At CES this year, I tried something very different. Rather than carrying my 40-pound backpack all over the show, I just carried my HP Spectre Folio, and it worked far better than I thought it would. The issue with most smartphones, tablets and particularly laptop computers is that they really aren’t designed to be held. The HP Spectre Folio is the first laptop I’ve had since the ill-fated IBM ThinkPad TransNote back in 2001 (which was discontinued in 2002).
Now there are only two improvements I would have liked to have seen with the HP Spectre Folio: One is that I would have preferred it be part of the joint Microsoft/Qualcomm always-connected platform and have even more battery life; the second is I’d prefer it in black over brown or burgundy (I haven’t worn brown or burgundy since the 1970s, and that wasn’t a great fashion decade). If you carry something that looks like a portfolio, it becomes somewhat of a fashion accessory as well as a notebook, so color does matter.
Now I’ve run into an alternative in terms of an after-market offering, and that is Toast, which is a firm out of Seattle that provides skins—typically made of wood—for laptops. Recently, it came out with leather, and I installed it on a Microsoft Surface Book (previously, I’d tried the wood on a Surface Notebook with interesting results, but I was even more pleased with the leather).
Here's what I’ve learned.
HP Spectre Folio
The HP Spectre Folio was designed to be carried, and it has a unique configuration. The screen cantilevers forward, making it better for watching movies on a plane, and it transitions very nicely from laptop to a carriable tablet as a result. It is very light, the leather has padding, and when carried it feels extremely secure in your hands.
This is in sharp contrast to a normal notebook in plastic or metal that can get slippery if your hands get sweaty—and can still be hard to hold even when your hands are dry. In addition, if dropped, the leather does a nice job of protecting the corners, which can often get dented or broken with plastic or metal laptops and often transition to tablets poorly, leaving exposed keys on the bottom.
The focus on portability grants significant battery life, but this isn’t a high-performance product by any stretch of the imagination; you are limited to the one configuration and two colors.
HP, thanks to its printing business, is making a huge push on customization, and I thought I’d look at something that could provide that customization today.
What Toast does is provide custom skins for a variety of laptops, but these skins won’t work on the HP Spectre Folio. However, the same concept might be possible on a future derivative product. I initially tried the dark wood covers on a Microsoft Surface Notebook, historically one of my favorite products, with good, though somewhat mixed results.
First, putting one of these skins on isn’t as easy as you’d think because you really must place it perfectly and there is no supplied jig for placement (that would be an excellent addition to this program). So, my first application was around 1/16th of inch off, even though I’ve done a lot of work with wraps. The wood, while better than metal and some plastic, still was slippery. The result, while it looked very different and unique, wasn’t enough better than the standard metal to make it a viable alternative to the HP Spectre Folio.
The leather, however, was much better, and I learned to put the laptop on edge, then placing the skin on edge as well, which provided much better alignment. I’d still prefer a jig of some kind, but the result looked much better as well. Unlike the Folio, the leather isn’t padded, and the Surface Book is designed with a removable tablet with vastly less battery life—making it unlikely I’d be willing to leave the charger behind if in tablet mode. This is more of a performance laptop, and the weight coupled with the lower battery life made it less ideal as a stand-alone laptop. But the leather does feel more secure and the look is far more custom (I even had my company name and the image of a dragon placed on it). It provided the level of customization I was looking for, if not the portability I wanted.
In short, had I picked a smaller/lighter product, I think I would have better approached the Spectre Folio ideal, but I still would likely have missed the special screen that does significantly add to the experience.
This brings me to what I think the ideal product might be: a product like the HP Spectre Folio but with customizable leather skins like Toast’s, so you can get a customized result. It might be interesting to experiment with magnetic or reusable adhesive treatments so you could more easily reskin the laptop based on mood, what you are wearing or changing interests.
Wrapping Up: The Future May Be in Organic Cases
It isn’t just laptops that have slippery metal or plastic forms—tablets and smartphones do as well. But these we often put in protective cases, which are both more comfortable to hold and add better protection against dropping onto hard surfaces. Organic material just feels better, and Toast does make skins for smartphones and tablets as well.
Given that HP produced the Spectre Folio and has a huge initiative focused on customization, I expect the two concepts to come eventually together and produce a laptop that is as comfortable as the Folio to carry and as customizable as the Toast service currently provides. The question isn’t if, it’s just a case of when, and then we may have a very interesting laptop revolution as we shift to two-in-one products that are truly two in one.
I’ve seen the laptop future, and it is customized leather.