Intel dreams of the PC's future: 'Ambient PCs,' fancy fabrics, and a monster dual-display gaming rig

Is an edge display on the edge of your laptop the next big thing?

Credit: Mark Hachman / IDG

Intel showed off its dual-screen “Tiger Rapids” concept PC last year at Computex. This year, dual-screen laptops became reality. Now, it’s on to the next innovation: the Ambient PC, based around an “edge display” that will allow you to interact with your laptop without even opening it.

That’s not to say that Intel doesn’t continue to innovate in dual-screen PCs. Its “Honeycomb Glacier” concept PC puts an additional rectangular screen above the keyboard—then lifts it and the conventional display on an upward hinge. Intel also continued the trend set by HP’s leather-bound and wood PCs by showing off some fabric-clad, dual-screen displays with “Twin Rivers”.

All told, Intel’s concept PCs appear to be well received by PC vendors, who are using the innovative designs to dispel the idea that the PC is dying. Let’s dig in. 

The Ambient PC

What Intel is calling the Ambient PC looks somewhat familiar—imagine a Galaxy Note Edge, but as a laptop. That should give you an idea of what the Ambient PC looks like while closed: a thin, curved sheet of glass pokes out, with just enough room for a row of icons.

intel ambient pc 2 Mark Hachman / IDG

Intel’s Ambient PC.

That sheet of glass is a touchscreen, however, and when I touched the icons small apps seemed to launch. A calendar opened up a sliding row of blocked-out appointments and their times; when I touched the Spotify icon, I could hear faint music push its way out of the laptop’s speakers. (None of the speakers appeared to be exposed to the outside world, which meant that the audio was a bit muffled.)

That’s not all, though. Inside the Ambient PC laptop lurks an array of far-field microphones, which triggered Amazon’s Alexa when another user spoke a wake word.

Intel ambient pc 3 Mark Hachman / IDG

The Intel Ambient PC’s “home screen”.

A more interesting development is Intel’s decision to include an ambient, 360-degree camera. Folded shut, what you might ordinarily think of a “rear-facing” camera instead points upward. Intel executives said that the camera is in fact a 360-degree camera, so that when a user approaches the laptop, it can identify them via Windows Hello’s facial recognition and automatically log them in, presumably so that they could then access the calendar and other applications.

In a world where computer vendors build privacy shutters into business PCs, the 360-degree camera was an interesting choice.

intel ambient  pc 1 Mark Hachman / IDG

A calendar app running on the Ambient PC.

What Intel’s showing within the Ambient PC feels like a topic that would spark some heated debate within computer makers: wouldn’t users be tempted to pull out their phones to consult their calendar or play music? Or is that small secondary screen a way to communicate notifications to the user without the social implications of pulling out a smartphone, and in a way that sips just a tiny bit of power? 

Twin Rivers

PC enthusiasts don’t all enjoy the same aesthetic. Some seem to prefer somewhat brutalist cases that maximize performance, perhaps with some glowy RGB lighting as accents; others fetishize minimalism, prizing clean, simple lines. HP’s leather-clad Spectre Folio and the wood-lined Envy laptop the company showed off at Computex steer in a more organic direction.

Intel twin rivers prototype Mark Hachman / IDG

Intel’s “Twin River” prototype.

Intel’s Twin Rivers prototype may remind you of the Alcantara fabic used by Microsoft’s Surface Laptop. The Twin Rivers notebook houses two 12-inch touchscreen displays facing one another, giving it the appearance of a content-consumption machine more than one that you would use to type a college paper—you’d be typing on glass, after all. The demonstration that Intel had set up was superb, with both screens showing off a comic book, complete with animation when you turned the page.

Incredibly, Intel apparently managed to put a U-series processor, rather than the lower-power Y-series chip, inside this fanless PC. It folded up neatly into a single compact, cozy package. 

Honeycomb Glacier

If you’ve been paying attention during Computex, then you know that Intel’s dual-screen “Honeycomb Glacier” is already flirting with reality: the Asus Zenbook Duo Pro somehow manages to jam both a 15.6-inch screen and a 14-inch screen into a 5.5 lbs laptop by embedding the small screen above the keyboard. It’s a crazy combination.

Intel honeycomb glacier edited final Intel

Intel’ “Honeycomb Glacier” concept rises out of its base for a more ergonomic feel.

Intel’s Honeycomb Glacier concept asks what could you accomplish if you could raise that display, again? And by “again,” we mean using not one, but two hinges—one to raise the smaller, bottom, secondary screen, and another to raise the top screen. Bonus: That additional hinge manages to boost the top screen closer to eye level.

Intel first showed off Honeycomb Glacier to journalists in March, though at the time the device wasn’t functional, and we weren’t allowed to talk about it. At Computex, Intel revealed it in its full gaming-quality glory. The secondary screen, Intel says, is a 12.3-inch (1,920 x 720) panel, while the top screen is 15.6 inches—the same dimensions as the Asus Zenbook Duo Pro. The top screen rocks a 1080p resolution, though, for power concerns.

Intel appears to consider Honeycomb Glacier, or a laptop built around the concept, as a vehicle for its new “Ice Lake” 10th-gen processors. Raising the secondary screen also allows the notebook to vent heat from the bottom chassis into the outside world, which made it particularly appropriate for gaming. The plan is to build in a discrete GPU—which, if everything pans out, will eventually be an Intel-made Xe chip.

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Mark Hachman

Mark Hachman

PC World (US online)
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