It's hard to believe, but there used to be a time when owning a computer and knowing how to use it came with a certain amount of shame.
In the ancient history predating the late 90s, computers were neither necessary nor cool-looking. They were beige boxes with nonsensical "turbo mode" buttons, and the only reason I knew how to use one was because I wanted to play Wolfenstein 3D. The other people I met who knew how to use computers back then were either other uncool kids who played games, or adults with chunky laptops and external modems who needed them for work.
As years passed and we were all gradually became required to use computers to be functioning members of society, Apple seized an unprecedented opportunity by asking a simple question: What if computers weren't so ugly and hard to use? The sleek, aluminum laptops that question produced created one of the most profitable companies on earth, and transformed computers from beige, shameful boxes to fashionable status symbols worthy of their own coffee table design book.
But while the rest of the world started computing on Apple machines that looked sensible and cool, those of us who got into computers because of video games fostered an alternative gamer aesthetic that asked, in an inversion of Apple’s sensibilities: Wouldn't it be better if computers were actually ugly and hard to use?
You know the look: Red on black, hard edges, grills, chrome, and rainbow LEDs. For those of us who like that look, or have to suffer it because that's just what the hardware one needs to run the latest video games looks like, CES is our Paris Fashion Week, where all the manufacturers unveil the looks for the new season. Unlike Apple's safe, inoffensive, uniform look, it's a parade of bizzare, impractical machines.I love it.
The gamer aesthetic extends to keyboards, mice, and different hardware components, but the gaming laptop is the vanguard. Unlike a video card, which is nestled inside a desktop computer case, or a mechanical keyboard that changes color as you type on it (I'm typing on one right now) the laptop is a device a user takes out into the world for other people to see. And just as the glowing Apple logo communicates a certain kind of class and sophistication, a gaming laptop outwardly represents the latest and greatest of the gaming hardware aesthetic.
Take, for example, ASUS ROG (Republic of Gamers) Mothership laptop, revealed at this year's CES.
I haven't seen a laptop this chunky since the 90s, though calling it a laptop might be a stretch. Push a button, and a kickstand emblazoned with ROG's No Fear-like logo juts out to keep this 10-pound machine with a 17-inch screen upright. The user can at this point detach the keyboard, which also comes with a hefty kickstand, and use it wirelessly. The reason the laptop is so thick is that it's crammed with powerful guts like Intel's Core i9 CPU and Nvidia's 20-series RTX GPU, a card that packs tech for rendering 3D reflections so advanced only a handful of game developers are taking advantage of it these days.
ASUS loves showing off these ridiculous, gaudy laptops at CES. Its updated Zephyrus model laptop, also revealed at CES, has a huge empty space above its keyboard (again carrying that ROG logo) and a touchpad that for some reason doubles as a virtual numpad.
ASUS is not alone in trending chunky with its machines. Samsung, which is trying to enter the gaming laptop space this CES, knows that this gaudy gamer aesthetic is a requirement if it wants to compete in the gaming market. It doesn't have a coveted ROG logo to slap on every device marketed to gamers, but its new gamer laptop, the Odyssey, has an inexplicable center hinge that makes the screen loom over the keyboard like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It looks structurally unsound, but sick, and that's what matters for the gamer aesthetic.
And these are just the products that are likely to be released, eventually. Sometimes, gaming laptop makers go to CES to show off concepts that don't even make it to market, but are inspiring in how over-the-top they are. Who could forget Razer's Project Valerie from CES 2017, a laptop transformer that unfolded into a triple-screen rig to intimidate your enemies?
Do I need a triple-screen transformer laptop? No. Do I need to see Battlefield V's explosions meticulously reflected on chrome hubcaps while I'm gaming at Starbucks? I don't. What is the benefit of a virtual numpad? Unclear. How ugly is that ROG logo? Very. But I am still more interested in the look of the ROG Mothership than I am in whatever overpriced gray rectangle currently on display at the Apple Store—it is at least trying something new.
It will probably cost a lot of money, but unlike a Macbook, it's going to come with the hardware specs I need, and it's going to look as gloriously stupid as my hobbies.