Hybrids are on the rise: Which design will win?

Hybrids are on the rise: Which design will win?

Summary: The flood of convertible tablets and ultrabooks at IFA shows we're going through a creative boom in the evolution of the PC. There are many options out there — which ones will pull in the buyers?

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There's no denying that hybrids are the stars of this year's IFA. Every manufacturer of note has used the Berlin tech show to launch some variant on the convertible tablet-ultrabook concept.

Altogether, it's an astounding volley of products for a sector that has barely been proven. Yes, Asus has had some success with its Transformer range of Android tablet-notebooks. Many people also use their iPads with a keyboard dock.

HP Envy x2
HP's Envy x2 is one of a number of ultrabook-tablet hybrids on display at IFA. Image credit: David Meyer

But there are some notable differences with this new bunch of hybrids. Firstly, they run Windows 8— unproven at this point. Secondly, they largely seem to be targeting the laptop crowd first and tablet fans second. Indeed, they represent both the evolution of the notebook format and a concerted attempt on the PC industry's part to co-opt the deeply threatening shift to tablets.

Whether or not that attempt will be successful is up for debate. Tim Anderson has offered an eloquent argument against the trend, noting that many tablet fans are not in the market for a laptop-like experience, and pointing to the failure of Microsoft's earlier Tablet PC plays.

I disagree, albeit warily. I think many people are comfortable with the notebook format and will use this new flood of hybrids as a way of dipping their toes into tablet waters.

Toshiba's Satellite U920T
Toshiba's Satellite U920T

Indeed, as a fan of the seven-inch format (I own a Nexus 7) on a 'companion device' basis, I'm of the opinion that larger tablets make more sense as laptop replacements when they can actually replace laptops, with all the functionality and ease of typing that that entails. I don't see why I should lug around a 10-to-12-inch tablet if it can't actually do what a notebook can.

So I think this hybrid business will pan out — but not for all the manufacturers that are trying it.

Although many of the new hybrids look quite similar, overall there is an impressive amount of experimentation going on. This is a good thing: I approve of choice, and the market will decide in the end which designs work and which don't.

And it really does come down to design. We are now at the point where the internals of new PCs/tablets have more-or-less plateaued. So too have ports and connectivity choices, at least for now — barely any hybrid does not come with USB 3.0, HDMI, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11n Wi-Fi and so on. Some use Intel's Ivy Bridge, some Clover Trail, and of course some ARM — all will do the job for most users, with battery life being the only real deciding factor.

Which leaves the question: what works and what doesn't?

Lenovo Yogapad 13
Lenovo Yogapad 13

Different approaches

Given the likely targeting of these hybrids at the traditional laptop user, the hybrids that hew to that format are the safest bets. The leading manufacturers are taking this route: witness Samsung's ATIV Smart PC and HP's Envy x2, both of which simply let the user detach or clip in the screen as desired.

Lenovo's Yoga 13 also falls into this category, although here Lenovo has opted for a screen that folds back entirely to allow tablet-style usage.

The advantage of this approach is that it allows the back of the screen to act as a protector when the device is being transported, much as has always been the case with laptops. It also provides a unified alternative to the iPad-plus-keyboard combo.

Enter the sliders

Then we have the sliders, such as Sony's Vaio Duo 11 and Toshiba's Satellite U920T. At this point, two other factors become key: size and the hinge mechanism.

From the brief amounts of time I've been able to spend with both devices, I'd opt for the Sony, although it will doubtlessly be more expensive. The Duo 11 has an 11.6-inch screen, and the U920T a 12.5-inch affair. There may not seem to be much of a gap between those measurements, but there's a remarkable difference in reality — particularly in tablet mode.

Sony Vaio Duo 11
Sony Vaio Duo 11

Again, I'm biased. I think a 10-inch tablet is a bit hefty for regular use. Sony's 11.6 inches just about gets away with it, partly thanks to its styling; but Toshiba's 12.5 inches is too much. At that size, I cannot see many applications for the device apart from verticals such as graphic design, healthcare and the factory floor.

Bear in mind that we're not just talking about a tablet here, but a tablet with a non-detachable keyboard that, in these two cases, includes the PC's innards.

Sony has also implemented a much more robust-seeming hinge mechanism: it stops the screen from sliding back entirely. This is why the Duo 11 doesn't have space for a trackpad, but it does look sturdy. In comparison, the Toshiba U920T's mechanism looks vulnerable to accidental heavy pressure, especially over time.

Of course, these aren't the only options. We can also consider straight-out oddities such as Dell's frankly flimsy-looking XPS Duo 12, which has a screen that rotates within the bezel, and Asus's Taichi, which has two screens back-to-back — I'm struggling to see any practical purpose for that one, unique as it is.

Choice is good

When I picked up my ThinkPad Edge E420s a couple of years ago, I suspected it would be the last straight laptop I'd be buying. If I were in the market now, there is no question that I'd be opting for a hybrid.

As for which one I'd go for, I like the Yoga 13 design: it's simple, it looks robust and I trust Lenovo's workmanship.

But there are many options out there, catering to all sorts of use cases. As I mentioned above, choice is good. And there's little denying that we're entering a particularly creative phase in the evolution of the PC.

It's no longer a matter of the hybrid being a jack of all trades and master of none. They're just ultrabooks with touch capabilities and more options. Or tablets with perfectly-matched keyboards and more ports.

Topics: Tablets, Mobility, PCs, Windows

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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24 comments
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  • Pen Computing

    Sure, it's been pooh-poohed in the past, but most of the devices were out of reach for too many, did not have the battery life you wanted, the OS had limitations (pen computing was not integrated to the point it should have been), and the hardware was heavy and often not exciting.

    However, having used a tablet with pen computing for 5+ years, I am convinved that when people get to use it in a package that addresses the shortcoming of yesteryear mentioned above, there will be a large number of people who will like it a lot. Note that even the iPad crowd with their screens that can't support near the fine-grained pen recognition have quite a number of people that like pens.
    WebSiteManager
  • Something is missing

    You told us that the show is full of convertibles with lost of variety, then only show us or talk about a very few of them.

    I am disappointed that this article wasn't more of a gallery of our options.
    jeffpk
    • Exactly, beginning with ignoring ASUS products like....

      the Transformer 600 and 800 which are both Windows machines.
      laequis
    • Without pricing ... what's the point?

      Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Until Microsoft prices out the Surface, no one wants to set retail prices for their offerings because doing so could leave money on the table - or worse - put them in a position to cut prices before they sell a single device.

      With the Surface, Microsoft has set a reference standard by which all other tablets and ultrabooks will be measured in terms of price-performance or value-added.
      M Wagner
  • Tablet stands

    I hope many of these tablets have at least optional stands. I believe stands are very important.
    P. Douglas
    • That's the beauty of the ASUS keyboard dock.

      It serves as an excellent stand, but it's also so much more. The additional battery imbedded in the keyboard dock is a game changer. A feature that is lacking on the Microsoft Surface keyboard.
      laequis
      • Desktop Stand Needed as Well

        The standard keyboard docks are great especially the ASUS one, but it would be great if they also had standard desktop docks with video out to a second monitor, at least 3 USB3 ports, networking (Cat5), Thunderbolt options, etc. This way you could (in theory) have one device that could have a desktop profile with 1 or more external monitors, my favorite KB/Mouse combination, and any peripherals I might need via USB3/Fire Wire connections. IT could even be an excellent desktop replacement that could in a moment become a tablet or a laptop with profiles for work and when I get home be able to use with a profile for gaming/play if I wanted to keep them separate. It could be the complete all in one solution that many businesses are looking for.

        It could cut down on support by having one HW profile and allow for full functionality with all of your legacy apps with the same kind of functional user environment enterprises need for those applications.
        Drewidian
  • Oh and none of these so farcan compare...

    With the design of the Vadem Clio, released twelve years ago. So "innovation' may be being a bit generous.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vadem_Clio
    jeffpk
    • That's a convertible not a hybrid than undocks from it's keyboard

      The Clio is more like the predecessor to the Dell Inspiron Duo Convertible Laptop.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fi_st9XMaqw

      What ASUS created in the dockable hybrid tablet is revolution. I believe it will be the end of the laptop as we know it today.
      laequis
  • Like the concept

    I'm just glad that these companies are making the effort to include the keyboard. To me, it doesn't make sense to have just the tablet w/out the keyboard. Or have to keep up w/ a keyboard separately. I can't tell you how utterly frustrating and unsatisfying it is to type out anything beyond a handful of words on a virtual keyboard.
    hippiedippie
  • Why why why

    Anyone with a clear thinking brain will say the tablet with nothing connected to it is for couch potato duty and the laptop is for productivity. Plain and simply.

    The history of all in one electronic equipment has a very poor, the cd/dvd/vcr players that built in to a small tv etc.
    We've (the public) have seen them and hate them.
    dougvb@...
    • This is different.

      Because there is a simultaneous change in how people are using mobile devices. Just like what is happening with the cell phone. Majority of people now use smartphones because of the added functionality of the larger touch screen. Most people I know don't use their cell phones for voice calls any longer. You see this same evolution in user behavior when it comes to these hybrid devices.

      I have a ASUS Transformer Prime with keyboard dock and use it with and without dock all the time. So much so that I was using my 3 year old Macbook Pro the other day out of necessity and went to swipe the screen with my finger because I forgot for a second I was using a regular laptop. It was an epiphany of sorts. I laughed out loud actually. :)
      laequis
  • Correction, of sorts

    Having spent a bit more time with the Toshiba now, the hinge mechanism is more robust than I first thought. It's still too big for me, though.
    David Meyer
  • Screen size in notebooks, ultrabooks, laptops

    Many older users find the smaller screens uncomfortable to use for major computer work. It's an "age" "thing". I've been in IT since 1981 and am presently retired. I still create newsletters, websites, presentations, teach others how to manage their computers and use the attendant software. I'm NOT a programmer - a mere user however, the larger screen/monitor with expandable computer, I believe, will remain strong in the marketplace. I could be way off base, however, most I know have both - a laptop / notebook / utrabook / ipad / etc., for travel and a desktop for hardcore computer work.
    sabrina33540
  • A good piece but there are actually two markets in play.

    By-and-large, consumers are looking for a notebook replacement. For them, a hybrid Windows 8 PC is of little value. Give them Windows-RT at iPad-like prices and you will attract those who are clamoring for a non-iPad alternative, and willing to pay for it.

    Price-conscious buyers will not be happy with those iPad-like prices but Microsoft will not leave money on the table when Apple has already demonstrated that there is a market for $499+ tablets.

    In this piece, you alluded to that second market. Those who want (or need) Windows 8 capabilities but also want a tablet when a tablet is sufficient. Those folks are currently buying iPads and then struggling to move data back and forth between their Windows notebooks and their iPad tablets.

    This group will be excited to replace their Windows notebook with a lighter - but fully-capable Windows 8 tablet with it's own keyboard/cover - and with a wealth of options that will turn that laptop into a desktop with just a few accessories.

    If Windows RT is the success it promises to be, Microsoft and Apple will compete for the $599-$899 tablet sector while Windows OEMs fight over the $999+ ultra-book/tablet space. This leaves the $399-$499 space to Apple and Android vendors will have to decide if they want to fight over the $199-$299 Android space or if they want to make Windows-RT devices selling in the $399-$499 space currently dominated by Apple.
    M Wagner
  • hybrids

    In 2005 Fujitsu made a convertible netbook, the screen of which flipped around to make a tablet. It was a wonderful touchscreen machine which I still have. Read PDF books and files like an ebook reader and it was a fast XP computer. Several months ago I bought an extra disk (20GB on ebay) and put Win 8 Consumer Preview on it. WOW. It ran, though slow, because of only one GB RAM and a Pentium M processor. But the touchscreen worked!!! I could not run any apps because the resolution was 1200x600. I could never understand why Fujitsu never capitalized on the netbook market, keeping their swiveling screen, nor could I understand why they didn't make a hybrid when the components got faster and lighter.
    southvalley
    • The model...

      .... was a P1510D Lifebook. The dual core p1630 dual core might work with 2GB RAM since Win 8 runs just fine on my Acer netbook with a dual core Atom processor and 2GB RAM. Running that with no problems of any kind for four months now.
      southvalley
  • Which wins depends on your needs. Don't overlook Asus Taichi

    If your main need is that of a light mobile tablet then the Transformer style is the best.

    If your main need is a powerful laptop that can also be used as a tablet then I think fast-changing convertibles like the Asus Taichi and the Lenovo Yoga are the best. I know a lot of people are probably writing off the Taichi design as impractical, but what if in a future version it's one display with a transparent top and the panel just inverts itself when the laptop is closed. The Taichi is also incredibly thin which makes it one of the most impressive designs I've seen thus far.

    I think the worst designs are the sliders and the swivels. Things that require fragile mechanical parts are prone to wear and tear damage. In many ways the sliders represent the worst of both worlds. You lack the power of a full sized laptop and you lack the portability of a true tablet.
    cool8man
  • Glad to see this finally happening.

    For all the over the top fans of the iPad that swear up and down that they will never need a laptop again. I have said the hybrids that come out will be the winners, and the company that comes out with a great hybrid including the OS will win the "wars". MS committed full turkey to it with Win8, Apple is heading there with iOS and OS X... Android - who freakin knows...Google's a mess.
    TheBottomLineIsAllThatMatters
  • More unmentioned tablets

    Its funny i
    channel3310