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.
- Is the brilliant, quirky, flawed Surface Pro right for you?
- My 60 days with the Surface RT
- What's behind the slump in PC sales? Can the industry turn around?
- Can Microsoft pull its tablet technology together?
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?