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Mike Elgan: Why you'll buy a two-screen laptop

Why carry a mobile device with one screen when two screens make it twice as nice?

November 26, 2010 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - I predicted more than two years ago that dual-screen laptops would dominate the category within five years. Halfway to the deadline, Acer this week unveiled a workable and exciting two-screen laptop called the Acer Iconia.

The Iconia is the first clamshell dual-screen notebook that I'm aware of from a mainstream company. The laptop itself is the real deal. Powered by an Intel Core i5 processor and 4GB of DDR3 RAM, the Windows 7 Home Premium laptop supports the 3.0 versions of both Bluetooth and USB.

It's heavy at 6.2 pounds. And two screens drain the battery. Acer claims 3 hours of battery life. Worse, it's not replaceable, which may be the laptop single worst "feature."

Acer Iconia
Acer's Iconia, the first mainstream dual-screen laptop, was unveiled this week. The company has not yet announced pricing or availability.

What's great about the Iconia, however, is what Acer has done with the second screen. One screen is built into the lid where a laptop screen normally goes, and the other one is built into the base where the keyboard usually sits. Each screen measures 14 inches diagonally.

The screens operate together, with the top screen behaving like any other laptop screen, and the bottom doing special-purpose tasks, like providing a virtual keyboard or special-purpose dashboards.

In one mode, the bottom screen acts as a continuation of the top screen. For example, a Web page or a document spans from the top of the top screen to the bottom of the bottom screen. This mode appears automatically depending on the application.

Another mode brings up an application called the Social Jogger, which places a dashboard of activity several social networking sites on the bottom screen. Tapping on things brings opens them in the top screen.

The application Scrapbook provides a free-form multi-touch bottom-screen place to layout your pictures. By tapping on them, you can edit or send them using applications that open on the top screen.

Hot or not?

The initial reaction by the usual suspects (gadget bloggers, columnists, miscellaneous tech pundits) focuses on the inferiority of an on-screen keyboard for typing. And, of course, for regular writing, that's probably true. However, laptops are about tradeoffs. You have to choose between biggest screen and smallest size, most power and longest battery life, most power and lowest price.

The two-screen option will simply give us another trade-off to consider. I believe the second screen will prove to be a worthwhile choice, for two reasons. First, screen real estate is worth its weight in gold for productivity and all around usefulness. And second, a physical keyboard is trivially easy and cheap to add as an option. When you really need to type, just whip out a Bluetooth keyboard and go for it. It's easy to get two screens and a real keyboard. No big deal.

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