Folding laptops at CES 2022 should have learned from mobile’s mistakes

Folding screens are already a hot topic in the smartphone market, but at CES 2022, they were displayed considerably more prominently on laptops than ever before, demonstrating that the emerging technology is spreading beyond small handheld devices. However, while the laptops all appear to be very cool, classic issues haunt them, leaving me worry that the trend is a case of firms misguidedly attempting to capture our curiosity in a new way while innovation continues to struggle to find its feet on mobile.

Laptops that fold

According to our Senior Staff Writer Jacob Roach, who tried out the Asus Zenbook 17 Fold at CES 2022, “it’s one of the first true, operational foldable laptops.” Others have existed, but they were all early prototypes or concepts. The main selling feature of the Zenbook 17 Fold is similar to that of folding smartphones: When you open it, you’re confronted by a large screen (17 inches in this example), housed in a case the size of a non-folding 13-inch laptop.

Aasus Zenbook 17 Fold folded.

The Samsung Flex Note, another model with a 17-inch screen folded into a 13-inch laptop-sized shell, joined Asus’ notebook with a folding screen. Samsung is a seasoned pro when it comes to folding smartphones, having co-invented the concept with Huawei in 2019. At the conference, Intel also demonstrated foldable laptop displays, suggesting that manufacturers would adopt the platform on laptops available in 2022.

Aside from folding laptop screens, CES 2022 was all about screen technology and innovation in general, with Samsung’s 55-inch curved Odyssey Ark gaming monitor taking our Best of CES 2022 award, Samsung’s QD Display technology coming close to edging it, and Lenovo adding an 8-inch screen next to the keyboard on the ThinkBook Plus Gen 3. That’s before we get to the outlandish ideas like Razer’s Project Sofia desk/monitor hybrid.

None, however, can compete with the quick-fix visual coolness of a screen that folds.

New hardware, same issues

Isn’t that brilliant? Almost, anyway. While we may be able to use folding laptops at CES 2022, they appear to have some typical concerns. Roach had this to say about utilizing the Asus Zenbook 17 Fold’s folding screen:

“The screen has a plastic layer on top of it, closing the machine requires both hands, and there is a ripple in the centre of the screen where the fold is.” It’s about the thickness and weight of two thin 13-inch notebooks placed on top of one other.”

The screen protection film now extends under the bezel.

If you’ve used the first Samsung Galaxy Fold and its plastic screen cover, or if you’ve felt the tight hinge on an out-of-the-box Galaxy Z Fold 3, you’ll nod knowingly. We highlighted the Oppo Find N because it minimized the crease in the center of its unfurled screen, which is common on other large folding smartphones and can be a hurdle to adoption for some. However, the Find N is significantly thicker and heavier than the Z Fold 3.

There’s also the question of why you’d want one. The benefits of a large screen/small device are evident, but what about keyboards, which are so important in laptops? The use of a peripheral is not the most elegant method. Companies at CES seemed to lack a drive to educate shoppers about why a foldable screen is required on a laptop, which is an argument that can still be leveled at phone makers today.

While folding laptops surely seem nice, especially at a show like CES where so much is clamoring for our attention and products require that instant wow factor, it appears that the same issues that plagued folding cellphones, particularly the early models, are being replicated. Worryingly, these flaws have tarnished perceptions of folding smartphones, and doing the same with laptops is unlikely to attract newcomers to that segment.

Time is required for folding screens

Folding cellphones are pricey, have a bad reputation for being fragile, take some getting used to, and still have software compatibility difficulties. Outside of China, the options are likewise limited, as all you can truly buy is a Samsung foldable or, err, a Samsung foldable. Things will improve in 2022, with Honor introducing a folding smartphone in January and others set to follow later in the year, but people still need convincing about folding screen technology in general.

Samsung Flex Note folding laptop prototype.

Given all we dislike about folding screens on smartphones, I’m not sure putting one on a laptop is the way to go. CES is a show that revels in showcasing the future of technology in a form that we can touch and test out, and seeing the reaction to Asus’ folding laptop reminded me of the first time I saw, and eventually touched, the Huawei Mate X in early 2019. The promise was obvious, and the thrill of actually folding the device in half was undeniable, but there were also obvious drawbacks.

Folding laptops may have been a huge trend at CES 2022, but when you read about them and suck the air between your teeth when you get to the challenges with these early models, recall the goal of the show and how long folding cellphones have taken to evolve. The folding smartphones we witnessed at MWC 2019 took nearly three years to become realistic, buyable goods, proving that CES is the launchpad for future technology.

Seeing laptops with folding screens, as well as the technology in general, is very exciting, but it may have been better for PC makers to learn from the mistakes made in the early days of folding smartphones before teasing models for release in 2022, to ensure that the first impression was absolutely the best it could be.