First there were phones with folding screens. Now there’s a laptop with a folding screen. Not just any laptop—a ThinkPad.
PC maker Lenovo, which acquired the ThinkPad brand from IBM 15 years ago and has continued to pump out the boxy business machines, just revealed more details about its upcoming foldable ThinkPad. This isn’t just a clamshell that folds at the hinge. It’s a laptop with an actual flexible display—like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold phone or the new Motorola Razr, but laptop-sized. Lenovo first teased the foldable ThinkPad at its Accelerate conference in May of last year. Now, at CES this week, it’s pulling back the curtain even more.
The ThinkPad X1 Fold is expected to ship sometime in mid-2020, and will start at $2,499. It’s an Intel-powered machine, and will likely run on Intel’s upcoming hybrid Lakefield CPU, though Lenovo declined to confirm this. Unsurprisingly, it will run on Microsoft’s Windows OS. But the rollout of these kinds of foldable displays also introduces an interesting software bifurcation, since they’ll have to work when they’re both creased and fully opened. According to Lenovo, the earliest versions of the foldable will run on Windows 10 Pro, with a Lenovo software skin for duality; a Windows 10X version, which is a streamlined version of Windows designed for dual-screen devices, will come later, likely in the fall.
Lenovo says it’s been working on the foldable for four years now. “In 2015 we started doing user research on the size of screens, the utility of twin displays versus a single folding display, and what is sort of the right form factor,” says Tom Butler, Lenovo’s ThinkPad marketing director. The company landed on a single, flexible, 13.3-inch OLED display with a 4 by 3 aspect ratio. The display technology comes from LG Display, which Lenovo says it codeveloped the screen with.
WIRED had the chance to see a prototype version of the ThinkPad X1 Fold last fall, and again at CES this week. When folded shut, the ThinkPad X1 Fold looks like a handsome leather folio. When fully unfolded, it’s a giant tablet. That folio has an integrated kickstand in the back, so you can prop it up in tablet mode for “snackable content,” as Lenovo puts it. When creased in the center, it becomes a quasi-laptop, though it requires either using a virtual keyboard or slapping a Bluetooth keyboard on one half of the multitouch display. (It also works with a stylus pen.) It weighs just under 2.2 pounds, lighter than an Apple MacBook Air.
The concept of having a full 13.3-inch laptop that folds into a device the size of a notebook is certainly appealing, especially for the business travelers Lenovo targets with its ThinkPad line. In execution, though, it’s unclear at this point how well it will work—or how productive you can be while using it. There’s the virtual keyboard to consider, the durability of the device, and, perhaps most important, that software experience.
Lenovo says it’s putting the ThinkPad X1 Fold through all of the same durability tests its other ThinkPads endure, to try to avoid a Galaxy Fold–like bungle. The company says it worked through six different hinge designs and landed on a “unique multi-link torque hinge mechanism” to manage stress from the folds over time. The flexible polymer OLED display, which curves but doesn’t fold completely in half (like, say, a piece of paper would), has carbon fiber plates behind it for additional support. Lenovo estimates that this will hold up for 30,000 folds—around three to four years of use, which is what its regular ThinkPads are tested for.
The accessory keyboard it ships with is a Bluetooth mini keyboard, with an equally-as-mini trackpad. And yet, there is a trackpad, which is a nice touch. The keyboard can either rest on top of one half of the display, or it can be used as a detached accessory. Another cool feature: You can store the accessory keyboard inside the folio when it’s closed and it will wirelessly draw a charge from the ThinkPad X1 Fold. Otherwise, you’ll have to rely on the touchscreen keyboard, which could be awkward—although perhaps not more so than the keyboard on Lenovo’s Yoga Book, an earlier dual-display portable computer.
Lenovo says it has developed “clever mode-switching software” so that the machine will adapt to different apps and use cases. This appears as an app icon in the Windows app dock. Tap on it, and you’ll see an option for a single full screen or a dual-display mode. But this is an interim solution until Microsoft rolls out its official version of a dual-screen Windows 10 later this year, and it feels like a workaround. In a demo at CES I was able to tack the accessory keyboard onto the lower half of the creased display and immediately use the tactile keys to type in Microsoft Word, but the Word application itself was stretched to cover the full 13.3-inch display, so the Start menu wasn’t visible to me. I’d have to remove the keyboard hardware from the display, switch into dual-screen mode, and then start using the application.
The inclusion of a real keyboard out of the gate shows that Lenovo has learned from its own earlier experiments, as well as the evolution of tablets in general: People really like tactile keys. But it’s the software for these flexible displays might just be the make-or-break part of them. Samsung, for example, worked closely with Google in the months leading up to the launch of the Galaxy Fold smartphone to make sure certain apps could work whether the phone was folded or unfolded. The software on the Fold even includes the ability to run three apps on the phone screen at the same time (something almost no one has asked for, it seems). Windows 10X is supposed to be Microsoft’s solution to this new era of dual-display or flexible-display machines, but we haven’t really seen it in action yet.
There’s also the question of whether a large, single, bending display is more useful than a dual-display device, like the Surface Neo or Surface Duo that Microsoft showed off last fall. Or an iPad Pro, with its powerful processor and decent “smart” keyboard. Or whether a good ol’ clamshell laptop is still better than all of them.
Lenovo’s Butler says he thinks we’ll see a “flood of twin-screened devices” come to market, but that there isn’t a lot of complexity behind them, and that “the laptop replacement is just not going to happen with a dual screen.” Building a single, large, bending display is a lot more challenging, but Lenovo seems to believe that’s the best approach for true productivity—a distinctly different opinion from the one Microsoft executives hold.
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“When you think about what ThinkPad is all about, it’s business-oriented. It’s meant for productivity. So we’re not trying to be something we’re not,” Butler says.
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