Don’t call it a refresh: The 6 most adventurous laptop designs of 2022

2022 laptops

In a world of shiny clamshells and showy convertibles, laptop releases can feel repetitive. Some of the most successful, well-known designs don’t always see massive overhauls from one year to the next. Stick in the latest CPUs or GPUs, maybe claim a slightly cooler build, and call it a day (or year). After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

The problem with that is, well, it gets boring. And for technology enthusiasts interested in developments that could change how we work, play, repair, and upgrade, it’s imperative that PC makers be willing to take risks.

The laptops below all tried something more adventurous than a components upgrade in 2022. We’ll break down the groundbreaking designs, ideas, and capabilities these systems seek to deliver—and whether or not the risks they took paid off.

Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 3

Who says we don't need ultrawide laptops?
Enlarge / Who says we don’t need ultrawide laptops?

Premium laptop shoppers are increasingly seeking screens with taller aspect ratios. But Lenovo took things in the opposite direction with its ThinkBook Plus Gen 3, a clamshell with a 17.3-inch, 21:10 primary display. Going even further, Lenovo didn’t let the extra-long deck that the display creates—16.3 inches long—go to waste. Instead, Lenovo popped a secondary, 800×1280 LCD next to the keyboard to create a laptop it claims is uniquely designed for multitasking.

We haven’t seen an ultrawide laptop since 2017’s Acer Predator 21 X curved-screen gaming PC. Acer’s laptop focused on boosting immersion for gamers by making games appear to wrap around them more than a flat-screen laptop. The 2022 ThinkBook, however, targets its stretched screen at workers obsessed with multitasking.

The ThinkBook Plus Gen 3’s smaller screen lets users do things like show thumbnails while working in Photoshop, use a calculator, and take notes. It’s reminiscent of the ScreenPads that Asus has been using for a while in its touchpads and north of some laptops’ keyboards but less advanced.

Did it pay off?

The ThinkBook Plus Gen 3 is a fascinating exploration of the clamshell design that brought variety to laptop selection in 2022. Lenovo didn’t expect everyone to want this laptop or to ignite a wave of ultrawide laptops usurping 16:9 and 16:10 rivals. Since Gen 1, Lenovo’s ThinkBook Plus laptops have been about offering PCs with features that push the envelope and provide over-the-top features that most could live without.

But for the right user, the ThinkBook Plus Gen 3 presents a favorable way to work and organize multiple windows. It also challenges other companies to create designs that aren’t just striking but aim for distinct value.

We’d like to see Lenovo play with the ultrawide PC’s ergonomics. Since it’s so long, it can be hard to balance on a lap. We haven’t tried the machine but worry about our right hand accidentally brushing against the deck’s screen when typing or using the touchpad. The ThinkBook Plus Gen 3 isn’t a lefty-friendly design either.

But Lenovo has revived the idea of ultrawide laptops while bringing a new multiscreen option to users, presenting greater choice when it comes to balancing tasks.

Dell Precision 7670 / 7770

Dell's 2022 Precision 7000-series laptops debuted CAMM RAM, which Dell hopes to standardize.
Enlarge / Dell’s 2022 Precision 7000-series laptops debuted CAMM RAM, which Dell hopes to standardize.
Dell

There hasn’t been much innovation around laptop memory designs over the previous couple decades. For the past 25 years, small outline dual in-line memory modules (SODIMM) have been the way to go. This year, however, Dell released two laptops, the Precision 7670 and 7770, that debuted a new form factor for RAM it invented called the compression attached memory module (CAMM).

Upon announcing the laptops, Dell said the Precision 7670 and 7770 would be its most powerful. The 16-inch 7670 is 0.98 inches thick, and the 17-inch 7700 is 1.13 inches thick, which is all pretty trim for mobile workstations equipped with dedicated GPUs. That was enabled by Dell’s CAMM.

CAMM is a type of non-error correction code memory (Dell plans on adding ECC support, NotebookCheck reported in September) that can be 57 percent thinner than traditional SODIMM. CAMM’s length and width can vary (we’ll get to that), but one CAMM can hold up to 128GB of DDR5-4800. Contrastingly, a single SODIMM maxes out at 32GB, and for a laptop using SODIMM to reach 128GB, it needs four sticks, which would max out at 4,000 MHz. In fact, Dell argues that SODIMM may not be able to surpass 6,400 MT/s, which is why it developed a new form factor targeting high-end systems in slimmer designs, like its Precision mobile workstations.

Dell’s Precision 7670 and 7770 each support up to 128GB DDR5-3600; although, lower capacities support up to 4,800 MHz. Dell also sells the laptops with up to two 32GB DDR5-4800 SODIMMs.

Other benefits Dell claims with CAMM over SODIMM is that it doesn’t use smaller routing traces for more efficiency and, again, space savings potential. In a conversation with PCWorld, Dell pointed to CAMM potentially being cooler than SODIMM, thanks to the connector working like a heatsink, compared to SODIMM setups that can lock heat between layers. Dell also suggested that CAMM could eventually use heat spreaders, something SODIMM lacks, Notebookcheck reported.

Did it pay off?

The Precision 7670 and 7770 dare users to try a new design with little history. Dell even faced some backlash when news of CAMM creeped out ahead of the vendor’s official announcement, prompting some to think Dell’s endgame was proprietary tech that locks out user upgrades.

But Dell is trying to standardize CAMM through the JEDEC trade organization and hopes the workstations’ release speeds things along. Dell believes standardization would grow OEM interest and incentivize DRAM companies to make CAMM in larger quantities, reducing costs. Dell would make royalties but, as noted by PCWorld, this isn’t much different from the licensing that already goes on with laptop designs. As it stands, CAMM costs $1 more per GB to make than SODIMM.

Another downside is that Dell hasn’t standardized physical dimensions for different CAMM capacities, and different capacity modules will be different sizes, per Notebookcheck. The 128GB CAMM used in Notebookcheck’s Precision 7670 review unit was 3.86×2.36 inches (9.8×6.8 cm).

Differing CAMM sizes suggest upgrade challenges. A laptop with a smaller CAMM may not have enough motherboard space to fit a physically larger CAMM with greater capacity. NotebookCheck has suggested that OEMs will likely have to rework laptop motherboard design in favor of CAMM rather than SODIMM.

There are also questions about upgrades resulting in wasted modules. If a user of the Precision 7000-series workstations wanted to move from 8GB to 16GB, for example, they’d have to get rid of the original 8GB CAMM. Plus, the person would have to pay for 16GB of memory instead of just 8GB. With SODIMM, the original 8GB module could still be used when moving to 16GB.

There are reasons to push for laptops like the Precision 7670 and 7770 to be the first of many, though. With CAMM, laptop makers don’t have to put RAM modules on both sides of the motherboard to beef it up, enabling thinner designs.

Replacing one CAMM instead of as many as four should be simpler too. As described by StorageReview, removing a 32GB CAMM from the Precision 7670 only required unscrewing six screws and lifting the component up from the system. Removing multiple SODIMMs could require more work, like removing the laptop’s motherboard or keyboard. And with one CAMM taking the place of four SODIMMs, there’s less risk of a module loosening.

We’ll wait to see if Dell, along with CAMM development partner Intel, can leverage JEDEC membership to encourage standardization and push the technology into non-Dell computers. As workers increasingly work in locations outside of a set office and ultralight laptops dominate premium consumer options, demand for trimmer workstations that don’t sacrifice specs will grow. Beyond workstations, Dell has told us that it sees gaming laptops as the next potential landing spot for CAMM.

Only time will tell if CAMM will spark a RAM revolution for laptops the way M.2 SSDs did. Dell’s most recent attempt at shaking up component form factors, the Dell Graphics Form Factor (DGFF), doesn’t spark much confidence. Dell eventually had to clarify that upgrades were only available within the GPUs made available to that specific system at launch, which led to things getting litigious.

Asus Zenbook 17 Fold OLED

What's more adventurous than a PC you bend in half?
Enlarge / What’s more adventurous than a PC you bend in half?

Unlike smartphones, personal computers with foldable displays haven’t taken off. Lenovo tried with the ThinkPad X1 Fold in 2020, and that’s about it. But limited precedence didn’t stop Asus from taking a swing at the bendy-screen thing with the Zenbook 17 Fold OLED.

Released this year, the machine has a 17.3-inch OLED screen that folds right in half. With 2560×1920 pixels total, the computer can serve as a 17.3-inch tablet with a 4:3 aspect ratio. It also moonlights as two 12.5-inch, 1920×1290 screens with 3:2 aspect ratios. Need a physical keyboard? Asus’ system has a wireless keyboard that can snap to the bottom half of the screen for a more clamshell-like experience. With 100 percent DCI-P3, 60Hz, and 0.2 ms GtG response time claims, it’s specced to be an impressive touchscreen.

Asus also picked a less risky time to launch its foldable than Lenovo did with the ThinkPad X1 Fold. It has the benefits of Windows 11 Snap layouts and Intel’s 12th Gen U-series chips, rather than the short-lived, 3D-stacked i5-L16G7.

Did it pay off?

The Zenbook 17 Fold OLED succeeded in being a foldable computer that’s available, works as expected for the most part, and isn’t tied to any PR disasters around broken hinges (Asus claims you can open and close the thing 30,000 times) like early foldable smartphones endured. There have been rumors of other foldable laptops, but the Zenbook 17 Fold OLED is actually here.

The PC also did some things to improve the foldable design It has a larger screen (17.3 versus 13.3 inches) and more pixels (2560×1920 versus 2048×1536) than the ThinkPad X1 Fold, creating a more workable screen when using the screen with a docked keyboard; although, at 3.97 lbs, it’s not as portable as you might expect for a 12.5-inch-laptop experience. Asus also added a 75 Wh battery compared to the Lenovo foldable’s 50 Wh.

But at $3,500, the foldable is out of reach for most people. The giant tablet seems more like a demonstration of what can be done rather than a foldable set to overthrow clamshells and 2-in-1s. Asus is asking a lot for what’s essentially a gorgeous, bendable, large OLED tablet with Intel U-series performance about on par with HP’s 13.5-inch Spectre x360, as per benchmarks shared by reviewers like PCMag and Tom’s Hardware.

Some reviews also pointed to the screen being rather shiny and the Bluetooth keyboard solution being unreliable.

And despite its unique form that showcases a massive touchscreen that can bend into a notebook shape, the Zenbook 17 Fold OLED doesn’t officially support styluses, making the use case even more niche for the few people who have a budget for it.

Despite Asus’ efforts, foldable PCs still have a long way to go. We’ll see if any lessons were learned this year though, as Lenovo will try its hand at another foldable in 2023. In our hands-on with the upcoming 16-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold, it was clear Lenovo was trying to address some of its prior foldable’s shortcomings. Last we checked, Lenovo was thinking of starting it at about $2,500, so that’s at least one step in a positive direction.

Dell XPS 13 Plus

There are frustrating design choices here but also strong ultralight performance.
Enlarge / There are frustrating design choices here but also strong ultralight performance.
Scharon Harding

They weren’t flawlessly executed, but there’s something to be said for the risks Dell took with the XPS 13 Plus. A new addition to the XPS lineup for 2022, the XPS 13 Plus did whatever it had to so it could up CPU wattage from 12 W and 15 W from the prior years to 28 W now while maintaining the slim design. The result? A laptop that, for better or worse, looked, felt, and performed dramatically different from your typical Dell XPS 13.

The standard XPS 13 got a modest update this year, but the XPS 13 Plus is a complete overhaul. For one, the keyboard’s top row ditches traditional buttons in favor of a capacitive touch row that displays function keys or, if you hold down Fn and Esc, media keys.

This gave the laptop an extra 1.8mm of vertical space. Dell used it to put the laptop’s hinges at wider points, permitting larger fans with blades that reached the left and right edges of the computer. Dell also saved space by ridding the 3.5 mm jack. Ultimately, the redesign yielded a 55 boost in airflow compared to the 2021’s XPS 13, Dell claims.

That would’ve been wacky enough for one system, but Dell went even further. Sort of looking like it forgot to wear pants, the XPS 13 Plus doesn’t have a visible touchpad. The palm rest is one piece of glass with no seams, just smooth endless white. It also uses haptic feedback and never moves.

Did it pay off? 

As detailed in our XPS 13 Plus review, these design changes made using the laptop a more frustrating experience than we’re used to when moving from one generation of the standard XPS 13 to the next. The XPS 13 Plus felt like a different machine, but considering how well-designed the XPS 13 is, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

As a frequent mechanical keyboard user, the flat, travel-free function row was hard to get used to and somewhat distracting. Plus, when pushing the system’s performance, the function row would heat up significantly. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for the 0.6-inch-thick machine’s underside to be way too hot to handle.

Then, there’s the keyboard. The lattice-free design helped the keyboard stretch across the deck, making for some massive keys. But those keys felt flat and mushy and were so close together that it was easy to make typos. At least the haptic touchpad worked just as reliably as the kinds you can see.

Next, and this may have nothing to do with the XPS 13 Plus’ risky design, but the laptop had an alarming issue with OLED screens falling off inadvertently, purportedly due to faulty adhesive (Dell offered replacement units).

But risk and reward can go hand-in-hand, and the XPS 13 Plus provided powerful performance for an ultralight when maxed with an i7-1280P. That included less throttling than the likes of HP’s 13.5-inch Spectre x360 or the 2022 Apple Macbook Air.

Looking ahead, we wouldn’t mind another XPS 13 Plus that promised a boost in performance over the standard XPS, but we’d like that boost to come in a more practically functional design too.

Framework Laptop (12th Gen)

In the case of Framework's modular Laptop, a refresh actually is groundbreaking.
Enlarge / In the case of Framework’s modular Laptop, a refresh actually is groundbreaking.
Andrew Cunningham

OK, this one is technically a refresh, but hear us out. In the case of the 2022 Framework Laptop, a modular laptop that prioritizes DIY repairs and upgrades, a refresh represents a commendable step toward laptops embracing the right to repair and reducing e-waste

Framework started shipping its oh-so-creatively named Laptop in 2021. At the time, we were impressed with how much the computer could hold its own among the XPS 13s and other big names in the industry. Instantly, Framework’s Laptop was more user-repairable than any laptop we’ve ever tested. It came in a prebuilt or DIY version that let you add your preferred I/O modules, RAM, Wi-Fi card, and SSD.

For an ecosystem of modular parts to be fruitful, though, the company has to be around for a while. That company also must continue making the unique pieces and parts to keep the Laptop relevant and exciting, while maintaining easy upgrades and repairs. Yes, the original Laptop had an effective design, but could it be sustained?

It turned out, yes, at least for another year. In 2022, Framework updated the 13.5-inch Laptop with 12th Gen Intel CPUs, keeping the user-upgradeable laptop dream alive. Those who already owned a Laptop were offered a motherboard with a 12th Gen chip or a combo motherboard and top cover (the new version is supposed to be more rigid). Piece by piece, Framework continued building its upgradeable ecosystem this year.

The new Laptop’s chip selection is competitive, too. Comparable to what machines like Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 7 and Dell’s XPS 13 offer, the latest Laptop comes with an i5-1240P to an i7-1260P, while being similarly thin and light (9.01×11.68×0.62 inches, 2.87 lbs).

Framework also grew its marketplace this year, introducing a 2.5Gbps Ethernet expansion card. Meanwhile, the company made its 11th Gen Laptop motherboard available for separate purchase (looking at you, mini PC builders), while releasing the resources required to 3D-print your own motherboard case on Github. You can also get 3D-printable models of Framework’s mainboard case from Printables.com. It even announced a ChromeOS version of the Framework Laptop this year.

Did it pay off?

By continuing to release Laptops and Laptop parts, Framework demonstrates what a functioning modular laptop business looks like. Right-to-repair activists everywhere are turning to Framework as an exciting example of sustainable, repairability-first electronics.

It’s still early, but Framework shows that not only can a machine like this exist, but it can compete with big names. The Laptop has flaws, like poor battery life, but with thoughtful considerations, like a 3:2 screen, it doesn’t demand severe sacrifice in the name of repairability.

We also saw Dell play with modular laptops in 2022. The Concept Luna prototype system it showed us featured pop-out modules for driving easy upgrades and repairs à la the Laptop. Dell is more focused, however, on bringing this functionality to a wide range of laptop models and also being able to harvest parts from used Dell laptops for future Dell laptops. Money is a big part of the equation, and Dell is working with robotics and automation to figure out a way to potentially launch modular laptops on a massive scale.

The Laptop, however, is ready to go now with Framework prioritizing the user and getting a self-serviceable laptop in their hands. For Framework and its customers, this isn’t a concept or a dream for the future. It’s a tangible product with two generations instilling hope for more.

Alienware m17 R5 / x17 R2

How fast is fast enough for a gaming display?
Enlarge / How fast is fast enough for a gaming display?

A year of esports-level gaming wouldn’t feel complete without at least one product desperately trying to redefine what fast means. This area has a lot of big talkers (we’re currently tapping our feet, waiting to see the release of the Asus ROG Swift 500 Hz Gaming Monitor). But Alienware put its low-lag money where its RGB-equipped (we assume) mouth is by releasing not one, but two laptops with 480 Hz refresh rates and 3 ms gray-to-gray (GtG) response time claims this year.

The Alienware m17 R5 with AMD parts and x17 R2 with Intel and Nvidia parts arrived this summer for competitive-level players who aren’t content with the 360 Hz screens released in 2021. Alienware also released 165 Hz versions of the laptops, but for an extra $300, shoppers could get the fastest screen available to consumers today.

While impressive, that relegates the machines to the niche category, even within the already specific category of PC gamers seeking a laptop instead of a desktop. The only ones willing to splurge on the m17 R5 (currently starting at $1,850 for 480Hz) and x17 R2 (starting at $2,200 for 480Hz) are players who fancy themselves on the professional level. It’s for the types of gamers bringing settings real low to see ultra-high frame rates and who need to ensure there are as few bottlenecks as possible.

Did it pay off? 

The question of whether or not the move to 480 Hz is worthwhile depends largely on the user, as well as the games and settings they prefer to play. A 480 Hz screen has input lag as low as 2.1 ms (one second divided by 480). If you have strong eyes used to a 60 Hz (16.7 ms), 120 Hz (8.3 ms), or even 144 Hz (6.9 ms), your eyes will probably notice smoother, fast-paced video processing. Returns are diminishing, though, and if you bought a 360 Hz (2.8 ms) screen in 2021, your naked eyes are far less likely to see an obvious improvement.

But for competitive players, the reduced input lag, even if microscopic, could be just the assurance needed that tech won’t interfere with victory. Sure, it’s not a dramatic improvement from 360 Hz, but for users who haven’t upgraded in a while, the m17 R5 and x17 r2 could represent massive game-changers, both visually and in terms of achievable frame rates. And after an extended time of limited GPU stock (graphics card prices eventually stabilized this year), it was nice for the speedy display to come in a system pre-equipped to push all those frames.

But by the time your eyes notice the 480 Hz difference, there just might be an even faster screen around. In addition to the aforementioned 500 Hz desktop monitor, panel maker BOE already showed off a 16-inch, 600 Hz laptop display this year.

Meanwhile, for a “slower” screen that’s still breaking barriers for laptop displays, we give an honorable mention to the Razer Blade 15. It came out this spring as the first laptop to combine OLED with a 240 Hz refresh rate. The Blade 15’s display is 50 percent slower than the screens in the m17 R5 and x17 r2 but makes contrast-rich OLED a more feasible option for serious PC gamers.

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