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For laptops, how thin is too thin?

Over the past four decades, laptop computers have gone from something of a novelty to a widely used branch of computing that’s often seen as a more flexible option than a stationary desktop. Even if the alternative might give you a little more bang for you buck, many users prefer to have a computer than they can readily take with them should they need to.

However, recent years have seen increased competition from a wide range of mobile devices. With a smartphone in every pocket and a tablet in every backpack, laptops seem clunky by comparison. Manufacturers are being forced to slim down their laptops in an attempt to stay competitive, but the compromises being made to do that are beginning to raise a question that’s just as pertinent to consumers as it is to manufacturers; how thin is too thin?

Then and now

Form factor has always been a major influence on the design of laptop computers. Back in the 1980s, when laptops first began to grow in popularity, their designs were just as clunky and over-sized to modern eyes as the cellphones of the day — but they were still much smaller than the desktop computers of the time, as was necessary for them to be portable in any meaningful way.

Of course, technology has come a long way since then. As part of our coverage of CES 2015, Digital Trends looked at laptops like the Samsung ATIV Book Blade 9 and Lenovo LaVie Z — and it’s very clear that thin is in. The former weighs just 2.09 pounds, and the latter is as light as 1.72 pounds in its most featherweight configuration. For comparison, the popular Osborne 1 laptop released in 1981 weighed a staggering 23.5 pounds, but was still considered svelte thanks to its ability to be stowed away underneath an airline seat.

As times have changed, expectations of what makes a laptop truly portable have changed too. What would once have been considered a lightweight machine seems unreasonably large to modern users, and that change has only been accelerated by the advent of tablets. Today, it’s typically cheaper and more practical to invest in a tablet to take care of internet browsing and other light usage when you’re out and about.

The tablet threat

The popularity of tablets has led to companies offering tablets alongside their more traditional laptops. The enormous success of Apple’s iPad line can be attributed to any number of things, including the strong links that the brand has to the iPod and iPhone, but it’s crucial that the device has been designed so that it doesn’t cut into the MacBook audience as it once looked set to. The iPad uses a different OS, and usage is generally streamlined to reiterate to users that the device isn’t meant to replace a laptop outright.

If tablet with accessories can do the job of a laptop, is there any point to having a laptop?

Microsoft, on the other hand, is attempting a different gambit with the Surface range. It’s no secret that a major goal of Windows 10 is to offer the same user experience across a range of devices, whether they be touch-based or more conventional.

A Surface tablet can ape the look and feel of Windows on a traditional computer, and when a keyboard accessory is in use, the overall experience is very similar indeed. Therein lies the problem; if a tablet with attached accessories can do the job of a laptop, then is there any point in having a laptop as well as a tablet?

Compromise isn’t always the answer

The rise of the tablet has left the laptop in a wholly undesirable position, having to compete with an inherently smaller device in terms of size, weight and overall portability. At the same time, more is expected from a laptop.

Several years ago the netbook rose sharply in popularity before disappearing just as quickly amidst complaints of fiddly keyboards and undersized displays. Sacrificing screen size was too much for most laptop users to bear, so it became clear that thinness was the only dimension that could feasibly be improved upon.

dell xps 13 2015 review lid angle v2

Dell’s new XPS 13

Greg Mombert/Digital Trends

With a slim form factor and pricing established as potential deal-breakers for consumers, manufacturers have found other compromises to be made. One common specification to dial back is battery life, as is evidenced in the capabilities of a device like the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, which managed to achieve a much thinner body at its battery’s detriment.

However, it may well be that this is a poorly considered compromise on the part of the manufacturers. A recent poll found that almost three quarters of responses from adults were in favor of thicker smartphones if they could offer better battery life, according to figures released by the Huffington Post. Obviously, a laptop is a different proposition to a smartphone — but it would be reasonable to assume that, since a smartphone is intended to sit in a pocket or a handbag, the need for it to be thin might be greater than for a laptop.

It’s important that the laptop doesn’t lose its identity as a fully functional PC in a portable form factor.

There are examples of large laptops that have performed quite well. Dell’s new XPS 13 is no heavy-weight, but compared to some other systems we saw at CES 2015 it’s actually a bit thick. What it lacks in slimness, however, it makes up for with a very large battery, a great keyboard and a sturdy frame.

Gaming laptops require consideration, too. The Asus G751 we reviewed late last year is the antithesis of modern ultrabook design, but it has its benefits. The G751 offers enough power to keep pace with many desktops, a class-leading display and extremely quiet, cool operation in a package that’s not much larger than any 15-inch laptop from five years ago.

The future

As with any device, the functionality consumers expect from a laptop is only going to increase with time. It’s possible that the pursuit of slimness at all costs acts counter to what people expect from cutting-edge hardware. A smaller laptop means less space for all sorts of components, which can lead to a sub-par speaker system, less ports, or the omission of a DVD drive.

This would not be much of an issue if laptops were similar to desktop computers. Many PC users would rather build a desktop to their own specifications rather than opt for a stock model that’s designed to satisfy as broad a range of users as possible. Unfortunately, many manufacturers seem to be taking the opposite tack, slimming down customization choice to improve per-unit profit.

It’s important that the laptop doesn’t lose its identity as a fully functional PC in a portable form factor. The sweet spot for this type of machine lies somewhere between the flexibility of a tablet and the functionality of a desktop. For laptops to stay relevant in the competitive tech landscape, the correct balance between those two extremes is absolutely crucial.