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Why Windows 8 hybrids won’t survive the test of history

Loyd Case | Sept. 11, 2012
Hybrids sound appealing on paper-who wouldn't want a tablet that can turn into a laptop, and vice versa?-but don't get too comfy with this oddball product category.

The first round of hybrids are definitely immature products, however. Manufacturers are toying with different designs to see what sticks, and much of what's about to hit the market reeks of experimentation. Tom Mainelli, IDC's research director for mobile connected devices, says, "Early on, there will be a fair amount of confusion, so [hybrids] may not get much traction. The biggest concern is that you end up with just an okay notebook and okay tablet."

The most common pattern for a tablet-laptop hybrid, often called a "slate," consists of a fully detachable tablet that houses both the hybrid's display and its key working components-CPU, memory, and storage. This slate then connects to a simple keyboard dock. Some slates have batteries in both the display and the dock, for longer battery life when the device is in laptop mode. Examples include the Fujitsu Stylistic Q702 and the HP Envy X2.

Unfortunately, most hybrids with a detachable tablet component may rely on the latest Intel Atom CPU (code-named "Clovertrail") and may offer just 32GB or 64GB of storage. The low-performance processor and limited storage will relegate these slates to service as secondary devices; serious consumers and business users will need systems with beefier specs. Cheap cloud storage might offset a hybrid's lack of local storage, but take a look at your laptop or Ultrabook's onboard storage needs today, and consider whether you'll be happy with a 64GB ceiling in a hybrid, the cloud notwithstanding.

The other main hybrid design involves some flavor of fold-over display. In this arrangement, the main chassis houses the keyboard as well as the guts of the system, and the display folds over to create a flat device when used in tablet mode. This scheme is reminiscent of the one used by the original Tablet PCs (remember the early 2000s and Windows XP Tablet PC Edition?), but the new devices are thinner and more elegant.

The Dell XPS Duo 12 mounts its fold-over display in a frame. The panel rotates in the frame, allowing the display to fold flat over the keyboard. The IdeaPad Yoga, meanwhile, has a display with a friction hinge that allows users to orient the panel at any angle: You can open the lid by 90 degrees and use the panel in laptop mode, or you can fold it a full 180 degrees and run the device in tablet mode, at which point the exposed keyboard deactivates.

These convertible fold-over systems are more like laptops than tablets. Indeed, IDC's Mainelli notes that IDC categorizes convertibles as notebook PCs, but classifies devices with fully detachable screens as tablets.

Inevitable compromises

The latest hybrid devices are sleeker and offer better performance than the Tablet PCs of yore, but they fare poorly when matched against today's standard high-performance laptops, and even against Ultrabooks, which make their own compromises in the service of ultraportability. Though some hybrids will offer Ultrabook-caliber CPUs, memory, and storage, their screens will be smaller, at 10 or 12 inches instead of 13 or 14 inches.


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