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2020 might be the year of reasonably okay foldable PCs, maybe

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PC makers? They’ve got to know when to fold ‘em

“We will bend it for you,” an Intel representative told Vjeran, The Verge’s video director, at our CES meeting. “Three times maximum.” This did not make me think that Intel is particularly confident in the durability of its foldable PC.

That’s fair enough, really. It’s only meant to be a reference design, as Intel isn’t a company that sells finished consumer electronics in the first place. But it’s an example of how this year’s CES has demonstrated the state of foldable screen technology. On one hand, the showings have convinced me that these products will be a big deal at some point. On the other, they’ve convinced me that that point is some way off.

Intel’s Horseshoe Bend
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

While Intel’s demonstration was the least finished, it also felt like the most significant. “Horseshoe Bend,” as the codename goes, 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.

The utility is obvious. I wouldn’t mind having one right now as I type this article on my conventional laptop in my hotel room. In desk-bound situations, you’d get a much bigger screen than would be practical to carry otherwise. For laptop-style use, you get a traditional physical design that can have a regular keyboard added if you need one or absent if you don’t.

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.”

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Fold.
Photo by Sam Byford / The Verge

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.

As Tom Warren wrote yesterday, though, the bigger problem may be the software. I haven’t spent enough time with the X1 Fold to live with its quirks, but my sense is that pure Windows 10 really is not the best fit for this form factor, despite Lenovo’s bandage-like customizations. While the software is obviously unfinished, there are some really glaring flaws. In laptop-style use, for example, the keyboard obscures the task bar with no way to pin it to the bottom of the “top screen” where you’d expect it to be. Shifting between screen orientations doesn’t feel smooth or responsive.

Microsoft’s Surface Neo.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Maybe Lenovo will improve things before the X1 Fold ships, but it’s likely that the Windows 10X version will prove a better fit. That’s Microsoft’s new version of Windows with a user interface specifically designed for dual-screen and foldable devices, including the company’s own Surface Neo. Unfortunately, we have no idea when these products will actually be available.

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?