In my last article, “The New Face of Computers,” I discussed the emergence of the All-In-One desktop style. This article is dedicated to the portable side of computing, an area that has been dominated by the laptop/notebook design for many years.
For the last couple of years, the “Ultrabook” has been taking over the high end of this market. Ultrabooks, in general, are notebooks that are sleeker, lighter and have longer battery life. ( See “Ultrabooks and Windows 8 Tablets” June, 2012).
The Ultrabook/Tablet Hybrid
The latest thing are notebooks/ultrabooks that can be used with a keyboard in the traditional clam shell fashion or converted to a tablet form factor with screens that can be removed, hinged, swiveled, rotated, folded, or otherwise maneuvered to deliver a tablet experience. It’s these hybrid variations I want to review today.
All of these variations are built around the touch-enabled Windows 8. I’m talking about the full-blown Windows 8 that can run a full complement of Windows software, just like any other Windows computer I will not address Windows RT devices (incorporating a Windows 8 variant which cannot run legacy programs).
The Microsoft Surface Pro
The explosion of the notebook/tablet hybrids began with Microsoft’s introduction of the its own ground-breaking Surface Pro tablet with a detachable keyboard: the feature that puts it in the hybrid class. I had the opportunity to use one of these for a couple of weeks, and I can say that I REALLY liked it. Not only was the hardware impressively solid, but I even developed an appreciation for Windows 8, which I previously was not enamored with. I had played with Windows 8 on a non-touch desktop before, but you can’t get a full appreciation of it until you use it on a touch screen. So you can now put me in the “Yeah, I kind of like Windows 8” column.
Back to the Surface Pro… While the Surface Pro can be purchased without a keyboard, doing so would rob it of its hybrid status. There are two keyboard options for the Surface: the “Touch” cover and the “Type” cover, both of which fold over to serve as a screen cover. The Type cover is the only way to go if you really want to give this notebook functionality, as the keys have definite click travel, making touch typing possible. The screen docks with either of these cover/keyboards with a solid magnetic click into place. I was really impressed with this detachable keyboard system.
The screen (tablet portion of the Surface) is made of VaporMg™ which makes it feel quite rugged and gives it a rich look. It also comes with a kickstand, allowing it to stand alone in a viewable position without an accessory case. The standard Surface Pro also comes with a stylus, allowing you to add “hand writing” to compatible software applications.
Storage is somewhat of a factor. You can get either a 64 GB or 128 GB solid state drive on board, but the operating system takes up a very large part of that. The good news is that you can add up to an additional 64 GB with a microSDXC card in the available card slot. Other expansion/connection options include a full size USB port, Bluetooth, and a DisplayPort to add an external monitor. Of course, it has WiFi.
Any downsides? Well, yes. As previously mentined, the on-board storage is seriously limited, especially with the 64 GB version, given that the majority is taken up with the operating system. Second, the battery life is short, when comparing to a classical tablet-only device (Android or iPad).
On the other hand, comparing the Surface Pro to an iPad or Android tablet is definitely an “apples (no pun intended) and oranges” situation. The Surface should really be compared to an Ultrabook rather than a tablet, as it is truly a full-functioning computer, able to run any software that any other Windows computer can run.
After evaluating this device, I almost bought it. Why didn’t I? That follows.
Other Hybrid Configurations
I was only able to get my hands on the Surface Pro for any period of time. But there are other screen systems in use to convert a notebook into a tablet. One that I particularly like is the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga. The 360-degree hinged screen on this guy can be adjusted to all kinds of configurations: from regular laptop to tent for presentations to a stand for keyboard-less touch operation.
The Yoga 13 comes with a variety of memory, storage and processor configurations, ranging in price from $900 for the Yoga 13 with 4GB SDRAM, 128 GB SSD and Core i5 processor to $1,460 for 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD and Core i7 processor.
In another Lenovo design, the “Thinkpad Twist,” the screen rotates vertically about the center of the screen. Opened normally, it’s a standard laptop design. Open, rotate and close the screen again, the screen is now facing out, and it’s a tablet.
Another unique design is the Sony Vaio Duo 11. In this case, the default configuration is the tablet mode, where the sliding screen hides the keyboard underneath. Slide the screen up, and it reveals the keyboard when you need it.
Dell uses a system whereby the screen rotates in its own frame. Lift the frame and you can use the screen in the normal laptop configuration, or rotate it and close the screen onto the keyboard for tablet configuration.
Different companies have product entries using one or more of these systems, and it’s likely we haven’t seen the end of ideas. One thing to note, however. Only the detachable screen system (as in the Surface Pro and some others) lets you leave the keyboard behind when you want to use it as a tablet. This reduces weight when the tablet is all you want.
Where’s It All Heading
The Laptop/Tablet hybrids attempt to give you the best of two worlds: a full functioning, production oriented computer in laptop configuration, and the walk-away convenience of a tablet in that mode. With Windows 8 Pro installed on these devices, I’d say they met the goal.
But there is room for improvement. In my extensive evaluation of the Surface Pro, I decided not to buy it. For one thing, I really didn’t need it at the time — although my weekness for “toys” could have overcome this practical objection. I wasn’t even overly concerned with the limited storage. The 128 GB flavor combined with a 64 GB microSDXC card and cloud storage would have been plenty for me in a portable device. The real killer was short battery life.
One of the expected upgrades coming to these types of devices is Intel’s new Haswell chip. This represents a new generation of Core processors, with greater processing power in a less power-hungry device. This means reduced drain on battery life while delivering greater performance at the same time.
We’ve seen the first generation of laptop/tablet hybrids. I’m sure, whatever we see in the upcoming second generation, Haswell and its accompanying longer battery life will be a part of it. I’ll keep you posted.