Going Hybrid: the old new form factor for Windows 8

Going Hybrid: the old new form factor for Windows 8

Summary: It's just over a week since the Windows 8 Release Preview hit the download streams, and it's certainly been an interesting week for the Wintel ecosystem, with a whole raft of new form factors and devices announced at this year's Computex. Ultrabooks look here to stay (even if Apple has taken a patent out on the thin wedge form factor they all seem to be using), and this year's new trend is the hybrid PC/tablet.

TOPICS: Windows

It's just over a week since the Windows 8 Release Preview hit the download streams, and it's certainly been an interesting week for the Wintel ecosystem, with a whole raft of new form factors and devices announced at this year's Computex. Ultrabooks look here to stay (even if Apple has taken a patent out on the thin wedge form factor they all seem to be using), and this year's new trend is the hybrid PC/tablet.

Except of course it isn’t new. And neither are the form factors.

I'm actually writing this piece on a hybrid PC/tablet, running Windows 8. But it's not a prototype, and it's not something cutting edge I've been lent by Intel or Microsoft. It's just a plain old HP laptop, one I bought about two years ago. It's covered in stickers and held together with Sugru, the epitome of a journalist's battered travelling machine. It’s not even particularly hi-spec, just a 1280 by 800 screen with a Core i3 processor and Intel integrated graphics. The only difference between it and many of the other laptops sold back in 2010 was that I stuck with my habit of buying a Tablet PC, purely for pen support in OneNote. The fact that the screen was also a touchscreen was more an inconvenience than a bonus, and I quickly uninstalled all HP's bundled touch applications.

Now here I am two years later, and the once pristine screen is covered in fingerprints and smears. That touchscreen I'd ignored, or occasionally used to scroll through web pages has suddenly become part of my workflow. In fact there are now fingerprints on my other Windows 8 test machine, a plain old Toshiba laptop…

Since the launch of the Developer Preview of Windows 8 last year I've used it on tablets, on laptops, on desktop PCs, in VMs and native. It works well on all those different platforms, but it's on hybrid touch tablet laptops that it really shines. You can reach out and interact with screen gestures (even on an old two point touchscreen like mine), or you can use the keyboard and trackpad, or just plug in a mouse for those deeper interactions.

It turns out that mixing lots of UI options actually makes a lot of sense – especially with the touch improvements across the OS in Windows 8 RP. Using the Start screen to quickly scroll through pinned applications is quicker than the old Start menu – quicker still if you use the built-in search tools and just start typing. Swipe in the charms to manage the PC or to run a Metro-style application, or just drop to the desktop to use the familiar Windows applications you've always used.

For now I spend most of my time in the desktop. After all, that's where Office is, and my Twitter client, and, well, with so many years of legacy applications, it's not surprising that traditional Windows applications outnumber the hundred or so Metro-style applications in the Windows store. But where I do use them, it turns out they work just as well with keyboard and mouse, or with touch – and that's where I default to touch, for casual games or scrolling through a newsreader app.

The big question is still, of course, how this is going to work on a desktop PC. Ergonomics dictate that my monitor will be too far back for me to reach out and touch it like I can my hybrid laptop. With signs that Microsoft is developing a gesture language for desktop touchpads and for its touch-enabled mice, I'm not going to need to rush and buy a touch-enabled monitor (as fun as that might well be). There's also the persistent rumour that the release version of Windows 8 will support PC Kinect as a UI tool for desktop users – though there's still no sign of it in the RP code.

So with hybrid laptops providing a consistent and flexible Windows 8 user experience, it's not surprising that Computex this year looked like the show floor at Intel's IDF. Only this time the laptops on display are intended to be shipping products in time for Windows 8's launch, not concept models that Intel hopes to use to inspire the PC industry. It's good to see those concept models turning into the next generation of ultrabooks, with sliding keyboards, flappable flippable screens, and even dual screen devices (one on each side of the lid). It's the triumph of the hinge, in its many forms, giving you the simplicity of a pure tablet and the power of a modern laptop – all in one device.

It turns out that my hybrid laptop wasn't a compromise after all. The touch I got that I didn't want then, turns out to be the key to Metro and to Windows 8. No wonder everyone and their dog is launching a hybrid laptop of some form or another this year.

But what's the real message of Windows 8 and this year's Computex?

It's quite clear, or rather, it's not clear at all, looking at the fingerprints all over my screen.

It’s this: Buy shares in screenwipes.


Simon Bisson

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • @Simon
    Windows 8 for x86 is clearly dysfunctional in its current form, missing a key piece of hardware in order to use it on existing laptops and desktops. There is no 'useful' upgrade path to Windows 8 for existing laptops. Whether this will be filled with a simultaneous peripheral release by MS Hardware at release is another question entirely, but without it - it won't work.

    Attempting to use Windows 8 with an IBM Style 'nipple' pointer is almost impossible, painful and tedious. I touch type and currently move my index finger 1cm to the left to operate the screen/mouse on anything other than Win8. Thats about the limit of needing to move my hands to fully operate the laptop.

    You're trying to tell me lifting my hand away from the keyboard to operating a touch screen device is more efficient?
    Its the equivalent of telling a driver you've moved the stalks for lights,indicators,wipers and horn to a touch panel on a head-up display on the windscreen, and isn't it all wonderfully technical and clever (but an extremely pointless exercise in car design).

    For Windows 8, the IBM Style pointer would almost be better replaced with an old Atari 8 way digital joystick, which takes me straight to each corner of the screen, for all the use the IBM pointer is currently with Windows 8.

    If Microsoft were to release Windows 7 SP2 (with Windows Classic improvements), and Windows 8 at the same time and even charge the same for both. You could pretty much guarantee Windows 7 SP2 would outsell Windows 8. When you look it like that, Windows 8 needs serious work to make it an upgrade option for existing hardware and users.

    Its a massive gamble by MS, that users and companies are willing to give up existing legacy hardware and legacy apps to move towards Windows RT, over the longer term, too. Firstly Why? Just because Apple has pulled it off? If Arm based WP7 Metro had been an overnight success (it isn't), then Windows 8 as a single product of Windows Classic / Windows RT might have been worth pursuing.

    MS should relent and split it in two now (well 3 if you count Arm/2 Intel releases). Ballmer got it wrong in principle regarding users requiring only a 'Single Windows OS'. The over simplicity is too confusing. Its a failure in its current form.
  • @SoapyTablet.

    I have read from a source reputed to be reliable, and reported elsewhere, that Microsoft have no great expectations of making early inroads into the commercial sector with Windows 8 at this time. In other words they are reconciled to a low uptake by businesses, presumably while they develop Windows 8 further and the hardware catches up.

    I wonder if, initially, they will be providing a choice between Windows 7 and Windows 8 at first boot, as they did for Vista and XP.

    Of course, they might yet reintroduce the Start Menu to provide the same choice.

    Incidently, the Tiles don't work on most netbooks, the resolution is too low and a message is displayed. However, the usual programmes, e.g. Explorer and Internet Explorer do run from the Desktop and, so far,, all the additional programmes I have installed from the desktop also place an icon on the desktop and run normally.
    The Former Moley
  • The earlier 1024x600 Displays on Netbooks mean other than the first Asus Eee 701-4G, i've avoided netbooks. The vertical height just made them unusable for me.
    Windows 8 'Metro' has a real problem with information density, or should I say, complete lack of it - so it was never going to be really suitable for netbooks.

    Interesting though, it doesn't display Metro on netbooks when WP7 'tiles' can work on screens 800x480 - Nokia Lumias. Are you sure it isn't because the graphics chip isn't Window 8 Certified, such as old Intel 910 Series Graphics etc?, rather than being Nvidia or ATI.

    I suppose it just shows more cases of a lack of joined up co-ordinated marketing by MS. There are big gaps in the detail, best not to look too closely at the moment. A lack of a Win 8 starter editon is another primary reason Netbooks will be killed off, in favour of ultrabooks. But Intel profit margins are playing a big part too, for the push towards ultrabooks.

    I'm still going to bet on MS spliting the product Wndows Classic / Windows RT at launch and bringing back the start menu for launch (or something very close) for Windows Classic. The market is just not ready for the combined Windows 'one OS'

    MS have got the marketing message across that its wants to be 'one OS', they won't lose face now if they end up spliting the product to prevent confusion.

    There are problems such as WP7 apps compatibility, being Arm based, won't run on Win 8 x86-Intel Windows RT, but Intel may yet implement an Arm Emulator. They have used this method with a new medfield Atom based phone they have just released on the Orange network.

    MS are really banking on the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) market rather than Enterprise installs, through Ultrabook sales + Tablets.

    After the product releases by Apple today, and the cross product integation, I really think the Enterprise BYOD Market is already tied up by the iPad. MS will struggle to gain market share against the iPad. Apple have a real technical advantage with their retina display technology and its iPhone market share. With this technology now moving to macbooks. In the scheme of things 'retina' isn't a much bigger premium to pay over an existing macbook, if you take into account the ssd, and prices of Intel Ultrabooks.