Hybrids are on the rise: Which design will win?

The flood of convertible tablets and ultrabooks at IFA shows we're going through a creative boom in the evolution of the PC. There are many options out there — which ones will pull in the buyers?
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

There's no denying that hybrids are the stars of this year's IFA. Every manufacturer of note has used the Berlin tech show to launch some variant on the convertible tablet-ultrabook concept.

Altogether, it's an astounding volley of products for a sector that has barely been proven. Yes, Asus has had some success with its Transformer range of Android tablet-notebooks. Many people also use their iPads with a keyboard dock.

HP Envy x2
HP's Envy x2 is one of a number of ultrabook-tablet hybrids on display at IFA. Image credit: David Meyer

But there are some notable differences with this new bunch of hybrids. Firstly, they run Windows 8— unproven at this point. Secondly, they largely seem to be targeting the laptop crowd first and tablet fans second. Indeed, they represent both the evolution of the notebook format and a concerted attempt on the PC industry's part to co-opt the deeply threatening shift to tablets.

Whether or not that attempt will be successful is up for debate. Tim Anderson has offered an eloquent argument against the trend, noting that many tablet fans are not in the market for a laptop-like experience, and pointing to the failure of Microsoft's earlier Tablet PC plays.

I disagree, albeit warily. I think many people are comfortable with the notebook format and will use this new flood of hybrids as a way of dipping their toes into tablet waters.

Toshiba's Satellite U920T
Toshiba's Satellite U920T

Indeed, as a fan of the seven-inch format (I own a Nexus 7) on a 'companion device' basis, I'm of the opinion that larger tablets make more sense as laptop replacements when they can actually replace laptops, with all the functionality and ease of typing that that entails. I don't see why I should lug around a 10-to-12-inch tablet if it can't actually do what a notebook can.

So I think this hybrid business will pan out — but not for all the manufacturers that are trying it.

Although many of the new hybrids look quite similar, overall there is an impressive amount of experimentation going on. This is a good thing: I approve of choice, and the market will decide in the end which designs work and which don't.

And it really does come down to design. We are now at the point where the internals of new PCs/tablets have more-or-less plateaued. So too have ports and connectivity choices, at least for now — barely any hybrid does not come with USB 3.0, HDMI, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11n Wi-Fi and so on. Some use Intel's Ivy Bridge, some Clover Trail, and of course some ARM — all will do the job for most users, with battery life being the only real deciding factor.

Which leaves the question: what works and what doesn't?

Lenovo Yogapad 13
Lenovo Yogapad 13

Different approaches

Given the likely targeting of these hybrids at the traditional laptop user, the hybrids that hew to that format are the safest bets. The leading manufacturers are taking this route: witness Samsung's ATIV Smart PC and HP's Envy x2, both of which simply let the user detach or clip in the screen as desired.

Lenovo's Yoga 13 also falls into this category, although here Lenovo has opted for a screen that folds back entirely to allow tablet-style usage.

The advantage of this approach is that it allows the back of the screen to act as a protector when the device is being transported, much as has always been the case with laptops. It also provides a unified alternative to the iPad-plus-keyboard combo.

Enter the sliders

Then we have the sliders, such as Sony's Vaio Duo 11 and Toshiba's Satellite U920T. At this point, two other factors become key: size and the hinge mechanism.

From the brief amounts of time I've been able to spend with both devices, I'd opt for the Sony, although it will doubtlessly be more expensive. The Duo 11 has an 11.6-inch screen, and the U920T a 12.5-inch affair. There may not seem to be much of a gap between those measurements, but there's a remarkable difference in reality — particularly in tablet mode.

Sony Vaio Duo 11
Sony Vaio Duo 11

Again, I'm biased. I think a 10-inch tablet is a bit hefty for regular use. Sony's 11.6 inches just about gets away with it, partly thanks to its styling; but Toshiba's 12.5 inches is too much. At that size, I cannot see many applications for the device apart from verticals such as graphic design, healthcare and the factory floor.

Bear in mind that we're not just talking about a tablet here, but a tablet with a non-detachable keyboard that, in these two cases, includes the PC's innards.

Sony has also implemented a much more robust-seeming hinge mechanism: it stops the screen from sliding back entirely. This is why the Duo 11 doesn't have space for a trackpad, but it does look sturdy. In comparison, the Toshiba U920T's mechanism looks vulnerable to accidental heavy pressure, especially over time.

Of course, these aren't the only options. We can also consider straight-out oddities such as Dell's frankly flimsy-looking XPS Duo 12, which has a screen that rotates within the bezel, and Asus's Taichi, which has two screens back-to-back — I'm struggling to see any practical purpose for that one, unique as it is.

Choice is good

When I picked up my ThinkPad Edge E420s a couple of years ago, I suspected it would be the last straight laptop I'd be buying. If I were in the market now, there is no question that I'd be opting for a hybrid.

As for which one I'd go for, I like the Yoga 13 design: it's simple, it looks robust and I trust Lenovo's workmanship.

But there are many options out there, catering to all sorts of use cases. As I mentioned above, choice is good. And there's little denying that we're entering a particularly creative phase in the evolution of the PC.

It's no longer a matter of the hybrid being a jack of all trades and master of none. They're just ultrabooks with touch capabilities and more options. Or tablets with perfectly-matched keyboards and more ports.

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