A laptop with no screen, another with two: New twists and turns in PC design
Laptops, desktops, tablets and even CPUs are in the midst of an era of radical design change. Vishal Mathur explores what, why, and what’s next.
Would you pay $2,000 for a laptop with no screen? Or a bit more, for a laptop with two? These are the questions buyers can expect to navigate, as the personal computers segment enters an era of radical design change.
Options already available include DIY assembly kits; all-in-one desktops (with no clunky CPU); tablets that have grown so large, one can simply plug in a keyboard and get to work. (The biggest tablet PC currently available has a 14.6-inch screen, larger than that of most laptops).
First, the most intriguing: the no-screen laptop.
The US-based start-up Sightful, founded by Israeli innovators Tamir Berliner and Tomer Kahan, is behind the first augmented-reality (AR) laptop to make it to markets. At first glance, the Spacetop looks perfectly ordinary. Open the black shell, and there’s a keyboard and webcam. But no display. Instead, the $2,000 device (that’s about ₹1.66 lakh) comes with an AR headset.
Berliner is also the man behind PrimeSense, which provided the underlying technology for Microsoft’s wireless, interactive Xbox gaming platform and Apple’s facial identification on iPhones. (The company was eventually acquired by Apple for $350 million in 2013). So he has been pushing the envelope for a while.
Sightful is pitching Spacetop as “a 100-inch screen in your backpack”. This is unmatched display, with greater privacy — no one can peek at this screen.
The question, of course, will be comfort and adaptability. Working on documents or spreadsheets, reading email, or even watching a movie, on a giant screen that moves every time one moves one’s head, will likely take some getting used to. Currently, even among gamers, AR headsets are so disorienting that users are compelled to take breaks at least every 45 minutes.
Nonetheless, Apple is attempting something similar too. The Apple Vision Pro headset, due for release next year, will be compatible with iPhones and Mac devices. Apple’s upcoming visionOS will power its AR platform. (Spacetop will use Windows 11.)
The Asus ZenBook Pro Duo laptop has a primary 15.6-inch display, and a secondary touchscreen called the ScreenPad Plus, placed in line with the keyboard. This second screen’s primary role is to offer companion real-estate, to extend quick access to a secondary app for, say, visuals, notes, doodles, scribbles or drawings. This approach could be particularly useful in fields such as art, design, architecture and filmmaking.
Lenovo’s redesign is a bit more radical. The new Yoga Book 9i (priced at about ₹2.2 lakh) detaches the keyboard from its traditional spot and turns it into a wireless accessory. In the space that is thus opened up, sits a 13-inch touchscreen. The second screen can either serve as a touch keyboard or a secondary screen for extended options. Place the laptop vertically on a dock, and the two identical screens can sit side-by-side, for a seamless multi-tasking or viewing experience.
Meanwhile, Framework Computer is now taking pre-orders for a modular laptop that won’t just be configured to the user’s specifications, but can be shipped to the user’s address either built up, or as a do-it-yourself kit to be assembled at home.
The once-clunky desktop is undergoing design evolutions too. All-in-one devices by Apple and HP such as the iMac 24-inch and the Envy 34 seamlessly integrate all components behind the display, into a body that looks something like a flat-screen TV. Which means no clunky central processing unit or CPU to drag around or drape wires to.
On the flip side, Apple’s Mac Mini and Lenovo’s IdeaCentre 3 are examples of standalone, very compact CPUs that don’t come with a monitor (lowering the potential price of a new device). These CPUs can be connected to almost any device, including a TV.
As for the tablet, the Apple iPad Pro now comes in screen sizes of 11 and 12.9 inches, and is more powerful than many laptops in the same price range (about ₹82,000). Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S9 Ultra, launched in August, has a 14.6-inch screen, making it larger than most laptops (today’s standard is 14 inches).
As microchips and hard drives shrink and become more power-efficient — they don’t require large cooling fans and heat dissipation systems any more — expect devices to get smaller, and, in a sense, stranger.
But none of this spells the end for the conventional laptop. Its combination of single display, keyboard, touchpad, ports and portability is likely to remain the most affordable such format, and in large part because of that, the most widespread.