I broke Intel's foldable concept PC at this year's CES. Kinda.

It was me

Credit: Fergus Halliday

The morning after its initial announcement, I rushed down to Intel's booth at this year's CES to go hands-on with the company's latest foldable concept PC. 

Things didn't go as planned.

Code-named Horseshoe Bend, the device had debuted during Intel's CES press conference to excitement - and a lot of that excitement is earned. Regardless of whether your latest PC has an Intel processor inside it, it's hard to dispute the impact the company has had when it comes to shepherding the current generation of OEMs towards thin and light laptop designs through initiatives like Project Athena

Foldable devices - and foldable PCs in particular - represent a ton of design challenges when it comes to software and hardware. Microsoft is doing their part to address the former through a new version of Windows 10 specifically developed for foldables. Intel is more concerned with the latter. 

After all, making foldable PCs that don't suck less of a herculean task is something that all major PC vendors stands to benefit from helping solve. Not every executive in the consumer tech industry bought a Galaxy Fold but you can bet that they definitely took notice of Samsung's foldable. What it got right and where it went wrong. 

Having failed to get my hands on Intel's Honeycomb Glacier and Twin Rivers concept devices at Computex, I was determined to avoid the same situation with the Horseshoe Bend. 

After dealing with a few appointments, I made my way through to the demo area for Intel's foldable and waited my turn. Eventually, opportunity arrived. I took some photos of the concept piece and asked some of the usual questions. 

Is the Horseshoe Bend ever a thing that Intel would look at selling? Not really. What are the specs inside the unit? Intel isn't looking to disclose them. What's the resolution on the flexible display? Another thing Intel didn't want to share. One Intel rep did tell us that the Horseshoe Bend prototype utilises a particularly rare OLED display. Apparently, there's only a dozen or so screens like it in the world. 

Horseshoe Bend might not be one of a kind but it's still about as far from mass production as you can get. 

Next, we get to the important stuff. Can I touch it? He says yes. Remembering my past experiences with foldables, I ask a follow up. Can I bend it for myself? Another yes. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

I reach out. Though the form-factor is a little unpolished and the screen is a tad glossy, the metal edges on the prototype feel sleek and softly-textured. The immediate feel reminds me of an iPad Pro. Taking in the tangibility of the thing. I began to apply pressure. Not a lot of pressure. Not even the kind of pressure I'd apply during my time reviewing the Galaxy Fold. 

Time slows. The hinge slides. The flexible screen on Intel's foldable concept PC goes dark.

At this point, my demo representative intervened. He took hold of the device and tried to reset it. Instead of a familiar Windows desktop, the screen only briefly showed static before reverting to blackness. 

"Did I just break Intel's first foldable concept PC?"

Record Scratch

Let's rewind. 

A few years ago, I asked an executive working in the world of consumer tech whether they thought showing off weird and wacky concept products at trade shows like CES was a good idea. It's been way too long for me to remember their exact response but the gist was clear enough: why bother showing off something that nobody is going to buy?

The answer is contained in the question. Sort of. A concept device like Alienware's UFO or Intel's Horseshoe Bend isn't supposed trying to sell itself. It's trying to sell a wider story about the company that made it - that's part what makes it so refreshing. Especially as a journalist who writes a lot about consumer tech. 

These days, there's a lot of overlap in what all the big tech companies are all trying to do. Everyone wants to be an ecosystem. Everyone is sticking the same best-in-class Qualcomm or Intel processor inside their latest product. And for all the delights of events like CES, that homogeneity is proudly on display for the world to see. 

Concept products are a fun way to break out of that box. They're fun to write about and I suspect they're probably pretty fun to build.

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Fundamentally, concept products are a power move. They're a chance to show off. A glimpse into the world where the engineers, designers and talent at these companies are unshackled from the profit motive and told to make something cool or something that's never been done before rather than something that has to appeal to the most lucrative market segments. 

An example: Dell refreshed its XPS and Latitude laptop lineups at this year's CES. For them, as a business, that's a very important move that they need to make. Those product portfolios account for an enormous amount of the company's revenues. 

The concept tech on show at this year's CES serves a very different purpose. Whether we're talking about intel's Horseshoe Bend, Dell's Alienware UFO or Sony's Vision-S electric car, they're all trying to do the same thing: sell you on the possibility of the future without committing to building it. They tell stories that infect and incite your imagination. They're an addictive illusion. The consumer tech equivalent of an E3 on-stage demo and a vertical slice of what-could-be. 

What's not to love?

Back to the future

Like I said before - going hands-on with concept products and prototypes is one of the best parts of covering international events like CES. Sure, it's physically exhausting, mentally-draining and takes a dumb amount of work to find order within the crowds and chaos of the world's biggest consumer electronics tradeshow but it always feels worth it when you get the chance to go hands-on with something that might never again be on display. 

The last thing I want at CES is to break something like Intel's Horseshoe Bend. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

And, the good news is, I didn't. At least, that's what Intel tell me. 

I returned to the booth a few hours after my initial encounter with the Horseshoe Bend to find the device more-or-less as functional as it was in the morning. The demo rep handling the evening crowd didn't seem particularly keen on letting journalists fold the device for themselves but the unit was otherwise-working. 

Later, following up with Intel, I'm told that I did not break the device but just happened to accidentally trigger a hard reset button which knocked the Horseshoe Bend unit out of commission for a few minutes. If you're a little unsatisfied with that explanation, you're not the only one. Still, it's the one I ended up with and, personally, it's a lot lighter on my conscience. 

CES only lasts a week or so but my memories of sort-of breaking Intel's Horseshoe will endure.

If I had actually broken Intel's fancy foldable concept PC, I'd genuinely feel really bad. I'd have been That Guy. I'd have ruined it for everyone. Concept devices like the Horseshoe Bend aren't designed to last. They're designed to dazzle. 

Disclosure - our coverage of CES 2020 was sponsored by Intel and Dell, who covered the cost of our flights to the US and our accommodation for the duration of our stay in Las Vegas.

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Fergus Halliday
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