Your laptop can fold, but can it bend? Lenovo’s next-gen ThinkPad is flexible

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Foldable Laptop
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I spent 10 days with my first foldable phone not too long ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The new category has me hooked, as it seeks to expand the possibilities of mobile computing. Now Lenovo is jumping on board with a foldable laptop prototype in its ThinkPad X1 family. If I wasn’t already convinced that foldables are the future, I would be now.

Keep in mind this is just a prototype product. There’s still a lot we don’t know, including specifications or even the official, final name. Lenovo says it’s been developing this prototype for the past three years, and it will launch in 2020.

A literal notebook

Foldable simply means a product can be folded like a sheet of paper, and that requires special screen technology to work. Reducing a device’s physical size while expanding the display is the goal.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold, for example, offers up a sprawling 7.3-inch screen when the phone is unfolded (most phones have screens around the 6-inch mark). Close it up, and the Fold is only marginally larger than your average phone. Put another way, it’s around the same size as other phones, but the screen is similar to that of an iPad Mini. That means a better gaming and video streaming experience, not to mention improved multitasking.

Lenovo’s first foldable laptop is just a prototype, but the benefits are similar. Imagine a laptop with a 13.3-inch screen that you can fold into the size of a compact Moleskine notebook. That’s precisely how the ThinkPad X1 foldable prototype works. When it’s folded up, it’s just 9.6 inches and looks like a paper notebook. A pen even attaches to the outside.

When it’s folded up, it’s just 9.6 inches and looks like a regular notebook.

The exterior also feels like a leather-bound book, much like the HP Spectre Folio. The edge has a bit of glass peeking through, but that disappears from view as the device is unfolded. The laptop is a little heavy, so I don’t imagine using it one-handed will be comfortable for long periods of time, but it’s perfectly manageable with two hands — like a heavy book.

There are a few ways to use this foldable laptop. You can unfold it completely and use the built-in kickstand on the rear to keep the screen standing up, then connect a Bluetooth keyboard to the device to use it like a traditional laptop. We know a Bluetooth keyboard will come with the final product, but it’s unclear if there will be a way to store it conveniently.

The second method doesn’t require an external keyboard at all. Just fold the screen halfway, and place it down on a table, like in the image below.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Foldable Laptop
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

You’ll be able to use the bottom half as a virtual keyboard for typing. Lenovo only had a demo keyboard to show, and I didn’t get a chance to type on it just yet. I don’t imagine it feels nice, but it might be acceptable in short bursts.  While you’ll have a smaller screen to work on, it’s far easier to use this setup in cramped spaces like on a flight.

Unfolding the laptop is not as smooth as unfolding the Samsung Galaxy Fold — it requires a little more force — and this setup is why. A more rigid torque hinge helps the laptop keep its form so that it can continue to be used in this mode. It’s also why the battery is in the right side of the screen (bottom half in this mode), so that the laptop won’t be top heavy and can be weighed down.

You can also hold the device like a table, of course, and since it’s a touchscreen, you’ll be able to use it as you would any iPad. The attached stylus can be used for super-accurate touch input or for virtual ink.

This laptop is built for travelers who need to work on the go. Replace your cumbersome laptop for this, and you’ll save space in your backpack. It may just replace your tablet, too.

The crease, and worries about durability

The OLED screen looked attractive, with punchy colors, but it did pick up more glare than I’d like. Like the Galaxy Fold, the screen feels laminated because it’s not glass protecting it, but polymer. The screen is made by LG display, and it has a 2K screen resolution with a 4:3 aspect ratio.

One big worry people have with foldable products is the crease on the screen. All things that fold typically have a crease; the Samsung Galaxy Fold is no different, and the same is true for Lenovo’s prototype. The crease is visible when looking at the device from different angles, but stare directly at the screen and it’s harder to see it. It’s not as obvious as the crease on Samsung’s phone.

Lenovo says it’s doubling the number of hinge cycles it tests for its laptops, so that it can prove the foldable mechanism won’t wear down over time. Because it is under the ThinkPad name, Lenovo said the product will still need to pass its “rigorous” testing to ensure it’s just as durable. All of this is hard to prove at the moment, so we’ll have to wait for the laptop to release to test its long-term usability.

The software

This is a Windows-based device, and Lenovo is working with Microsoft to make sure the software experience is optimized for this foldable format. This is the part I’m looking forward to seeing the most, because while the hardware can be strong, the software needs to be perfect to ensure a smooth experience. Swapping to different modes needs to be seamless, and Windows needs to improve its tablet and touch interface to add value to this product.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Foldable Laptop
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Lenovo didn’t have much to share in terms of software features, so I expect this is still under heavy development.

What else do we know?

We know there will be a Bluetooth keyboard included, as well as a stylus from Wacom. It has stereo speakers, an infrared camera, and two USB-C ports. Lenovo also said it will offer an “all-day battery,” but there are no concrete numbers, so we’ll just have to wait and see. We also know this device will be powered by an Intel processor.

Price and availability

We don’t know how much the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 foldable laptop will cost, but it will arrive at some point in 2020. That’s not too far off.

Expect to see more foldable products launching from various manufacturers over the course of the next year. We’re finally starting to see some drastic, physical changes to products that have stayed relatively static for some time now, and that’s undeniably exciting.

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