Key milestones in laptop design in the last decade

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The last decade has been laptop friendly. Few computing products have improved in so many ways, to the point that a modern laptop is a different device than the laptops of a decade ago.

We could list hundreds of big and small improvements, but that would be impractical and few people would read through. That’s why we’ve decided to list just five changes that have made today’s laptop an amazing device.

Very thin frames

Dell XPS 13 9310 Monitor
Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

The frames, those typically black stripes that surround the screen, were once massive things. Sometimes even inches thick, they were ugly and greatly increased the size of the laptop. Installing a 15.6-inch screen with huge frames required a larger platform, which contributed to the perception that 15-inch laptops were horrible things that were hardly intended for portable use.

All of that changed when Dell introduced the 2015 XPS 13. The laptop provided frames that looked small compared to the rest of the field, and they allowed Dell to fit a 13-inch laptop in the same size frame as the day.

As usual, the industry accepted the advance, and you can choose from a number of laptops with frames close to or as small as the XPS 13. It’s no longer just a 13-inch screen that fits into an 11-inch body; it has a 17-inch screen that fits in a 15-inch body – and everything in between. Laptops are smaller everywhere thanks to this simple change, and it’s been great in laptop design.

Other technologies have also been forced to move forward. For example, webcams and Infrared cameras – essential for Windows 10 Hello Face Detection – have been shrunk to fit the space provided by small frames. Webcams still have a way to go because it is not common to find suitable 1080p webcams. But we’re sure it’s just a matter of time.

Metal beats plastic

You can find plastic laptops today – they’re called budget laptops, and they usually cost $ 500 or less. However, there was a time when most computers were built entirely or mostly of plastic, regardless of their cost.

Then things changed. We’re not sure if the 2009 Apple MacBook Pro was the first all-metal computer, and it’s not technically in the last decade, but the laptop mainstreamed the metal machine. Apple’s 2010 unibody MacBook Air was the next step in an all-metal laptop, and since then, other manufacturers have started following the model.

Today, almost all but the budget notebooks mentioned above are at least partly made of metal. Some are made of stamped metal pieces, typically aluminum, mounted together on a reasonably durable base. The best premium equipment is CNC machined from a single metal block, again typically aluminum, and is the stiffest you will find. This doesn’t mean that every well-built laptop is all metal – Lenovo and Dell, for example, use carbon fiber in their premium ThinkPad and XPS lines, if that makes sense, and these devices are as robust as they come.

Undoubtedly, keeping a modern metal laptop next to an older plastic machine shows how far the design of the laptop has come. The lack of a flexible and tightening platform gives today’s machines a sense of quality that barely existed just 10 years ago.

Screens that turn completely

HP Specter x360 14 Media Mode
Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

Lenovo’s 2012 yoga introduced the world to a new phenomenon: a portable screen that didn’t stop at a vertical angle, but turned 360 degrees and lay flat against the back of the platform. This introduced a new kind of 2-in-1 portable, 360-degree convertible, and offered new flexibility to the traditional seashell shell.

There are other 2-in-1 devices, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro tablet series with a detachable keyboard – and many clones – but none of them work as well as traditional laptops as a 360-degree convertible. In general, the latter can be folded into four different configurations loosely known as clamshell, tent (just as it sounds, folded on both front edges that support the screen and keyboard parts), media (keyboard lying flat and screen flipped for turning) video and tablet spaces. 360-degree convertibles tend to be a bit big as tablets, but they still work – better than the detachable tablet 2-in-1 on the lap.

It’s a simple solution in retrospect, but it was great. Today, the whole industry and some examples have been built around the shape – such as HP Specter x360 14 – Compete strongly with the best laptops you can buy.

Oversized touchpads

MacBook Air M1
Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

Touchpads have been the primary means of controlling the cursor since the first laptop was scrolled off the assembly line. They are critical components, but still it wasn’t so long ago that they were small things that take up far too little space on the keyboard deck. Apple changed everything with the massive touchpads it added to its laptops, starting with the 2016 MacBook Pro.

Soon after, other laptop manufacturers began following the model and increasing the size of their touchpads. Today, touchpads are almost generally large enough to provide at least a little comfort, and some machines – Dell’s latest XPS 15 and XPS 17For example, the Specter x360 14 – has larger touchpads than what we’ve seen on a typical Windows 10 machine.

Microsoft also used it to improve touchpad performance Precise touchpad protocol, so today’s touchpads are not only larger, but also more functional. Apple’s haptic touchpads are still the industry leader, but the rest of the premium market is not far off.

Higher screens

HP Specter x360 14 Monitor
Mark Coppock / Digital Trends

The last improvement on your laptop is a comeback higher screens. Laptops once used a nearly square 4: 3 aspect ratio, which provided almost as much vertical space as horizontal. This was great for working with documents, websites, and other productivity-oriented content, but it wasn’t optimized for watching videos. As TVs switched to the wider 16: 9 format of 1080p (and eventually 4K) to accommodate content, laptops did the same.

The result has been an aspect ratio that is indeed good for media consumption, but it is too short to browse long documents. In this sense, more and more laptops are embracing higher aspect ratios, especially 16:10 and 3: 2. Microsoft adopted a 3: 2 aspect ratio with its Surface Pro 3 tablet, but last year there have been clamshell laptops and 360-degree convertibles.

It’s a welcome change that makes devices that also work in media consumption thanks to high resolution and at the same time much better productivity machines. We expect a 16: 9 aspect ratio for everyone, but will disappear as more content is formatted for today’s highest screens.

The laptop is well advanced

As mentioned earlier, we could list hundreds of changes that have greatly improved the laptop. But just looking at these five, it’s obvious that manufacturers have kept design improvement at heart. The modern laptop is so much better than its predecessor that it’s hard to believe that we once struggled with such poor quality devices.

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