Thoughts on creating an ideal laptop

OK. I concede that the idea of any "ideal" product is a bit foolish since the product will have to be designed to meet a specific need. Therefore what's ideal for one person, organization, or situation will probably not be ideal for anyone else. With all that out of the way, I've been thinking about what I would replace my current laptop with given an unlimited budget and access to a fabrication plant.

The basic frame

The system's chassis is based on a dual touchscreen design concept from V12 Studios called the Canova, which I first saw at Just Another Mobile Monday. Here's a picture of the concept machine working as a traditional laptop:

Concept of Canova dual-touchscreen laptop set up as a traditional laptop, with screen on top and keyboard on bottom touchscreen.

(By the way, all the Canova pictures you see on this page came from that site, so my thanks to them for getting the images.) The poster of the article, PocketBrain, says:

V12 adds a lot to my original vision. With the input panel as a touchscreen, the variety of input options is limited only by the space available and your imagination. It could be a drawing and drafting pad, a keyboard, just a white board, whatever you need. And, as a display, you could also use both halves to view web pages, electronic books, and newspapers. Perhaps even games! This machine would be yours to mould to your liking.

So the main chassis of the laptop is created and with the second touchscreen on the machine replacing the keyboard and touchpad, you can create software defined interfaces that look like anything!

5/20/2008: Looks like One Laptop Per Child agrees that dual touchscreens are a good idea. They're planning to use them in the XO-2.

3/3/2009: And ASUS agrees with me too!

Graphic designers will like this: A cross between a sketchbook and ArtRage/PhotoShop CS3 /Illustrator CS3 /GIMPBeginning GIMP (book)/Inkscape (manual) (book) on the bottom (keyboard) screen, with a viewable display up top:

Graphic designer interface with display of artwork on top and software package on bottom.

Are you a musician? How about this interface that puts a piano keyboard on the bottom screen, along with controls for Audacity or GarageBand, while showing visualizations on the top screen:

Musician interface with piano keyboard and software controls on bottom screen and visualization output on top.

Even better, if you're a music student you could have your piano keyboard on the bottom screen and the sheet music on the top screen.

Maybe you're a huge fan of electronic books. Turn the Canova on its side, and you actually get facing pages for electronic books. And reading a newspaper is actually a lot easier as you have one page on each screen. Check it out:

Canova rotated 90 degrees, like a traditional book, showing ebook content on both screens.

And that doesn't count the keyboard shortcuts for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc. Imagine pressing the ALT key and seeing the keys show "File", "Edit", "New", "Bold", "Italic", etc. Sort of like the old paper overlays that came with WordPerfect back in the day.

This is a really cool idea, but I don't think they go far enough. So here are my ideas on how to improve the unit.


There are the usual suspects: Massive amounts of RAM and hard drive space, fast video card, onboard Ethernet and modem. In addition, I have several other items I'd like to see on this laptop.

  1. Add 8 USB ports in two groups of 4 ports each.

    6/2/2008: Add at least two USB ports that are internal to the laptop. I'd use these as attachment points for USB thumb drives that can be used strictly for drive swap space or a cheap Solid State Drive (SSD) similar to the ones being produced now by Fujitsu, etc.

    7/1/2008: In place of interal USB ports, perhaps using a Secure Digital card reader to sport a SDHC to serve as the SSD would be better. I need to check on the size of card reader hardware.

  2. Add 4 FireWire ports in two groups of two ports each.  7/1/2008: 4 FireWire ports is a bit excessive. Two should be enough.
  3. Use Sharp's new LCD panels that include integrated scanner functionality. (See this Sharp press release for details. The relevant information is
    "Sharp Corporation has successfully developed a new System LCD equipped with touch screen and scanner functions. An optical sensor is built into each pixel of the LCD panel, eliminating the need to bond a film to the panel for touch screen functions, and providing beautiful images without losing display image quality."

    This means that I'd be able to start a scanning application on the laptop, set a paper down on one screen, and scan it directly into my computer. (More about scanning software below.)

    3/13/09: Actually, combining the Sharp "scanning LCD" with the XO-1's display technology might be a winning combination. The dual display modes make for long battery life.

    July 21, 2009: Apparently some researchers in Germany have created a display that can double as a camera. Using this would eliminate the need for a separate webcam, and maybe still allow me to scan documents like I mention above. The article says the developers are interested in using the screen technology to bring eye tracking applications to everyone. I'm sure that someone out there would see this as the perfect way to implement a facial recognition system, retinal scan, or some other biometric system. (Of course it could be perverted into a Panopticon like the one used by Batman in The Dark Knight.

  4. Use magnetic closure mechanism used on PowerBooks/MacBooks to bring two halves of laptop together.
  5. Use magnetic power connector like used on PowerBooks/MacBooks.

    8/28/2008: Even better, an inductive charging system like on my Sonicare toothbrush. Just set the laptop down on a pad and the battery is recharged through the laptop's feet.

  6. Include integrated camera, like the ones on cellphones. Place this camera in the lower right corner of the upper screen. This will allow the camera to focus on the laptop user whether the laptop is used like a traditional laptop or held like a book. (I had one on the laptop at my last job and it was amazing how useful it was.)
  7. Stylus stored like Toshiba does it, by hiding inside the side of the computer. At the very least, cover the stylus well that exists on the Canova's thin screen. Or it could just use a Crosspen/stylus combo.
  8. Smaller display on the outside of the machine to access email count, MP3 info, etc. Add cell phone hardware and create an iPod Touch display for the small screen, pair the laptop with a Bluetooth headset and you've got a communications device with an incredible battery life. (Windows Vista has something called SideShow* that is designed to pair up the little screen with the system. Cellphone hardware is available from Sparkfun Electronics.)

    6/2/2008: If the SideShow display uses electronic paper technology that doesn't require a lot of power, that would increase the battery life even more.

    3/09/2009: Lenovo introduced a dual screen ThinkPad, the W700ds (see Engadget review). The extra screen is on the back of the display and slides out to the right of the display. I think if I were to build this system, I'd put two of these screens on the back of the display and have them slide out to each side. That would give you four screens!

  9. Weight of entire device should not exceed 4 pounds (about 2kg). (That work laptop I had weighed 12 pounds. It was a brute. My current laptop weighs 6 pounds, and it's OK, but still very noticeable.)
  10. Rotation sensor to automatically detect screen orientation and adjust accordingly. (Something that's missing from my laptop.)
  11. Passive cooling system to reduce fan noise. Use a liquid based cooling system with water and ammonia to dissipate heat from components. (See wikipedia entry for Kalina cycle, but basically the mixture of liquids vaporizes over a larger temperature range, so it removes heat more effectively.)

8/28/2008: It looks like Optimus has a prototype/concept keyboard for desktops very similar to the one I want on my laptop. It's called the Optimus Tactus keyboard. Optimus is the company that developed the Optimus Maximus keyboard, which consists of lots of small, reprogrammable OLED displays instead of traditional keys.

9/4/2009: There's a nice article at Ars Technica about using a Samsung Q1 to play retro games. This TabletPC has some nice features that should be included on this unit.

Thumbstick and directional pad: Samsung actually expects people to do some gaming on these units, so they've helpfully included a PSP-style thumbstick on the left, and a directional pad on the right. The thubmstick is useful for scrubbing the pointer rapidly across the screen (e.g., when panning across a map to find an item or character); you can also use it to scoot the pointer to a specific location (vs. trying to tap with the stylus), or to click and drag. Samsung's included software lets you map the four arrows on the d-pad to whatever you like, so you can customize the d-pad to fit the game that you're playing.

Split keyboard: I mentioned the utility of the split keyboard above, but I have to reiterate how cool it is in practice. Typing in URLs or text with this keyboard is painful, but quickly reaching up with your left thumb and hitting the "A" button to bring up the attack cursor is golden.

SDHC card slot: I dropped a 32GB SDHC card in the slot on the top of the unit, and instantly I had extra flash storage for game CD ISOs, or even movies and TV shows.

On a non-gaming note, the Q1UP works extremely well as a mobile Skype device. It has two microphones on the bottom, the WiFi reception is very good, and everyone I've called on Skype has remarked on the clarity of the sound. While traveling in Europe, we used it like a WiFi Skype phone to do cheap international calling.

So I'll need to add two (or more) microphones to the system to get good call quality.

Laptop Power

7/1/2008: Since power is one of the biggest shortcomings in portable electronics, maybe we should look for a new solution. Traditional batteries do an adequate job, but this laptop will require more than they offer. Driving two LCD's and touchscreens isn't a small task after all.

With that in mind, I'd like to find some way to scale up the kinetic charger used in "self winding" watches to charge the battery in the system when the user is moving the laptop. If it's sensitive enough, the system could even get some charge from the action of typing on the screens. The kinetic charger probably won't be enough to charge the whole battery by itself but it should provide a trickle charge to the system that could run the SideShow display.

And once fuel cells become more commonplace, a small one could probably be used for this device. That would expand the power life beyond a few hours to the range of days. That would be pretty useful, particularly if the fuel cell used was derived from the Penn State Microbial Fuel Cell which cleans wastewater. A smaller version of this fuel cell could be recharged by going to the local salad bar, grabbing some vinegar, mixing it with water, and putting the mix into the fuel cell intake port. The trickle charge from the kinetic charger could be just the ticket for a microbial fuel cell.

Of course those fuel cells generate hydrogen, which is really explosive and I'm not sure it's a good idea to be carrying around a bomb. Even better is the idea of turning a waste problem into an asset by using thermoelectric power to simultaneously cool the CPU, hard drive, and other components while charging the battery. This will allow the use of the laptop, increase its performance, and keep the power levels high enough to matter. This will also replace the liquid based cooling system I described above. And as a first step I could use a cooling system based on organic molecules, trading up to the artifical system later.

And here's another method of thermoelectric power production.

But I really like the inductive charger idea for office and home use. One less wall wart to worry about.

Update October 28, 2008: I just saw that Micro-Star International (MSI), has created a CPU cooler that uses the Stirling cycle.

The "Air Power Cooler" transfers the chipset heat into air momentum, when the air becomes hot, the air will expand then push the fan to rotate and In doing so cooling the heatsink immediately. After the air moves from the bottom to top of the piston, the air will become heavy to push the up piston down. The better air piston design can transfer over 70% heat power and transfer to air power, that's great efficiency transfer from Stirling engine theory. In a comparison with solar power the transfer rate is only around 20~30% requiring more surface and as a result cost.

Now if only someone would create a small electrical generator that could be powered by the miniscule amount of air moving through the cooling system. Then the laptop could trickle charge the battery and remove the heat at the same time. (A desktop PC may not have this problem, it could put the hot air from multiple cooling units [for Northbridge, Southbridge, CPU, GPU cooling] into one Stirling generator.)

Update July 21, 2009: Of course, I could just put more batteries around the screen and computer case. That would solve the problem. They'd probably need to be the "shapeable" LIPoly batteries to fit the unit. And again, the use of thermoelectric power would be a good thing. (There's even a post on Instructables called Charge your cellphone with waste heat that shows an early example of this.) There are plenty of heat sinks and hot spots inside a laptop that could trickle charge a battery.

Update October 22, 2009: I just saw the perfect solution. Jae Kwon at the University of Missouri has developed a nuclear battery the size of a penny. I just need to put a few of them in place, and we'll be good to go!

Update October 22, 2009: I also forgot to mention that Microsoft released a prototype tablet (booklet) they call the Courier. Gizmodo has the article, and some pictures. Looks a lot like the system Canova built, but it's intended to be opened like a traditional book or executive portfolio, not a laptop. It's also very similar to an earlier design called the Codex. Ars Technica has that story.

Software and Applications

Again, there are quite a few software packages that are known to TabletPC users which would be a good fit for this laptop. These packages include ArtRage, Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, MindJet and FreeMind mind mapping software, to name a few. Then there are the tablet-aware applications like PhotoShop CS3, Illustrator CS3, Flash, Microsoft Office, Visio, and open-source packages like the GIMP and InkScape. Basically anything that is supported by the Wacom family of tablets. Those can all be used with little or no modification to the software. But the real fun begins when we start creating custom interfaces for new software packages, like sound mixer boards (Audacity), video editing software controls, musical instruments, and 3D simulation.

There are also a lot of opportunities to create new keyboard layouts or controls for the laptop itself. How about the scroll wheel that's included on Logitech's diNovo Edge keyboard (Reviewed here/$)? Would you like to put horizontal and vertical scroll controls on your keyboard to mimic the functionality of a laptop's touchpad? No problem. Need custom multimedia buttons and other controls? How about a software-based version of the diNovo volume slider:

A touch-sensitive volume controller is above the TouchDisc. There's no slider that you can see, just a runway for your finger to touch and slide up or down. When doing so, a couple of orange dots light up where your finger is, following your finger until you release it from the keyboard—more bling. Below the "slider" is the mute button.

Again, no problem. They can be added with a little software work.

Internationalization is now much easier, as the virtual keyboard displayed on the screen is defined in software. So if you change the settings of your laptop, the keyboard should automatically reflect the change. The same is true of localization. And if you are a power user who remaps the keyboard to a different layout, your job just got easier. You can assign any key to any position.

Another big advantage to the virtual keyboard/control layout is the fact that it can be scaled for people with vision impairments. Like the text zoom feature of a web browser or word processor. In fact it would be possible to put the actual size document down on one half of the screen, while having a magnified view of the top half of the screen. I mean you would have a document open on the bottom screen and there's a magnifying glass application that displays the magnified view on the top screen.

The only drawback to this system is the fact that there's no tactile feedback when you tap a key. That could be fixed by playing a "click" sound when the key was tapped. Or perhaps having the virtual key darken to indicate a press like some PDA's do now. It's also a concern that software developers might get cute and ignore Section 508 requirements, which would suck.

  1. This is more an application thing, but having something like Dialkeys ( would be useful. (This requirement came to light after I started using my Toshiba TabletPC. I got it to use a pen in PhotoShop ($), but when the PC is in tablet mode, you can't get to the keyboard so all the shortcut keys are useless. Major PITA.)
  2. A software equivalent to the DX1 Input System (reviewed here) would be pretty cool.
  3. Linux support, just so we can get people really excited. (There are a couple projects that look like they'd be useful. The Multi-Pointer X server and Beryl project are two that stand out immediately. Compiz Fusion might be good to include also.)
  4. Even better, maybe use Mameo (GNOME based linux) for system? This is already being used in Nokia 800 and 810 internet tablets to good effect, and being able to reuse that work would speed acceptance of the platform.
  5. Use something like Microsoft's multitouch (used in Surface) on the main screens. Use a Zooming User Interface on the Sideshow display. SideShow display should also get an iPod/Fujitsu Turntable PC application to control media files.
  6. Use unicap software ( to drive webcam?
  7. Use Google OCR/scanning software? Review of OCRopus
  8. 6/2/2008: Combining the thumb drives mounted internally with some encryption software like TrueCrypt would allow the computer to have a permanent, secured data storage partition.
  9. Software upgradeable ethernet. Start at 10mbs, flash upgrade to 100mbs or 1gbs. 20071205- Now that I've thought about it some more, it might be better to put the ethernet controller stuff on separate daughterboards so the user can swap them in and out as needed. No. That's just reinventing PC Card and USB.

    From a article:

    Doc Ruby writes "Electronics Weekly is reporting that Intel has developed a new prototype chip for software defined radio. The new chip will be able to handle WiFi, WiMAX and DVB-H digital TV all on the same chip. 'This kind of chip would allow equipment to access the WiFi network in the home, automatically handover to a WiMAX network when you leave the house and also access digital TV on the move, all through one chip.' It's also a proof that the entire class of SW radios that could possibly converge CDMA, GSM and various other radio networks for opportunistic handoffs by a single device, a 'universal radio' that could use content formerly locked into a single radio type."

When portable in "book/magazine" mode, there should be two options for the soft keyboard:

  1. Put entire keyboard on right or left screen.
  2. Put one half of keyboard on each screen, similar to Kinesis Freestyle keyboards.

Afterthoughts on the message

The cellphone functionality idea: If the little SideShow display is under plastic, then it can't function as a touchscreen like the one on the Apple iPhone or iPod touch. So I'll need to find a way to make that touchscreen more robust.


Update June 2, 2008: Added internal USB ports, electronic paper display to SideShow display, TrueCrypt information.

Update July 1, 2008: Added laptop power ideas, possiblity of converting internal USB ports to SDHC.

Update August 28, 2008: Added Inductive charging idea to power section. Also added information about Optimus Keyboard to hardware discussion.

Update October 28, 2008: Added MSI Stirling cooler information to power section.

Update November 4, 2008: Looks like Asus and Intel want to know what people think. They've launched the WePC website to get feedback directly from users. Kind of a bad name, since saying "we pee cee" makes me think of potty training.