Windows 8 is about to unleash a tsunami of strange devices upon us all. Call them tablets, ultraportables, hybrids, convertibles, tiny touch-based mobile computers...they're everywhere, and they're multiplying.
HP has them. Samsung does, too. So does Dell, and Lenovo, and Toshiba, and Asus, and Sony. Everyone has them. That's because Windows 8 promises a better environment for touch in mobile computing, and the promise is too tempting not to experiment. Or, alternatively, all these companies need a product out there to plant a flag into this strange soil -- a territory that Microsoft's already visiting via the Surface.
The big problem I see with them is that for every device that emerges, the landscape gets ever-more-cloudy.Microsoft Surface. Samsung Series 5 Slate. HP Envy x2. Asus Vivo Tab XT. Toshiba Satellite U925t. The names aren't consistent -- some sound like laptops, some like phones, some like tablets -- and many are riddled with letters and numbers, as if they're just a small subevolution of an existing line. Many are; there have been Windows slates and tablet-laptops for years, but with Windows 8 and Windows RT aiming to rise up and take on the world of iOS and Android devices, many of these new hybrid/convertibles are targeting a slightly different audience.
So what are these things? They're laptops trying to be more like tablets, or tablets trying to be more like laptops. They're for folks who wish their tablet was more versatile, or, maybe, for those who wish their laptop had a little tablet in it.
Many of the hybrid tablets have centered around the following form: 11-inch tablet, which docks into a keyboard base. You pop the tablet out and use it like you'd use an iPad, then dock the tablet back into the keyboard base to turn it into a little laptop. That's the ThinkPad Tablet 2, HP Envy x2, Samsung Series 5 Slate, Asus Vivo Tab. It's a design idea already shared by the Android Asus Transformer. The product ends up looking like a Netbook, but is, in fact, usually a next-gen Atom-powered device with a small amount of SSD storage (64GB) and RAM (2GB). Many offer stylus support, often included in the tablet itself.
What's the point of these devices? Well, the goal, ideally, is to offer the best of both worlds, right? The fun of an iPad, the productivity of a laptop. I've carried my iPad around and suffered the consequences of trying to file a blog post, only to realize that, while I could do it, the lack of standard Mac software and a trackpad can take its toll. A Windows 8 tablet hybrid could be a full computer because it is (processor power and storage size notwithstanding), and having full multitouch touch-pad support is a big deal.
However, how good is a Windows 8 tablet? We really don't know yet. A lot depends on battery life, app selection, how well the Windows 8 tile-based interface ends up working over time, and whether a stylus can help. Can older software work better on a Windows 8 tablet than the odd shoehorned way most of it tends to work on a Windows 7 tablet? Will a Windows 8 tablet be fun to use? Will it be something you'd pick over an iPad, or an Android tablet?
My second concern is how good the average hybrid device will be as a laptop versus a similarly priced...well, normal laptop. Shrinking keyboard size and touch pads down has often made Netbooks and other devices not ideal for some. Will the hinge mechanisms work seamlessly? Will the bang-for-the-buck price make sense?
Finally, how many people will choose a cheap laptop and a cheap tablet like a Google Nexus 7 over a convertible hybrid Windows 8 device? If you can get two devices for the price of one, will that kill the equation for a possibly $700-range 11-inch tablet with a keyboard?
The other big wild card here is Windows RT. That's the sort of "Windows 8 lite" version of the operating system that is designed to run on cheaper, less robust (ARM chips vs. Intel) tablets. Not only do you have to decide if a Windows hybrid is for you, and decide on manufacturer, and even on the type of hybrid device you'd like, but you also have to choose between Windows 8 and Windows RT. It's a shopper's nightmare.
This new class of 11-inch tablet/hybrids, which really have no name -- maybe they should all be called transformers, or tabtops -- will be plentiful at Windows 8 launch. Many of them look exciting. How they actually feel and perform remains to be seen. I love the future-oriented direction of where Windows 8 is taking mobile computing, but there's going to be a lot of growing pains before devices get it right; and there will be a lot of device evolution on fast-forward along the way.