Tired of the stale cookie-cutter designs that make all laptops look basically alike? You're not alone. A group of intrepid designers and engineers is doing something about the "sameness syndrome" that permeates notebook design. They're working on groundbreaking concept designs that not only turn heads but also point to new ways to work and play on the road.
Just as car shows give us a sneak peek into the next big thing in automotive technology, concept and prototype designs provide a crystal ball to see what tomorrow might have in store for mobility.
"Design concepts allow us to stretch our imaginations and ask 'what if,' " says Murali Veeramoney, head of the concept PC program at Intel's Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters. "They help us see the future of computing."
Get ready for a revolution in notebook design, including laptops with multiple screens or slide-out keyboards as well as computers that can be folded into different shapes or even rolled up when not in use. How about a laptop that can be charged without being plugged in? Even the definition of "laptop" is changing, with lines blurring among traditional notebooks, netbooks, convertible tablets, iPad-style slate tablets, smartbooks, e-readers, ultramobile PCs and other mobile Internet devices.
A couple of years back, I took a look at what kind of notebooks we might be using in the year 2015, but they required a technological breakthrough or two to become reality. In contrast, the 12 innovative notebook designs here -- some actual working computers, others wooden mockups or CAD drawings -- are for the most part producible within the next two years.
"Folding screens, wireless charging, rollup computers -- it's all coming in the next couple of years," says Leslie Fiering, a research vice president at Gartner. "Designers are getting more and more creative and innovative."
Here's a peek at the not-so-distant future.
Four Screens, No Waiting
What if your next notebook had two, three or even four displays, each capable of making your computing experience more enjoyable and efficient? That's the idea behind the Tangent Bay laptop created by Veeramoney's notebook prototype group at Intel.
A full working computer that shows the possibility of fresh thinking on screens, the Tangent Bay has a prominent 15.6-in. main display along with three auxiliary 3.5-in. OLED touch screens, which are usually used on cell phones.
Evenly spaced just above the keyboard, these auxiliary displays can be dedicated to specific tasks so that the main screen doesn't get crowded with a plethora of panes and menus.
They're good for anything from showing a reminder note or running a live RSS feed to displaying a clock or Photoshop's brush menu. With a little programming, Veeramoney says, you could even stash your Windows 7 Gadgets there. Personally, I would use the smaller screens to monitor my e-mail and favorite Web sites without cluttering up the main screen.
"Call it extreme multitasking, but people have multiple things going on," explains Veeramoney. "If you want to bring any of them to the main screen, just flick it upwards with your finger. Touch is a very exciting concept for us."
When the Tangent Bay was introduced at last year's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco (see video), the response was enormous. People immediately got it and saw that the multiple screens can keep several snippets of information front and center without overwhelming the user.
With an ultra-low-voltage processor inside, Tangent Bay is about as thick as a current mainstream business notebook, but slightly heavier due to the extra displays. The best part is that this system requires no new technology or engineering advances and could be made today.
"The goal of our work is commercialization," adds Veeramoney, although commercial restrictions prevent him from talking about any plans Intel might have to bring this technology to market.
Often, these prototypes are looked over by several notebook manufacturers, which take pieces and ideas and incorporate them into their wares. Tangent Bay probably won't see the light of day as a single model, but it will likely live on in several future notebooks from multiple makers.
Kyle Cherry's Prime concept takes displays a step or two further. Prime was designed to be the ultimate gaming notebook with three big screens; it can be folded up into a small and portable package for travel.
"I wanted something that could transform from small to large, depending on what you had to do," says Cherry, a Seattle-based independent industrial designer. "Prime offers the best of both worlds."
Currently nothing more than a CAD image, Prime would be made of six aluminum wings -- three with display screens, one with a mechanical keyboard, and two blank surfaces for storing electronics. Some of Prime's panels are hinged, and others can slide over each other. Like a Transformer toy, it can be formed into several different configurations, each with a distinct computing personality.
If you want a big-screen notebook, the Prime can be folded to create a 22-in. composite display with a wide and short 32:10 aspect ratio. You can also fold down the side screens and use only the 15-in. center screen that has a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio. Or rearrange the panels to create a huge touch-screen tablet with a wide-open workspace. When it's time to go, all the panels fold up to the size of a traditional 13-in. system.
The multiple screens have a downside: Wherever two screens meet, there will be a thin black strip between them for the display frames, which may be distracting. (While of course I couldn't get my hands on the Prime, I have tested a notebook with a pull-out auxiliary screen, Lenovo's ThinkPad W700ds. Initially I found the black strip between screens annoying, but I quickly got used to it and hardly noticed it.)
Inside the Prime is room for a pair of processors and the kind of graphics engine seen only on top-of-the-line mobile workstations. The Prime's aluminum skin will help dissipate the heat from its high-end hardware without burdening it with too many cooling fans.
"It'll be fairly thick but will be a monster portable workstation ready for anything," Cherry says.
At this time, no laptop manufacturers have signed up to make the Prime, but it is producible today without any technological breakthroughs. Cherry thinks the use of aluminum will keep the weight down to about 5 pounds -- quite optimistic given all the displays involved. Also optimistic is its target price: $3,000.
In contrast, the Asus Airo Origami notebook concept is as slender as it gets. When closed, Airo Origami looks like a conventional laptop, but with a razor-sharp front edge and a triangular profile. Instead of having a hinged screen lid with a stationary keyboard below, the system has four major parts that move independently: the display, the wrist rest, the bottom corner of the base and the keyboard, which slides into position as the lid is opened.
As its name implies, folding is the key concept here. It is a marvel of packaging that looks like a mechanical ballet when the pieces are moving into place (see video).
The Airo Origami can sit like a traditional notebook with upright screen or fold flat like a tablet on a table top. Designed to encourage collaboration, two or more systems can be linked either upright or folded flat so workers can cooperate on a project face to face across a table. (Personally, I have enough trouble keeping track of what's going on with my own computer, much less having to deal with four or five PCs interacting.)
Asus made a working model of the design that was ready for production late last year but has since decided not to manufacture this unique notebook, saying that the company could deliver many of the Airo's features in its mainstream laptops at a lower price. The Asus G73Jh gaming notebook, for instance, has a similarly angled keyboard with cooling vents underneath.
Folding also dominates a futuristic ultramobile device called the Multi-Fold that is being patented by Qualcomm. The system is composed of three display panels, like a triptych that can be arranged to deliver different computing personalities.
It can be a wide-open tablet workspace, a travel-friendly notebook with an extra-tall screen or, at night, a device with one screen exposed that looks a lot like an alarm clock. No word on size or weight, but there's nothing in it that can't be made today.
It has one big drawback: no mechanical keyboard. Instead, one of the displays can be used as a screen-based keyboard. While this has the advantage of potentially setting up keys of exactly the size and shape you want, they lack the feedback and feel of a mechanical key moving under the pressure of a finger.
The Key to Computing
But what if the keyboard could be hidden and come out when needed? That's the idea behind a smartbook prototype that was designed as part of Freescale Semiconductor's SCAD Design Challenge competition.
Created in cooperation with the Savannah College of Art and Design, the prototype has a pair of pull-out keyboards that straddle the screen. You hold the device in two hands and use your thumbs to type e-mails, blog posts and quickie Twitter notes.
"It blends ideas from phones and notebooks together to create a more compelling Web experience," says Steve Sperle, head of consumer segment marketing for smartbooks at Freescale.
SCAD is a nonworking static mock-up made to test how people might react to the design, but it could be manufactured tomorrow without any new technology. With a 7-in. central screen, it won't replace a full notebook, but at only about half an inch thick, it's a go-anywhere device -- sort of like a small iPad with physical keys to type on.
"The challenge is making the keyboard thin enough without sacrificing the feel of the keys," says Sperle.