What Folding Laptops Mean for the Future of Portable Computing

At IFA 2022 in Berlin, Germany, we got a hands-on look at both the new Asus Zenbook 17 Fold OLED laptop and Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold 2nd Gen. Both are small form factor laptops featuring large fold-out screens.

In our short time with both units, we were able to get a feel for how each computer might work as a daily driver, and the results were surprisingly impressive. The implications for the future of portable device design are potentially huge.

The Asus Zenbook 17 Fold OLED: Netbook-Sized With Powerbook Stats

Initially announced at CES 2022, the Zenbook 17 Fold OLED manages to combine the convenience of the 13-Inch laptop form factor with a 17.3-inch 2K OLED touch display due to its folding screen and wireless keyboard.

Using it is an incredible experience, and its price will match, starting at $3,500 when it’s released in late 2022. That’s just for the base model, too. At the time of writing, there is no price for the Core i7-1250U CPU, 16GB RAM, 1TB PCIe 4.0 NVMe M.2 SSD storage version we used.

The Zenbook 17 Fold OLED is a bit of a mouthful (we’ll be referring to it as the Zenbook Fold from now on), but it feels surprisingly light in the hand. In fact, the first thing that struck us is how much it reminded me of the leather-bound notebooks often carried around before laptops became the standard way to take notes.

Open it, and you have a standard 13-Inch laptop. Remove the magnetically attached Bluetooth keyboard, and it automatically moves to portrait mode. Pick it up, straighten it out, and pull out the sturdy kickstand, and you get a 17.3-Inch 4:3 landscape monitor. It’s intuitive. More than intuitive, it just happens.

The time I spent with the Zenbook Fold convinced me that it would do almost everything I’d want a travel laptop to do. A folding 17.3-inch folding OLED display that is Pantone-rated sounds like it would be the perfect thing for creatives looking for an all-in-one portable machine.

If you are a digital artist, however, there’s a disappointment in store. The Zenbook Fold’s touchscreen doesn’t support styluses. To some, this won’t be seen as a problem, but when the $3,500 starting price of the Zenbook Fold is more than the cost of a decent laptop and dedicated drawing tablet combined, it’s definitely going to be off-putting to some.

There is another option, though, one that’s already been through a very public design iteration and learned from its mistakes – and it comes with an optional stylus: The Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold 2nd Gen.

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold Gen 2: Improvements All Round

At first glance, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold 2nd Gen (hereafter X1 Fold) comes up lacking against the Zenbook Fold. The fold-out screen is a 16.3-inch 2024 x 2560 touchscreen, so you are losing a bit of screen size. Which is arguably the whole point of having the fold-out screen in the first place.

That said, the 12-Inch folded form factor harks back to the days when netbooks were actually viable, and anyone who has used a ThinkPad keyboard before will be pleased to hear that it is up to scratch. In fact, it’s the best flat panel Bluetooth keyboard I’ve used to date.

Lenovo isn’t new to this either. The 2nd Gen in the X1 Fold’s name refers to the first iteration of the X1 Fold in 2020. That device had some serious issues, primarily down to its minimal size (a near unusable 9-inch laptop with a 13.3-inch fold-out display) and the now dead Lakefield line of disappointing Intel processors.

The second generation addresses every one of these problems. It’s bigger, faster (with 12th-gen Intel U9 CPUs speccing from the i5 to i7 range), and starts at the same price of $2,499 as the original X1 Fold. It’s a ThinkPad too, so you’ll likely get a large degree of customization when choosing your desired specs.

The X1 Fold also can do a couple of things the Zenbook Fold can’t. Firstly, it will happily sit standing up in portrait mode, giving you a sizable flat portrait display as well as the landscape option. There’s also an optional $250 stylus that attaches magnetically to the tablet chassis.

While the overall experience of using it was similar to the Zenbook Fold, those last two points really pushed the 2nd Gen X1 Fold to a place where it became a hybrid machine: at once, a laptop with multiple screen configurations and a foldable canvas for art, or just relaxing watching a show. It too, will be out in the latter half of 2022, with November hinted at.

Folding Screen Laptops: The Future?

Hands-on, these both feel like much more than laptops or tablets. They feel like something new. A type of consumer device that hasn’t quite arrived yet, but when it does, one that will change everything.

That’s a phrase I don’t like using, but it’s rare that using a laptop feels like a new experience. Both of these devices bridge the gap between 2-in-1 laptops, large tablets, and foldable phones. The next generation of these devices, depending on whether they get bigger or smaller, could replace any one of those things.

Folding screens are no longer the bleeding edge of technology, but they’ve rarely lived up to expectations. There’s still an argument to be made now that folding smartphones might not be worth your money.

2-in-1 laptops have had a much easier ride, however. The MSI Summit E13 Flip Evo is a fantastic laptop in its own right.

That said, if you aren’t a fan of folding the keyboard behind the screen and holding it in tablet mode, no 2-in-1, regardless of quality, will do it for you.

Tablets are absurdly powerful now, but they still can’t replace the laptop for a large proportion of daily users. Also, depending on your use case, once you get up to certain tablet sizes, you are better off with a small laptop once again.

Add folding to the equation, though, and everything changes. Small laptops hiding bigger screens are the first step toward mid-size laptops with much larger screens. Large tablets that can fold instantly become more portable. These are the steps that will take folding screen technology away from the gimmicks of folding phones and into practical widespread use, but there are some big problems to overcome first.

Folding Laptops Are Not for Everyone

Despite my enthusiasm and the sensation of touching something seemingly from the future, neither of these laptops are quite ready to take the world by storm. Part of the problem is the niche value of this tech when compared to the price. There’s no spec for the $3,500 starting price for the Asus machine, and while the ThinkPad Fold starts at $2,499, it’s still a hefty chunk of money.

These machines aren’t perfect either. There’s the odd stutter here and glitch there while using them, and while there are no concrete stats for either machine, you’ll be lucky to get six hours out of the battery. That’s not to mention the fact that the Bluetooth keyboards will need charging separately too.

It hardly seems fair to nitpick on such early iterations of a wholly new design (though, while we are, a magnetic charging dock for the keyboard would be nice), but these are undeniable hurdles that folding laptops will have to overcome before they can become mainstream.

The Next Generation of Portable Devices

The high price of entry is a clear sign that these machines has been designed to prove it is possible. Not the first laptops with folding screens, but arguably the first viable ones. It’s a sign that truly hybrid devices are close, and that the days of carrying multiple devices may be numbered.

My time with both of these devices really convinced me that this tech is not a gimmick. It is rare I touch any new device and immediately want one for myself. Both are super impressive, but the second-gen Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold genuinely struck me as something I’d buy and use as a remote writer who does creative work on the move.

While it might be awhile until laptops with folding screens become accessible in terms of price, the implications of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold 2nd Gen and the Asus Zenbook 17 Fold OLED are huge. Your next foldable device might be a lot more practical than a folding phone.

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