The past couple of months have been interesting, what with the launch of Windows 8 and the ushering in of a new user interface. I’ve had a couple of touchscreen Ultrabooks in for testing, and the experience can be quite different depending on how the laptop is designed. I discussed this in our Ultrabook/Ultraportable Holiday Guide, and the first complete review (Acer’s S7) will be up shortly, but one thing that stands out as an immediate point of differentiation is how the touchscreen aspect is presented to the user. At present, I’m aware of six seven options:

  1. Traditional laptop (e.g. Acer Aspire S7). There’s no major concession made to support the touchscreen—it’s just another feature. Acer does allow you to lay the S7 flat, via the 180 degree hinge, but otherwise this is a laptop with a touchscreen and not really a tablet, no matter how you slice it.
  2. Detachable screen/tablet (e.g. Acer Iconia W700). We haven’t seen this much so far, and I expect Haswell will come out before we see detachable tablets come into their own—no doubt helped by the ~8W TDP processors slated for release—but if the first option is on one extreme, this is the other. You’re really getting a tablet, but you can add a dock (or a keyboard dock) to turn it into a laptop if need be.
  3. Flip screen (e.g. Dell XPS 12). Here’s where we start to see hybrids, and honestly this seems like the best of the three options right now. In the case of the XPS 12, it’s a bit thicker and certainly heavier than a traditional tablet, but you get a fully functional laptop with the ability to flip the screen and use it as a tablet.
  4. Slider (e.g. Sony VAIO Duo 11). We’ve seen a few sliders before, and they never seem to catch on. I think the problem is often a feeling of compromise and cheapness to the builds—if the slider mechanism isn’t smooth and feels like it will break, people won’t be happy. There’s also an issue with the angle of the screen relative to the keyboard, as typically there’s only one or two notches where the screen stops in “laptop mode”.
  5. Foldable (e.g. Lenovo Yoga 13). This is perhaps the most “out there” design so far, with a 360 degree hinge that allows you to fold the keyboard under the display to end up with a tablet. It’s a cool idea in theory, and in the case of the Yoga the keyboard gets turned off once the hinge passes a certain point, but I’m not sure people will really like the idea of an exposed keyboard. I know with tablets I’ve seen some scratching and scuffing of the bottom surface over time, and having that happen to the keyboard and palm rest is a drawback for me.
  6. Twist hinge (e.g. Lenovo ThinkPad Twist). We’ve seen this sort of hinge in hybrid Windows tablets for years, and there are certainly people that like this approach. The ThinkPad Twist at least looks to be thinner than some of the other options. Personally, I’m still a bit leery of the single hinge connection—it can feel a bit flimsy if it’s not done right, or bulky if it’s designed to last.
  7. Dual screen (e.g. ASUS Taichi). This is actually a very cool concept, but if pricing seems rather high on Ultrabooks in general, I imagine Taichi is going to push things even further. The core concept is that you have two screens in the lid, one for laptop use and one for tablet use. You can also use the screens in mirror mode or as independent screens, effectively giving you two computers (provided the users are sitting across from each other and don't mind fighting for resources). (Thanks to reader bpost34 for reminding us of this omission.)

So there you have it: the various options for adding a touchscreen to a Windows 8 laptop/convertible. Personally I think my ideal is number two, the detachable screen. ASUS’ Transformer tablets basically started this approach, but while they were fine as Android tablets I’ve still felt performance and usability were lacking in the docked “laptop” mode. With Windows 8, we can now get a full Windows 8 experience with all of the usual apps and applications (the latter being a term I use for traditional “desktop” programs). I’m not convinced Clover Trail has the performance to keep me happy with such a design, but give me a Core i5 Ivy Bridge or Haswell processor with a detachable screen and I’d give it serious thought—especially if it’s a 1080p IPS display.

I’m curious to hear what you think are the best choices and why. What tablet/hybrid is your favorite right now, which if any of the above have you personally used, and are there problems and/or successes with any particular approach that I neglected to cover? What would you like to see more of, particularly in terms of coverage of these new devices? Let us know in the comments!

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  • andrewaggb - Friday, January 4, 2013 - link

    This is where I'm at right now. But there's lots of times I grab the ipad to do something, get frustrated, and grab my laptop.

    Particularly online shopping....
  • KPOM - Saturday, January 5, 2013 - link

    I use a tablet and notebook for different things. The iPad mini is great for reading a newspaper on the train or casual browsing. The notebook is great for producing content or typing for long stretches.

    If anything, I think what will happen is that the tablet will gravitate toward the 7-8" devices, which are significantly lighter and more portable than the 9-10" versions, and notebooks will settle into the 13" Ultrabook size. Apart from the 11.6" MacBook Air, 11.6" notebooks haven't fared well, and even they are a bit big for tablet usage (even assuming we could cram everything into the screen portion).

    Maybe a "dockable" solution in the future, where an iPad mini-sized device slots into a notebook for more power will work, but then again, it may be beside the point. If in the future we are relying on the cloud for data storage, then why not just have 2 devices?

    On paper it sounds nice to have "one device," particularly if you are a road warrior, but that "one device" will always have compromises. A tablet that is thin and light likely won't have a big enough screen for comfortable all-day usage. A touchscreen notebook with a big enough screen for all-day usage will be heavier and bulkier to use in places where a small tablet is a breeze. Maybe foldable screens will change that, but are we truly that close to commercially feasible foldable screens? If we are, then I could envision a device the size of the screen portion of an 11.6" MacBook Air that folds in half. Or perhaps something like the Asus dual-screen notebook that adapts based on how it is folded.
  • ananduser - Sunday, January 6, 2013 - link

    "Apart from the 11.6" MacBook Air, 11.6" notebooks haven't fared well" ...
    The fact is that the 11'6" MBA is the cheapest entry into Apple's portable computers. You don't have any other choice of an OSX system than the 11" MBA. People are buying it because of being the 999$ OSX laptop and not because it is a 11" portable. Every other OEM positions ultrabooks as niche items within their own lineups so you always have a cheaper(but thicker) choice.

    Regarding the rest of your reasoning; you have only justified Tim Cook's fridge/toaster analogy. Being an Apple user you'll always believe and adjust your computing needs around Apple's offers. Why ? Because Apple doesn't offer you any other choice and decides it's sparse lineup very carefully as to no overlap across the other wares it offers.
  • robinthakur - Monday, January 7, 2013 - link

    There's no need to be so biased against Apple. Apple have certainly been in the driving seat when it comes to laptops and Ultrabooks for a while now in case you haven't noticed. Some in my team of developers buy them and then just run Windows on them either in Bootcamp or using VMware Fusion simply because they are way better built than the equivalent Dells or HP's.

    Apple did thin wedge shaped ultrabooks in the shape of the MBA long before these pretenders were available and the MBPro is the go to laptop for a decently specced, well built, well designed machine for the professional market for a decade.

    Apple pay attention to things like the screen quality and always have, unlke Acer whose attempt at a premium design will always sit uncomfortably next to their bargain basement offerings or their CEO saying they need to be a lot more like Apple. Dream on Acer: If I'm paying Macbook prices it better be at least a good as a Macbook or I'm not going to even consider it.
  • Impulses - Saturday, January 26, 2013 - link

    I'm strictly a Windows/Android user and I don't see anything wrong with his logic (last and only Apple device I've owned is a 2nd gen IPod touch). For a lot of people it makes sense, for others the one device hybrid might make more sense...

    I think ultimately it's gonna be the usage cases and software that determines what camp you gravitate towards.

    With today's software/hardware and with my current usage case, I'd rather have a larger more comfortable 13-14" laptop with a matte screen for work and a smaller 7-8.9" Android tablet for reading and the occasional casual game. That's just me tho...

    Currently I actually have a netbook that barely gets any use anymore and the first ASUS Transformer, which I do like, but I've come to realize that Android isn't an ideal OS for the form factor and I'd rather have a smaller/lighter device for browsing anyway.

    The other big factor at play here is what other devices people have, which sorta fits in with their usage cases. Those of us still clinging to our desktops are more likely to favor a 13" ultrabook than a 15" laptop with a discrete GPU. Galaxy Note users are more than likely gonna look at a 7" tablet as irrelevant, etc etc.

    I don't think there's any one approach or combination of devices that ultimately wins out... If anything that's where Apple's biggest blind spot lies right now, but their MacOS lineup has always been about cultivating a niche market anyway.
  • bradcollins - Friday, January 4, 2013 - link

    I love laptops with docking stations. For most people that don't require a massive amount of power, I think that most of the point behind windows 8 is allowing people to just have one device (in an office environment, not a gamer or whatever) That can be a tablet, notebook and connected to a docking station.

    Something like the Acer W510 style and shape with an 11.6" 1366x768 or 1600x900 screen, a 17w Ivy Bridge CPU with i3 3217U to i7 3667U options, 64gb-256gb SSD options and a detachable keyboard with touchpad and a larger battery. To keep the main device light and slim the internal battery isn't going to be huge. It would be able to support offline charging, ie after a meeting connect it into the keyboard in the car and the main battery automatically gets recharged.

    Then finally have a docking station on it so when the person gets home or back to the office it can be connected in a second to a large desktop monitor, keyboard etc.
  • tmok2008 - Friday, January 4, 2013 - link

    To me, all I want is a light weight, solidly built, 13 or 14 inch laptop (think 13" MacBook Pro) with a touch screen (Option #1), preferably with a 1,920x1,200 IPS panel and Ivy Bridge CPU. I guess I am a traditional kind of guy. Either that or there is no better alternative out there.

    I do see a potential problem with Option #2. While it is fine for the Asus Transformer, it may not work as well for Windows 8 Pro. To have any real power, the Windows 8 Pro tablet is going to be a bit thicker (and heavier) than the traditional ARM-based tablets. In Option #2, it will make the whole thing top heavy. To prevent it from tipping over, you will need a keyboard dock that has some weight to it, which makes the whole package overly heavy.

    The Dell XPS 12 approach is great, providing that they can make the hinge reliable. Even though the Dell is quite thick, I don't believe it has to be that way. I can't wait to see another iteration based on this design.

    The Slider design is no good, because there is usually very limited tilting angle. And, there is usually no room for a touch pad.

    Could there be an 8th Option here? Why doesn't someone design a hybrid tablet/dock that has two CPUs? When used un-docked, it will run on low power ARM based CPU, has reduced RAM, and battery. When docked with the keyboard dock, it will switch over to use the full blown CPU/GPU, additional RAM, and battery that are built into the keyboard dock. This will be the best of both worlds.
  • michal1980 - Friday, January 4, 2013 - link

    haven't returned it.

    not perfect. But imho the best of the compromise if tablet mode is the lest used.

    for 'working' I use it as a laptop.

    for browsing/playing simple games, I have the keyboard down, and the screen up, brings it a bit closer then in standard laptop mode.

    and if I'm reading something long, I'll use the tablet mode.
  • ThomasS31 - Friday, January 4, 2013 - link

    I think there will be serious consequences of using these in an "office" desktop mode. Until now you could have finger, wrist pains for prolonged use of mouse and laptop keypads... now consider your shoulders if you move your whole arms for some functions.

    I seriously doubt that this will work in a desktop/work enviroment. And partially this interface is a very bad decision from Microsofts side to bring do "desktop" environments/usage.

    On the other hands when used as a "tablet" and hold it in your arms, or rest in your laps... etc and you use it only to consume multi media or simple chat. It could work and be comfy... maybe...

    Just my 2 cents. :)
  • nevertell - Friday, January 4, 2013 - link

    A few years back, Samsung or some other asian company boasted that they had a transparent screen working, they even had a laptop made out of it. I believe this would be the best way to incorporate a touchscreen on a notebook- have the same screen draw an image on both sides, at least leave the option to do so. I honestly couldn't find any other use for a transparrent screen.

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