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.

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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.

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

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137 comments
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  • When Ed Bott talks about rescuing Windows 8...

    there should be no doubt Windows 8 is in trouble.
    ac1234555
    • 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.
      ikissfutebol
      • 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?
          bajan5026@...
        • Ducks

          Are one of the fastest flyers in the bird kingdom. They can cruise along at 70 to 80 mph for long distances.
          arminw
        • 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.
          jmagzdnet
        • but it's delicious

          duck, that is. x86 is more dependent on the sauce
          frylock
      • 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.
        gbouchard99@...
        • 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.
          kchambers@...
          • 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.
            arminw
          • 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.
            BillDem
          • 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.
            Orlbuckeye76
          • And yet, MS created them...

            So we have to blame MS for more security problems?

            How is that an improvement?
            jessepollard
          • 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.
            smfrazz
          • 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.
            jonc2011
          • 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.
            Orlbuckeye76
        • 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.
          B_Manx