Tech Tonic | A chapter of dramatic change in personal computing is being written - Hindustan Times
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Tech Tonic | A chapter of dramatic change in personal computing is being written

Apr 18, 2024 08:30 PM IST

The laptops and desktops we have become so familiar with, are now changing quite significantly. There’s a radical innovation in progress

It was a much simpler time. In 1998, then Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled a radical teardrop-shaped iMac computer (also called the iMac G3) with a hitherto unseen design — a translucent plastic wraparound. It was so unique that no personal computer maker has been able to fully replicate Apple’s translucent designs since. But the iMac set off the trend of attention to design that hasn’t stalled since.

The Asus Zenbook Duo laptop. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo) PREMIUM
The Asus Zenbook Duo laptop. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)

If memory serves me well, the iMac offered 13 colour options for users to choose from. Bondi (a shade of blue), lime, tangerine, strawberry, grape, sage and indigo were some standouts. Years later, colours remain an experiment that PC makers often avoid. Apple has avoided this too, and it is only now that we are again starting to see some hues of blue in recent MacBook Air laptop generations. HP has tried some shades of blue in premium laptops from the Spectre family. Lenovo has dabbled with white. But the laptop market is still mostly a sea of black and greys.

More to the point, between 1998 and 2024, many milestones were set that define computing devices as we know them today, their utility evolving with each new demand made for them. Now, consumers have never had it so good. Or this complicated a choice. Computing device designs are becoming dramatic. Things have moved beyond the simple pursuit of making laptops slimmer, or making tablets effective laptop replacements, or focusing on specs to make computing devices as powerful as possible.

Here and now, we are witnessing the next chapter of computing devices being written. There’s a radical innovation in progress, from two screens to a transparent screen, and even no-screen laptops. The changes are specific to Windows 11 laptops but with the potential to engender broader change. The Asus Zenbook Duo (2024) is a dual-screen laptop that has genuine utility, as I noted in my detailed review. At the very core of this is Asus building the tools that make two screens very usable on Windows 11, something Microsoft had very little input in. That has to change, at some point.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, I had the chance to see Lenovo’s ThinkBook Transparent Display Laptop Concept. It was more of a showcase of display tech and what Lenovo can do, that may or may not make it to a final product that you and I will be able to buy in stores. That 17.3-inch micro-LED transparent screen may have limited use cases for now, but from the MWC we know it can be made. Before that, we may see Lenovo focus its energies on a dual-screen laptop instead. Asus should contend with some competition. HP and Dell better make some notes too. Sooner than later we’ll know which PC maker has a better take on the dual-screen format

Alongside, let us not forget desktops are becoming incredibly compact (the all-in-ones, or AIOs, as they are called), while tablets have grown larger than ever (12-inch or so screen sizes are common now). Then there is the other side of the coin, beyond the very form factor we know of laptops or desktops. What if those physical limitations, such as screen sizes, are removed?

A 100-inch laptop screen that takes up no space

Sightful, a US-based start-up, has produced the world’s first augmented reality (AR) laptop. At first glance, it resembles the outer shell of any laptop or tablet with a keyboard case. Pretty much the specs you’d expect – a keyboard, a webcam, a Qualcomm processor with 8GB RAM, Windows 11 and 256GB storage. Yet, unfold this $2,150 (around 1,80,000) “laptop” and that’s when you notice there isn’t a display. Instead, there’s an augmented reality headset, or as they call it, a “100-inch screen in your backpack”. Without actually taking up any space.

Sightful was founded by chief executive Tamir Berliner and chief technical officer Tomer Kahan. Berliner earlier co-founded PrimeSense, whose technology was used as the underlier by Microsoft for its Kinect AI tech for interactive Xbox gaming, and by Apple for Face ID authentication on iPhones. In due course, can an AR headset be the logical replacement for a screen? Time, and use cases, will define that transition, if at all. As will your (and my; very limited, I must admit) comfort with an AR headset.

The advantage of augmented reality computing is multi-pronged. You aren’t limited by a physical screen size. Nor can anyone peek at what you’re doing, because only you have your eyes on it. The caveat – you have to be comfortable wearing a headset that’s much more elaborate than swimming goggles.

Then there are Framework Computers’ modular laptops. The Framework Laptop 13 (prices start at $849; or around 70,140) and Framework Laptop 16 can be configured exactly how users want them, to the finest of detail – different generations of Intel and AMD chips (slightly older ones tend to be less costly), storage, memory and connectivity options.

That’s not the end of its uniqueness. You can either have it shipped to you built up or if you are feeling geeky enough, choose the DIY (or do-it-yourself) option, where they’ll ship all components in one well-protected package.

Computing wasn’t always this exciting. Many of you may remember an extended design lull in the 1990s and 2000s when desktops were all big black or grey boxes (white, if you were cool), and black coloured laptops were thick as briefcases.

The Covid-19 pandemic was when innovation sped up, as PC makers found a re-energised market. Consider desktops. They are no longer a puzzle of putting together a massive metal box (this is where the CPU, memory, storage drive and in an earlier era, a CD drive nestled) with a specific monitor. First are all-in-ones (AIOs), like an Apple iMac 24-inch or HP Envy 34 AIO, which seamlessly integrate all components behind the display into a form factor that’s akin to a TV. Second are those compact desktop computer boxes, such as the Apple’s Mac Mini and the Lenovo IdeaCenter3. Since they don’t ship with a display, you’re saving on sticker price in addition to the flexibility of using any display or TV.

The very approach to computing is evolving. Versatile convertibles, compact desktops, ever-larger tablets with keyboards, dual-screen laptops, modular laptops and portable gaming consoles can do the job of a computing device. Even the incredibly visionary that the late Steve Jobs was, may have found it tough to predict this sort of versatility, just two decades later.

Vishal Mathur is the technology editor for the Hindustan Times. Tech Tonic is a weekly column that looks at the impact of personal technology on the way we live, and vice-versa. The views expressed are personal.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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