Although the world continues to favor portable computing in the form of laptops and tablets, the PC market is still strong in one particular respect: It appeals to enthusiasts who piece together their own equipment in a way that allows them to customize and fine-tune their experience to whatever their budget can muster. There’s nothing more satisfying than making one’s own “rig” by stacking components inside a tower and watching it all come to life as soon as the power button is pressed. But how come this isn’t a thing with laptops?
Miniaturization Does Away With Standardization
Laptops and desktop computers live in two completely different worlds. It’s rare to take space restrictions into consideration when building a PC since it’s something stationary that sits around your desk. You’re not going to be moving it much, so you can basically make it as heavy and cumbersome as you want.
That’s why it’s a point of pride for some to have a desktop unit that takes up an enormous amount of space with huge amounts of storage and an obscene amount of processing power. In the unit itself, the pieces are spread out enough that you don’t need a sophisticated cooling solution. There’s enough air between them that you can keep everything relatively cool without much effort, so you can fit in some immensely powerful hardware inside of that space.
However, when it comes to laptops, this entire dynamic gets flipped on its head. Manufacturers aren’t looking to make super-powerful monster machines because the hardware they run on requires a large amount of space. The best-selling laptops are often the ones that weigh very little yet provide an acceptable amount of power for the system’s small dimensions.
Because of this miniaturization, manufacturers have to invent their own ways of making the whole system work without providing discomfort to the user or accumulating excessive amounts of heat around the most sensitive components. At the same time, variables like battery life and ergonomics play roles that would otherwise be lacking or non-existent when thinking about designing a desktop computer.
This leads to something we already see in smartphones: the production of space-sensitive computing equipment ultimately leads to less standardization.
Whereas the ATX standard (various iterations of which can be seen in the above image) in modern desktop computers specifies particular motherboard dimensions, mounting configuration, and power supply configuration that allows enthusiasts to build their own systems based on these pre-determined values, this doesn’t exist quite as much in the laptop world.
The vast majority of desktop computers have a pretty recognizable and reproducible layout: There’s an ATX-sized motherboard mounted on an ATX-compliant case with an ATX-compliant power supply, and the CPU and GPU cooling systems consist of heatsinks with fans that help disperse heat. The heights of these cooling systems often fit inside of a standard tower case. If you remove all of the “guts” of two full-tower ATX PCs and switch them over, you’ll be able to remount them in their new cases without any issue for the most part.
You’ll never be able to do this with laptops, since their design is focused on both space-saving and ergonomics, making each one have a nearly unique cooling system layout. Even the shape of the motherboard is different from model to model.
Here’s the kicker: If you standardize laptops the same way that ATX standardized PCs, companies will have very little flexibility in developing new and powerful technologies that could further reduce the dimensions of laptops. For example, if a graphics-integrated circuit board that takes less than half of the space of previous models is invented, the manufacturer has no way of taking advantage of that reduced space because of the pressure to comply with the standard. This would ultimately lead to a less competitive overall market for portable computers.
In the end, building your own laptop from non-manufacturer-specific pieces probably will never be possible due to all of the reasons described here. However, there are ways around this that some companies have been experimenting with.
Flexibility Through Modularity
Although laptops will probably never standardize their hardware mounts and dimensions, there’s hope of some form of modularity where components can be upgraded to a great extent and exchanged for others according to the user’s needs.
In the middle of 2019, Panasonic released the Toughbook 55 with exactly this in mind. Almost every component in the laptop could be removed and replaced with another one that suits your needs better. Don’t need an optical drive? Just swap it out for a SmartCard reader or a dedicated graphics card. Technically, you could even place two batteries on the laptop, extending the battery life to 40 hours, according to the manufacturer’s own claims.
Another noteworthy mention is Alienware’s Area-51m, which may not boast the same insane interchangeability of components but allows the user to upgrade the CPU, GPU, memory, and storage of the machine.
Sadly, with such flexibility, you are forced to sacrifice portability, something that is essential for the majority of laptop users. Both of these laptops are pretty enormous compared to their slimmer and sleeker contemporaries. Even so, modular laptops may just be the thing needed to capture a niche market of enthusiasts who want more flexibility out of their machines.
To answer the question asked at the very beginning of this piece: No, you will probably never see a time when you can just buy a case and fill it with components to make it a laptop. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t buy a laptop that allows you to tweak its hardware more than you can with other models. If you want such a machine, though, you will have to live with the fact that it will be heavier and more cumbersome than others.