Definitely one of the coolest laptops on display MWC 2023 in Barcelona must be Lenovo’s “rollable technology” concept unit. As a helpful Lenovo representative informed me, this is not even close to a marketable product at the moment – and if I were the person responsible for this particular product, I would have given up when I was ahead.
First, I will question the terminology used here. While the display can certainly be “rolled up” to reduce its size, the idea of a “rollable” laptop immediately springs to mind for me – and I imagine for many people – a whole device that can be rolled up to be more compact when not in use. Imagine you can throw one of them best laptops – the best phones, because Lenovo has also added a compact version of the display – in a nice thin tube to be put in a bag or pocket!
That’s unfortunately not what this concept product does. Instead, it features a roll of unused display hidden in a hinge and a small motor housed in the display case that can expand that portion of the screen to enlarge the entire display. Of course, this only extends the screen vertically, giving the visual impression that the panel slides up, revealing more screen space underneath.
This is certainly an amazing feat of technological engineering, and I can only congratulate Lenovo for making it happen. However, I think “scrollable” or “buffered” (is that a real word?) might be a clearer term – and that’s not the only problem this new frontier of display technology has.
Needs versus desires
“Your scientists have been so preoccupied with whether they can, that they have not considered whether they should.” That’s what Jeff Goldblum said (in full leather heartbeat mode) in Jurassic Parkand I think this quote applies here. It’s fantastic technology, but does anyone really need it?
Much like the foldable laptops we’ve seen in recent months like Asus Zenbook 17 Fold OLED, this seems like an exercise in innovation for innovation’s sake. Perhaps it’s cynical of me, but these kinds of products are too expensive once they go into full production, and the average consumer just doesn’t need (or even necessarily want) a laptop that can switch between two different screen sizes.
The recent shift towards 16:10 instead of 16:9 as the chosen productivity ratio has shown that consumers are apparently interested higher laptop screens, and no wider laptop screens, but that seems like a bridge too far. Fully developed (I don’t say “developed”), this Lenovo concept laptop is really, really tall – so much so that the casual laptop user feels a bit alien.
Limitations of this technology
There are other complications when it comes to displays like this one. While we may be looking at a revolutionary era of flexible displays, the technology still has a long way to go – Asus had to make some serious sacrifices to make the Zenbook 17 Fold OLED work without increasing its thickness, which included ditching ports larger than USB-C and splitting the battery in two . Everything becomes harder to plan, from portability to thermal management.
Let’s not forget, however, that this is not Lenovo’s first dance with flexible display technology. The ThinkPad X1 Fold Gen 2 was a bold redesign of the company’s precarious original foldable laptop, and I loved it in my handheld review. The big problem with the currently available foldable laptops is that they cannot reasonably contain discrete graphics cardwhich is a pity, because they would be very suitable for digital artists and other creators.
However, this new type of display may circumvent this problem. Because the “rolled up” portion of the display is tucked away at the base of the screen bezel when not in use, the entire bottom of the laptop looks plain ultrabooks. For foldable devices, manufacturers must fit all internal components behind the screen; here the GPU can be implemented without particular difficulties.
The big problem with flexible panels is durability; virtually every foldable device, from phones to tablets, has received criticism for being easier to damage than a conventional display. It’s even worse here. We’re not just talking about the need for a durable hinge. This buffering display is motorized, which means we have small, delicate moving parts around the even more delicate, flexible display panel. I don’t mean to be Negative Nancy, but this is asking for trouble.
Perhaps in five, ten or twenty years we will be using sexy, flexible screens in every aspect of our lives. But now is not the time for that – and while I respect companies like Lenovo and Asus for pushing the envelope with interesting new designs, we don’t expect them to sell out quickly.