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Intel proves foldable screens are not just for phones anymore

© Provided by CNET   Intel's Horseshoe Bend PC prototype has a 17.3-inch folding screen that can work like an ordinary laptop, with or without an external keyboard. It's also got a built-in kickstand to perch as a flat, upright touchscreen on a tabletop. James Martin/CNET

By Stephen Shankland, CNET

If you're buying a PC, you may be trying to decide whether you want a big laptop with a big screen or a little laptop with a little screen. But thanks to new folding display technology, Intel has built a prototype PC called Horseshoe Bend that could offer the best of both worlds: a little laptop with a big screen.

And I mean a really big screen. It measures 17.3 inches diagonally, a notch bigger than the 16-inch display in Apple's latest high-end MacBook Pro. You can best appreciate it -- as CNET has in an exclusive look -- when you fully unfold Horseshoe Bend, flip out its built-in kickstand, perch it on a tabletop and use its wireless keyboard.

But that's just one setup. You can also partially fold it into a regular clamshell laptop shape -- except that its enormous screen sweeps down from the top all the way to where the keyboard would go. To type, you can use either a virtual keyboard or, if you're squeezed into an airline seat, magnetically attach the physical keyboard that covers the bottom portion of the screen. With the keyboard snapped on, it's like a regular laptop 12.5-inch screen.

Powering the system is Intel's next-generation mobile chip, Tiger Lake, slated to speed up graphics and AI when it arrives later in 2020. A 4:3 aspect ratio makes the pen-compatible, OLED touchscreen useful both in full-width landscape mode or bent in the middle in portrait mode.


Intel showed off the machine Monday at CES 2020 in Las Vegas, but CNET got a deeper look ahead of time at Horseshoe Bend, its design team, and the year and a half of work it took to refine the device. What began as crude Styrofoam cutouts is now a working computer that could hit store shelves in 2021 -- if Intel persuades PC makers to turn the prototype into their own products.

Horseshoe Bend is the next step in a profound change to mobile devices that flexible screens make possible. Many of us crave big screens for productivity and entertainment, as evidenced by the years-long trend toward bigger phones .

Folding displays can deliver those bigger screens. The most notable examples are foldable phones like Samsung's Galaxy Fold and Huawei's Mate X, which open up into mini tablets. Motorola's Razr doesn't have a dramatically larger screen than a conventional smartphone, but its foldable screen lets it snap closed into a more compact size when you're not using it.

Folding-screen devices are expensive and rough around the edges for now, with durability and ruggedness concerns. But as the technology matures, it could offer laptop users more immersive movies, generously large spreadsheets and better tools for editing photos and videos.

© Provided by CNET   One of Intel's Horseshoe Bend prototype hinges tests the ways to make the PC flex. Ultimately, Intel used a different approach. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"This product is the culmination of phones, tablets and PCs. It's going to move the needle," said Niraj Bali, senior engineering director at Intel's Client Platform Engineering group.

The first questions you'll likely ask about Horseshoe Bend are how durable that hinge is and how much the device will cost. Sorry, but Intel isn't discussing those details or even selling its design at this preliminary stage.

There are good indicators that you'll see folding-screen PCs for sale sooner rather than later, though. In May, Lenovo showed off a folding-screen PC prototype, the ThinkPad X1 . But with a 13-inch screen, it's a lot smaller than Horseshoe Bend.


Hinges, kickstands, displays

Horseshoe Bend's history began halfway through 2018 with an effort to smooth out PC designs that use two separate screens, moving instead to a single folding screen.

But folding screens raise new design problems, like fitting the screen's full length inside as you fold it, and it took months for Intel to come up with solutions.

To understand the problem, visualize how the inside track of a race course is shorter than the outside track, or how the skin on the inside grip of your hand stretches or loosens when you open and close your grip. Folding the device means mismatched lengths -- a problem Motorola faced with its new Razr foldable phone.

With the 7.75mm-thick Horseshoe Bend, Intel solves the problem by using two hinges in parallel to link the top and bottom halves of the laptop, said Mikko Makinen, a product design engineer. The two hinges offer enough room to accommodate the bowed-out screen when it's flexed.

On the outside, the leather-surfaced kickstand cover on the back of Horseshoe Bend had to overcome a related problem. When you fold the PC closed, the cover gets too short, like when you squat down and the bottom of your pant leg pulls up.

Here, Intel opted for a sliding design that shows a little ankle, so to speak. One half of the cover is fixed to the laptop back, while the other half slides, said Intel industrial designer Gustavo Fricke.


A complicated cover

The cover is surprisingly complex. Built into the fold, a specially formed plastic element helps snap the laptop closed. When Horseshoe Bend is placed in full-width landscape mode, the cover has a kickstand to hold the screen up. And inside the cover, graphite panels conduct heat away from the processors, letting the laptop run at higher clock speed when the kickstand is out.

The two-axle hinge and flexing screen open up small gaps in the hinge area. Intel covers them -- at least partially -- with flexible gaskets to keep out dust and crumbs.

Another clever trick comes with the detachable keyboard. It fits inside the teardrop-shaped interior gap, held in place by magnets. When you flip Horseshoe Bend open, the keyboard is positioned up against the upright part of the screen for the best ergonomics.

But you can resnap the keyboard to another set of magnets on the front edge of the PC to get a bigger screen, too. And you can use it completely separate from the rest of the computer.


You can't buy it yet

But it's not going to move the needle any time this year, at least when it comes to PCs you can buy. Horseshoe Bend is a reference design -- a template that Intel built to work out the engineering difficulties. Component makers, software developers and PC companies can use it as a starting point.

At CES, Horseshoe Bend is standing alongside the latest dual-screen laptops that Intel and PC makers hope will bring some pep to their flagging industry. Manufacturers have raced to develop hybrid computers that can function both as traditional laptops and as tablets.

The newest versions of these hybrids are dual-screen machines, like Lenovo's newer Yoga PCs or Microsoft's Surface Neo, that have two separate screens -- one above and one below the hinge. Horseshoe Bend's single sweeping screen is the next step on the march of progress, said Chris Walker, general manager of Intel's mobile PC group.

Horseshoe Bend-inspired machines won't be cheap. If PC makers follow Intel's advice, they'll have dual webcams and four speakers so the PCs work in different orientations. Big screens cost a lot more even when they're not flexible. And this system uses the Tiger Lake chip that itself is a premium product, the successor to Intel's Ice Lake chips that arrived in 2019.

"It's obviously going to be premium when it first comes out, but I never underestimate people's willingness to pay for cool," Walker said. You can expect Intel and PC makers to work hard to drive costs down.

The cool factor pairs well with Horseshoe Bend's large-screen utility when it's time to convince someone to buy one, Walker said.

"There's the why and the wow," Walker said. "That ability to have that larger screen and to really get the most productivity -- that's the why. The wow factor is that ability to pack light and to be very ultra, ultra portable."


Creating PCs of the future

Horseshoe Bend originated at Intel's Experience Centered Design team, which is made up of 16 user experience and industrial design researchers split between Intel's headquarters in Santa Clara, California, and its sizable operations in Oregon. Their job is to explore next-generation PC designs -- models that are about two years into the future -- and solve most of the problems standing in their way.

© Provided by CNET   The Horseshoe Bend prototype leaves room for crumbs and grit at the two-axle hinge, but Intel expects to protect it better with gaskets. Stephen Shankland/CNET

To do so, they draw on countless other Intel employees with expertise in displays, power management, processor design, circuit board layout, cabling, cooling, software, acoustics, batteries and more. Often, fixing one problem or adding one new feature leads to a cascade of complications. 

Then there are the experts outside Intel. 

"We talked to people who make shoes" to understand how to make a premium leather exterior, said team director Barry Marshall. One expert in Austria helped Intel narrow the list of possible fabrics for Horseshoe Bend's back cover from 4,000 to 10, then to three.

Part of the point of coming up with a reference design is to spin up the sprawling collection of hardware and software makers that need to be on board to meet demand.

"We create the recipe," Bali said.

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Technology News: Intel proves foldable screens are not just for phones anymore
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