Laptops Current limitations, a Testimony from our Community

INNO
6 min readJul 31, 2023

Five billion people around the world use the internet everyday, and 67% of them do so on a laptop.

For decades, they have evolved from one unique branch, the Clamshell form factor. Introduced in the 1980’s with the GriD Compass, the Clamshell is made of two sections connected by a hinge, each section containing either a flat panel display or an alphanumeric keyboard/keypad, which can fold into contact together like a bivalve shell.

GRiD Compass laptop computer, manufactured by the GRiD Systems Corporation, Fremont, California, United States, Science Museum Group Collection.
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Fifty years later, it sill reigns supreme today and the only innovative alternatives never dared to go too far from it.

When they are so widespread regardless of the use, should we considered them perfect? Can’t they be questioned? Don’t they have their own limitations?

The Dilemma.

Laptops are designed to strike a balance between portability and functionality.

With an average weight of around 4–5 pounds (1.8–2.3 kg), and an average screen size around 13–15 inches (33–38 cm), they need to be large enough to accommodate a comfortable keyboard and display, but not so large that they’re a hassle to carry around.

This means that laptops are often too bulky and heavy to compete with smartphones and tablets, yet too small to compete with a desktop setup.

We asked our community what do they prioritize when it comes to choosing a new laptop.

Alen, Ph.D, Lead Software Architect, chose “Compact & Lightweight”.
He argues:

{…} I had a full workstation with 2 screens, but I didn’t like it. I have a separate keyboard and a mouse for the laptop, since the keyboard is too close to the screen which forces you to keep looking down, which results in neck pain. And all the previous laptops became very hot over time so it becomes uncomfortable for the wrists {…}. — Alen

On the other hand, Jérôme, Startup Founder, chose “Compact yet Powerful”. He emphasizes the desire for a portable yet powerful device, where enhanced processing power contribute to enhanced productivity:

“I would like a tool powerful enough to work, but without the battery or network constraints, and without having to compromise on the tools. I would like to be able to work from anywhere, even in the middle of a field, with the same advantages as if I were in the office.” — Jérôme

Status Quo.

We know that the “clamshell” form factor has dominated the laptop market, offering simplicity and familiarity. However (and despite their limited numbers), other alternatives are available:

  • The “Convertible”, added a 360 hinge allowing to flip the laptop into a tablet or a tent. The novelty dies quickly, this device being often too bulky to be used as a tablet.
  • The “Kickstand” puts all the electronics and battery into a tablet size computer with a detachable keyboard. While this design is more portable and flexible, it sacrifices the basic functionality of being able to use the laptop… on your lap.

Without any surprise, most of our community members work on a “Classic Clamshell”.

While Alex, Software Developer, suggests the need for more innovative form factors:

“I’m into software development and today I am using a “classic” clamshell. I do not need any touch screen because I wouldn’t have any use for it, and a separate keyboard is a no sense for my use case. If there was a possibility to buy a (more) foldable laptop format I would go for it, but for the moment I just need simplicity […].” — Alex

While Sorina, Metaverse/Game Developer, illustrates the benefits of touch screen functionality for specific tasks, such as game development:

“Today I am using a clamshell + touch screen laptop. I’m into game development, there are many clicks involved. I mainly use the mouse + the touchpad to work but when my hand joints start hurting, I swap to the touch screen. It mainly depends on the tasks.” — Sorina

The latest point raised by Sorina leads us to our next topic…

Health.

As Sorina often experiences, an extended laptop usage can take a toll on our well-being:

  • Back and Neck Pain
    Sitting in front of a laptop for extended periods can lead to back and neck pain, and the dreaded “tech neck” affects virtually 100% of laptop users.

Andy, DevOps Consultant, told us more about what he experiences:

“The fact that the screen is small forces me to bend forward, which causes tension in my neck. This result in pain in my neck, teeth and my head, and even in my body in general. I regularly consult a physiotherapist to “put things back in order”. It’s a little known fact, but pulling on the back of the neck can throw the whole body off balance.” — Andy

  • Arm or Hand Injuries
    Using a laptop’s trackpad or keyboard for long periods of time can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome or other arm and hand injuries.
  • Digital Eyestrain
    The small screens and close proximity to the eyes can cause digital eyestrain, dry eyes, headaches, and even permanent damage to vision.

On that point, Laurianne, Software Engineer, says:

“I’m into software development. I mostly work on a laptop all day long, which (I think) creates strain on my eyes and often leads to headaches at the end of the day. I have to wear glasses to reduce the fatigue.” — Laurianne

The ergonomic challenges associated with laptops necessitate awareness of proper ergonomics, regular breaks, and the adoption of tools and accessories that alleviate strain and promote a healthier work environment.

Speaking of environment…

E-Waste.

Humanity generates about 50 million tons of electronic waste every year, and laptops contributes significantly due to their limited upgradability and repairability.

In the race for finesse, ease of assembly and lower production costs, many manufacturers solder the computer’s internal components.

This causes a range of problems in terms of the computer’s repairability, as well as its potential for component upgrades.

Actually, a laptop that fails is a laptop we throw away.

Dumpsite, South Tangerang, Banten, Indonesia — Photographer: Tom Fisk

We estimate today that laptops have an average lifespan of 3 to 5 years.

This is not José’s opinion, Full-Stack Developer, suggesting a balance between the need for technological advancements and the desire to maximize the lifespan of a laptop:

“I like to keep my devices living for as long as possible. If something fails, I fix it myself {…}. That way I can only change my devices when I need an upgrade to work with the apps I use. There’s no need to generate waste replacing any device if they’re still useful {…}. They are still functional, that’s what matters.” — José

Striving for modular and repairable designs can minimize e-waste and prolong the usefulness of laptops.

Privacy.

Working with a laptop in public settings can expose users to privacy risks, particularly concerning shoulder surfing.

There’s a risk you have to be constantly aware of, and guard against, like Yannick, Senior Software Engineer:

I’m a digital nomad who often works in public spaces. If I’m working on my laptop but I’m busy with something else (on phone or talking to someone), I keep my laptop open but I turn off my screen. If I need to get away from my laptop for a short time, I close my session. — Yannick

Sounds easy and quite logic?
Well, if everyone applied these simple rules to the letter, this Ubisoft employee wouldn’t have leaked Shadow of the Tomb Raider (the latest episode of the game franchise) while working on a powerpoint on the subway:

Picture posted by user “Tripleh260” on a Reddit thread: https://www.reddit.com/r/PS4/comments/5aci6z/image_saw_someone_working_on_a_presentation_for/

Protect its online privacy is a major concern, but in public spaces, anyone around you can peek at your screen and steal sensitive information — whether intentionally or not.

What do we do?

Beyond the dogma they represent in our modern lives, recognizing laptop’s limitations allows us to advocate for advancements in design, sustainability, and privacy measures to create a more holistic experience for users.

A lot of well-minded innovators worldwide dare to think out of the box, beyond the hinge and the status quo to explore new laptop possibilites.

It’s now our turn, here’s our humble proposal for a new breed of laptops: https://lxr.computer/

Special thanks to our community for their testimonials and insights: Andy, Alen, Yannick, Laurianne, Fred, Edouard, Sorina, Kalin, Jérôme, Alex, José, Karine, Jimmy…

--

--