Boost your mobile productivity with a bigger-screen laptop — or one with two screens

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The more computer-screen real estate you have, the more room you have to spread out, and the more productive you will be. At least, that has been my experience.

At my home-office desk, I have three screens: that of my employer-supplied Lenovo ThinkPad laptop, raised to about eye level with a stand, and flanked by 27-inch monitors. This allows me to have three, four, even five windows open and unobstructed.

So I feel constricted when I am away from my workstation and trying to get stuff done on a single 14-inch screen. It’s nice that I can grab my ThinkPad and go, but working on it becomes more of a chore because I am no longer able to throw up multiple windows and glance among them.

What’s the solution? There are two obvious ones:

  • Use more than one display while on the go.
  • Use one display while on the go, but bigger.

I’ve lately been experimenting with both scenarios, which have major implications for the mobile-work crowd.

On the multiple-display front, I’ve been trying out Lenovo’s Yoga Book 9i, a Windows laptop with a twist. You have two full displays when you open it, top and bottom, instead of a traditional laptop arrangement of a display at the top with a physical keyboard and trackpad at the bottom.

This is kind of crazy but, as I will explain, highly effective — at least sometimes.

In the bigger-screen category, I’ve been putting Apple’s recently released 15-inch MacBook Air through its paces. Little about this product is new. Its allure is size; Apple took its bestselling mainstream 13-inch MacBook Air, and stretched it out. This had been a major gap in the Mac line — There’s no shortage of affordable Windows big-screen laptops.

The obvious question here is: Which of these products has niche appeal, and which will be of interest to the masses? You can probably guess where I’m going with that.

Yoga Book 9i

Using multiple displays while on the move is not a new idea.

Apple and Windows users can buy any number of portable screens to carry around with their laptops for use on trips. There are even single-and dual-display contraptions that hang off a laptop’s lid to create a kind of Franken-workstation; I tried one such an apparatus in 2020 and I found it less than convincing.

Lenovo is taking a different, more persuasive approach with the $1,999.99 Yoga Book 9i, which I have on loan. This laptop caused a stir when announced early this year, and has garnered largely positive press since then.

When it is closed, the Yoga Book 9i is all but indistinguishable from other Yoga models from Lenovo. Opening it for the first time can be a shock. When presented with dual screens and no keyboard and trackpad, you might want to exclaim, “What in heck do I do now?”

The photo below gives you a sense for all of the possibilities. Note the accessories included with the notebook, including an origami-like stand, a superb add-on physical keyboard, and a stylus. Lenovo also includes a mediocre mouse (not shown).

The user mode garnering the most interest involves propping up the Yoga Book 9i with the origami stand on a desk or table to create a compact, ergonomic dual-screen workstation.

This is accomplished in two ways: with the displays in landscape mode, one above the other, or in portrait mode, side by side. In each case, the screens are divided by a hinge that incorporates a decent-sounding speaker. The included mouse and keyboard provide input.

I decided I hated portrait mode. The side by side screens are potentially helpful for those working with text or code, but are too narrow to properly display websites or image-laden documents, and they just felt unnatural to me.

Landscape mode, however, was a revelation. Having two standard-sized laptop displays, one atop the other, felt instantly right. In short order, I was powering through two-screen productivity as if I’d used this machine all my life. I wrote much of this story in such a manner, with Google Docs on the upper screen and reference PDFs or web pages on the bottom one.

The displays aren’t huge at 13.3 inches each with a resolution of 2880 by 1800 pixels apiece, but the fact that there’s two of ’em makes all the difference.

Lenovo offers an array of software tricks, such as flicking windows from one screen to the other, and enlarging windows so they fill both screens (divided, a bit distractingly, by that hinge).

Yoga Book 9i owners will obviously also want to use the machine in regular laptop mode — and that’s where things largely go wrong.

One option here is to pull up a virtual keyboard and trackpad on the lower screen while using the upper one as your work window. This kind of works, but makes touch typing almost impossible with no physical feedback.

The other option is to place the physical keyboard onto the lower screen, where it magnetically adheres and becomes the default typing tool. It is weirdly elevated, however, and you still have to use the virtual trackpad.

And, oddly, you never know when windows will pop up on the lower screen, beneath the keyboard and hidden from view. Getting them over to the other screen is a hassle.

The Yoga Book 9i is therefore a tricky product to recommend.

If you are the kind of person who moves from office to office and desk to desk, this product might have appeal as a space-saving yet flexible workstation. In a nice touch, the origami-style stand becomes a wrap-around protector for the keyboard during transport (but it’s a hassle to transport multiple pieces of equipment).

Yet those wanting traditional notebook-style functionality on the go are not likely to be satisfied — especially since the Yoga Book 9i costs a lot more than a traditional laptop with similar tech specs.

15-inch MacBook Air

The MacBook Air, Apple’s best-selling Mac, starts at $999. That gets you a 13.3-inch model with older styling and the nearly 3-year-old M1 processor, which is plenty good for average users.

Apple released a 13.6-inch Air version with radically revised styling and a more powerful M2 processor a little over a year ago. It started at $1,199. In June, Apple added a 15.3-inch Air starting at $1,299 while dropping the M2 13-incher to $1,099.

As noted, there is little difference between the 13- and 15-inch models except for size, including 25 percent more screen real estate on the larger model.

Any of these Air models will work fine for me because I mostly work at home and not on the go, and I therefore usually use such computers attached to my trusty 23.7-inch LG UltraFine Display or a loaner display such as Apple’s 27-inch Studio Display. Sometimes I’ll detach to use the notebook on the couch or the kitchen table, or to take it on occasional visits to my employer’s downtown St. Paul offices, but that’s usually the extent of my mobile computing.

Last month, though, I participated in a four-day Bicycling Around Minnesota tour in southeastern Minnesota — not as a bicyclist but as the event’s photographer.

I needed a laptop on the trip because I’d be doing a lot of picture sorting, editing and uploading, which would have been more cumbersome to pull off on my iPhone 14 Pro’s comparatively cramped 6.1-inch display.

I considered the Yoga Book 9i but deemed it unsuitable to use at campsites with no desk-like work surfaces available. The MacBook Air also gave me pause at first because it appeared too bulky for a camping trip — but those are just its X and Y axes. It’s insanely thin at 0.45 inches, barely thicker than the 13-inch model, and only a bit heavier at 3.3 pounds.

The Air offers up to 18 hours of battery life, which was be important because I’d often be away from an outlet. (The Yoga Book 9i only gets about five to seven hours on a single charge.) The Air screen offers a generous 500 nits of brightness, which is great since I’d be using it outdoors almost exclusively. (The Lenovo screens each offer about 340 nits.)

The 15-inch Air packs a bit more on the screen with a resolution of 2880 by 1864 pixels compared to 2560 by 1664 pixels on the 13-incher. More important, stuff just looks bigger and easier on the eyes.

The Mac ended up going everywhere with me on the bicycle trip, tucked into a backpack, and I barely knew it was there.

My iPhone got the most use during the day as I snapped and uploaded batches of pictures to BAM’s Facebook page. But every now and then I would unfold a camping chair and plop down by the side of the road for a bit of photo triaging on the laptop. I also pulled it out in the evening after a meal and a visit to the shower trailer. Those were among my moments of greatest happiness on the trip, luxuriating in the Air’s generously sized screen for powering through tasks that would have taken two or three times as long on the phone.

The 15-inch Air has been a bit of a revelation at home, as well. When working at my home-office desk, I have rarely put a laptop in a stand and positioned it beside my external display for a dual-screen setup. Instead, I have closed the lid and just used the standalone monitor. But the new Air has made me want to do the two-screen thing because the its screen is so much bigger and easier on the eyes.

The Air wins (mostly)

I have another trip coming up soon. I’ll be visiting my folks in New Hampshire and rendezvousing with my sister, who lives in France, to do a lot of nature hiking as the leaves are turning.

I’ll, again, be wanting to take a notebook to process all the amazing iPhone pictures I anticipate taking.

I was tempted to take the Yoga Book 9i because I’d mostly use the computer at my parents’ house with little on-the-go laptop-ing of the sort I engaged in during the BAM trip. The Lenovo would function nicely as a mini-workstation on my folks’ dining-room table.

But I can’t bring myself to leave the 15-inch MacBook Air behind. It’s more elegant, with fewer pieces to carry around, and less complicated to deploy and use.

When I get home, though, I’ll be tempted to redeploy the Yoga Book 9i, while I still have it. I discovered that it can be used with up to four external displays, depending on their resolutions and refresh rates. The MacBook Air can only drive one monitor — that is, unless you invest in a special dock to enable multiple-display capability (I’m shopping for such a dock right now).

In a wacky experiment, I combined the Yoga Book 9i with my LG UltraFine Display and Apple’s Studio Display via two of the Lenovo’s three Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 ports to create a four-screen workstation.

Now that’s a productivity booster.

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