2020 might be the year of foldable PCs

Updated: Jan 13

At CES 2020 Intel showed a "Horseshoe Bend" PC. It is a is a 17-inch 4:3 OLED tablet that folds in two to give you something roughly akin to a 13-inch laptop with a touchscreen replacing the keyboard and trackpad. It runs on a new type of Intel chip called Tiger Lake, which allows for a slim 7mm fanless design and a claimed 11 hours of battery life.

Horseshoe Bend is a reference design, meaning it’s an Intel-provided example of what PC manufacturers should be able to do with a given class of chip. It’s not quite a prototype since it’s not intended to ever be finished. Intel has made similar moves to define categories like the ultrabook and the 2-in-1 in the past. If Tiger Lake performs in actual products as Intel claims, and if manufacturers can execute on durability while keeping prices reasonable, I think computers similar to Horseshoe Bend will be appealing to a lot of people. But that is a lot of “ifs.”

In the here and now, the closest device in this class to becoming a reality is Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold. It has an OLED screen that flexes the same way as Horseshoe Bend, but it’s much smaller at 13 inches across. This means it takes up about as much room in your bag as a hardback novel. And while it’s big by tablet standards, it would make for a pretty tiny laptop when folded. I would describe its design as feeling like a first-gen product. No more, but no less. Unlike Dell’s concepts that were also shown off this week, it’s real.

Lenovo plans to sell the X1 Fold for $2,499 in mid-2020. We even have a basic spec sheet: 8GB of RAM, up to 1TB of storage, and an unspecified Intel processor that’s probably Lakefield but remains officially unconfirmed. I don’t think anyone who follows tech is going to forget the risks of launching a foldable device after witnessing Samsung’s travails in 2019. There are still some obvious concerns — plastic, for example, isn’t the ideal protective material for these displays — but I do think Lenovo is far enough along that these products no longer feel like impossible dreams.

What we do now know is that a bunch of gigantic companies are invested in making foldable PCs a thing. Lenovo is likely to be first, it may not be best, and it definitely won’t be the last. A lot of elements need to fall into place before any of these products actually achieve any significant degree of success, to be sure. But when was the last time any technology ever made its debut at CES fully formed?

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