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PCs learn new tricks, but can tablet/notebook hybrids rescue Windows 8?

What does a PC maker do when the PC market is shrinking and demand for tablets is exploding? One option is to design hybrid PCs, which can switch from conventional PC to tablet and back again. In this post, I look at clever hybrid devices from Samsung, Dell, and HP.

No, the PC industry isn’t vanishing anytime soon. But it has reached a level of maturity where year-over-year growth in sales has stalled, and most new purchases are replacements.

Devices that we traditionally think of as PCs - towers, all-in-ones, and clamshell-style laptops with a keyboard and pointing device - are still selling by the hundreds of millions every year. After decades of steady growth, however, those numbers are now declining year over year, as consumers (and to a lesser extent businesses) choose tablets and smartphones as secondary devices instead of buying an additional PC.

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The net effect? The overall population of computing devices is expanding tremendously, with the mix shifting toward devices that are more mobile and require less management.

That’s the environment into which Microsoft released Windows 8 last fall. In a world where mobility is king, the single most important feature is the ability to work well as a tablet, when a touchscreen is the only input device. For this new generation, Microsoft and its partners are betting you want that same device to work as a PC when conventional input devices (and maybe a large monitor) are available.

It’s a bold attempt to redefine the PC. These new hybrid devices have the innards of a conventional PC, making them compatible with existing software and peripherals, while still being capable of acting like tablets.

Microsoft’s vision of this dual-purpose device is the Surface Pro , which can go from tablet to full-strength PC with a click of its innovative keyboard/cover combos. But it’s not the only competitor in this new hybrid category.

Last September, at the giant IFA tradeshow in Berlin, I saw three hybrid devices from three of the world’s largest PC OEMs. Each one tries to tackle the same problem as the Surface Pro, with very different design decisions. For the past month, I’ve been using the final, production versions of these three machines in real-world work settings.

Here are the contenders:

  • Samsung’s ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T looks like a slightly clunky, generic black Ultrabook at first blush. Until you detach its keyboard base, that is, and it turns into a sleek and powerful tablet with better battery life than a Surface Pro.
  • The Dell XPS 12 is a premium Ultrabook, exquisitely engineered and more powerful than many desktop PCs. It can also transform into a tablet with a quick flip. It’s a large, not-so-light tablet with modest battery life. But does that matter?
  • HP’s Envy X2 isn’t the most powerful portable PC you will ever find. But if long battery life is tops on your wish list, you might not care. This Atom-powered hybrid is thinner than an iPad, and it can do real work all day, all night, and well into another day.

To some extent, the fate of all of these devices is tied to Windows 8. If you're put off by Windows 8's landscape orientation, or if it doesn't have the apps you like, or if you're already heavily invested in another platform, these devices could be too little or too late or both.

But Microsoft and its PC-making partners hope that there are enough PC loyalists out there who are ready for a Windows-powered tablet that's also a PC.

In this post, I look at each of these devices with an emphasis on the overall experience. Does the tablet-to-PC-and-back-again transition work? Are they mobile enough? Are they simple enough? Can any of these devices deliver the Holy Grail of portable computing: a single device that handles work and play without unnecessary compromises?

Page 2: Samsung's ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T

Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T

Samsung has a great track record with tablets. The company has sold tens of millions of Android-powered Galaxy Note tablets, making it the iPad’s number one competitor. It also makes the highly regarded, Android-powered Nexus 10 tablet for Google.

But Samsung also has plenty of experience with Windows 8. The very first device designed for Windows 8, after all, was the Samsung-built slate handed out to 5000 developers at the September 2011 Build Conference where Microsoft unveiled Windows 8. That same device evolved into the 700T slate and now into the ATIV Smart PC Pro.

samsung-ative-smart-pc-pro-clamshell

This $1200 device (with the optional keyboard base adding another $150) has the guts of a high-end PC, with a Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128 GB solid-state drive. The 11.6-inch display runs at a full HD resolution of 1920X1080.

Opened, this looks like just another Samsung clamshell laptop in the company’s signature black. But push a button in the center of the hinge, just above the keyboard, and the screen detaches completely, turning this into a slate that runs Windows 8 Pro.

 

samsung-ative-smart-pc-pro-detached

With the keyboard removed, my 700T review unit was surprisingly thin, about a half-inch and comparable to an iPad with its Smart Cover attached. The tablet portion weighed about 906 g, an ounce or so less than the 2-pound Surface Pro (930 g) but significantly more than a third-generation iPad (672 g, 1.5 pounds). That weight includes a 49-WHr battery. Attaching the keyboard base adds another 720 g, making the Smart PC Pro essentially a 3.5-pound Ultrabook.

Using this PC as a notebook betrays a fundamental problem with the concept of a detachable device. In an Ultrabook, most of the componentry is in the base, and the screen can be ultra-thin. Because a hybrid device has to be able to work with the base removed, the battery and motherboard and storage have to fit behind the display. That makes the device relatively thick, as expected, but it also makes the combo decidedly top-heavy when used as a PC.

You don’t notice that imbalance when you’re using the Smart PC Pro 700T on a desk, but it’s unavoidable if you’re trying to use it on your lap. On several occasions during my testing, I nearly sent the combo crashing to the floor just by adjusting my posture slightly. It’s not a comfortable feeling, and for some it’s likely to be a dealbreaker. (As I note later, the HP Envy X2 has similar issues.)

The Smart PC Pro 700T is not only touch-friendly (with a full 10 Touch Points), it also includes an active digitizer that makes it capable of working with drawing apps and pen-friendly programs like OneNote. That feature makes this device probably the closest competitor to the Surface Pro.

In my test of continuous video playback, the Smart PC Pro 700T lasted 5:09, roughly 20% longer than the Surface Pro. Given its larger battery size (49 WHr versus 42 WHr for the Surface Pro), that sounds about right. In practice, I got 7+ hours of on-and-off usage of business apps like Office 2013 from the device.

The mini-HDMI connector and volume rocker are high up on the left side of the tablet portion, with the power button, headphone jack, a single USB 3.0 port, and a Micro SD Card slot on the top. That’s an odd and awkward location for the USB 3.0 port, especially given the device’s tendency to tip. The base has a pair of USB 2.0 connectors, one on either side. There’s a 2MP camera on the front and a 5MP camera on the rear.

Like so many OEMs, Samsung has loaded this machine up with its own software as well as a few offerings from partners, none of them in the crapware category. That default installation included CyberLink PowerDVD, which meant that the video files I used for battery-life testing were able to play back properly in Windows Media Player. Samsung also included 18 Windows 8 apps, including its own S Camera, S Note, and S Player apps as well as Kindle, Netflix, Skype, Evernote, and other mostly big name apps.

samsung-windows8-apps

Overall, this system performed every bit as well as the Surface Pro, which shouldn’t be surprising given their similar specs. It doesn’t have the extreme portability of the Surface Pro, and it feels a bit bulky and looks clunky when the base is attached and the whole thing’s folded up.

But if you want a larger screen and a solid keyboard base instead of the Surface Pro’s Touch and Type Covers, this could fit the bill nicely.

Page 3: Dell's XPS 12

Dell XPS 12

Dell’s entry into the hybrid PC category takes a surprisingly different approach from the two other machines I looked at. Instead of detaching completely from the keyboard, the 12.5-inch Gorilla Glass display of the XPS 12 swivels 180 degrees inside a rigid aluminum frame. With the display in its normal position, the XPS 12 is a full-sized Ultrabook. When you flip the screen on its hinge and press it flat against the keyboard, the XPS 12 becomes a big, heavy tablet.

The flip hinge sounds like a fragile and finicky design, but once you see and, more importantly, feel it in action, any doubts vanish. (Dell says they’ve tested it to 20,000 cycles, and I believe it.)

The display pops loose with a firm but gentle push along the top. The screen feels solid and sturdy as it rotates, and the catches at top and bottom make a satisfyingly precise sound when they snap into position. It’s not unlike the feeling of solid engineering that Microsoft achieved with the distinctive click of the Surface Touch and Type Covers.

dell-xps-12

Make no mistake about it: This is a PC first, and a tablet second. At 1558 g (3.4 lb), your arms will tire if you try to hold this thing for too long. But it’s quite solid in your lap, and it’s perfect on an airplane tray table with the screen flipped to the back and tilted up to a comfortable viewing (and touching) angle. That’s great for watching a movie, reading documents, or doing light editing in coach seats where a full-size Ultrabook won’t open properly.

dell-xps-12-tablet-mode

This is a drop-dead gorgeous piece of hardware, in both looks and feel. The carbon fiber on the base and on the back of the display allow more grip than metal or plastic and feel cooler as well. The palm base is magnesium, and the base has an anodized aluminum frame that matches the look and feel of the screen.

The XPS 12 is about the same thickness as the Surface Pro with Type Cover attached, but it’s considerably larger, with 68 square inches of display area (versus 44 sq in for the Surface Pro), making it possible to use its Full HD, 1920x1080 display at normal size rather than adjusting it to 150% as the Surface Pro does. The display doesn’t have a digitizer.

The keyboard is backlit, and the keys themselves are labeled using a distinctive font that’s unlike any conventional keyboard. (I like the look; I suspect some people might find it odd.) The 1.3MP front-facing camera makes this device adequate for casual Skype calling, but it’s a little too low-res for serious video work.

On the left side of the base are a combination headphone/microphone jack, rotation lock and power buttons, and a volume rocker. On the right is a mini-DisplayPort adaptor

Despite its larger height and width, the XPS 12 weighs less than the Samsung in PC mode. And because this device doesn’t have to pack a bunch of electronics behind the display, it feels perfectly balanced and lighter than the specs would suggest.

The review unit I’ve been using has some serious guts: an i7-3517U CPU at 1.9 GHz with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD. It feels as fast as any desktop PC I’ve used and had no trouble with any task I tried. But that power comes at a price in terms of battery life. In my test of video playback, the XPS 12 conked out after 3:51, with power settings at balanced and screen brightness at its default setting.

That’s shorter than the Surface Pro lasted for me, even though the Dell has a larger 47-WHr battery, which is sealed and not user-replaceable. (It’s worth noting that the display was noticeably brighter during video playback than the Samsung I looked at. Turning the display brightness down would probably extend battery life a bit.)

So I wouldn’t count on this device to last more than five hours in normal business use. On the other hand, you can count on it to do just about anything you throw at it, including running multiple virtual machines. The 8 GB of RAM makes a big difference.

I’ve owned and used Dell XPS PCs for years and have always appreciated their refreshing lack of crapware. This machine is no exception. Besides some system-specific Dell and Intel utilities, the only extra software on the machine were a few Windows 8 apps: Kindle, Skype, Amazon, and (naturally) Dell Shop.

There’s also a “Getting Started with Windows 8 on Your New Dell” training module, with video tutorials designed to overcome Windows 8-phobia.

When I priced an XPS 12 with a configuration similar to this one at Dell a few minutes ago, the price tag came to $1700. That’s steep compared to some competitors with similar specs. But if you don’t care about maximum mobility but instead want a powerful, well-built Ultrabook that can double as a tablet when necessary, this is an excellent choice.

Page 4: HP's Envy X2

HP Envy X2

I had my first hands-on session with the Envy X2 last year, in a private session at the IFA tradeshow in Berlin. My first reaction when I picked it up was, “Whoa. This thing is light.” That’s exactly what I said, again, when I unboxed the review unit HP sent me last month. It’s what my wife said when I handed it to her.

I suspect you’ll say the same thing if you get your hands on one. Because whoa, this thing really is light.

Like the Samsung Smart PC Pro 700T, the Envy X2 has a detachable base that includes a keyboard. The tablet portion weighs exactly 700 g, which is one ounce more than an iPad despite having a significantly larger screen. It is noticeably thinner than an iPad.

hp-envy-x2-detached

And it is quite distinctive in looks, even handsome. The 11.6-inch display is surrounded by a black bezel. The back is aluminum, with an HP logo in the center, a camera that bulges slightly out from near the top, and a pair of subtle, slightly recessed switches on either side: one for power, the other a volume rocker. The only visible external connections are on the bottom, where you’ll find a headphone jack and a Micro SD Card slot.

The base is also aluminum on the outside and plastic on the inside, with a full-size keyboard (in black) and a decent-sized trackpad. Snapping the tablet into the hinge turns the device into something resembling a small Ultrabook, one that’s noticeably larger than either Surface.

hp-envy-x2-clamshell

So far, that sounds like what Samsung has done with the Smart PC Pro, right? Yes, except for two things.

First is the price tag of the Envy X2. At a list price of $700 (recently reduced to $599), it costs roughly half what the other two notebooks in this roundup cost. (And you can probably do better if you shop carefully. My ZDNet colleague James Kendrick snagged one recently for $525 . That’s a bargain.)

What’s the difference? On the power-versus-portability scale, Envy X2 is designed for extreme battery life and deliberately sacrifices performance to get there.

It has a lower-resolution screen (1366x768) that only recognizes 5 touch points, a 32-bit Atom Z2760 CPU, 64 GB of flash memory for storage, and only 2GB of RAM, for starters. With those specs, it’s not surprising that the Envy X2 is sluggish at some tasks. (Just look at the Windows Experience Index below. Those aren't impressive numbers.)

hp-envy-x2-wei

But it has such great battery life that you might not care.

That low-powered hardware, plus a second battery in the detachable keyboard dock, is what makes it possible for the Envy X2 to get epic battery life. There’s a 25 WHr battery in the lid, along with all the other componentry. The base has a second 21 WHr battery along with two USB2 ports, a headphone jack, HDMI out, and a full-size memory card reader.

HP’s engineers did a good job with battery management. When the tablet portion is snapped into the base, the system uses the battery in the base first and charges the battery in the lid. That means you’re likely to have a full charge when you detach the display and switch into tablet mode.

In my tests, the battery in the base ran for an impressive 6:55 before handing things off to the second battery in the tablet portion, which then carried on for another 7:29. That’s a total of well over 14 hours of nonstop HD video playback. In basic productivity work, including Office 2013, this device worked for three solid days before it needed a charge.

Overall, I had high expectations for the Envy X2. Maybe they were too high for the device itself to live up to. In use, the hardware limitations occasionally made themselves very noticeable, with tasks that would take seconds on a Core i5 or i7 dragging out. The limited RAM and storage exacerbated that feeling.

But still, with 18-20 hours of real world battery life, that’s forgiveable, isn’t it? And the Atom processor runs so incredibly cool that it doesn’t need a fan. I occasionally felt faint heat on the back, but nothing remotely like what you would expect from an i5 or i7 under even moderate load.

The Clover Trail graphics of the Atom chip also drag down performance. An HP product manager conceded that the chip wasn’t designed for 3D graphics, although it does just fine with video playback and Angry Birds or Pinball. I felt compelled to test those scenarios and can confirm they all work just fine.

A bigger problem with the Envy X2 is the same issue I felt with the Samsung. Because the system was designed, by necessity, with all of the electronics in the display, the unit feels top-heavy and slightly unbalanced when used on a lap.

On a desk, the hinge mechanism lifts the base and keyboard to a nice angle for typing, and the weight is well balanced. But on the lap the display has a tendency to tip over backwards, leading to one inadvertent crash test on a carpeted floor. (The Envy X2 passed, thank goodness.)

It’s taken Intel longer than expected to get this generation of Atom chips out to PC makers like HP, which is why this device wasn’t ready when Windows 8 shipped on October 26 (or even a month later). For anyone who wants the long battery life and cool operation of an ARM-based RT device but needs the capability to run real Windows desktop apps, this might be an ideal compromise.

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