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

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

Summary: 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.

See also:

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

Topics: Hardware, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Mobility, Samsung, PCs, Windows 8

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • When Ed Bott talks about rescuing Windows 8...

    there should be no doubt Windows 8 is in trouble.
    • Hmmm...

      Last I checked, Windows 8 had a larger market share than Mountain Lion and Mountain Lion had a head start. Sure, Windows 8 isn't blazing out the gates, but then again desktop/laptop sales aren't either.

      Economists are still arguing if we are in or out of a recession, headed back into one, etc. If the Windows XP device I bought for $350 nearly a decade ago is still running, how can I justify spending $400+ or more on a device that realistically isn't that much of an upgrade? This isn't like 20 years ago when I would see a considerable performance improvement from an older system. Right now, the biggest improvement people will really see is with SSDs and those are only on higher end models that people aren't buying in volume.

      Yes, we are all tech fans that visit this website. Yes, we can justify spending the money. This would be no different than your wife spending $200 on a pair of shoes she's going to wear just to her friends wedding. People are less willing to spend money on things that don't have a need for these days. A look at the most popular mobile apps shows that the public is mostly interested in social media, time waster games, email, and watching videos on youtube. An older system does this just fine. I bet if we had the return of $199-249 devices that more would buy Windows 8 devices.

      I just saw a stat that over 50% of tablet shipments last quarter were under 8" models. That implies people want cheap. And that's a growing market, too. That also implies the 8"+ market (aka iPads and many others) is technically shrinking given just a couple years ago that was the only option and therefore had virtually 100% of the share.
      • hybrids

        hybrids with x86 processors are still heavy compared to ARMs
        besides the excessive use of battery

        Duck is an animal hybrid, it swims, flies and walks, plus does none of these things well
        Henrique Dourado
        • hybrids

          hybrids with x86 processors are still heavy compared to ARMs
          besides the excessive use of battery

          Duck is an animal hybrid, it swims, flies and walks, but does none of these things well
          Henrique Dourado
        • hybrids

          don't you mean Platypus?
        • Ducks

          Are one of the fastest flyers in the bird kingdom. They can cruise along at 70 to 80 mph for long distances.
        • Only if you're talking ones with

          a core class of processors. However, if you're talking clovertrail hybrids, they are typically pretty light, have great battery life, and perform similar to arm devices.
          Sam Wagner
        • People seem to not understand...

          ...that being a jack-of-all-trades is a strength in and of itself.

          With something like a Surface Pro I can use it as a desktop by connecting a monitor and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Or I can use it as a full-powered laptop. Or I can use it as a consumption oriented tablet.

          A laptop can be a desktop and a laptop, but not a tablet. An iPad or Android tablet can only consume content, they can't be full powered desktops or laptops.

          So in my mind, the jack-of-all-trades strength of a hybrid is far better than the specialized, and limiting, strengths of desktops, laptops, or tablets.
        • but it's delicious

          duck, that is. x86 is more dependent on the sauce
      • save windows

        Microsoft succeed and failed at the same occasion. I bought a surface and as I like a lot. It is a great tablet as in "a tablet is not a pc". It feels good, works great and as been very stable. I took it on a few trips and remote desktop and Team viewer are great apps that allows me to work on my production pc, writing SQL or asp.net code. Watching movies, browsing the web, using Apps. Everything is fine. Win 8, on such a device is great. Not perfect but great.

        The problem with windows 8 is that it is a compromised OS. It's root is the desktop but it's been partially reoriented as a portable device OS. On my surface it shines, on my production pc....well, I don't even want to take the risk.

        We have benchmark Win 8 on many technical aspect and it won over Win 7 on almost every rest we have made. So technically it is better, the problem is Metro. It doesn't have its place on a Dual screen, programmer's PC that is setup to work visual studio, Sql Management Studio and PhotoShop. For that, the desktop is what we need and being annoyed by Metro is a nonsense.

        I truly appreciate all the effort Ms have done to create a touch oriented Windows but they should have made it separate sku. Windows 8 desktop should be one product, windows touch another. Metro apps should work on both but the should only work as standard windows on windows 8 desktop edition.

        If that happens, I will definitely install windows 8 on all my PCs because it is a superior OS overall.
        • Metro as an option

          I agree with gbouchard99 that Win8 with Metro should be a separate product, or at least make it an option that you can turn on/off at installation time. For developers, the Metro UI is not going to cut it. It really is designed for the touch-screen, single-screen environment. So give me the performance gains of the back-end of Win 8 and give me Windows desktop, then I'll consider upgrading my main desktop. MS has alienated a huge group of users by defaulting the GUI to Metro on Win8.
          • A program called Classic Shell

            When installed in Windows 8, kills the so-called "Metro screen" and the computer behaves like a normal Windows 7 computer.
          • That is a bandaid on a gunshot wound.

            Classic Shell or the other popular workarounds do not restore the full functionality of the Windows 7 desktop. The Aero interface is missing. Gadgets are missing. The desktop in Windows 8 is more restrictive than the desktop in Windows 7. Sure, it runs desktop applications, but if you're using the desktop exclusively, Windows 7 is the superior UI.

            I don't want my gadgets to be the entire user interface to my desktop. I want gadgets, but I want them tucked along the edge of one monitor at the same time I have all of my apps open across all three monitors.

            Bottom line: Windows 8 cripples desktop PCs, even if you run in desktop mode all the time and use a hack app to make it more like Windows 7.
          • Microsoft removed gadgets and are

            discouraging use of them because they are security risks. They are an open path to destruction for hackers. Aero is visual and uses resources. I just know when I use the desktop and i right click the task bar and select task manger and much more powerful tool appears. I also have the control shortcut displaying on my desktop for easy access.

            Yes I have gadgets on my Windows 7 machine like network stats, temp (local and where is was born) processor and graphics card stat which basically are for show and when I reallu need info I go to task manager.
          • And yet, MS created them...

            So we have to blame MS for more security problems?

            How is that an improvement?
          • Gadgets....

            MSFT created a small set of core gadgets...as examples of what could be done and relied heavily on developers to build to suit the needs of different users...don't put blame on MS for security concerns related to gadgets.
          • No need for classic shell

            I boot my Win8 machine to the desktop, and never use Metro except to find an app that is not on my desktop or quick launch toolbars. But you do need to learn a few tricks, like right-clicking the mini metro at the extreme left of the task bar which gives you access to the right start column features and more.
          • I just don't understand

            "For developers, the Metro UI is not going to cut it."
            Why? Click the desktop tile. Now, other than the lack of a Start button, you're in classic Windows mode. I just can't understand why that's such a hardship.
            Jason Barkley
          • I think Microsoft looked at the industry and

            see how the Tablet form factor is what consumers are purchasing. They wanted to get into the ballgame so they released a device and OS that could do both the old desktop applications and new Metro apps. I bet it's even affecting Macbook sales and people are purchasing Ipads. I'm a person that has a lovces big screen laptops. ( I have one with a 20.1" screen and one with a 18.4" screen). Screens are getting smaller but you can find some 17" gaming machine. Something else that's happening with hardware is the devices are become unupgradeable which means when new technologies come out you have to purchase a new device. The life cycle of these devices may kill them. Because PC's are more upgradeable the consumer will tend to keep it longer.
        • Metro

          I took the leap and installed windows 8 on my work PC about two months ago. at first it was a little rough but as I got more and more familiar with how the mouse works in windows 8 I am appreciating it a lot more. I rarely used the windows 7 start menu in windows 95 fashion I pretty much always pressed windows key and typed the app name. In windows 8 its even easier as I can separate my search between apps, setting etc... with a simple tap of the arrow keys. I think if people give the metro interface a chance on the PC they will learn to love it. I like the fact that I can run metro apps if I want, but I prefer the metro app to be a companion to a desktop version.