Opinion: Why Windows 8 hybrids won't survive the test of history

Opinion: Why Windows 8 hybrids won't survive the test of history

They look like laptops but behave like tablets. Windows 8 hybrids attempt to do too much with too little, and they will ultimately lose.

Much of the Windows 8 hardware news of the past two weeks has focused on tablet-laptop "hybrids"--devices that use various clever attachment schemes to marry touchscreen tablets with accompanying hardware keyboards. 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.

Hybrids tend to have a limited lifespan, and reliable signs point to a computing future where we do most of our work on tablets packed with powerful internal components and complemented by killer accessory keyboards. Though tablet-laptop hybrids may ooze high-tech appeal in the short term, they're destined to become nothing more than curious footnotes in the greater record of PC history.

Don't believe me? First let's examine the value of hybrids in the here and now. After that, we'll explore their drawbacks, and then we'll look at how Windows 8 hardware of the future will eventually render hybrids obsolete.

Why hybrids make sense today

In coming months, Windows 8 will reshape how everyone thinks about tablets. Today no one considers the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7, or even the iPad a legitimate productivity or business tool; but Windows 8 tablets will offer serious x86 horsepower, along with hooks into the Microsoft ecosystem, including Office.

That said, getting users to recognize tablets as systems for productivity, rather than just for media consumption, may be a tough sell.

Enter the upcoming generation of Windows 8 hybrids. The common element that all hybrids share is a detachable or fold-over screen that can act independently as a tablet. This gives us a full laptop with keyboard and separate pointing device when we're using productivity tools, and a tablet for on-the-go media consumption and casual Web browsing.

Providing basic tablet functionality along with a hardware keyboard would seem to strike a useful compromise. Indeed, hybrids let us explore the world of touch without abandoning no-nonsense data input; and they might be just what the Dells, Lenovos, and Fujitsus of the world need to prove that tablets literally mean business.

History tells us that users clamor for single devices that can do everything. As smartphones entered the mainstream, MP3 players became obsolete. And when is the last time you reached for your point-and-shoot camera? Among digital cameras, only DSLRs are immune to the threat of increasingly sophisticated smartphone cameras.

Windows 8 hybrids pose a similar threat to run-of-the-mill laptops. Tony Costa, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, says, "Hybrid laptops are rapidly blurring the distinction between tablets and laptops. What is emerging is a spectrum of tablet form factors that range from keyboard-first tablets--that is, hybrid laptops--to touch-first tablets that offer keyboards as an accessory. Within this context, yes, hybrid laptops will threaten the market share of traditional laptops."

Why hybrids are doomed to 'transitional' status

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.

Worse, detachable slate hybrids have docking mechanisms that introduce a potential mechanical point of failure. And because they include batteries in both the keyboard dock and the main system chassis, slate hybrids are bulkier than the new crop of extremely thin Ultrabooks.

Fold-over hybrids more closely resemble laptops; and in the long run, they may not present as many consumer caveats. Lenovo's Yoga easily satisfies the Ultrabook spec and carries a 13.1-inch, 1600-by-900-pixel display. The hinge design may be worrisome, but it's probably less problematic over the long haul than a detachable dock.

Caveats notwithstanding, you may still be committed to dipping your toe in hybrid waters. If so, you have to decide which of the two basic designs makes more sense for your needs. The short answer: Get a fold-over convertible if you're interested in serious productivity, and get a detachable slate--or even a pure tablet like the Microsoft Surface--if you envision a more touch-focused life ahead.

"In the short-term," says Forrester's Costa, "enterprises will likely hedge their bets and adopt keyboard-first tablets--hybrid laptops--like the HP Envy X2, which offer the possibility of tablet functionality without compromising traditional keyboard and mouse-centric enterprise productivity scenarios. Meanwhile, consumers will more strongly embrace touch-first tablets like the Microsoft Surface, which are more attuned to media consumption, Web browsing, and post-PC productivity scenarios."

Costa shares my belief that hybrids are transitional devices and that, as tablets become more powerful, business needs will bifurcate between two types of users. One breed of users will rely on a performance-packed tablet and accessory keyboard to get all of their work done. The other breed will have high-performance needs that require true mobile workstations. If this is the case, the long-term prognosis for traditional laptops (including Ultrabooks) looks bleak.

Bottom line: Tablets will ultimately dominate

In the end, today's hybrid laptops running Windows 8 will drive a long-term transition to pure tablets. Microsoft seems to be betting on this eventual outcome. The company's Surface Pro offers internal specs similar to those on many Ultrabooks, but it reduces the keyboard to a mere rubber mat that acts as a cover for the unit--this as opposed to a robust, laptop-style chassis. Given Microsoft's predilection for endless consumer research and testing, they may be onto something. (Though, granted, market failures like Zune might suggest otherwise!)

IDC's Mainelli says that next-generation tablets built on Intel's upcoming Haswell CPU, along with lower-cost solid-state drives, will lead to full-featured tablets that offer the battery life and performance users expect from today's laptops. In the context of this evolution, today's funky hybrids are merely a step along a winding path, enabling users to become more comfortable with Windows 8 and the touch experience.

Mainelli also suggests that increased tablet adoption could trigger renewed interests in desktops. Users may do most of their mobile work on a tablet, but then return to their desktop system when they require greater performance or when they need to dump large files. Certainly cloud storage will be too pricey for most users to store large volumes of digital media there.

Regardless, I expect that Windows 8 hybrids will prove to be transitional systems--attractive in their own right, but not the final iteration of mobile personal computing. In one sense, they're the ultimate refinement of the original Tablet PC concept. But pure tablet hardware is improving at a rapid rate, and external keyboards are becoming increasingly capable. Given these trends, we may see only a couple of generations of these hybrids before the market moves toward pure tablet alternatives. Full-fledged laptops will remain the optimal solution for a certain class of users; but in the future, the Windows 8 tablet will be the go-to computing device for most.

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