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Laptops are getting weird and wonderful again

It’s been nearly seven years since Windows 8 first debuted, ushering in an era of weird and wonderful laptop designs. We witnessed the birth of Lenovo’s Yoga laptop, some crazy hinge gymnastics from Acer, and even the early beginnings of Microsoft’s Surface line. While most of the more wacky designs have come and gone, we’re now entering another phase of wild experimentation: dual-screen laptops.

Computex is one of largest computer and technology trade shows in the world, and it’s an annual event where PC makers like to show off their latest laptops and crazy concepts. Laptops have largely focused on better displays, trackpads, and battery life in recent years, but this year we’ve started to see laptops with multiple screens emerge.

Asus’ new ZenBook Pro Duo

Intel’s Honeycomb Glacier concept

HP led the way ahead of Computex by announcing a dual-screen gaming laptop for gamers that lets you watch Twitch and play games simultaneously. The secondary 6-inch display is housed above the keyboard, and it works like any regular dual-screen monitor setup you’d find on a desktop PC. Asus also introduced its new ZenBook Pro Duo laptop with two 4K screens this week. Asus thinks it has solved laptop productivity problems, thanks to a 14-inch screen above the keyboard and a regular 15-inch display where you’d normally find a laptop screen.

Asus has developed some window-management software to extend the main screen into the 14-inch panel above the keyboard, or to even use multiple windows across the wide display. Asus also morphed its traditional laptop trackpad into a 5.5-inch display last year, showing that it’s willing to experiment and push the boundaries of what you’d normally expect to find in a laptop.

Intel Honeycomb Glacier prototype.

Perhaps the most wild of them all is Intel’s idea for dual-screen laptops. “Honeycomb Glacier” is Intel’s concept of the future of gaming PCs, and it attempts to combine a 15.6-inch main display and a 12.3-inch secondary display into a single laptop with a unique double hinge. The result is a laptop where the displays stack at multiple angles thanks to a mechanical one-way roller clutch. Intel is unusually bullish about this design, and claims PC makers have shown an interest in adopting it for future laptops.

Intel is also pushing to build dual-screen laptops out of fabric, and just dual-screen devices in general. We’ve seen Microsoft use Alcantara fabric on its Surface Laptop, and HP is using leather and even wood on some of its laptops. Intel’s concepts are particular relevant if we’re truly entering a new era of dual- or even flexible-screen laptops. Lenovo has been developing a “foldable PC” for more than three years, complete with the foldable screen tech we’ve already seen start appearing on phones. It’s just a concept for now, but it does hint at where PC makers think this technology is heading.

All of these wacky designs and hardware are nothing without software, though. We saw that play out with Lenovo’s dual-screen Yoga Book last year, and Microsoft previously failed to popularize Windows SideShow, a way for developers to extend apps and notifications to small screens on laptops while they were powered off. Apple’s Touch Bar has also failed to gain much traction, despite it offering a touchscreen above the keyboard.

HP’s Omen X 2S
Image: HP

As much as PC makers can experiment with hardware they have to rely on Microsoft to get Windows to adapt to these new form factors. Microsoft has been dreaming of a pocketable dual-screen Surface device for years, but that project, codenamed Andromeda, has stalled inside the company.

Microsoft is now preparing for this new hardware with a new lightweight version of Windows for dual-screen devices and Chromebook competitors. Codenamed Windows Lite, Microsoft hasn’t officially even acknowledged its existence yet. Windows Lite is a more stripped-down version of Windows that is initially being prioritized for dual-screen devices.

Microsoft has seen the work OEMs and Intel are doing on dual-screen devices, and wants to be ready to properly support it. The Windows Lite interface will be similar to Windows as it exists today, but it will be more of a blend of what Microsoft uses with its Surface Hub shell and the simplicity of its Windows Phone Continuum user interface.

Windows Lite mockup

Microsoft has gradually been creating a new Composable Shell (C-Shell) and Windows Core OS, a more modular version of the existing Windows Shell that powers many parts of Windows 10 today. Microsoft was expected to talk about some of this work at the company’s Build conference earlier this month, but all it’s doing for now is hinting about a “modern OS” future for Windows.

The software work will be key to whether these new dual-screen laptops really take off. Some make sense for gaming laptops, but smaller devices that would compete against phones offer questionable benefit. Google is also planning to natively support foldables in Android, and it already has the mobile platform advantage to better bridge the gap between phones and tablets.

That won’t stop PC makers, though. We’ve seen years of wild 2-in-1 PCs, and with foldable displays, new hinges, and this push for dual displays we’re about to witness laptops getting really weird and wonderful again.

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