The futile one device dream

The futile one device dream

Summary: The dream of having a single mobile device that can meet all computing needs is shared by many. Sadly, it's a pipe dream not likely to be reality any time soon.


Many head out for the work day with a bag or brief case laden with a laptop and a smartphone. Perhaps there's a tablet in the bag in addition to the notebook. Whatever is in there, the thought of having just one device in the bag that can do everything is compelling for lots of mobile workers.

One device

I'm as bad as any in this regard, I've spent over a decade trying to find that one amazing device that can do everything I need. I don't care if that happens to be a super laptop, tablet, or some new type of device.

Legos could be the inspiration for a 'one size fits most' mobile device. 

The Windows hybrids that are popping up all over the place are the first serious attempt at achieving the one device nirvana. With a tablet that separates from the laptop dock, hybrids can fulfill a lot of the duties relegated to tablets while also stepping in for notebook duty when appropriate.

As compelling as hybrids are to many, they still fall short of that imaginary single device that does everything many users need without compromise. A lot of that has to do with the size that most people need in a laptop-type device. Big screen means better functionality in a notebook, but that's the polar opposite of what many need in a tablet.

See related: Asus Transformer Book T100: One week in | Asus Transformer Book T100: First impressions | Asus Transformer T100 is calling my name | ASUS Transformer Prime: Perfect for business trips (review) | What I want: ASUS Transformer Prime running Windows 8 | Necessary battery life for laptops: 8 hours

The tech space has a lemming mentality, and that's why the tablet/laptop dock hybrid is the talk of the town. OEMs have improved the design and process to make them, so that's what everyone is doing. Unfortunately, having lots of hybrids doesn't make them serve as single devices better. There's just more choice for buyers which while good, doesn't hit the button for those still waiting for a single device to rule them all.

(Image: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

It's not clear what form such a device should have to satisfy many users needs. The thought of a core processor that pops into different shells, laptop and tablet shells comes to mind, is nothing new. This method has been possible for years but has never taken off.

It's not really a single device for one thing, as it requires one or more hardware shells, and that means carrying more gear in the bag. Or worse, deciding each morning what the tasks of the day will be and thus which shell to carry.

That's the position single device dreamers are in today, carry the tablet or the laptop? Throw them both in the bag or flip a coin to choose just one. That runs the risk of having the wrong one for the situation or need that crops up. That's the very scenario those wanting a single device to serve all needs want to never run into again.

Perhaps this desire to not carry so much in the bag is behind the interest in wearables? Accessories that work with devices already with you that take up some of the load. Of course, those are extra devices to charge and bring each day, even though they are worn on the body.

I'm able to get away with carrying a single device most days, but my work is not like that of most folks. I can carry a tablet in a keyboard case, a laptop, or a Windows hybrid and do my work well with any of them. That's not common, though.

Since we're dreaming about a single device, how about a Lego type of gadget? Not those little Legos, rather different components you pop together in a form that appeals to the individual and lets them do what they need at the time. Assemble the components a certain way and you have a laptop. Peel off some bricks and you've got a big tablet. Lose more bricks and you have a small tablet when mobility is the call of the day. Not only does this sound useful but also fun.

Or perhaps an origami style of gadget would work, and not the failed Microsoft version of old. Unfold different parts of the gadget to do what's needed at the time.

So what form could such a single device take and meet all your daily needs? What attributes are most important to you for one gadget to meet all your needs? Share that in the comments and let's get our creative juices flowing. The OEMs aren't able to figure this out so let's do it for them.

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Tablets

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
  • Well, may be it is Surface pro2

    The nearly perfect combination of laptops and tablets although there is still some compromises exist.
    Tech Fan From Red East
    • re:

      That was my thought. The Surface Pro (1 or 2) can do anything a modern laptop can. You can use full sized keyboards and mice or the type/touch covers with it. The only thing that keeps it from being a full laptop replacement for me is the size (not resolution) of the screen.
      Sir Name
      • Size is the real point

        A different screen size for different needs. I need a small tablet 6" to 10" for reading. Something light and easy to hold in one hand. Next I need a larger notebook screen 12" to 15" for work on the go. At the desk for the long hours I need an even larger display (probably 2 to 4 monitors in the 20" plus range). Lets not forget the smart phone that goes in the pocket. It is possible to have one device that can do everything except change its screen size.
    • I have a friend using a Surface Pro 2

      as his main computer, and it is working wonderfully well. I use my Samsung Series 7 with Windows 8 as my travel tablet/laptop, and it works fairly well.

      I knew from day one that Ballmer's talk in 2010 of using one device with one unified OS as a phone, tablet, and Desktop was a crock of BS. Today, he's headed for the billionaire's unemployment line.

      Now here we are in 2014 with a miscellany of confusing convertibles and patchwork hardware.

      On the OS front MS has 4 OSes that don't even talk to one another, use different APIs, and that all run different apps from different stores (RT, Win 8, Windows Phone 8, X-Box).

      A veritable mess!

      This would only make sense if everyone was schizophrenic, but we're not.

      That's why all the mobile players can't even see MS in their rear-view mirrors any longer.
      • Your said ... "On the OS front MS has 4 OSes that don't even talk ...

        ... to one another, use different APIs, and that all run different apps from different stores (RT, Win 8, Windows Phone 8, X-Box)."

        This just isn't true.

        Windows 8.x and Windows RT both talk to the Windows Store and to Xbox Live. While the Windows Phone 8 store is still independent, it will be brought into the fold during 2014 and the Xbox One is more integrated than ever.

        As for talking to each other, the Surface 2/RT works seamlessly with all-things-Windows. While the Surface 2/RT cannot run legacy applications, it can access them from a Windows workstation or server and display and interact with them properly. I can access all of my employer's resources and effectively do my job from my Surface RT while sitting at home in front of the TV. I could not do that seamlessly from an iPad.

        Also, Office 2013, Office WebApps, and Office 365 all offer uniform file compatibility as does Office for WP8.

        The Surface 2/RT is certainly not all things to all people but if you are in any way dependent upon Windows desktop resources, I would put the Surface 2/RT up against any non-Windows device out there.
        M Wagner
  • ASUS Transformer Book T300 looks ...

    interesting. Price may need to come down a bit, but 13" seems much more usable
  • A 13" Haswell Ultrabook or Haswell Macbook Air comes the closest.

    These are very small and light but still have a decent size screen and Intel Haswell now offers decent battery life too.

    Surface Pro 2 whilst a good combination is too small, the keyboard isn't as good for long periods of time.

    13" is the sweet spot here, heavier than a 10" tablet but not as much as you think. Ultrabooks/Macbook Airs are very light.

    They're not Tablets but we're talking something that's thin, light, good battery and supports proper Business software. Those would be the primary concerns over Tablet specific features.
    • Wrong formfactor

      have you tried using a laptop standing up? how about on a train or a bus? the slate form factor is better for mobility. using a laptop when your not sitting down is a pain in the ass
      • touch ultrabooks rule

        That's because you see laptop as they were years ago.. What about yoga 2 pro, it can be used as a tablet standing up, in a bed either flat or hinged at any position, like a laptop or a even as a stand. And if you think its not powerful enough to do all your work you're dead wrong, jut look at the specs. Same with any device listed here

        btw this was written with a touchscreen asus ultrabook while in bed, and screen is in perfect 90 degrees to my eyes which I don't have to hold with my hands, yet I don't have a hastle of moving a cursor with a trackpad.
        • While true

          They're still a bit heavy for ling term use when standing.
          Sam Wagner
          • How many people need to stand long long term and use a computer?

            Honestly that seems like a very limited use case scenario that doesn't really represent the masses. Be it work or play.

            Not that what you say is wrong. Anyone that has those requirements will be better suited with something other than a laptop.

            Anyone who doesn't have those needs (most everyone) will find some real benefits in a touchscreen laptop.
      • Better for mobilitiy maybe but, unless you are very good ...

        ... at typing one-handed from a screen, a tablet is not a good choice. Interestingly enough, with a Surface tablet, you can have both.
        M Wagner
    • Clearly, the MS Surface Pro ...

      ... has been positioned to compete head-to-head with the 11" MacBook Pro so I would expect that soon the Surface Pro (or another Windows OEM) will offer a 13" competitor to the 13" MacBook Air
      M Wagner
  • A few items

    The big thing everyone wants to come with them is their data, that's probably why all of this "in the cloud" push is popular today. Though that battles with the fear and reality of when the cloud isn't available.

    The second is that certain components simply can't shrink or expand. This means that you would need to carry multiple screens for tablet and larger laptop configurations. You'd also need multiple batteries as you try to balance weight for longevity (though that's improving these days).

    Personally, I'm still pining for the Ativ Q since that seemed to be a hybrid that addressed a lot of my needs in an interesting package. (Yeah, the tablet mode would be heavy unfortunately...)
    Robert Crocker
  • Lego is the future

    Personally I think that Windows9 will be the key.

    No more Windows, Windows RT or Windows Phone. One OS, running on your phone. Your phone will then 'plug in' (or Bluetooth?) with other selected devices and adapt the available functionality to suit the form factor. These will be 64bit, 4-8Gb ram and at least 64Gb storage.

    Think about not 'having' to carry extras, which essentially amount to larger screens and keyboards. Trains/Planes will have a screen you plug into, with a keyboard in the tray, your desk will have a large screen and maybe a tablet in your draw for meetings, coffee shops have them built into the table (with wireless charging) and at home you connect it to your TV to play your media.

    Obviously there will still be the need for single purpose computing devices (I am a developer and I doubt my phone will suffice anytime soon). But for the people who are just emailing, word processing and browsing, then the phone will be fine.
    • I'm all for this

      It is sad that manufacturers are still trying to produce all-in-one devices at every level. I don't want Google Glass with it's own processor/OS, I want a heads up display that connects to my phone/computer (Windows/Android/iOS/whatever phone). I want my phone to connect to the car stereo or Bluetooth headphones as needed. I'm still looking for a great touch screen monitor for Windows 8, the cheapest I found also runs Android. I don't need the monitor to have an OS, processor, and memory.
      • Agreeed

        I don't think the OS really matters, I would just say that I think MS is the closest to achieving it.

        It would be great if I could get my phone from Nokia (which is essentially my computer), my tablet from Apple (which my phone connects to) and my 24" touchscreen from Samsung.

        Feel free to mix that as you want...Phone from Apple, Tablet from Samsung and touchscreen from MS.

        That way we can all have the choice of the hardware, with a single device (the phone) which defines the OS. Hell, even the OS/Processor/Memory could be pluggable into the phone.
        • OS only matters if the application you want to ue does not run ...

          ... on the OS you like to use. The promise of the cloud is that any device with a browser can be a client for cloud-based applications. This technology is a long way from being mature though. Time will tell how interactive and interoperable these cloud solutions turn out to be - or if everyone will choose their own cloud service provider - each with a proprietary solution.
          M Wagner
  • Ubuntu for Android

    It seems to be a good approach for a one-device dream.