What are NextGen alloys

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We are currently experiencing a renaissance in laptops, with both incredible specifications and some really amazing design work adorning the latest models. As part of these next generation designs, we are also seeing a lot of new materials in laptops. Aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, even the super-tough-tempered Gorilla Glass - it seems that if you're looking to make a new high-end laptop or tablet, old-fashioned plastic just isn't an option anymore.

But what? are the pros and cons of these new materials, and which ones should you pick out when choosing between the models? Let's take a look.

Aluminum alloy

If there's an "older" option in the new generation of laptop designs, it's aluminum. The aluminum alloy used by Apple in 2003 on the high-end version of PowerBooks replaces the titanium alloy of older generations. The reasoning was twofold: using the anodizing process to finish and color the metal solved the paint chipping problem of previous generations, and aluminum is cheaper to buy and work with than titanium. While its lower density means aluminum trays must be thicker, this added stiffness usually results in a design that is less prone to bending, warping, and buckling.

It wasn't until the introduction of the Macbook Air that Apple made its debut in "unibody" design language, with the main body (and later the screen assembly) formed from a single piece of machine-machined aluminum alloy. This is now more or less the standard for high-end laptops. While these specific parts are expensive to manufacture, it allows laptops to be constructed with fewer body parts as a whole, which simplifies manufacturing as a whole and makes them less prone to body warping and deformation. Some laptops as cheap as $ 300 have aluminum body designs, although without the machined one-piece body design. Anodizing, an alloy treatment that can help with heat dissipation and corrosion resistance, can also be used to color aluminum different colors.

The ASUS Chromebook Flip, with an all-aluminum body, can be purchased for less than $ 300

Aluminum alloys are typically stronger than plastics, especially when used in unibody designs. But they have some pretty obvious drawbacks: even the relatively thick bodies of premium aluminum laptops will dent if hit hard enough, and they will more often than plastics because there is not enough flexibility in a multi-piece chassis. Aluminum also conducts heat much better than plastic, which makes some laptops prone to overheating. Significant engineering effort must be put into the design phase to keep hot zones such as the processor and heat sink away from areas where the user is likely to be in contact with the machine for long periods of time.

Magnesium alloy

Magnesium, an alternative to aluminum, is used as the primary alloy in an increasing number of laptop designs. It's 30% lighter than aluminum (it's the lightest structurally used metal in the world) and has a greater strength-to-weight ratio. This enables magnesium alloy electronic bodies to be thinner than similar aluminum structures with the same general durability. Magnesium is also less heat conductive, giving designers more freedom in placing internal components that don't create an uncomfortably hot case.

Microsoft's Surface series uses a magnesium alloy body and frame.

Magnesium is generally easier to use than aluminum in terms of manufacturing, unlocking new design capabilities for laptop and tablet manufacturers. Unfortunately, it is also much more expensive than a metal. To compensate for this, manufacturers will sometimes combine magnesium shells with cheaper plastic parts on the frame or on interior areas like the palm rest. Full magnesium designs, like the Surface Pro and some premium entries in the HP ENVY and Lenovo ThinkPad lines, are usually more expensive than comparable models.

Between aluminum alloy and magnesium alloy, there really isn't enough difference to affect a new laptop purchase in one way or another. With increased rigidity, a magnesium case is less prone to flexing or denting than an aluminum case, but it is also prone to cracking with increased pressure. The thermal properties probably won't be as noticeable (since manufacturers are pretty good at heat anyway). Unless you plan to use your laptop in high temperature environments all the time, internal specifications should play a bigger role.

Carbon fiber

Carbon fiber is a bit of a misnomer: the material so popular in airplanes and sports cars is in fact a composite of woven carbon strands and more rudimentary polymer bases. Basically, it is a high-tech plastic that is reinforced with synthetic carbon. The result is a material with an extremely high weight-to-strength ratio that provides protection like a metal or alloy at a fraction of the weight.

Plus, it looks really cool. Most manufacturers prefer the carbon fiber material in their designs, resulting in a distinctive gray-black fabric that is instantly recognizable.

Dell XPS laptops use carbon fiber bodies with aluminum alloy lids and bottoms.

The material is, at least in some ways, easier to shape and mold than metal, and only requires a simple mold for larger parts and not a machine-controlled milling process. Carbon fiber conducts heat at a fraction of the speed of aluminum or magnesium, making it an ideal choice for areas of the laptop case where users are likely to place skin such as the palm rest.

However, carbon fiber has some distinct disadvantages compared to conventional laptop materials. Because it's a composite of carbon fabric and more fragile polymers, its finish isn't nearly as durable as the woven interior - it's much more prone to visible scratches and dents. While the components below are almost as secure as under metal, a drop in the corner or a stabbing blow will still look pretty bad. Carbon fiber is also much more expensive to manufacture than magnesium alloy itself.

The ThinkPad Carbon line uses carbon frames and magnesium body panels.

For this reason, it is mainly used as a composite material, in cases with lightweight construction and attractive carbon fiber on internal components such as the palm rest and touchpad, while alloy metal is used on the outside. As far as I know, there hasn't been a laptop body made entirely from carbon fiber (although there have been a few smartphones made from structurally similar Kevlar).

Hardened glass

The rise of smartphones in the late 2000s made tempered glass - particularly Corning's patented gorilla glass - a newly considered structural material for all types of electronics. In addition to the fairly obvious uses for touchscreen laptops, some newer designs have made use of tempered glass for laptop lids and even premium touch pads.

Some HP Specter laptops use tempered glass lids, screens, palms, and touchpads.

Modern tempered glass is an amazing material that has scratch resistance almost as good as materials like synthetic sapphire. It also feels pretty nice and is now relatively cheap to incorporate into a laptop's design. Since manufacturers like ASUS already have huge orders for smartphone glass, why not get a little bit stuck on a laptop?

But be careful, tempered glass is still ... well, glass. It might be scratch-resistant and less likely to break than a typical window pane, but a drop on any reasonably hard surface will still break the screens, lids, and touchpads. As a material for laptop and tablet bodies, tempered glass is a cosmetic additive and not a particularly durable one.

Image sources: Dell, ASUS, Lenovo, HP


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