Laptops are a mature category, and foldable screens are arguably one of the last frontiers. Several companies have attempted to bite that pie this year — notorious chaos agent Asus put out a surprisingly decent foldable Zenbook in August, and rumors of an HP model continue to swirl. But it’s easy to forget (and perhaps the company would like us to) that Lenovo was actually the first to the punch on this form factor, with the 2020 ThinkPad X1 Fold that had, shall we say, a number of problems.
Lenovo is making its second attempt at an X1 Fold this year, with the second-gen model slated for release this quarter. And Brian Leonard, the company’s VP of design, would like us all to know that our complaints have been heard and addressed.
“We spent a lot of time with the users that actually utilized those devices,” Leonard says, referring to the first-gen model. “Direct feedback from them went into the development of this device.”
“We spent a lot of time with users that actually utilized those devices.”
When I reviewed the X1 Fold in late 2020, I could absolutely see the benefit of a foldable form factor. It’s much easier to carry a 13.3-inch screen around in a purse or a tote bag when it’s folded up in a book shape than when it’s fully laid out.
But most of what made the first-gen X1 Fold difficult to use stemmed from the fact that it was too small. For one, the keyboard needed to be small enough to fit inside the device when it was closed and to magnetically attach to the bottom half when it was folded at 90 degrees. But that meant that it couldn’t be full size and a number of keys had to be combined. The apostrophe was positively infinitesimal. Some buttons had to accommodate as many as four different symbols, so you needed to hit three keys at once in order to make a question mark.
Thirteen inches, furthermore, was not large enough. A major benefit of the foldable screen is supposed to be that you can turn it vertically and then bend it into a laptop shape when you need a compact device for airplane use and such. With the original X1 Fold, however, the screen room was so tiny as to be useless — and the on-screen keyboard that would appear on the bottom half was doubly so.
These complaints, unsurprisingly, also came up in Lenovo’s market research. “They wanted a better keyboard, and they wanted a keyboard that was full-sized,” says Leonard of the users the company surveyed. And to those users, “the screen was never really big enough to be a primary device. It was a secondary device.” That was a particular issue because the X1 Fold was priced at well over $2,000 — not at all a reasonable price for a secondary device.
The new keyboard is much bigger, without the key-smooshing. It’s backlit and has the ThinkPad trackpoint as well as a fingerprint sensor. Leonard assures me that he types on the on-screen keyboard himself all the time. “For quick moments of doing things, answering a quick email or doing internet searches or whatever, if I’m not spending a lot of time and I’m not writing long things, I’m okay on the screen,” he says.
“I’m okay on the screen”
The other big fix is that the screen is now 16 inches. “For me, there’s something quite magical with using it in bent mode and then scrolling through websites,” Leonard says. “It feels very different than scrolling through on a standard notebook or even a tablet. It actually feels like it’s moving away from you or toward you.” The company even considered going full-on Surface Pro with a built-in kickstand (like the first X1 Fold had) but determined that the device’s ability to stand in both portrait and landscape orientations was more important. (There’s instead a separate kickstand, which you can magnetically attach and detach at will.)
Fans of the foldable form factor would probably love to see it become a staple of Lenovo’s lines in the way the convertible did for a number of years. There will certainly be eyes on this product, Leonard’s included, and its success may be a big factor in whether the company sees the category as viable. (Other companies already seem to have moved on — Samsung, for example, recently announced that the “foldable is gone,” and that the future is slidable.)
“Eventually, I would love to see this become part of the standard ThinkPad line,” Leonard says. “But that’s really up to…how the market bears on this stuff.” Might they soon be available at a more accessible price point? That also depends on how this one does. “My hope is that we’ll see that curve and that price point come down over time and the volumes increase,” he says. “And then I think we’ll really start to see more data coming back from users and more data about how they’re using it.”
But, he reiterated, this one fixed the problems. “We learned from those things,” he says, “and made massive adjustments and improvements to bring out this device.”