6 Aug 2016

A Lighter and Smaller Laptop than You Could Imagine

When Apple introduced the 12-inch Macbook, they made it lighter, smaller and thinner than what many people were used to for a laptop:


It came at a price — only one port, and a slow, fanless processor. Some people were aghast to see some sacred cows killed. They (including me) called it an iPad with a keyboard, not a real laptop.

No matter. Progress sometimes comes at a price, a price not appropriate for everyone. For those who want a light, thin, small laptop, the Macbook was incomparable.

Now what if you had to it again? Make a laptop much lighter and smaller than the Macbook. Something so small that the Macbook would appear heavy and big by comparison. It's an impressively ambitious goal, so ambitious that you'd have no idea where to begin.

But there's a simple answer. Look again at the Macbook:


Chop off the bottom part of it — where the trackpad is. Let the base end where the keyboard ends:


Reduce the screen height to fit the keyboard. The laptop goes from looking like:


... to looking like:


Henceforth, I'll refer to this new type of device as a minibook (short for "mini notebook").

The screen is 30% smaller than the Macbook. In fact, the minibook has the same screen area as a 10-inch iPad (45 inch², as compared to the 65 inch² of the Macbook). But in an ultrawide (21:9) aspect ratio, rather than the 16:10 of the Macbook.

To compensate for the lack of a trackpad, minibooks will have a trackpoint, as Thinkpads have:



Also make the screen a touchscreen. That way, you have two choices of a pointing device: a trackpoint and your finger.

OS


A minibook would run macOS or Windows 10, and run all the powerful PC apps you use today. Not limited, restrictive mobile apps like iOS or Android. A minibook just has a smaller screen, but is otherwise a full-fledged laptop.

It's open — you can install software from anywhere, not just a walled garden. There's a user-visible filesystem, with all the power that brings. And full multitasking.

A minibook would have two USB-C ports, and connect to the entire ecosystem of PC peripherals: external monitors, keyboards, mice (or trackpads), external hard drives, cameras, pen drives, USB hubs, printers, scanners, and so on.

You would be able to do everything you can do on a laptop, on a minibook. Unlike tablets, which are limited in what they can do. You can't build an iOS, Android or Mac app on a tablet. When you return from vacation, you can't sync gigabytes of photos up to the cloud. Or back up a few tens of GBs to Google Drive or Dropbox. Tablets don't connect to the entire ecosystem of peripherals we have. Using a tablet, I can't access the data on my external hard disc. And so on.

Tablets are limited devices. Minibooks aren't — they have all the power of a laptop.

However, macOS or Windows 10 needs to be customised for the unique environment of a minibook.

Since the screen is short (has a small height), we don't have room for the visual overhead of a desktop UI and windowing system. Apps are fullscreen. No menu bar, no dock (or task bar). There are no window title bars or close / minimise / zoom controls. Apps are always maximised. You can split the screen, with one app on the left and one on the right, again like on the iPad. More precisely, apps are always vertically maximised.

You don't need to worry about the difference between a maximised window and a full-screen app, or the difference between minimising a window, closing a window, or quitting the app. Just go to the home screen (or desktop) by pressing the home button when you're done with an app, or switch to another app.

Since we have a touchscreen, the OS and apps need to be touch-optimised.

So, a minibook would run a PC operating system, but modified to work better on the small screen, and with touch. It's a hybrid between a PC and a mobile OS. You can start with a PC OS, remove the windowing system, and make the OS and apps work with touch. Or you can start with a mobile OS like iOS or Android, make the OS and apps work with keyboard and a mouse, add support for a user-visible filesystem and full multitasking and the ability to install apps from outside the app store, and build all the powerful PC software people need. You can approach it from either direction.


Historical Analogs


This form factor has a historical analog from before the popularity of tablets — smartbooks, from 2009-10:



But smartbooks were different from minibooks. Smartbooks had tiny 5-to-10-inch screens, rather than the 11-inch screen the minibook has. Smartbooks had flimsy, cramped keyboards, not a full-sized laptop-class keyboard. And smartbooks ran limited mobile software, not powerful PC software. So, smartbooks were far more limited than minibooks.


App Layouts


Apps, web apps and web sites would all have to be reimagined for an ultrawide screen, to provide the best user experience. They would have a two-pane or a multicolumn UI.

For example, an email app would show a list of mails in the left pane, and the selected mail in the right pane. That way, you can read mails without navigating to and fro between the inbox and each mail.

When you compose a new mail, a compose pane would slide in from the right, while existing mails would continue to be available in the left pane, for you to refer to, if needed, as you compose your mail. No need to save it as a draft, dig up the mail you want, refer to it, go back to Drafts, open your draft and re-enter editing mode. And then realise that you need more information, and repeat the exercise all over again.

Mails in a thread would show beside each other, not below. The newest mail would appear to the left, and you'd scroll to the right to see earlier mails in the thread.

A file manager would show a column view, with the selected folder in the left pane and its contents in the right pane, like Finder's column view.

A notes app would show a list of notes in the left pane, and the contents of the selected note in the right pane.

Controls, navigation and UI chrome would all be beside the content, not above or below it. Unlike virtually all apps today, which have a toolbar above the content and a tab bar, say, below it. The less height of the screen would mean that all this chrome moves to either the left or the right side of the content, which would then extend from the top of the screen to the bottom.

For example, a web browser would have tabs on the left edge of the screen, not at the top.

A photo editor would show the photo in the center, and have controls to the left and right of the photo. Or you might see the contents of your photo library in the left pane, and the photo in the right pane.

If you're reading text — books, magazines, news articles, emails and so on — it would appear in a multicolumn layout.

The minibook's ultrawide aspect ratio also works better for movies, which have the same aspect ratio of 21:9 [1].


Conclusion


If you couldn't imagine a laptop that's much lighter and smaller than the Macbook, you can now. It would be more portable than the Macbook, while still having a full-sized, laptop-class keyboard.

Unlike tablets, which have no keyboard. You can buy a separate keyboard (cover) for a tablet, but those are invariably compromised and crappy. A minibook has a full-sized, laptop-class keyboard.

Minibooks also run powerful PC apps on a PC operating system. They would connect to external hardware like monitors, keyboards, mice, external hard discs, printers, and so on.

This makes them almost as powerful as laptops. Unlike tablets, which are limited in power.

In particular, you can create content effectively, with the combination of a hardware keyboard, powerful PC apps (like Xcode or Lightroom) and external peripherals. A minibook is optimised for content creation, while a tablet is optimised for consumption [2].

While doing all this, a minibook would be much lighter than the Macbook. Or the 13-inch iPad with a keyboard (which is actually heavier than the Macbook, to say nothing of the minibook).

A light, small laptop that retains all the power of a laptop would be a great device to have.


[1] Conversely, the minibook wouldn't be a good photo viewer, since most photos are not ultrawide.

[2] Which is not to say that tablets can't create content. They can — just not as productively.

There are exceptions: some types of content creation, like sketching or GarageBand, are perhaps better done on a tablet. But those are the exception, not the norm, for most people, who need to write involved e-mails, create non-trivial documents, spreadsheets or presentations, write code, blog, do accounts, and dozens more tasks that are most productively done with a hardware keyboard.

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:54 pm

    Would it be possible to pivot the screen 90 degrees for working with documents?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous9:17 pm

    No. Unfortunately one's imagination doesn't yet have the capacity to implement the pivot feature for this release.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous3:33 am

    I've been thinking about small computers too. I'd really like something like an old style palm top (Psion Revo, or Psion Series 5) that packs full on Arm Octa core whizziness and gives me a full palm top computer (versus the then organisers).

    I could work on something a Super Revo and it would fit nicely in my pocket to cycle or run with.

    ReplyDelete