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Lenovo’s ‘rollable’ laptop prototype is seriously cool, but I still wouldn’t buy one

BY:

Sangram Rana

Lenovo’s “rollable technology” concept laptop is by far the coolest laptop on display at MWC 2023 in Barcelona right now. A helpful Lenovo representative told me that it’s not even close to being marketable right now. If I were in charge of this product, I’d quit while I was ahead.

First of all, I don’t agree with the language used here. Even though the display can be “rolled” to make it smaller, when I think of a “rollable” laptop, I immediately think of a whole device that can be rolled up to make it smaller when it’s not in use. I’m sure a lot of people think the same way. Imagine being able to roll up one of the best laptops (or phones, since Lenovo also made a smaller version of the screen) into a thin tube that you could put in your bag or pocket.

This concept product doesn’t do that, which is a shame. Instead, it has a roll of unused display hidden in the hinge and a small motor inside the display casing that can unroll this section of screen to make the whole display bigger. Obviously, this only makes the screen bigger vertically, but it looks like the panel is moving up to reveal more screen space below.

It’s an amazing feat of technology, and I can only applaud Lenovo for making it happen. I think “scrollable” or “spoolable” (is that even a word?) would have been a better word, but that’s not the only problem with this new display technology.

Needs vs desires

“Your scientists were so focused on whether or not they could do something that they didn’t stop to think about whether or not they should.” In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum said this while dressed in leather, and I think it applies here. This technology is great, but does anyone really need it?

Like the foldable laptops we’ve seen in the past few months, like the Asus Zenbook 17 Fold OLED, this seems like an attempt to be innovative just for the sake of being innovative. Maybe I’m being too cynical, but these kinds of products are too expensive to sell in large quantities, and the average consumer doesn’t need (or even necessarily want) a laptop with two different screen sizes.

The recent shift toward 16:10 instead of 16:9 as the preferred aspect ratio for productivity shows that people seem to want taller laptop screens instead of wider ones, but this seems like a step too far. This Lenovo concept laptop, when fully unrolled (I’m not saying “unrolled”), is really, really tall. It’s so tall that a regular laptop user might find it strange to look at.

The limitations of this technology

There are other things that can go wrong with shows like this. Even though flexible displays might be the start of a new era, the technology still has a long way to go. Asus had to give up a lot to make the Zenbook 17 Fold OLED work without making it too thick. For example, it gave up any ports bigger than a USB-C port and split the battery in two. Everything gets harder to plan for, from how portable something is to how it handles heat.

Let’s not forget, though, that Lenovo has already used flexible display technology in the past. In my hands-on review, I liked how the ThinkPad X1 Fold Gen 2 was a big improvement over the company’s first folding laptop, the ThinkPad X1 Fold. One big problem with foldable laptops that are on the market right now is that they can’t fit a discrete graphics card. This is a shame, because they would be great for digital artists and other creators.

But this new type of screen could solve that problem. Since the “rolled up” part of the screen is stored at the bottom of the screen bezel when not in use, the bottom of the laptop is, well, just like a normal ultrabook. With foldables, all of the internal parts have to fit behind the screen. A GPU could be added to this type of device without much trouble.

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Durability is a big worry when it comes to flexible panels. Almost every folding device, from phones to tablets, has been criticized for being easier to break than a regular display. Here, it’s even worse. We’re not just talking about how important it is to have a strong hinge. This spooling display is powered by a motor, which means there are small, fragile moving parts around an even more fragile flexible display panel. I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but that sounds like a recipe for trouble.

Maybe in five, ten, or twenty years, we’ll use flexible, attractive screens in every part of our lives. But now isn’t the time. I respect companies like Lenovo and Asus for coming up with interesting new designs, but we won’t see big sales of these products any time soon.

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