CES: The weird world of Windows tablets

Computer companies aren't quite sure what to make of Windows on tablets at this stage. One of the clearest signs of this confusion is the sheer variety of concepts on display at CES this week.

The theme of this year's Consumer Electronics Show, nearly everyone agrees, is tablets. But after all the speeches and demos, Microsoft's strategy for breaking into this rapidly-growing market is as much a mystery as ever.

In his keynote, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Windows had the "flexibility" to work well on these emerging devices, but he focused more on Windows Phone 7 smartphones and other current consumer products. The company's announcement that the "next version of Windows" will run on ARM SoCs from Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments should push Windows onto more tablets, but this is a longer-term solution, and despite some proof-of-concept demos Microsoft hasn't discussed the interface or features of Windows 8.

That left Intel execs grumbling that its partner waited too long to develop a version of Windows optimized for tablets. And PC companies aren't quite sure what to make of Windows on tablets at this stage. One of the clearest signs of this confusion is the sheer variety of concepts on display at CES this week.

One of the more promising Windows tablet designs unveiled at CES is Sliding PC 7 Series. The PC 7 looks like a slate tablet but the display slides backwards and tilts up to become a netbook with a full-size keyboard. The company's laptop designers said that they chose this design because Samsung has a lot of expertise with (and intellectual property surrounding) this type of hinge from its work designing phones. It also has the benefit of making the PC 7, at slightly more than 2 pounds, thinner and lighter than competing convertible tablets such as Dell's Inspiron Duo. The PC 7 will have a 10.1-inch (1366-by-768) multi-touch display, upcoming Intel Atom Z-series (aka Oak Trail) processor, a 32 or 64GB solid-state disk drive and Windows 7. In its press release, Samsung said the PC 7 will get up to eight hours of battery life, though Samsung execs said it would be more like six to seven hours when watching a movie. When it is in the slate mode, the PC 7 has a user interface and applications for music, video, photos, note-taking, and more optimized for touch. I had a few minutes to try out the PC 7 in both slate and netbook modes, and. Samsung hasn't announced the pricing, but other sites have reported that it start at around $700.

Asus also announced a model with a sliding keyboard, the Eee Pad Slider, but it uses a different hinge and is based on an Nvidia Tegra 2 SoC and the upcoming Honeycomb version of Google's Android OS. The company's Windows play is the Eee Slate EP121, a slate that has the hardware specs of an ultraportable laptop including a 12.1-inch display (1,280 by 800 pixels), 1.3GHz Core i5-470UM dual-core processor and Windows 7. The EP121 uses Wacom's Duo-Sense capacitive screen which works with either touch input or a stylus. It will include up to 4GB of memory, a 32- or 64GB SSD, WiFi and Bluetooth, two USB ports and mini-HDMI. There's no hidden keyboard, but the Eee Slate EP121 will come with a separate Bluetooth keyboard. Asus has not announced details on pricing or availability.

Lenovo's IdeaPad U1 hybrid functions as a standard Windows laptop when the display is attached to the base. But when you detach the display, it becomes the LePad Slate, a tablet based on Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor and Android 2.2. The IdeaPad U1 weighs just under four pounds and has a 1.2GHz Core i5-540UM processor, 2GB of memory, a 320GB hard drive, WiFi and Bluetooth, and Windows 7. The 10.1-inch LePad, which will also be sold separately, measures 0.5 inches thick and weighs less than two pounds. It includes 3G wireless WAN as well. Like most Android-based slates, the LePad includes its own user interface dubbed "LeOS," and a set of tablet apps. Lenovo will also offer a Keyboard Dock to use the LePad Slate like a laptop, though obviously without Windows. The IdeaPad U1 hybrid and LePad will ship first in China, though a Lenovo spokesperson said it will also be available in other markets later this year.

Finally, there's Acer's Iconia, which depending how you look at it is either a laptop with a novel on-screen keyboard or a dual-screen tablet along the lines of the Kno Tablet (which was also on display at CES). Acer first previewed the Iconia late last year, but at CES I got a look at it along with several other prototype Iconia-branded tablets of different sizes, most of which will use Android. The Iconia's dual 14-inch multi-touch displays can both be used to display content, but by placing all 10 fingers on the lower half, you can convert one display into a virtual keyboard. Despite its novel design, the Iconia has the specs of a mainstream laptop including a Core i5 processor, up to 4GB of memory, hard drive sin capacities of up to 750GB hard drive, Windows 7 and all the standard ports. Typing isn't as easy as it is on a physical keyboard, of course, but it also isn't as difficult as I had expected. The big question is how to develop applications that really take advantage of this dual-display format. Acer has not announced pricing yet, but the company plans to ship it in limited quantities specifically for early adopters who are intrigued by the concept.

One of the reasons that PC companies are experimenting with convertible tablets for Windows is that they simply do not believe that Windows slates are ready to compete head-to-head the iPad and Android tablets. Perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of a Windows 7 app store and a good selection of apps truly customized for touch input.

As a result, tablets seem to be developing along two distinct lines. The ARM-Android tablets have smaller displays (7 to 10 inches), include 3G or 4G wireless, and are geared toward consumers. The x86-Windows tablets tend to have larger displays (10 to 14 inches), typically rely on wireless LAN only, include keyboard options and are designed more as productivity tools for business as well as consumer use. This makes sense: the Android tablets are scaled-up smartphones while this first wave of Windows tablets are more an extension of the convertibles that PC companies have been experimenting with for years.

Whether any of these new concepts will have more luck than previous Windows slates and convertible tablets remains to be seen.