PC gaming companies continue to make a splash at CES with experimental and sometimes outlandish devices that may never again see the light of day. But what companies and consumers learn from these experiments could turn into new, indispensable features in the products we’ll be using months and even years from now. As a result, CES has become ground zero for catching a glimpse of the future of PC gaming. And as the market continues to grow, we’re only going to see more companies trying radical ideas to stand out.

This year, Alienware showed off its Area 51M laptop with user-replaceable processors and graphics cards for the first time in years, while Asus brought out the “Mothership,” an enormous portable desktop gaming PC with a built-in display and keyboard. From Acer, we got its $4,000 Triton laptop, which packs the best components you can buy into a convertible display that folds down into a tablet, thanks to its CNC-machined aluminum hinge.

The Alienware Area 51M can be easily dismantled to replace both its CPU and GPU.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Nvidia also unveiled its new mobile RTX graphics chips, delivering unprecedented performance and new and exciting graphics features like ray tracing to gaming laptops. Monitors continued to get more outrageous: bigger, wider, more feature-packed, and even portable. And it’s never been a better time for peripherals, as gaming mice and keyboards and headsets become simultaneously cheaper and higher-quality all the time. Even RGB lighting is seeing impressive leaps, like Corsair’s new shockingly tiny and more efficient new Capellix LEDs. (One notable exception was Razer. The company did show up with its first gaming monitor, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen it do something like its three-screen Project Valerie laptop.)

The gaming sector is one of the few areas in the broader PC market where taking risks, thinking outside the box, and just plain making weird stuff is encouraged, not because it necessarily translates into big sales for those exact products, but because staying ahead of the pack in a fiercely competitive market means proving your company is capable of pushing the limits of very mature products like mice, keyboards, and monitors.

Enthusiasts are often willing to spend thousands of dollars per year on new games, PC hardware, and accessories, and while they may not always splurge on pricey high-end experiments like Alienware’s Area-51M or Asus’ Mothership, they may be more willing to buy an Alienware gaming laptop or Asus ROG gaming monitor if they see those companies pioneering new portable display technology or configurable gaming laptop designs.

On top of that, companies like Alienware, Asus, and Razer don’t need to make money off the weird, outlandish products. Those types of announcements earn those companies brand recognition and headlines, while most of their money comes from the more plain, mainstream products, letting them afford to make just a few hundred units of an enthusiast machine that was cooked up as a fun side project.

After all, the PC gaming market is adding new players every day, thanks in part to the rise of Twitch streamers and e-sports, mega-hit games like Fortnite, and the increasing ease and affordability of what was once a pricey and niche hobby. Those new customers don’t yet have brand loyalty, and they may be looking to buy their first serious PC complete with peripherals and monitor. Standing out at CES with a laptop that converts into a tablet is one way Acer can get on the radar of a would-be buyer of normal laptops or gaming monitors.

But where it all gels together into a cohesive vision for the future is in how those experiments can combine with real, meaningful forward marches in PC performance and design. The Alienware Area-51m is a monstrous machine with a battery that won’t keep it alive and gaming for more than an hour, but the fact that you can completely take it apart and put it back together with a different GPU is remarkable. And with Nvidia’s push to make laptop GPUs nearly as powerful as current-gen desktop machines, thanks to RTX, we may soon live in a world where you can game on a laptop without compromise and upgrade that laptop’s GPU every three years.

When it comes to portability, what may seem silly and unnecessary today might be practical and mighty convenient years from now. You may never feel the need to game with a desktop GPU in a hotel room using the Asus Mothership or LG Display’s experimental Neo Art portable display or with your PS4 Pro encased in a Gaems Guardian portable suitcase rig. But all of them are testing out a future where portable PC-class gaming could become less of a do-it-because-you-can luxury and more of a common practice for a generation of gamers who play online and stream pretty much every day. And the components that are developed and sourced to make these experiments possible — the detachable wireless keyboards and integrated displays, for instance — might trickle down to into more mainstream products.

Now, it’s easy to look at CES, especially the gaming parts of the show, as a place to see products nobody wants and that might not ever ship, created solely because a company wanted to show off something and slap its brand on a booth here in Vegas. But the PC is the backbone of the fast-growing streaming market, which at 434 billion minutes watched last year enjoys a viewership nearly seven times larger than all of Netflix, not to mention the now-billion-dollar e-sports industry. That means the PC has never been more as exciting, vibrant, and essential to the broader gaming industry than it is right now. What we’ve seen this week proves that there’s still so much uncharted territory in performance, portability, and design.

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