Computex, first inaugurated in 1981, is the destination for witnessing the future of personal computers. The largest trade show dedicated for computers held annually in Taipei, Taiwan, has directed the PC industry in a way unlike any other trade show. It is the place where semiconductor manufacturers, component suppliers and OEMs have come together to show how computing will evolve in the future. At Computex 2019, that trend was very much visible with laptops becoming thinner, lighter and computers becoming weirder, but the future was clear: defy the classical definition of a computer.
What is a PC?
This is the most important question that also introduces several people towards computing for the first time. The question intrigued me as a child and it was basically defined as a combination of a screen (monitor), CPU (central processing unit), keyboard and mouse. The CPU serves as the brain of a computer while the screen acts as an output device and keyboard and mouse act as input device. At Computex 2019, the tech companies envisioned a future where these input devices could be taken out of equation altogether. In other words, remove keyboard and mouse and add a secondary display to mimic that very function. Interestingly, the trend was spearheaded by Intel and not its PC making partners.
Intel showed its vision for dual-screen computers codenamed Twin River, and it was both wild and questionable at the same time. Intel’s Twin River is not the first time we have heard or seen laptops with dual screen design. Lenovo Yoga Book launched in 2016 showed what a laptop with dual screen would look like and it came with a traditional display on one side and replaced the mechanical keyboard with a pressure-sensitive display. At IFA 2018 last year, Lenovo reiterated on that design with a new model called Yoga Book C930 featuring a 2-in-1 design with a standard display and an e-ink display.
The launch of Lenovo Yoga Book C930 was preceded by the preview of Project Precog by Asus at Computex 2018 that really confirmed that dual-screen laptops will soon become a reality. At Computex 2019, Asus did not announce or detail the product further, but Intel made it clear that Santa Clara, California-based company is setting the ground rules for such a design. Intel first previewed its vision for dual-screen computers codenamed Tiger Rapids in late 2018 but at Computex 2019, it is trying to convince PC makers than end of traditional design is near.
Intel Twin River – The Future Platform Design
It is almost impossible to imagine a laptop without Intel processor inside it. While AMD has re-emerged as a competitive force in the computing world with its Ryzen platform, the team Red is still a smaller force in laptops. The leverage Intel has with its superior platforms for laptop design allows the company to dictate the terms for evolution, like how Microsoft can dictate software design. The prerogative behind launching laptops with dual screen is mainly driven by the fact that more consumers today get smartphones as their first computer. As smartphone penetration increases around the world, the need for truly mobile computer is becoming indimissable. With Twin River, Intel is trying to deliver an ultra-thin, truly mobile computer.
Intel’s Twin River concept device shown at Computex 2019 stands for two things: dual-screen design and new material integration. A laptop for the most part is made of metal enclosure with components fabricated into them. With Twin River, Intel wants PC makers to look beyond the horizon and use new materials, specifically fabric. HP is already demonstrating initial use case for such new materials with its Spectre Folio, the first laptop made from real leather. The product was not a market success, but it forced companies to look beyond all metal unibody design. At Computex 2019, HP expanded that design language with a wooden finish to its Envy lineup while Asus introduced Zenbook 30 with leather finish as well.
The most immediate challenge with a form factor like Twin River is designing new processor platforms and motherboard designs that could be accommodated into the tiny enclosure. While Intel can use any of existing platform like the 8th generation Intel Core processor family or the newer 10th generation Core family, the design itself needs to be altered to match the enclosure designed for a dual-screen form factor.
During an interaction with BGR India, Intel executives acknowledged that they work closely with OEM partners to tailor its processor design for specific needs. Intel tells us that the difference between Twin River and Copper Harbor, the dual-screen concept shown at CES 2019, boils down to display size. While Copper Harbor focused on tablet size display, the Twin River pushes it to laptop size display.
For Intel, Twin River is more than defining the next wave of PC innovation and it is mainly an attempt to ensure it does not miss out on future wave of computing, like it did with mobile a decade ago. During my time with a prototype device developed under Twin River, the benefits were clear. The biggest advantage comes in the area of portability. The Twin River design seems to be conceptualized with tablets as a base and not laptop. Their folding nature allows them to extend into a laptop use case and the prototype device (see above) is so thin and light that most consumers would not even realize carrying one in their backpack.
The other advantage of a Twin River design is instant on connectivity. With Ultrabook, Intel made it possible for laptops to boot in 10 seconds, but the design of future is meant to work just like your smartphone. It is supposed to be always on and resume your activity without any compromise in performance or decline in battery life. Intel rather than looking at partners to address these issues, found a solution on its own. The company has developed 1W panels that draw less power than conventional LCD panels and yet offer similar brightness and contrast. These panels are yet to become mainstream, but Intel is pushing it as the only way forward for future form factors, especially those with dual-screens or foldable screens.
Asus’ Project Precog is still the most promising look at what a foldable laptop could look like when it becomes commercially available in the market but there are also questions about validity of such a design. Ahead of Computex, Lenovo showed its foldable ThinkPad laptop with real flexible display and a smart design that allows for the device to be held in the shape of a traditional laptop on a flat surface without any flex. Lenovo is not saying when this design will come to market, but it seems like a smarter vision for the future than the dual display solution.
If you are a purist like me then you would be wondering how I will live without a real keyboard on my laptop and Intel has thought about that too. It says all the Twin River designs will ship with an external keyboard and Intel’s own design is a keyboard that can slide in between the two displays when not in use. The semiconductor company envisions consumers using the tablet keyboard for most part but when they need to do something more intensive, like writing this article, the external keyboard will be used. The virtual keyboard was largely dismissed when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 but we have all learned to type on displays and Intel believes the phenomenon will be more relevant on Twin River design since it has larger screen and more area for typing.
Intel Twin River and Challenges
Intel Twin River is an amazing concept and one that is need of the hour as most work gets accomplished on smartphones and laptops mainly act as companion device. If you are someone on the move, then Twin River design would be less than a kilogram of personal electronics to carry with you. But its challenges are something that Intel is not in the best place to address.
The prototype Twin River device shown by Intel at Computex 2019 ran a custom software with previews of applications like Powerpoint and Excel tweaked to extend to the second display. It also came loaded with additional applications like Sony Vegas Pro that showed the extensibility feature with tools like video editing. With Excel, one could see more rows than traditionally possible on a Twin River design while Powerpoint could be used in interpreter mode to show the second screen to a viewer. On Vegas Pro, one could have the video stream running on the main display while the second display acts as digital console for actions like scrubbing or viewing the timeline. The promise is enormous, but the software is not quite there.
Just like how it is impossible to imagine a laptop without Intel chip inside it, it is difficult to get a modern machine without Windows operating system. The current version, Windows 10, is still very much designed for traditional form factor involving one screen. The prototype device shown by Intel had several failures and software reboots that made it impossible to record the activity. The only real solution to these problems is Microsoft building a new operating system from ground up. The Redmond-based software giant has already revealed plans to design a modern OS but it is not clear whether these devices will cater to dual-screen design.
The Verge reported this week that Microsoft demonstrated its dual-screen Surface-branded prototype hardware at an all hands event for its devices team. The device, codenamed Centaurus, has been in works for two years and with better integration between devices and software team under CEO Satya Nadella, we could see this device with a software that would be natively designed for such form factor.
Dual-Screen as the first citizen
Laptops for a foreseeable future will come with a single screen, keyboard and trackpad with all muscle power embedded underneath. But for dual screen form factors to see the light and become a common form factor, they need to be a first-class citizen and not just a concept for the future. Every modern automobile is being pitched as a truly autonomous vehicle these days, but they come with steering wheel suggesting you will have to drive them. The day automakers ditch the steering wheel will be the dawn of truly autonomous vehicles. Similarly, the day PC makers build more devices with dual screen design and Microsoft and other software makers design operating systems and applications for such form factor will result in wider adoption and acceptance. Intel and Microsoft tried to push Windows-based tablets as superior alternative to iPad once and failed and with Twin River, the stakes of failing is even higher.