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Folding laptops at CES 2022 should have learned from mobile’s mistakes

Screens that fold up are already a hot topic in the smartphone world, but at CES 2022 they featured far more heavily on laptops than ever, showing the burgeoning tech is moving beyond small handheld devices. However, while the laptops all look really cool, familiar problems haunt them, making me concerned that the trend is a case of companies misguidedly trying to pique our interest in a new way while the innovation still struggles to find its feet on mobile.

Folding laptops

The Asus Zenbook 17 Fold captured the most attention because, according to our Senior Staff Writer Jacob Roach, who tried the machine out at CES 2022, “it’s one of the first real, working foldable laptops.” There have been others, but they’ve all been early prototypes or concepts. The Zenbook 17 Fold’s big selling point is one that echoes that of folding smartphones: Open it, and you’re greeted by a big screen (17 inches in this instance), in a case the same size as a non-folding 13-inch laptop.

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Aasus Zenbook 17 Fold folded.
Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Asus’ laptop with a folding screen was joined by the Samsung Flex Note, another model with a 17-inch screen folded inside a 13-inch laptop-sized case. Samsung is a relatively old hand when it comes to folding smartphones, having pioneered the folding mobile trend along with Huawei in 2019. Intel also showed foldable laptop displays at the show, claiming manufacturers would use the platform on laptops we can buy in 2022.

Outside of folding laptop screens, CES 2022 was a show all about screen technology and innovation generally, with Samsung’s 55-inch curved Odyssey Ark gaming monitor snatching our Best of CES 2022 award, Samsung’s QD Display technology coming very close to edging it out, and Lenovo adding an 8-inch screen next to the keyboard on the ThinkBook Plus Gen 3. That’s before we get to crazy concepts like Razer’s Project Sofia desk/monitor mashup.

But none can quite match the quick-fix visual coolness of a screen that folds.

New hardware, same problems

Brilliant, right? Well, almost. It seems that while we could use folding laptops at CES 2022, they came with some familiar issues. This is what Roach had to say about using the Asus Zenbook 17 Fold’s folding screen:

“The screen feels like it has a plastic film over the top of it, closing the machine feels like it requires both hands, and there was a ripple in the middle of the screen where the fold is. It’s about as thick as two thin 13-inch notebooks stacked on top of each other, and about as heavy, too.”

The screen protection film now extends under the bezel.
The screen protection film now extends under the bezel. Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

If you’ve used the original Samsung Galaxy Fold and its plastic screen cover or felt the stiff hinge on an out-of-the-box Galaxy Z Fold 3, you’ll be nodding your head in a knowing fashion. We made a big deal about the Oppo Find N because it minimized the crease in the center of its unfolded screen, as it’s prominent on other large folding smartphones and a barrier to adoption for some. But the Find N is also really quite thick, and even heavier than the Z Fold 3.

There’s also the issue of knowing why you’d want one. The big screen/small device advantages are obvious, but what about keyboards, which are so integral to laptops? A peripheral isn’t the most elegant solution. A push to educate buyers about why a folding screen is needed on a laptop seemed to be lacking from companies at CES, and that’s an argument that can still be levied at phone makers today.

So while folding laptops undoubtedly look cool, especially at a show like CES, where so much is vying for our attention and products need that instant wow factor, it seems the same problems we have with folding smartphones, particularly the earliest examples, are being repeated. What’s worrying is those issues have gone on to tarnish opinion about folding smartphones, and doing the same thing with laptops is also unlikely to endear newcomers in that segment.

Folding screens need time

Folding smartphones are expensive, often (somewhat mistakenly) have a reputation for fragility, take a while to get used to, and still have software compatibility issues. Outside China, the choice is also very small, as all you can really buy is a Samsung foldable or, err, a Samsung foldable. Things will improve during 2022, with Honor launching a folding smartphone in January and others likely to follow as the year goes on, but people generally still need convincing about folding screen technology.

Samsung Flex Note folding laptop prototype.

I’m not sure putting a folding screen on a laptop, given all the things we don’t like about folding screens on smartphones, is the way to do it. CES is a show that revels in presenting the future of tech in a form we can touch and try out, and seeing the reception to Asus’ folding laptop reminds me of the first time I saw, and eventually touched, the Huawei Mate X at the beginning of 2019. The potential was obvious, and the excitement of actually folding the thing in half was undeniable, but its downsides were also clear.

Folding laptops may have been a big trend at CES 2022, but as you read about them and suck the air between your teeth when you get to the problems with these early models, remember the purpose of the show and how long it has taken folding smartphones to evolve. CES is the launchpad for future tech, and the folding smartphones we saw at MWC 2019 have taken almost three years to become viable, buyable products.

Seeing laptops with folding screens is really exciting, as is the technology generally, but it may have been better for PC makers to learn from the mistakes seen in the early days of folding smartphones before teasing models for release in 2022, to make sure the first impression was absolutely the very best it could be.

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