The folding-screen trend just leaped from phones to laptops.
On Monday, Lenovo unveiled what it’s calling the world’s first “foldable” laptop, and I got to spend a little time with a prototype in advance. My take-away: This new design direction for computers may have more potential than the folding phones we’ve been hearing about lately.
Watching a laptop fold in the middle of its screen makes you do a double-take. Laid flat, Lenovo’s device is a 13.3-inch tablet running Microsoft Windows. Fold it halfway and you can set it upright on a table like a tiny clamshell laptop. Hold it folded in your hands and it’s like an electronic book. Fold it all the way and it’s the shape of an old-timey folio, the kind people have long used as a work calendar or diary — covered in leather, to boot.
Lenovo hasn’t given a name to the product yet, which will be a part of its ThinkPad line when it comes out sometime in 2020. Lenovo also hasn’t announced a price yet — but like all first-generation tech, it probably won’t come cheap.
Here’s why I’m a bit more bullish on folding laptops than folding phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. It’s not just because Samsung had to yank that $2,000 device before it even started shipping last month. In my brief time with the Fold before Samsung recalled it, I felt like it was trying to be two things at once — tablet and phone — and risked doing both less well. The phone part of the Fold has a very small screen, and unfolded to a tablet that wasn’t quite big enough to do serious work.
The folding laptop is trying to do just one thing: make a laptop less awkward to carry around. This one weighs just under 2 pounds, which is pretty standard for a small laptop. But it’s more convenient when it folds down to 9.3 inches (measured diagonally). It’s probably still too big for a pocket, but you might tuck it into a purse or under your arm when you’re running between meetings or heading to a working lunch.
Typing poses a bit of a challenge. When the laptop is sitting upright at a 90-degree angle, you could type on the part of the screen that’s flat, but screen typing isn’t a very pleasurable experience. Lenovo plans to sell the laptop with a wireless keyboard and pen you could carry with you. It also has two USB-C ports you can use to plug it into a workstation with a standard laptop and mouse.
Lenovo says the laptop, which it has been working on for three years, uses a flexible OLED screen made by LG Display with a 2K resolution. (At CES in January, LG Electronics, a sister company to LG Display, unveiled the Signature OLED TV R, a 4K TV that rolls up like a yoga mat.)
The biggest question is how a folding-screen laptop will hold up in real-world use. Samsung says the issue with its Galaxy Fold appeared to be the phone’s hinge, and it hasn’t said when it will bring the device back to market.
Lenovo says it won’t ship the laptop until it can pass ThinkPad quality control testing, and some of its design choices address the problems that emerged with Samsung’s Fold. The laptop’s back hinge is covered by leather, which keeps detritus from entering it. The edges on the screen are also sealed to keep a protective film from peeling up. The prototype laptop had a crease on the screen where it folds, but it didn’t feel as noticeable as the one on the Galaxy Fold.