26 August 2013

Apple patents new unibody hinge to make laptops even thinner

The size of our devices are stuck at something of a bottleneck. We can’t exactly make them smaller because they’re so reliant on large, easily visible displays. So, the industry makes do, and makes the devices thinner, which reduces overall size without compromising display size. One object standing in the way of even thinner laptops is the hinge, and Apple might have found a way to remove that from the design equation.

Yesterday, a new patent application was published that describes “flexible segments” that interlock to form a rigid material. The material used isn’t some kind of top-secret new wonder metal only found deep within Apple’s subterranean volcano lair, but rather a process that can take rigid material — such as plastic or metal — and can cut it in such a way to create the flexible segments. The flexible segmented hinge could bend at various degrees, but that depends on the segments being cut in different patterns. The patent claims that when using this method instead of a standard hinge, the overall thickness of the device can be reduced. Considering laptops like the MacBook Air are already so thin that it feels like picking it up will cause it to snap in half, making the hardware even thinner is certainly intriguing.

Even more intriguing, this cutting method could mean that laptops can become one fluid piece of metal or plastic, rather than being separate sheets of material attached through a hinge. The cut-hinge technique could also apply to other products, such as headphones or really anything else that uses a hinge, like a door.

Though MacBooks might need a drastic design refresh sometime soon — as we’ve grown accustomed to thin, silver laptops with iterative hardware upgrades — the existence of this patent doesn’t mean you’ll soon have a MacBook Air so thin that you’ll have to shut the ceiling fan off to make sure it doesn’t blow off the desk. Instead, we might see this kind of hinge first applied to cheaper products, such as the headphones that come with iPhones, or the iPad’s Smart Cover.

However, the possibilities the cut-hinge may bring could be quite impressive. Smartphones are already extremely stale in terms of design in that they’re all similarly sized flat rectangles. With the direction in which the phone industry has been moving — larger displays — phones are already getting too big for the intent of a portable device. Perhaps Apple can bake this cut-hinge into not only the casing of a device, but also the display itself. If so, we could finally have a full smartphone touchscreen that can fold on itself to become smaller in your pocket, but unfold to a regular smartphone size. At least this patent facilitates that dream.

Now read: iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C: Release date, hardware specs, and rumors rounded up


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