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Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Foldable PC Could Be the Laptop of the Future

The years-old idea of a foldable-screen PC inches closer to reality with this new Lenovo concept ThinkPad. It uses a bendable OLED panel and works with a separate physical keyboard, too.
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Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Foldable PC Could Be the Laptop of the Future

Yes, all laptops fold, but Lenovo’s new foldable ThinkPad X1 concept is unlike any laptop you’ve ever seen—it folds across the screen. It incorporates not only a foldable OLED display that takes up almost the entire interior surface area, but also a standalone wireless keyboard and a built-in kickstand. We got an early up-close peek at it.

The concept, unveiled this week, is the latest in a long line of tech prototypes equipped with foldable panels. Lenovo has been working on such devices for years, with Arimasa Naitoh, one of the inventors of the ThinkPad, hinting at the prospect of a foldable laptop back in 2017. The company has even dabbled with the nearly-impossible-to-solve problem of creating a display that bends both outward and inward.

The foldable 13-inch ThinkPad only bends one way, which means you can’t use it while it’s fully folded. It also doesn’t have a final name, a price, or a firm release date, though Lenovo says that it plans to sell it as part of its ultra-premium ThinkPad X1 line at some point in 2020. Another key unknown is how durable it would be. Early foldable Lenovo prototypes were clearly fragile when the company showed them off to the media in 2016, and the introduction of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold smartphone was recently derailed over reliability concerns. Lenovo says, though, it will test this hinge to double the number of folds that a typical laptop would be subjected to.

What we do know is that if Lenovo intends the concept to be a part of the ThinkPad line, it will need to be at least as good as existing ThinkPad products, prized by business road warriors for their rugged construction and reliability.

We also know that the foldable ThinkPad has versatility in spades, based on the few minutes that the company let me handle it. Let’s take a look.

  • It’s Clearly a ThinkPad

    When it’s folded, “ThinkPad X1” branding on the cover of the foldable prototype makes its ThinkPad lineage clear. The folded device also closely resembles a paper notebook, especially with its included pen holder. (I could easily see myself carrying this in and out of meetings all day.) Because the total diagonal screen size is 13.3 inches when unfolded, it makes for a device that’s easy to grasp with one hand when you fold it. (Each half of this 2K-resolution screen is 9.6 inches when folded.)
  • Showing Its Futuristic Side

    The prototype reveals its futuristic side as soon as you unfold it. In the configuration above, it’s showing off the simultaneous ability to open a conventional PC app like a web browser on the top part of the screen while letting you take notes with a digital stylus (Wacom technology backs the pen) on the bottom part. It’s similar to how the existing Lenovo YogaBook C930 works, except that device uses a far more limited monochrome E Ink display for the bottom half of its screen.

    One of the foldable prototype’s shortfalls that I noted in its current state: inconsistent screen-view quality depending on the angle from which you look at it. As you can clearly see above, the top half of the display seems natural, while the bottom half, viewed at an angle, takes on a bluish tint. Lenovo says it is working on correcting this for the final version.

  • An Onscreen Keyboard

    In addition to writing or drawing on the screen with a stylus, you can also turn part of the bottom half of the screen into a virtual keyboard. Both of these capabilities are not exactly new, as touch-enabled tablets and laptops running Windows 10 have had them for years. The setup shown above makes it clear that the foldable ThinkPad’s implementation is an efficient use of space. But it’s still cramped for my rather large fingers.
  • A Physical Keyboard Included

    Luckily, the foldable ThinkPad also comes with a separate wireless keyboard, complete with a wrist rest. (It’s thin and uses Bluetooth to connect.) The version shown above is a non-working prototype, but it’s pretty clear that it won’t have full-size keys. That’s not a big deal, since the difference between virtual keys and small physical keys is vast, and many quick typers far prefer the latter.

    If Lenovo figures out an ingenious way to store the keyboard when it’s not in use, this could be the device’s secret weapon. The company’s engineers said they have a few ideas, but nothing is final yet.

  • A 4:3 Screen Orientation

    When it’s completely unfolded, the prototype vaguely resembles the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, a Windows 10-based machine that you can buy today. The screen ratio is an old-fashioned 4:3, which used to be common on laptop screens until widescreen video pushed most products to the 16:9 orientation. There are a few other screens with 4:3 or similar orientations, including the members of Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Surface Laptop families.
  • Hey, Where Did the Seam Go?

    Perhaps the most remarkable part about folding the prototype flat: The screen offers virtually no giveaway that it’s foldable. Even when viewed at an angle, there’s no visible crease, unlike the currently-in-limbo Samsung Galaxy Fold, whose crease is visible from certain angles.

    Lenovo offered few details about the OLED display technology in the prototype (it’s a 2K panel made by LG Display, is the extent of what we know), but it’s pretty clear that its years of research have paid off. (The company says it has been working on this product for three years.) Apart from the bluish tint, this screen appears virtually indistinguishable from other high-quality laptop and tablet displays I’ve seen recently.

  • Foldable, But Not Particularly Sleek

    Despite all of its promise, the foldable ThinkPad prototype isn’t overly thin. Above, you can see that it’s far thicker than an average smartphone or tablet. Lenovo didn’t let me measure it, but suffice it to say that you can both see and feel its thickness. Then again, existing ThinkPads aren’t wafer-thin, either, and fans of those iconic laptops certainly don’t complain. (The device will have two USB Type-C ports.)

    I don’t expect that the X1 foldable prototype will get drastically sleeker in the final version. Why? Fitting electronic components into a tiny area is tough enough as it is, without adding the additional complexity of a folding screen and all that the hinge entails. Figuring out how to position the components away from the hinges while still maintaining the overall integrity of the device is something that Lenovo admitted its engineers hadn’t quite figured out back in 2016. It’s now apparent that the feat requires a fair amount of Z-height. That said, Lenovo expects all-day battery life out of it, so the battery aspect has not been compromised.

  • Software Innovation Required

    Lenovo says the foldable ThinkPad will be a Windows device running on Intel silicon. Lenovo and Microsoft will need to work together to ensure that the device is easy to navigate in a variety of orientations that don’t currently exist on Windows devices.

    One thing I didn’t get to see during the demo is the exact process for orienting onscreen elements, such as adjusting the keyboard or forcing the device to retain a split-screen view in Tablet mode. Lenovo says it is still ironing out details in that vein. This stuff, and indeed even the core OS aspects, are still in the cooker.

  • Is the Future Foldable?

    Versatility is the foldable ThinkPad X1’s raison d’etre. Lenovo wants this device to be a jack of all trades, replacing or substituting your laptop, tablet, and perhaps even your smartphone. (It could certainly replace a paper notebook.)

    By making its first foldable PC a ThinkPad, Lenovo seems to be zeroing in on corporate road warriors—that is, the usual ThinkPad audience—as its early adopters (or depending on your point of view, guinea pigs). It’s a tried-and-true method—in their day, BlackBerry devices jumped from the corporate world to becoming must-haves for college kids, for instance.

    It’s clear that some things need ironing out, including fixing the panel’s viewing angles and integrating the keyboard and a storage scheme for it, to ensure that the foldable ThinkPad replicates the BlackBerry’s path to wider adoption and maybe even tech stardom. Based on what we know so far, it appears Lenovo is on the right path, but we’ll see, we hope, next year—devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold are showing some early teething troubles among the foldable brigade.

  • Hands On: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Foldable Prototype

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