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The 5 most experimental laptops of 2021

Every year, there are standout laptops that do far more than go far beyond a standard clamshell form factor. This year is no different, with experiments ranging from integrated second screens to proprietary new ports to power performance.

These may or may not qualify for our best laptop lists, but they’re worth consideration and props just for being so different.

Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2

The e-ink display on the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Take a thin and light 13-inch laptop that’s unremarkable in other respects and embed a 12-inch e-ink display into the lid, and you have the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2. It’s the only laptop we know of that incorporated the technology in 2021, and that makes it stand out for fans of e-ink technology’s low power usage and legibility in bright lights.

As a laptop, the ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 is similar to the ThinkBook 13x, a thin and light machine aimed at small businesses. It enjoys a high-res primary 16:10 display running at 2,560 x 1,600, and the 12-inch e-ink display shares the same aspect ratio and resolution. Both displays are also pen-enabled, with a stylus that slides into a docking port on the side of the laptop that keeps it charged. Taking notes on the e-ink display is a bit slower than on other pen-enabled displays, but it works, and it’s eerily like writing on a piece of paper. Of course, you can use the e-ink display for reading e-books and any other information that doesn’t require a fast refresh rate — e-ink is notoriously slow in changing from one image to another.

You can buy faster and longer-lasting laptops that are only slightly thicker and heavier than the ThinkBook Plus Gen 2. But you won’t find any with a secondary e-ink display that adds a new dimension to how the laptop can be used.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio

The Surface Laptop Studio in Stage Mode.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Microsoft’s Surface line has had its share of innovations. The Surface detachable tablet, now in its eighth generation with the Surface Pro 8, kicked off an entirely new form factor. The Surface Book 3 is the latest in a line of laptops with tear-off displays. And now we have the Surface Laptop Studio, which incorporates a pull-forward convertible 2-in-1 design that functions as well as a traditional clamshell laptop as it does as a tablet.

The Surface Laptop Studio isn’t the first to incorporate this design. That distinction goes to the HP Spectre Folio, since repeated in the HP Elite Folio (see below), and Acer’s ConceptD 9 and others in that line also use the pull-forward design. But Microsoft made the only all-metal version in 2021 that incorporates fast components to make for a laptop that can meet the needs of both productivity users and creators.

We called the Surface Laptop Studio “weird and wonderful” in our review, and that’s an apt description. A haptic feedback touchpad (among the first on a Windows laptop) and 120Hz display add to the innovations packed inside the latest Microsoft Surface.

Asus ZenBook Pro Duo 15 UX582

Image of the ZenBook Pro Duo with a second display.
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

OLED displays were a big deal in 2021, and Asus embraced the technology as much as anyone — and arguably more than most. The ZenBook Pro Duo 15 UX582 took the company’s love for OLED and doubled it, adding in a second OLED display above the keyboard that provides several features that augment the beautiful primary OLED panel.

The ZenBook Pro Duo is aimed at creators, and it’s stocked with a fast Intel H-series CPU and discrete GPU that make it powerful enough to churn through demanding creative workflows. The second OLED display is particularly handy for controlling complex applications like Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Pro, with utilities that extend the interface and provide new ways of getting work done.

You can find laptops that last longer on a charge, and the ZenBook Pro Duo isn’t cheap. But if you want to maximize your creativity, then this dual-screen wonder fits the bill.

HP Elite Folio

HP Elite Folio
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The HP Elite Folio is another laptop with a pull-forward convertible 2-in-1 design, much like the Surface Laptop Studio featured above. But this piece is about experimental laptops, and what makes the Elite Folio different is that its hinge is constructed from “vegan leather” (i.e., polyurethane). That gives it a supple feel that’s warm and inviting rather than the cold, hard metal of Microsoft’s design.

The Elite Folio is also a smaller laptop, incorporating a 13.3-inch display and a thin design (bulked up a bit by the vegan leather construction) built around a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 ARM processor. That limits its performance to undemanding productivity workflows and enhances battery life, although not as much as some other ARM laptops have achieved.

You’ll love the way the Elite Folio feels in hand, and the pull-forward convertible 2-in-1 form factor is excellent for media consumption and tablet use. It’s not the fastest laptop around, but it might just be the most comfortable to use.

Asus ROG Flow x13

The ROG Flow X13 on a table overlooking a city.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Asus ROG Flow x13 is one of only a few 13-inch gaming laptops, and that by itself makes it a different kind of machine. Packing high-end components into such a tiny chassis is an engineering feat, and Asus managed to equip the ROG Flow x13 with an AMD Ryzen 9 5900HS processor for some serious CPU performance to go with an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti.

By itself, the ROG Flow x13 is a fast entry-level gaming laptop packed into a tiny chassis, which it shares with the Razer Blade Stealth 13. But the Asus has a twist — an external PCIe interface that connects to the (costly) XG Mobile GPU enclosure that houses an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080. That puts the ROG Flow x13 in a class by itself in terms of portable gaming power and expandable performance.

If you’re looking for a gaming laptop that’s easy to carry around, then the ROG Flow x13 should be on your shortlist. And if you want more gaming power while you’re not on the move, then you have that option as well.

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