Wish List - Bringing Back the 20-inch Notebook

My recent encounter with Toshiba's 4K notebook, the Satellite P50t, has left a pressing question in my mind - is there anything that can be done to make notebooks even better? Consider that we already have the best mobile CPU's and GPU's, fast AC wireless, m.2 mobile storage options, phenomenal styling, the best of the best notebook keyboards and now the most detail-rich high-PPI 4K displays. Have we really hit the limits of what's possible in that 15-to-17-inch chassis?

A few years ago manufacturers tried to push the 20" form factor. It failed, partly because the bigger screen size alone didn't provide a compelling sale. Fast forward to today, though, and a 4K UHD 3840 x 2160 screen at that same 20" size certainly would make for one hell of an amazing notebook, and do so in more ways than you think.

BACKGROUND:

Many of you may immediately be thinking what is it that I am smoking? A 20 inch notebook is big, heavy, difficult to tote around and a huge step backwards when notebooks are becoming smaller and lighter, a movement in the exact opposite direction.

That's very true from an engineering and technology standpoint. Electronics will always get more powerful and cheaper over time. But those same rules also mean that we can now cram more into a given space than was possible a short few years ago. Think of the modern mini ITX desktop - a shoebox solution that today provides the computing performance comparable to a giant tower from half a decade before.

The simple fact of a physically larger notebook chassis not only allows engineers to put more mobile-SKU components inside, but give the end-user the option to play with configuration option. We've all seen Ultrabooks compromise on user-upgradeable memory and storage because these are soldered on to the system board. More recently manufacturers have begun to make batteries non-swappable as well. In contrast, a chassis designed around the idea of user configurable and upgradeable components could provide DIY-type desktop flexibility for the mobile gaming and computing crowd.

While the biggest selling point here will obviously be that 20 inch 4K display, the larger chassis size required to host that digital canvas allows for plenty of other improvements as well. Let's explore these in detail below.

BETTER COOLING

Exceptional cooling is a must
It's obvious that with more physical room available designers can use more elaborate cooling solutions to dissipate any given thermal load. We've all seen the benefits of a properly executed all-copper heatsink/heatpipe design paired with the correct number of quality fans to keep cool an overclocked mobile CPU and a pair of overclocked mobile GPU's. Prototype designs have already shown that even closed-loop water cooling is doable in a notebook form-factor.

In the case of a modern 20" notebook, I would expect to see no less than 3 fans to chill a dual-GPU-equipped setup, with a passive/silent mode to keep noise down when at idle/desktop. Fire up the latest 3D title, however, and I would want the GPU to run without throttling and the palm rest to remain cool to the touch, without subjecting my ear drums to a blow-dryer ruckus.

BETTER AUDIO

A 20" notebook demands high-end audio
With ample room now left around your full-size keyboard, audiophiles should again enjoy the benefits of  high-end quality speakers. My own Qosmio X305 notebook uses a 5-speaker design with separate subwoofer and 2-way stereo drivers, providing a listening experience I have yet to find on any other notebook.

Far too many notebooks today skimp on audio by providing horrible speakers that are tiny and cannot produce quality sound. Ever wanted dual sub-woofers for left/right bass, a pair of mid-range drivers and tweeters each side to enjoy that movie soundtrack or HD audio stream the way a boombox would sound? It's all very doable in a 20" notebook.

MORE STORAGE OPTIONS

It's 2014 - m.2 slots FTW
Here's an area where notebook manufacturers can totally have their way. With the advent of M.2 and mSata alongside old-school 2.5 inch and optical drives, users should have no worries whatsoever of having fast solid-state storage to go, and plenty of it.

For my particular 20" notebook, I would expect no less than four M.2 or mSata slots available in a RAID0/1/5/10 configuration. Should the chipset lack the available PCIe lanes, manufacturers could very easily incorporate third-party storage controller logic. Then add a pair of empty 2.5-inch caddies capable of accommodating 9.5mm z-height devices for traditional hard drives. I don't know about you, but the thought of having 8TB of storage available on a notebook sounds pretty appealing to me.

And that's without even mentioning the removable 6x BDXL burner that would hot-swap with a third 2.5-inch 9.5mm z-height hard drive caddy, pushing your on-board storage to a whopping 10TB.

BETTER GRAPHICS

Feeling the need for speed... at 4K
Mobile SLI and CrossFire graphics solutions have been around for a while now. These may seem overkill for 1080P gaming, but a dual GTX980M ensemble would certainly come into it's own when being used to push frame rates on a 4K display.

And yet the uses go far beyond gaming. Many applications that harness CUDA and OpenCL would also benefit greatly from the added performance of that second GPU. Tie that in with the image detail 4K provides for 3D modeling and CAD software, and the question becomes not why you would want a dual-GPU arrangement, but why wouldn't you?

IMPROVED PRODUCTIVITY

Megatask on-the-go as you do at your desk
Scaling issues aside, 4K displays provide a vast digital canvas to work with on your Windows desktop, giving you the ability to move and resize windows however you want. This is a boon for productivity-focused users who need to get serious amounts of work done, and cannot compromise on screen real-estate.

Of course, being that we're talking about a notebook, you now have the luxury of taking that 4K screen with you on-the-go. At 20 inches, that 4K display will have very similar PPI as a 10 inch FullHD screen of a Surface Pro 2. That means you can work at a comfortable 100% scaling and not be hampered by software with a broken UI when scaling is increased.

INCREASED BATTERY LIFE

A 12-cell 96WHr 6270mAh battery
Battery life might be the last thing on your mind when talking about a behemoth 20" notebook. Yet when you think about it, very few notebooks on the market today let you have a high-capacity 12-cell battery, and the extended run time that would come with that. Again, moving to a larger 20" form-factor allows engineers to cram more battery power than possible with a 17" notebook. It would be pretty much a requirement then to make such a notebook with nothing less than a 12-cell battery.

Take things a step further and you could also design an external slice battery that matches your 20" foorprint. This would be especially useful for a thinner profile notebook, giving you the option of an all-day device, yet still remain thin and light enough to take for short trips when you don't need that extra power.

INSANE CONNECTIVITY

Given the extended linear space around the sides and rear of a 20" chassis, making room for connectivity won't be an issue, limiting you only by what is possible with your system board/chipset. As a minimum, I would expect no less that four USB3.0 ports, a full-size DisplayPort, HDMI in/out and one ThunderBolt port. For audio, I would want to have a trio of auto-sensing and reconfigurable 3.5mm jacks for mic, headphone and line-out.

Let's not forget as well the RJ-45, SD card and Kensington Lock Slot. Extra connectivity? Maybe a second TB port, 5th USB port or even an eSata port could find a home.

DESKTOP-CLASS PERFORMANCE

Yes, that's my new 8-Core
As far back as 10 years ago, you could buy a notebook with a desktop CPU installed (I know because I had one). Obviously, the practice dropped as CPU manufacturers introduced mobile SKU's. But you can still find OEM's installing 6-12-core XEON's and Core i7 chips in ODM hardware, Clevo being a prime example.

Yet as Clevo has shown, you can build a 17" chassis and get those desktop CPU's to not only work, but work properly. So a physically larger 20-inch shell opens up performance options not available on smaller notebooks. Obviously, this would be a sweet deal to the enthusiast and serious user who craves that workstation-level multi-core horsepower, yet give them that, along with a gorgeous 4K display, and NOT be tied to their desk.

YOU WANT THAT PIZZA THIN CRUST OR DEEP DISH?

In the world of electronics, thin means compromise. This is especially true of heat-producing components that need to be actively cooled. Sure, Apple will happily sell you a MacBook Air that slides into a manila envelope, just don't expect extreme performance when you sit down to use it... with an iPhone 6 plus in your back pants pocket.

What are the advantages of a THIN 20" notebook? Lighter weight for starters, with the use of mobile-SKU, low-TDP CPU/GPU parts. I would imagine a modern 20" thin notebook be no heavier than my X305 at around 9-10 lbs. while still keeping a svelte 1-inch profile. Omitting the optical drive is beneficial here, as is using m.2 for primary storage and a slimmer 7mm z-height 2.5-inch HDD for secondary storage.

Of course, thicker is better (that's what she said), so moving up to a chassis that's around 2.0-2.5 inches in height will make the most sense, especially if you want to wring every last drop of performance from your 20" notebook. Most importantly, however, the thicker profile allows for more substantial cooling, letting you use more powerful processors including desktop SKU's and unlocked mobile parts. You also get the space to cram more storage options than possible on a thin variant at that same footprint.

CONCLUSION:

It's kind of funny when you look at how dramatic the innovation has been in the desktop space over the last two to three years. Performance is now so good you can get by with a mini-ITX system and have very few "wants".

Yet in the notebook space, the opposite would seem the ideal, packing as much as you can in a larger 20" footprint. With the advent of 4K displays, that 20" size suddenly becomes extremely attractive. Combined with the advancements in mobile CPU and GPU technology, modern storage alternatives like m.2, and the physical space for better cooling along with a more substantial battery, I believe it's just a matter of when, and not if, we see a 20-inch 4K notebook hit the market.

Maybe 2015 will be the year the 20" notebook makes a comeback, and reignites the innovation in the notebook segment that has been stale for so long. Fingers crossed!

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