Last time I was at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in 2019, foldables were the new hotness in town. Samsung had announced — but not released — its first Galaxy Fold, and Huawei showed off its own foldable tablet at the show — the Mate X. Four years and a pandemic later, Lenovo is back at the same show to pitch a subtly different kind of future, one in which both laptop and smartphone screens can gradually expand to provide more screen real estate, rather than having to unfold completely like books.
I was treated to a first look at both devices, which were first teased by the company last October. There’s a rollable laptop and a rollable smartphone that Lenovo is currently branding as a Motorola device (Lenovo bought the phone brand almost a decade ago in 2014). But Lenovo insists that both are early proof of concept devices, and reps wouldn’t answer any of my questions about when they might be released to the public, or how much they might cost if they do. I didn’t even get a chance to hold the devices to myself.
But both offer an interesting look at how changing screens could affect the future of both phones and laptops, highlighting the kinds of functionality that could be possible once you move away from the idea of a screen as a fixed, flat object.
Before we get into the signature feature of the concept laptop, it’s worth pointing out how unassuming the device looks before the screen rolls out. Lenovo kept the device in a conference suite next to his other laptops, and none of the dozen or so journalists present realized it was anything other than a standard ThinkPad. In its unexpanded form, it has a normal-looking 12.7-inch display with a 4:3 aspect ratio.
That all changes with a small switch on the right side of the chassis, after which you hear some motors buzz and the screen slides upwards. That switch causes a pair of motors inside the laptop to kick in and pull the screen out from under the laptop’s keyboard to raise it more or less vertically for you. It’s an admittedly slow process on this concept device (it appears to take just over ten seconds to fully stretch from our footage), but what you end up with is a nearly square 15.3-inch screen with an 8:9 aspect ratio .
It’s like having two 16:9 screens on top of each other
The device is reminiscent of LG’s beautiful (and eye-wateringly expensive) roll-up TV that’s designed to roll away when you’re not using it. Only in Lenovo’s case does the screen roll down into the laptop’s keyboard rather than into a small box, nor can it roll away completely. When fully unfolded, Lenovo’s laptop screen has a small crease where the screen originally bent under the keyboard. But again: it’s a prototype.
In terms of resolution, the screen is 2024 x 1604 when in small mode, and 2024 x 2368 when fully extended. So, in theory at least, quite usable without having to fully stretch the screen. The screen is supplied by Sharp, which is also the company Lenovo partnered with on its ThinkPad X1 foldable laptops. Display competitor Samsung Display has also announced that it is working with Intel on rollable laptop screens, but the prototype did not seem to have a keyboard.
When fully rolled out, Lenovo’s rollable laptop has an oddly tall screen with an 8:9 aspect ratio, which the company says is like having two 16:9 screens stacked on top of each other. It’s not unlike the dual-screen Yoga Book 9i we tested at CES, which will be released in June. It’s a form factor that could be useful to anyone who struggles to work on a single small laptop screen and has considered buying an external screen (or even an iPad) to work as a portable second monitor.
Lenovo thinks such a large screen could be useful for office workers and creative professionals alike, as it offers everything from more lines of code to more cells in a spreadsheet, or – for me personally – the ability to click on the bottom half of the screen. writing while notes and resources remain visible in the top half. Many people like to use vertical monitors with their desktop PCs, and Windows has no problem stacking windows on top of each other.
Despite how polished the device looked in our demo, Lenovo is clearly nowhere near ready to release its rollable concept as a consumer-ready device. I asked about durability, and Lenovo only said it’s aiming for 20,000 to 30,000 rolls, the same number as its foldable ThinkPad X1 (I’ll admit that doesn’t sound like much compared to the hundreds of thousands of folds that foldable smartphones are usually judged on, but I think that you unfold and fold a laptop less regularly during a working day). The company declined to say how many roles the prototype can currently survive.
I also had questions about the weight and battery life. Lenovo wouldn’t tell me how much the laptop weighs, and I wasn’t allowed to pick it up myself (trust me, I asked). Ideally you would want this thing to be both lighter than carrying a laptop plus a portable monitor, like be more compact, but we’ll have to wait and see on the first point. And apparently the retractable laptop’s retractor draws a few watts of power while it’s in motion, which doesn’t sound ideal at a time when many laptops’ batteries still struggle to get through a day’s use.
That said, Lenovo is one of the few laptop manufacturers to actually release a foldable laptop, which gives me some confidence that the foldable concept could one day become a reality. The original ThinkPad X1 Fold came out in 2020, and a second-generation model was announced last year – although it’s not yet hitting the market after missing its November ship date.
from Lenovo other rollable device being showcased at MWC is a Motorola smartphone. We’ve seen plenty of companies including Samsung Display, Oppo, TCL and even LG (RIP) show off rollable concept devices in various stages of development over the years, but we’ve yet to see the technology break into a consumer device.
Like a foldable smartphone, the idea is that a rollable smartphone can be small if you want it portable, and big if you need more screen to get the job done. Lenovo’s phone – dubbed the Motorola roll-up smartphone concept – is all about taking a small square of a screen and making it longer. It’s almost like a foldable flip phone, but without a secondary cover screen because it’s the same screen all the time.
When neatly rolled up, Lenovo’s Motorola rollable offers a 5-inch screen with a 15:9 aspect ratio. Then, with a small double-tap of a side button, the screen unfolds to give you a remarkably large 6.5-inch display with a 22:9 aspect ratio.
Lenovo gets a lot of mileage out of this simple-looking design. There are obvious use cases, like being able to watch a video at its original aspect ratio with no black bars, or getting a bigger screen if you want to write an email. Lenovo’s idea is for the phone to automatically resize the screen to fit different apps, and it hopes the final version will allow users to adjust how big they want the screen for each usage situation.
There are also some less obvious elements of the device. Because the retractable screen rolls around the bottom of the phone rather than disappearing into the chassis, a small secondary screen remains on the back when rolled up. Software features for this include using it as a viewfinder when taking selfies with the phone’s rear cameras. Lenovo even added a feature where the rear display plays cute eye-catching animations to get a kid to look at the phone if you want to take a picture of it. That said, if the cover screen on foldable flip phones from the likes of Samsung and Oppo is anything to go by, it can be challenging to find really useful stuff for these kinds of small screens.
Another nice touch is that the screen can hide the selfie camera and earpiece and roll down to reveal them when you call or go to take a selfie.
As with the laptop, Motorola’s rollable smartphone concept is a proof of concept, and there were a lot of questions Lenovo didn’t have answers to, such as how many rolls the screen can survive. There’s no price quote, and not even a hint as to when this device might be released. I didn’t get a chance to hold or use the device for myself.
Then again, given Lenovo’s track record with foldable phones (remember the Razr?), I think the odds are slim that this technology will one day appear in a Motorola-branded phone.
In 2019, it seemed that foldable phones were about to become the next big thing in the world of smartphones. But four years later, it feels like we’re still waiting for this future to become a mainstream reality. Lenovo would be the first to admit that its rollable concept devices are nowhere near ready for prime time, but they make a compelling case for an alternative rollable future.
Photography by Jon Porter/The Verge