By far one of the coolest laptops to be seen on MWC 2023 in Barcelona should now be Lenovo’s “rollable technology” concept unit. As a helpful Lenovo representative informed me, it’s nowhere near a salable product at this point – and if I were the person in charge of this particular product, I’d stop while I was ahead.
To begin with, I am going to object to the terminology used here. While the screen can certainly be ‘rolled up’ to reduce its size, the idea of a ‘rollable’ laptop makes me – and I imagine many people – immediately think of an entire device that can be rolled up to make it more compact when not in use. Imagine you are one of the best laptops – or the best phones, as Lenovo has also provided a compact version of the screen – in a nice thin tube to slip into a bag or pocket!
Unfortunately, that is not what this concept product does. Instead, it has a roll of unused screen hidden in the hinge and a small motor in the screen housing that can unroll this part of the screen to enlarge the entire screen. This, of course, only expands the screen vertically, giving the visual impression that the panel is sliding up to reveal more screen real estate below.
It’s certainly an incredible feat of technological engineering, and I can only congratulate Lenovo for making it happen. I think “scrollable” or “spoolable” (is that a real word?) might have been a clearer term – and that’s not the only problem this new frontier of display technology has.
Needs vs Desires
“You scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could do it, they didn’t stop to think if they could.” So Jeff Goldblum (in full leather heartthrob mode) chimed in Jurassic Park, and I think that quote applies here. This is a fantastic technology, but does anyone really need it?
Just like the foldable laptops we’ve seen in recent months, such as the Asus Zenbook 17 fold OLED, this feels like an exercise in innovation for innovation’s sake. Maybe that’s cynical of me, but these kinds of products are prohibitively expensive once they’re in full production, and the average consumer just doesn’t need (or even necessarily want) a laptop that can switch between two different screen sizes.
The recent shift to 16:10 instead of 16:9 as the preferred productivity aspect ratio has shown that consumers seem to be interested in taller laptop screens instead of wider laptop screens, but this feels like a bridge too far. Fully rolled out (I don’t say ‘rolled out’), this Lenovo concept laptop is really, really long – to the point where it feels a bit strange to look at as a regular laptop user.
The limitations of this technology
There are other complications when it comes to displays like this. While we may be looking at a revolutionary era of flexible displays, the technology still has some way to go – Asus had to make some serious sacrifices to make the Zenbook 17 Fold OLED work without making it ridiculously thick, including forgoing ports bigger than a USB-C and split the battery in half. Everything becomes more difficult to plan, from portability to thermal management.
Let’s not forget, though, that this isn’t Lenovo’s first dance with flexible display technology. The ThinkPad X1 Fold Gen 2 was a bold reinvention of the company’s dubious original foldable laptop, and I quite liked it in my practical assessment. A major problem with the foldable laptops currently available is that they cannot reasonably hold a separate graphics cardwhich is a shame because they would be great for digital artists and other creators.
However, this new type of display could get around that problem. Since the ‘rolled up’ portion of the screen is tucked away at the bottom of the screen bezel when not in use, the entire lower portion of the laptop is, well, just like a normal ultrabook. With foldables, manufacturers must place all internal components behind the screen; here a GPU could be implemented without particular problems.
A major problem with flexible panels is durability; virtually every foldable device, from phones to tablets, has been criticized for being easier to damage than a conventional screen. Here it is even worse. We’re not just talking about the need for a durable hinge. That spooling display is motorized, meaning we have tiny, delicate moving parts around an even more delicate flexible display panel. I don’t want to be a negative Nancy here, but that’s just asking for trouble.
Maybe five, 10, or 20 years from now, we’ll be using sexy, flexible screens in every aspect of our lives. But now isn’t the time – and while I respect companies like Lenovo and Asus for pushing boundaries with interesting new designs, we won’t see them selling much anytime soon.