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Major milestones in the past decade of laptop design

The past decade has been kind to the laptop. Few computing products have improved in so many ways, to the point where the modern laptop is a different breed of device completely from laptops of a decade before.

We could list hundreds of large and small improvements, but that would be impractical and few people would read all the way through. Therefore, we’ve decided to list just five of the changes that have made today’s laptop the incredible device that it is.

Super-thin bezels

Dell XPS 13 9310 Featured Image
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Bezels, those typically black strips surrounding a display, were once massive affairs. Sometimes as much as an inch thick, they were unsightly and added greatly to a laptop’s overall dimensions. Fitting a 15.6-inch display with huge bezels required a larger chassis, contributing to the notion that 15-inch laptops were beastly affairs hardly meant for portable use.

All that changed with Dell’s introduction of the 2015 XPS 13. That laptop offered bezels that looked minuscule compared to the rest of the field, and they allowed Dell to fit a 13-inch laptop into the same size chassis as 11-inch machines of the day.

As usual, the industry adopted the advance, and you can select from a plethora of laptops with bezels close to or equally as tiny as the XPS 13’s. It’s no longer just 13-inch displays fitting into 11-inch chassis; it’s 17-inch displays fitting into 15-inch chassis — and everything in between. Laptops are smaller across the board thanks to this simple change, and that’s been great for laptop design.

Other technologies have been forced to advance as well. For example, webcams and infrared cameras — necessary for Windows 10 Hello facial recognition — have been shrunk to fit in the space afforded by the tiny bezels. Webcams still have a way to go since it’s not common to find 1080p webcams that fit. But we’re sure that’s only a matter of time.

Metal beats plastic

Macbook Air M1
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

You can find laptops constructed of plastic today — they’re called budget laptops, and they usually cost in the neighborhood of $500 or less. There was a time, though, when most computers were constructed entirely or mostly of plastic, no matter their cost.

Then things changed. We’re not sure if the 2009 Apple MacBook Pro was the first all-metal computer, and that’s not technically in the last decade, but it was the laptop that mainstreamed the metal machine. Apple’s 2010 unibody MacBook Air was the next step in the all-metal laptop, and from then on other manufacturers started to follow suit.

Today, almost all but the aforementioned budget laptops are fashioned at least partly of metal. Some are constructed from stamped metal pieces, typically aluminum, which is fitted together into reasonably durable chassis. The best premium devices are CNC machined from a single block of metal, again typically aluminum, and they are the most rigid you’ll find. That’s not to say that every well-built laptop is fully metal — Lenovo and Dell, for example, use carbon fiber in their premium ThinkPad and XPS lines where it makes sense, and those devices are as solid as they come.

No doubt holding a modern metal laptop alongside an older plastic machine demonstrates just how far along laptop design has come. The lack of flexing and creaking chassis gives today’s machines a feeling of quality that just 10 years ago barely existed.

Displays that flip all the way around

HP Spectre x360 14 Media Mode
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Lenovo’s 2012 Yoga introduced the world to a new phenomenon: A laptop display that didn’t stop at an upright angle but rather flipped 360 degrees to lay flat against the back of the chassis. This introduced a new kind of 2-in-1 laptop, the 360-degree convertible, and it offered new flexibility to the traditional clamshell form factor.

There are other 2-in-1s, like Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet line with its detachable keyboard — and its many clones — but none function as well as traditional laptops as the 360-degree convertible. Usually, the latter can fold into four different configurations, known loosely as clamshell, tent (just like it sounds, folded over with both front edges supporting the display and keyboard portions), media (with the keyboard lying flat and the display inverted for binging video), and tablet modes. 360-degree convertibles are usually a little bulky as tablets, but they’re still functional — better so than the detachable tablet 2-in-1 is in the lap.

It’s a simple solution in hindsight, but it was brilliant. Today, there’s an entire industry built up around the form factor, and some examples — like HP’s Spectre x360 14 — compete strongly with the best laptops you can buy.

Oversized touchpads

Macbook Air M1
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Touchpads have been the primary means of controlling the cursor since the first laptop rolled off the assembly line. They’re critical components, and yet it wasn’t that long ago that they were tiny things taking up way too little space on the keyboard deck. Apple changed all that with the massive touchpads it added to its laptops, starting with the 2016 MacBook Pro.

Shortly thereafter, other laptop manufacturers started following suit and boosting the size of their touchpads. Today, touchpads are almost universally large enough to offer at least a modicum of comfort, and some machines — Dell’s latest XPS 15 and XPS 17, for example, as well as the Spectre x360 14 — have larger touchpads than we’ve seen on the typical Windows 10 machine.

Microsoft also improved touchpad performance with its Precision Touchpad protocol, and so today’s touchpads are not only larger, but they’re more functional. Apple’s haptic touchpads remain the industry leader, but the rest of the premium market isn’t far behind.

Taller screens

Our final laptop improvement is the return to taller displays. Laptops once used a nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio, providing almost as much vertical space as horizontal. This was great for working with documents, web pages, and other productivity-oriented content, but it wasn’t optimized for watching videos. As TVs switched to wider 16:9 formats to accommodate 1080p (and eventually 4K) content, laptops did the same.

The result has been an aspect ratio that’s indeed great for consuming media, but it’s too short for scrolling through long documents. With that in mind, more and more laptops are adopting taller aspect ratios, specifically 16:10 and 3:2. Microsoft adopted the 3:2 aspect ratio with its Surface Pro 3 tablet, but it’s been in the last year that clamshell laptops and 360-degree convertibles have come along for the ride.

It’s a welcome change, making for devices that work as well for consuming media thanks to high resolutions while being much better productivity machines. We expect the 16:9 aspect ratio to all but disappear as more content is formatted for today’s taller displays.

The laptop has come a long way

As mentioned earlier, we could list hundreds of changes that have greatly improved the laptop. But just looking at these five, it’s obvious that manufacturers have taken design improvement to heart. The modern laptop is so much better than its predecessors that it’s hard to believe that we once struggled with such inferior devices.

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