Tabletizing everything - The attack of the 2-in-1s

Posted by: Gergely Sumegi (2 years, 10 months ago)

Assemble or put it down: laptop. Fold or disassemble: tablet. That's the easy definition of the 2-in-1 devices that started their massive attack on the consumer market towards the end of 2013. The Intel-Microsoft partnership is a "dream team" as in they share the dream of winning a bigger chunk of the portable computers' market that is getting more and more tabletized as we speak, and also convincing the owners of ageing PCs to not buy something like a Macbook Air & iPad duo, but opt for a device that's a laptop and a tablet at the same time, but actually neither of them. And runs Windows of course.

The appearance of Apple iPad in 2010 (and the invasion of Android tablets in its wake) radically changed the market of mobile computing devices. The spread of tablets and the even smarter and bigger smartphones has seriously weakened the position of laptop manufacturers, but Microsoft is the most worried of all, as the former PC OS monopoly is the underdog in the realm of tablets and mobile gizmos.

In the new world, Google and Apple are the two Microsofts, the two remarkable providers of operating systems. (Except nowadays they are called ecosystems. Operating system is so 1995.) Despite the latest developments and billions of dollars spent, less than a 10th of tablets run Windows, while the market share of Android and Apple iOS is above 40%. (Android is still trailing behind, but getting continuously stronger.) What's more, Microsoft's first attempt at tablets, Surface was a massive failure.

And while more and more tablets are equipped with Intel CPUs (mostly Atom), even Intel can be considered a loser in the current game, as the low-energy tablets use mainly simplified RISC processors, especially the architecture of British ARM and Qualcomm units in high-end mobile phones.

In the middle of 2012, the tablet invasion (especially iPad) started to attack the then most successful laptop niche of ultrabooks, causing a dramatic drop in sales. Analysts started to call another "netbook story", implying that the niche of ultrabooks would disappear as quickly as netbooks had three years earlier. Do you still remember? Between 2007 and 2009 everybody was after the small, 10" or even smaller display cheap laptops that weighed about 1kg: Asus Eee PC, Acer Aspire One etc. The netbook fever lasted about two years, and then larger screen machines became cheaper and lighter, and netbooks (and the word itself) disappeared into thin air as if they had never existed. The era of the slimmer, 11 to 13" sized, 1.5 to 2 kg ultrabooks began. Some say this era ends now with the rise of tablets.

So why do consumers prefer tablets? On one hand, Apple is miles ahead of the competitiors with its impeccable marketing and its ecosystem offering a second-to-none feeling of quality. On the other hand, tablets are more mobile, meaning they are smaller, lighter, and the battery lasts long. And they're cheaper.

What's the flipside then? While they are easy to use for reading or watching videos (sorry, I meant consuming media) sitting in an armchair or on the train, they are just as unpractical for work. Once you need to Photoshop something or write a lengthy email or edit spreadsheets, you need to sit in front of a traditional computer: keyboard, mouse.

Major laptop manufacturers (Lenovo, Asus, Acer, Samsung, Dell, Sony, HP, Toshiba), teamed up with Intel and Microsoft, have tried to come up with a category that can kind of satisfy both demands, suitable for media consumption (lean back usage) and work (lean forward) too. Even the term 2-in-1 suggests that we get the functions of two devices for the price of one. They hope they can win back something from the market that has been under pressure by Apple since 2010.

This is going to be the new front in the battle against the tablet niche creator Apple.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in the spring of 2012 that the idea of a laptop-tablet hybrid was like shoving a toaster into a refrigerator. There were more or less usable tablets long before iPad (and Microsoft has been providing tablet-enabled Windows versions since 2002), but none of them has really become popular. They were too big, heavy and hard to use, and their battery life was not competitive. Windows has a huge power consumption, compared to mobile systems like Android or iOS.

In 2012, Tim Cook's laughter at the attempts was justifiable.

However, the situation began to change in autumn 2013 as tech press responded positively to the latest Intel CPU equipped Windows tablet-laptops. Journalists agreed that these devices were not as sophisticated as iPad, but had begun to get close to it. Computers with the new Intel Core 4th Gen CPUs had become lighter, faster and more energy efficient, thus more mobile and easier to use. Windows 8 got the first major update with 8.1.

Microsoft, with the Pro version of Surface 2, promises the performance of a laptop in the shape of a tablet. The strongest version has 8 GB RAM, 512 GB hard drive and Core i5 processor, albeit this costs over $1000, and the keyboard is sold separately in case someone needs to use it as a laptop computer. This concept approaches the laptop from a tablet. The hardware is brutally powerful for a tablet, and accordingly heavier and larger, and only a separately sold keyboard can make it a fully functional laptop, or sort of.

The response was even more pleasing to Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 2 Pro out in October, going to the Christmas market war with a stunning 13" display (3200x1800 pixels, much better than Apple's Retina), a weight of about 1.5 kg and a price tag of $1000 (this is the cheapest model with Core i3, the most expensive is $1500 with i7 processor and 512 GB SSD).

Lenovo (and its predecessor in the category, IBM) is an experienced tablet PC manufacturer, the brand ThinkPad has been probing the niche since 2005, and the X60 tablet, out in 2006, was the most successful tablet in the pre-iPad world. The display of Yoga can be rotated in 360 degrees, making it a proper but a little bit heavy tablet. This is the opposite of the concept of Surface pro: tabletizing the laptop.

The two new Sony Vaio model ranges, Flip and Duo are supposed to follow the same concept. The former is the cheaper ($1300) but its battery is very weak in exchange, and it's heavy (over 2kg), but has a huge and nice display (15", 2880×1620). The display of Duo can be slid on the top of the keyboard (cannot be rotated), and it's a beautiful and well assembled machine, but expensive too: it costs $1800, a price that'd buy you 4 or 5 very good tablets.

The Dell XPS 12 offers a third kind of screen rotation: it is rotating in a slim metal frame. This computer is relatively cheap, only $800, but has been on the market for a year. An upgrade came out this summer with 4th Gen Core processor (Haswell) and bigger battery, it costs 1200 bucks.

One can be easily lost in Dell's convoluted naming system: XPS 13 is a standard laptop (ultrabook), XPS One 27 is an iMac competitor all-in-one desktop PC, while XPS 11 is a Yoga-style twistable screen 2-in-1 product.

Asus is a remarkable brand on the Android tablet market, and it is the manufacturer of Google Nexus 7, currently considered the best small-format (7") tablet. Their Windows 2-in-1 solution is based on the docked tablet approach: the Transformer Book T100 is actually an Intel Atom equipped, 2 GB RAM tablet that can be attached to a keyboard. Asus has an Android tablet based on a similar concept: the Transformer Pad has a 4-core CPU and a 2560×1600 pixel 10.1" display. Both are cheap, priced in the tablet range, at around 400 good dollars.

Their most extreme integration experiment should be the Transformer AiO, which is an all-in-one desktop (iMac style, built into the screen), a Windows and an Android tablet at the same time! The scree size is 18", gigantic for a tablet. 3 in 1. What's the point? Don't ask. Some experts say this can be the future of the desktop PC, others say this is a massive idiocy.

The same insanity can be observed in the somewhat more practical mobile version: the Asus Transbook Trio (see image on top) has a powerful Windows ultrabook (Core i7, 4GB RAM, 628 GB SSD) under the keyboard, while its screen (1920×1080) is a standalone Android tablet that works as a normal screen when docked, and comes to life when detached. It can be yours for a mere $1400, which is quite reasonable, as standard laptops of the same performance can cost the same. A bit heavy, but the battery life is satisfactory, and many say this is the best experiment to realize the 2-in-1 concept.

After all said and done, manufacturers don't necessarily need to panic as yet, as November 2013 stats show that only 4.8% of global internet traffic originated from tablet usage.

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