Are Slabtops The Future Of Computing?

The bottom half of a MacBook Air on a purple and pink background has severed wires drawn out of its back to indicate its lack of a screen.

The most popular computer ever was the Commodore 64 with its computer-in-a-keyboard form factor. If you have a longing for a keyboard computer with more modern internals, one of the easiest solutions today is to pull the screen off a laptop.

[Umar Shakir] wanted to see what the fuss was about regarding a recent Apple patent and took the top lid off of his M1 Macbook Air and turned it into a “slabtop.” The computer works great wired to a monitor but can also be used wirelessly via AirPlay. The approach doesn’t come without its downsides, of course. Newer MacBooks can’t access recovery mode without the built-in screen, and some older models had their WiFi antennas in the top lid, so making one into a slabtop will leave you desk-bound.

While [Shakir] focuses on MacBooks, this approach should work with any laptop. Apparently, it’s a cottage industry in China already. Back in the day, my own daily driver was a Pentium-powered laptop with its broken LCD (and lid) removed. It worked great with whatever CRT was nearby.

If you’re looking for an off-the-shelf keyboard computer of your own, you might want to check out the Raspberry Pi 400.

114 thoughts on “Are Slabtops The Future Of Computing?

        1. It’s apple.
          If they don’t convince themselves they invented it, it’s ‘not invented here’.

          Good thing they (cough, Next, cough) finally invented the pre-emptive multitasking protected memory OS. Rebooting was tiresome.

    1. I own and have gifted 5 pi400’s… trying the orange pi800 now… no reason to have a power supply bigger than a phone charger these days. I also run a deskpi, pibox, a tablet based pi, two more pi4’s to run my broadcast studio, and a pizeow to run pihole…

      1. “I also run a deskpi, pibox, a tablet based pi, two more pi4’s to run my broadcast studio, and a pizeow to run pihole…”

        Bubba Gump Pi Company

        I have several Pis on hand that I’m just not using, but I can’t get up the motivation to sell them because I don’t want to scalp them, and I know by listing them at reasonable prices only scalpers will buy them and screw someone over. Hell, the several Pi Zero units I’d give away for the cost of postage if I thought I could find honest buyers who will actually use them in projects.

        1. I use Pi 2 and 3s in school projects in Guatemala and Honduras. Finding units is really hard right now. Check out Access to Education Collaborative on Facebook. We can use all the units you don’t need.

        2. Can you recommend where to start with Pis? I am 53 and disabled from injury. It would give me something to do especially during the winter. It looks like something relatively cheap to do.

          1. Hey, check out Code Academy for free courses to learn Raspberry Pi. There are a ton of free videos on YouTube and there’s a good paid course on Udemy ($12 right now). I haven’t checked yet but there’s also probably a subreddit where you can ask questions of people who’ve been tinkering for years.

          2. Pi nano for embedded projects. You can develop on your current PC.
            Small board, $4 list, dual core 133MHz, built in I/O. Available (as opposed to desktop Pis).
            Well documented.
            Works with many Arduino gadgets.
            No OS, bare metal.

            Environment is kind of a pain in the ass to setup in Widows.
            Debugging is challenge, but I haven’t setup the second nano as monitor aid yet.
            Not the place to learn C/C++ or EE.
            But if you’re good to go, so is it.

            Build yourself a helper gadget. Don’t know what you need.

        3. Never owned a pi, always wanted to see what the hype is about, id be more than happy to use and learn with it!! As of now i have a lenovo “slabtop” running parrot os…boring really

      2. I hope this inst the 3rd post of this but it’s not showing me my other 2 on here. Joekidd can you recommend where to start with Pis? I am 53 and disabled from injury at work. It looks like something I could do especially in the winter time. It looks relatively inexpensive to try. I would like to try multiple projects and see where I land on what I like.

    2. Sheer idiocy. A laptop screen is about 10-15% extra space and weight. Remove it does what, other than inconvenience the user. And pay for hardware you don’t use.

      Can’t use it anywhere without attaching a monitor.

      Nostalgic? Buy the Pi 400, or snag an old Atari 1040 ST.

      1. I think the point is that a laptop is still useful as a computer without the internal display.

        Nostalgia might be a factor, but at the same time an all-one computer without an integrated display clearly holds a lot of appeal.

        The Pi 400 is of more practica utility than an Atari 1040 ST and cheaper, at least prior to the pandemic.

    3. On mine at least you can’t do bios updates and a few other bits without the built in screen. I have mine on an external monitor on a stand, and leave the laptop closed up under the monitor with an external keyboard and mouse… which gives me desktop-like usage at home, and still offers laptop usage when out – the best of both worlds.

    4. How about outfitting a thin pelican case with a water proof mechanical keyboard, a flip up monitor (or open up, a Raspberry Compute Module 4 Carrier Board, with a Jetson Module, a HacKRF One, a Kraken or Pineapple, with a custom battery pack, power cord connector, and IP6 water quality proof jacks for a multi-spectrum antenna(s), basically the cream of the SOCs with all the RF (Wifi,BT, SDR, LoraWAN, GMS, GPS) etc… capabilities in a very compact water resistant package that can be deployed as a Cyberdeck or a Slabdeck with the Nvida Dev modules, sensor suites, and full spectrum abilities – dreams!:-)

      1. The older ones are even better. Found a Pentium I-era Thinkpad 560E, and its keyboard had much deeper key travel and better tactile feedback than the X220 (which uses the same keyboard as the T420).

        1. Indeed, I kept and used for ages an old thinkpad T42 I think because the keyboard is almost as nice to type on as a real keyboard… I may still have it somewhere and I know the older still T23 is still sat by the tape deck (its got a decent line-in so we used it to record some of our old tapes and records and there it has stayed).

          But as the fan started dying on the better one it wasn’t nice to use something both slow and noisy just for the decent keyboard and I know I never got round to fixing it (the price of a supposdly NOS replacement fan was more than buying 5 more of the machines and I never got around to looking for suitably sized replacement I could mount.)

          1. The fan lost its lubrication, or something more complex? Usually I just drill the seal until you get to the sleeve bearing, push to remove the impeller, and clean with wd-40, then put some grease and reassemble, seal with some sticky tape. The impeller might stay loose except on some fan models where there’s a small ridge where it snaps onto, but it’ll work for about $0

          2. I think from the sounds of it its an actually failed bearing. It has been given as good a clean as you can get without risking destruction and it might have helped some but it still sounded awful. But being well over a decade old at that point and so glacially slow when it wasn’t a quick and easy fix I put it aside – a nice keyboard is great but at some point you need to then upgrade the brains if its to be of any use as a modern computer…

      2. It is definitely one of the best, and I also like the older Dell Latitude keyboards from the CPi/CPx era. From that same era came the best laptop keyboard ever used by my hands, the Apple Powerbook G3 Pismo.

    1. Perhaps the pinnacle of laptop keyboards was the Texas Instruments Travelmate 5000 (from back when they were designed and built in Texas). Excellent feel. I’ve never found one quite like it again

    2. Break it in half after snapping off the monitor. Or just connect your favorite keyboard. Imagine a slab top with no keyboard, it would be like a whole computer in a rectangular box. Amazing what counts as innovation these days!

      1. Perhaps, perhaps not as self contained battery TV and monitor do exist, and you can get USB powered screen – though yes that one would then drain the laptop battery again, though perhaps less as modern screens are generally more power efficient, and it is certainly easier to leave the machine running and just disconnect or turn off an external monitor.

        1. It would work if I go to my remote cabin. I have a 12 VDC TV/Monitor that will directly work with the batteries I have there, but I notice the inverter wastes power if I just use it to power the laptop all the time. If the time the laptop increases a lot I can run the TV for 23 hours on the batteries alone.

          1. Inverter = waste. Unavoidable waste if you must use the inverter though. But your laptop is a DC device, so with the right buck/boost converter you should be able to run it right off the battery at your cabin very much more efficiently than turning low Voltage DC to mains voltage AC and back again…

          2. And you really aught to use a buck/boost (or pair of them even) if your laptop is nominally 12 VDC – the cabin battery may well droop too low, and may at full charge be too high – the range a device can take is sometimes huge and sometimes rather tiny.

          3. You can buy 12v laptop power bricks.

            You can get any 12v power brick with enough current to run your battery and put the cord end for your laptop on it as well (45w/2.25A 65w/3.25A and 90w 4.5A are common). Assuming your laptop doesn’t expect more than an ID resistor in the cable end.

            Why it is normal to go from 12v DC to 100v AC then back to 19v DC is nuts to me. I mean I get it, take two commonly available things and plug them together. But the waste.

          4. >Why it is normal to go from 12v DC to 100v AC then back to 19v DC is nuts to me.

            A 12 Volt laptop PSU will do essentially the same thing anyways. That’s how DC-DC conversion is done: first you invert to high frequency AC, then lift the voltage up with a transformer, then you rectify it to DC at a higher voltage, then drop it down to the desired level through a regulator that smooths it out.

            The reason why these converters use push-pull configuration rather than boost/buck is because it gets better utilization and power density out of the magnetics, and the output is a lot easier to regulate. That however makes the whole situation virtually identical to running an inverter and a regular power brick back-to-back. All you’re missing is some PFC and compliance circuits in the middle.

          5. Also, using high voltage in the intermediate steps means the capacitors that store the energy don’t need to handle as much current and charge, which makes them smaller and the I2R losses are reduced, so it kinda makes sense.

          6. If you have a way to provide the necessary DC power directly to the laptop, not using the original power adapter is a completely valid option. The adapter that ships with the computer is designed to be used in an on-grid situation where AC power is supplied directly,

          7. Many switching mode power supplies can work with both AC and DC – they’re just not designed to. That’s because the first thing they do with the AC is to rectify it to DC and stuff it into a big capacitor – before turning it back to AC again, and then DC…

            You might call an SMPS power brick an AC-DC-AC-DC converter instead. If you can inject DC past the first rectifier, or through the rectifier, you can skip one conversion. The PFC circuitry may not be happy about being fed with DC but otherwise there’s no technical reason why it wouldn’t work.

            There was a magazine article that explored running AC powered SMPS devices directly with DC from batteries, and many of them just work. Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall:

  1. This a lot of what I hope the framework laptop could be. Just buy a mainboard and battery, then toss them in a diy case with your own keyboard and mouse/trackpad. I’d love for a relatively inexpensive vr/ar headset to use with it.

    That said, my laptop now is literally just a steam deck and a Anne Pro 2 portable 60% keyboard, so I’m already an odd one.

    1. You don’t need a battery, and you can get files to 3d print a case directly from the framework site for free. It seems that continued usability of the internals has long been part of their overall plan.

    2. Thats the general idea for my christmas time project, replace my current R5 1600 setup with the Steamdeck running vanilla Arch sitting in the Steamdock with two monitors attached.
      But i will keep my full daskeyboard, the old model with the USB hub and the switches changed to Kailh Box Navy. :)

    1. This idea is best for laptops with broken screens, especially if the cost of a replacement screen is an issue.
      Removing the screen/lid assembly allows for much better operating temperatures.

  2. I tried this some months ago with my 2019 intel macbook pro 16″ that had broken flatcables. It still works with an external monitor (internal monitor is garbled still ofc.); but I had no luck getting the screen amputated setup to work. For some reason it would boot but not display any output to the external monitor, tested with several display adapters (that did work with the internal display still attached).
    So maybe it still wants to handshake with the internal display (there seems to be some chips embedded on the kapton flex cable) – or maybe it can be made to work by disabling the discrete graphics or something ?

  3. I’ve got a Toshiba Portege Z20-T that’s the opposite.

    The mainboard, SSD, wi-fi chip, and one battery, etc are all in the screen component – which detaches from the keyboard.

    The keyboard has another battery, and extra USB sockets, and the ethernet socket.

    Pop the screen off and you have a touch-screen tablet computer. Plug it in and you’ve got a laptop, or you might call it a docking station for a tablet. Quite clever, but it’s Win8.1 and I’m scared to upgrade it to W10 in case some drivers aren’t available and I’ll lose some functions.

    1. That’s an actual broadwell core-m, with actual intel GPU, unlike some of the really messy Atom parts that shipped as tablet-ish devices with win8, so your odds are better than they would otherwise be; but at a minimum you’ll probably want to do a pnputil /export-driver * to a safe location. Win10 will, mostly, cooperate with win8 drivers in the absence of anything better; but for some win8 devices windows update won’t give them to you and vendors can be really hit or miss about providing them.

  4. My first computer was a Timex Sinclair 2068. I love the idea. The problem is that I’m always able to find in Amazon new chromebooks (with battery and display) cheaper than Pi400.

  5. My new Lenovo laptop is used much like a slabtop. Plugged into a 32″ monitor for OldGuy™ eyes, clicky keyboard and wireless mouse. I don’t use a desktop because I do travel about once a month, and take the laptop along.

    The laptop is kept under the monitor, almost closed. Anyone who can spy with my camera gets a good look at the touch pad. :-)

    1. Your case seems like the real nail in the coffin for deliberately produced screenless laptops: tons of people mostly don’t use the screen much; but substantially fewer never have need of it and those people can use desktops.

      I suspect that a lot of laptops get away with having really bad screens(potentially keyboards and trackpads as well) because people know that they’ll mostly not use those, so don’t want the cost and/or weight associated with one that is genuinely pleasant to use; but the cost of a deeply mediocre display is a small price to pay for having the option of using the computer without mains-powered peripherals.

      1. Perhaps not – or at least not what we would call a ‘real’ screen. Put the little 4:3 type screen in the numpad or the thin extra wide above the keyboard as a supplementary screen for normal use that can just about function on its own if you have to.

  6. This is completely the wrong way around.

    The computer should be in the screen, and then you can use whatever keyboard you like (a very personal choice). And you can use the screen as a tablet.

    Just like a microsoft surface, in fact.

  7. One of the oldest, TRS-80 model 1.

    Personally I don’t like keyboards with integrated MB. I want something that feels right for me. Plus keyboards wear out or spill a drink on. Lost a MacBook Pro once when my 2 year old spilled a drink. Easier to just replace a keyboard.

  8. “some older models had their WiFi antennas in the top lid, so making one into a slabtop will leave you desk-bound.”

    And you call yourself a hacker. You’re not trying hard enough.

  9. Without using AirPlay or whatever if you don’t plan using it on several location, why not saving the power used for wirelessly transmit an image, the big battery big battery and swap the slab for a Bluetooth trackpad/keyboard ? Thus letting the thing plugged on the screen and main power.

  10. I backed up a kickstarter project called pentaform and its computer in a keyboard called abacus. It should deliver their products in January for the first batch… So yes I think it is a wonderful solution 😊. To me it’s a cheap computer for people who can’t afford it(I.e. first computer for children, my unemployed neighbour who needs one for searching a job….) Or people with basic needs who are not interested in spending too much (old people) or even some people like the blind don’t need screen! Plus we all have screen around let’s reuse it!

    No commercial attachment. Love the raspberry pi and will look into this project you mentioned.

  11. I get the nostalgia for 80s keyputers, but this doesn’t seem to be that and I’m really having trouble thinking of any situation where this isn’t the worst of all worlds. Who in their right mind loves the ergonomics, expandability and thermal management of a laptop, but would like the portability of a desktop?

  12. I defined this future to my friends back in 1998. I didn’t have the buzz words back then but it was the cloud, airplay and smartphones being used as ID. I think I also pointed out concern that most people wouldn’t even be running their own systems anymore …which unless you’re savvy today, you don’t. I wish there were more visionaries in my school.

  13. This seems less like an argument for the form factor being the future of computing; and more of an argument for it being a perpetual present of computing:

    For what a really garbage-tier 14-5in 1920×1080(or 1440×900, if those are still produced in enough volume to be cheaper) doesn’t cost it’s hard to justify building a laptop-type device that is deliberately headless (and, to the degree there is demand for this, the solution that vendors have centered around is the various USFF desktops in the 1L range that are mostly laptop parts, sometimes lowish TDP desktop CPUs if those are cheaper); but the fragility of laptop LCDs and signal cables obviously implies a steady stream of now-headless but otherwise functional laptops.

    That’s a combination that makes deliberate production of headless laptop-likes a hard sell(outside of situations like the rPi 400, where the hardware is cheap enough that adding even a fairly ghastly display would likely double the price, best case) since most laptop users at least occasionally run into situations where being able to use their computer without a desktop monitor is handy(and, if the cost of a low-end screen is really unacceptable, you can save even more money by going with a USFF desktop that skips the battery); and also ensures that anyone who does try to produce new hardware to fit this niche is competing with the (either rather cheaper or rather nicer, sometimes both) laptops you can get at a substantial discount because of a broken screen.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the amount of time your average laptop spends docked(and the rise of USB-C with DP and PD, allowing actually decent docking for laptops outside of business-class lines that had proprietary docking connectors) has exerted pressure on the average display quality, since the internal LCD is more of a backup than a selling point for many users; but the difference between ‘literally unusable’ and ‘lousy; but it’s a screen’ is significant.

    1. I completely agree. It seems Microsoft surface pro is the only real contender here, and then you’re pretty much stuck with windows.

      An alternative might be a combined power-bank and computer, which you can optionally attach a USB C touchscreen.

    2. Well it doesn’t have the bunch of USB ports by default or the kickstand but a Steamdeck may fit the bill – its bulkier than a normal tablet in ways you may like/hate but has relatively high end performance and would be relatively easy to turn to what you want. It is also relatively usable when you can’t set up the keyboard you want – the SteamOS desktop mode has some neat tricks that makes using the built in controller as your keyboard and mouse relatively painless. There are other ‘gaming’ PC handhelds that cost more but perhaps are closer to what you want as well (Aya and GPD make some if memory serves) – I think they all end up coming with some gamepad control elements built in permanently, but not all of them go bulky to have good ergonomics so they are relatively tablet like in form factor.

      I guess you could also argue a Nintendo switch might fit the bill – its supposed to be possible to boot into linux and a rather performant fully featured hardware access level at that. But I’ve not actually tried that yet.

      I know the Panasonic Toughbook line has had and probably still does have ‘detachable’ 2 in 1 as well.

      But it really does depend on what you mean by ‘full power laptop’ – to some that would mean discreet GPU, to others a 12+core CPU that can turbo up to 5ghz+ all day (when plugged in), where to many that just means something that runs a web browser with a few tabs, handles multimedia playback and the office suit, and for others I guess it would be all about screen quality and size.

  14. Sadly the trend has been to take all the ports and move them to the sides instead of have them in the back.

    I also second the crap keyboards. I use T X or P series Lenovo pretty much exclusively. Not perfect, but such a huge difference.

    I had a friend actually thank me for giving her a T420. She said it was so easy and pleasant to type on after her throwaway grade HP.

  15. I don’t want a computer built into a keyboard. I go through a keyboard every year, and having something blowing heat on my legs doesn’t sound that great.

    What I would like is the best part of this, and that’s taking mobile parts and giving them desktop power and cooling, with no care as to battery life. We already saw how that works when the nvidia shield came out in 2015.

    Cell phone cpu, with all the power it wants and a fan. That worked out pretty well?

    I’d love a system with a late model high end mobile cpu, like an HX type with a mobile 3080 or similar, in a desktop form factor, that doesn’t swill down 600 watts of power and sound like a jet engine?

  16. I don’t think a slab top cuts it. It needs to be a wedge and have a full motion mechanical keyboard. The Amigos 1200 might have been the pinnacle. I am fitting one with a mini-ITX based system. Hoping it all fits.

  17. What we need is a clearer understanding of why laptops exist. It was to make a powerful computing platform (holistic) PORTABLE.

    In the beginning, you needed everything (although mouse was invariably added, so track pads should be optional) in one minimal package.

    Today, we have eyeglass mounted displays along with ubiquitous smart monitors which are superior for most use cases – so dump the screen. (and the power drain/weight of the screen).

    Now, in what’s left, redesign the form factor for maximum performance and function. You can’t change keyboard layout without reducing function, so that being the largest form limiter, becomes your minimal shape (it used to be the screen size).

    I think a solid hardware designer could take a Mac Keyboard design, make it an inch thicker and squeeze in (with USB-c PSU and hopefully better thermal management) a next gen proc, game quality GPU and tons of RAM/SSD with no issue. Possibly even modularly a la Framework. Leave the battery outside (folks can decide how many Wh they want to carry with them) because it doesn’t need to be inside with all that heat.

    I’d buy one! If it had 12th/13th Gen Intel options, I’d happily drop 3-4k on one! Just for the smaller form factor, portability and flexibility.

  18. I set up a media streamer from an old mac mini connected to the HDTV. Using Apple wireless keyboard and mouse. Controlling it without using a desk for the keyboard and mouse is the hard part.
    I found it annoying to type and look up at a huge display every 2 seconds for any computer work.

  19. I have 17 laptop tablet combo to take with me. Why the hell would i take of the touch screen when I have a mini pc and a gaming pc beast that can hook to any monitor/tv and I sit on the couch with a wireless keyboard and trackball to be just fine with what ever i do on my pc’s from what ever distance I’m from my pc. And mini pc’s are small af.

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