoga C630, a 13 inch convertible notebook with a Snapdragon 850 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid state drive. What you get is a 2.9 pound convertible PC that’s a bit slower than most Intel-powered laptops for most tasks, is completely incapable of running some applications altogether, but which should offer speedy boot and resume times, long battery life, and the ability to connect to the internet and stay connected whether you’re at home, at work, or on the go.

But to get those always-connected features you’ll also need to sign up for a data plan with a wireless carrier and pay a monthly fee. Verizon charges $20 per month for 2GB of data, which doesn’t sound too bad… but odds are you’ll burn through it pretty quickly if you use your computer the same way with mobile data that you’re used to using it over WiFi. Watch a few Netflix videos and say goodbye to your $20. Want to upload a 4K video you shot with your camera to YouTube? Good luck.

You can pay for more data, but the prices get pretty crazy at the high end:

  • 2GB for $20/month
  • 4GB for $30/month
  • 6GB for $40/month
  • 8GB for $50/month
  • 10GB for $60/month
  • 12GB for $70/month
  • 14GB for $80/month
  • 16GB for $90/month
  • 18GB for $100/month
  • 20GB for $110/month
  • 30GB for $185/month
  • 40GB for $260/month
  • 50GB for $335/month
  • 60GB for $410/month
  • 80GB for $560/month

That’s just Verizon. Other US carriers have different plans, and many other countries treat mobile data differently.

But while I’m kind of excited to see if Qualcomm and other ARM processor makers can give Intel and AMD a run for their money in the PC market in the future, I’m much more interested in what it means for competitive pricing and features (like low power consumption and performance-per-watt) than I am about the “always-connected” capabilities. And that’s because I just can’t see myself paying the monthly data charges to keep using an always-connected PC.

If Qualcomm can deliver on its performance promises, I could maybe see enterprise customers buying a bunch of always-connected PCs and handing them out to their road warrior sales teams, field workers, or other employees who spend a lot of time out of the office. But I doubt I’m the only consumer/end user unwilling to foot the bill for another data plan.

In fact, I know I’m not alone. Engadget spoke with folks at Lenovo and Qualcomm and found that most of the customers for existing always-connected PCs are buying them for the battery life, not the 4G LTE features.

Maybe US wireless carriers will change the way they charge for data in the future, making the proposition of always-connected computers more attractive. But for now I’m happy to use my phone for incoming messages at all hours and just switch to my laptop when I want a bigger screen and keyboard. From time to time when I do need to get some work done and WiFi isn’t an option, I can use my phone as a hotspot.

What about you? Do you care about “always-connected” PCs at all?

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24 replies on “Does the wireless carrier landscape limit appeal of “always connected” PCs?”

  1. I have this device on a Verizon wireless account in the US. I do not have a plan I’m grandfathered in to. I think this article gets some information wrong because I added this to my monthly plan and I’m paying $20 a month for UNLIMITED data. It does get throttled after 15 or 20 GB when there’s network congestion but I’ve not had this happen yet, even though my first billing cycle shows 22.37 GB used.

  2. I used to care. I like the idea of an arm laptop that can carry all day long (I still have rosy memories about AC100).
    However, with “always connected” as a major selling point and “Remote management and location awareness for enterprise efficiency” in the chips Qualcomm will make for this devices, I’ll pass.
    I’m ok with devices I can’t fully trust (like a chromebook for typing or an armor 3t without a sim card — it really lasts about 30 hours of screen time — for reading or my corporate-issued MSI I know the IT can take full control of), but this is a bit too far.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Frog will have to get acquainted with the cold water.
    With the web overall heavily moving into a chromium-centric monoculture relying on specific javascript implementations to deliver content (I can count ~20 scripts on this here page, about 6 or 8 of which are necessary to be able to post here), in 2025 you’ll have to use the web with all these security (not for you, obviously) features or not use it at all (like sticking to phpBB forums now).

    Decisions, decisions.

  3. It’s likely that the carriers in the US have killed off any rapid expansion of mobile data by keeping the prices so high, so people with laptops have long since gotten used to connecting to whatever wifi hotspot there is nearby, whether it be a coffee shop, bookshop, library, college, school, workplace, bar, restaurant, etc. And now that SSL encryption is pretty much ubiquitous, there’s not the same concern over being hacked there once was.

    I don’t think there’s a single place I go during the week where there isn’t a wifi hotspot available. In fact, one of the recreation centers I visit has good wifi but the cell signal is virtually nonexistent.

    The only place i have to use mobile data is in the car, and now most cheap (by American standards) plans are offering a minimum of 3GB/month, that’s more than adequate for my needs.

    5G might change things, assuming the mobile phone networks don’t all start merging with the cable operators, which without regulation, is likely to happen. Can’t have too much competition cutting into profits, after all. That would never do.

  4. This article misses one important data point. In Europe you can get pretty much unlimited mobile data for something like 20 euros or less.

  5. For once in Europe we are much more advanced than in the US. We have realatively cheap unlimited plans here. Is there such a thing in the US: Like using hundred of gigs of mobile data for a flat price? Well with my phone I don’t use much but with 10 bucks more I can have a second data SIM to share my unlimited plan. Right now it’s in my ipad pro, but I sometimes move it to windows convertibles. In my opinion Snapdragon is the future of Windows

    1. Nah, I prefer a 4c/8t Intel Ultrabook (Razer Blade?). They can get LTE/5G modems built is as well.
      Qualcomm is still a ways off to matching these.

      However, getting it always connected for cheap…. and having a powerful eGPU at home would be the best combination. Technology is there, the competition isn’t… excess greed kills all hope. So instead I rely on my phablet more, and do most of my gaming on a PS4.

      1. A lot of those LTE modems also use Qualcomm chips.
        Qualcomm is hyping up 5G to sell new ones

  6. The connection feature would only appeal to someone who uses the device away from home/work a lot, so much that tethering is an annoyance.

  7. US inefficient cellular market is holding the entire Hi-Tech industry back. I’m not from the US and I just updated my kids cellular plan to unlimited talk time + 30GB data per month for about USD 8. The same plan with 100GB per month would have cost me about $11 per month.

    It is elementary that each laptop or tablet should have a built-in LTE modem, but you rarely see such products because of the US market!

  8. I think of the tablets with LTE as the closest normal device to an always on “PC”. For most online activities, tablets are as good as PCs.

    By the way, I think you mean “PCs”, not “phones”, in the first sentence.

  9. I think were at a day where business needs for home computing are being replaced by residential needs. Apparently everybody decided that there needs to be more of a separation between work and home in terms of computing needs (as evidenced by all the iPads and iPhones out there). If you first separate these two groups of users, then the always connected question will be different for each type of user. Personally, just thinking of business needs, I could think of tens of reasons to be always connected.

    1. I can see these always connected PCs being sold for enterprise customers. I wouldn’t use my work phone’s battery life for tethering to my work PC. For example, my company does provide traveling employees notebooks with built-in cellular connectivity already.

      For regular consumers, at least in the US, data plans are just too expensive.

  10. I often hear how cellular service is much better and cheaper outside the US. This site has international visitors. It’d be nice to get their insight on that. These always connected PCs are also sold outside the US after all.

    1. Hard to say whether it’s better but I can get 4g most places I go in the UK and data is a lot cheaper. About £25pcm gets you unlimited data which slows after 20GB.

      1. There are better deals than that too — £20.00 for 100GB and £27.00 for unlimited, both with personal hotspot up to 15GB — from Three Wireless.

        I only just started getting 3GB/month for $27 a couple of months ago. Before that it was 2GB.

    2. The title should say “Does the wireless carrier landscape in the US limit the appeal of “always connected” PCs in the US?“.

      The countries I’ve visited has much much cheaper data plans where the convenience of not killing your phone’s battery life was enough to pay for the cheap data for my notebook with built-in cellular connectivity.

    3. Hungary. That $20 for 2GB sounds about right in my case. There was unlimited dataplans for some carriers at the high-end pricerange (around $50 a month), but not anymore. You also have to consider that the average person gets less than $1000 a month here – before taxes (and that’s the average, so the majority don’t get this much, and then there is the 1% that takes home literal millions). So no surprise that not many could afford it. I couldn’t.

    4. In Denmark you Can get Unlimited data for around $20. And fair use is 1000 GB Per month. And you also get 5GB for use in the EU each month.

  11. I still have grandfathered unlimited data accounts so I’m up for sticking one of those SIM cards into a PC. More convenient than tethering or using a dedicated hotspot device.

  12. I wonder how much lower these computer’s cost would be if they didn’t include LTE? Would they need to design a cheap chip that didn’t have LTE features?

  13. Exactly. I’ve seen laptops being sold at carriers for a decade by now. Netbooks had 3G versions. No one bought them. That’s why Qualcomm is going this direction and not Intel. Intel knows it’s a dead end. Qualcomm will learn it now. 🙂 Not a technological dead-end, a financial one. Until carriers keep this pricing philosophy at least. I wonder if it will change with 5G…

  14. The market for these types of computers is/was battery life. However, the geniuses want to make these like smartphones WHICH WE ALL HAVE. Did these geniuses not hear of wifi hotspots before? It’s a thing, really. No lie. It makes the data reliance of these computers redundant. An added expense when the only hope for these is having cheap price points. Nobody should be surprised at collective stupidity when it comes to steering the direction of the computer market. See exhibit A. Next up we’ll get laptops with virtual keyboards rather than real ones. Maybe we will even get 3D 2.0 in 2020.

    1. 3D 2.0 will come in the form of dual/quad-cameras capturing 360′ videos to do livestreaming.
      Then post your 360′ videos to YouTube and photos to share.
      And people can experience them at home using their VR headsets. Not to mention all these AR/VR Apps that will pop-up, and now will be powered by devices with the fastest NPU processors.

      ….then they’ll collect dust?

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