Intel proves foldable screens are not just for phones anymore


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's Horseshoe Bend PC prototype

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.

“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.