It’s becoming a lot more difficult to buy laptops these days. In addition to worrying about the usual specifications, users now have to decide whether they want touchscreens, Ultrabooks or maybe even hybrid convertibles. In fact, it’s becoming difficult to define what a laptop is, and where the line between laptops and tablets is drawn, since manufacturers seem intent on producing devices that can fill both roles. Luckily, we’ve had the chance to test all these new devices in our lab over the past few weeks and we’ve been able to discover what each one is best suited for. All these new products have obvious strengths and weaknesses, and are meant for different people who will use them in different situations. So if you’re out shopping for a laptop or (Windows-based) tablet at the moment, here’s a sampling of what you’ll find out there.
This form factor is best exemplified by Microsoft’s Surface and Surface Pro, which aren’t available in India yet. However, we do have other options, including the Dell Latitude 10. We might also see the Acer Iconia W7 and Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2 launching soon. The main advantage here seems to be cost: simple rectangles are relatively easy to manufacture and there are no keyboards, touchpads or other extras to factor in. They’re also highly portable and tend to have active digitisers so you can use a stylus for handwriting recognition and precise cursor tracking. On the downside, they’re usually larger and heavier, and their batteries don’t last half as long. Third-party wired or wireless keyboards will be available, and there’s always Bluetooth. Dock accessories tend to be nothing more than simple stands with maybe a few full-sized ports to let you plug peripherals in.
Dell's Latitude 10 tablet is full-fledged Windows 8 computer and is relatively affordable too
When compared to non-Windows tablets such as the iPad line and Android models, you have the advantages of being able to run common desktop software in addition to apps, plug in any USB device and manage files the way you’re used to. When compared to laptops or hybrids, they are potentially cheaper but less powerful and less comfortable to use.
Tablets with keyboard docks
Representing the first step towards convergence, these tablets work with keyboard docks and can usually be folded into a laptop-like shape when required to. The docks aren’t necessarily sold with the tablets, so costs will vary from model to model. These tablets can be used perfectly well without the keyboard docks so you can choose to prioritise weight over typing comfort when travelling. Since the motherboard, processor and battery are all in the tablet unit rather than the base, these devices can be top-heavy. Reaching over to tap the screen will make the entire unit wobble despite having a tough hinge. The base might include a few more expansion ports and an additional battery.
You can leave the keyboard base behind when you don't need the extra ports and battery capacity
Obviously a clamshell will add to a tablet’s weight and bulk, but there’s nothing quite like the comfort of a full physical keyboard. Since the tablet can be used independently, users have greater flexibility. It’s also worth noting that there is no industry-wide standard for connecting such tablets and docks, and even manufacturers aren’t sticking to the same clasps and connectors from model to model. The two halves of a device are designed to be used only with each other, so today’s accessory won’t necessarily work with next year’s tablet, and vice versa.
Examples of these products are Samsung’s Ativ line, Asus’ VivoTab series, HP’s Envy x2 etc. We’re particularly looking forward to Lenovo’s ThinkPad Helix, which can be docked into its keyboard shell facing either way. Both Windows 8 and Windows RT devices are available in such avatars.
We’re going to use “convertibles” as an umbrella term for devices that seem to have multiple identities—touchscreen devices with physically attached keyboards that can be used as either a laptop or a tablet. These devices straddle two very different worlds, so the challenge is to reach a compromise that doesn’t leave everyone unsatisfied. We’ve seen quite a few different designs in this category, but they’re all a little awkward and none of them has emerged as superior to all others. Perhaps the most innovative is Dell’s XPS 12, which looks like an ordinary laptop, but whose screen swivels within its frame so you can use it as a tablet when folded shut. We were concerned about the strength of the frame and pivot when we first saw this device, but our doubts have been laid to rest after testing it. The oddest-looking one might be Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga 13, which also looks like a laptop till you fold its screen all the way around. The keyboard deactivates when rotated beyond a set threshold, but the fact that it will be exposed to the grime on your table makes us a bit wary of its long-term viability.
The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga is surprisingly sturdy and can be used in a variety of situations
With so many changes in the air, companies have also tried thinking out of the box and have come up with convertibles that don’t look or behave like laptops. Models like Sony’s Vaio Duo 11 and Toshiba Satellite U925T use sliding mechanisms instead of hinges, so the screen faces outwards whether open or closed. Sony’s attempt has a cramped keyboard and a pointing stick instead of a trackpad. The screen on the Toshiba model slides back parallel to the keyboard and then pops up into position. While Sony’s implementation feels more secure, the device is bulkier overall and there isn’t much space left for the keyboard.
On the other end of the spectrum, a very old design is also making a comeback. The Windows-XP-era swiveling-screen tablet design still makes perfect sense with Windows 8. In this subcategory, Lenovo has yet another model to offer: the ThinkPad Twist.
Convertibles are particularly useful because they work just as well on a table as in your hands and can also be propped up on a user’s lap. You can’t separate the two halves to reduce weight, but that also means there are no clasps or contacts that might get loose over time. We expect to see even more innovative concepts emerge.
As the name of this category suggests, laptops themselves aren’t going anywhere. With the addition of a touchscreen, these laptops offer the full Windows 8 experience, but don’t bother trying to contort themselves into a tablet shape. Whether or not you habitually reach out to use the touchscreen, it’s there. Nearly zero effort is required to redesign existing notebooks to factor in touchscreens, so we can expect several popular models to include them with the next refresh. If mass production and economies of scale allow it, all but the cheapest of laptops will come with touchscreens in a few years’ time. Today’s frontrunners are the Acer S7 and V5 series, Dell’s new Inspiron 14R and 15Z, HP’s Spectre XT, and several others.
Nothing about this laptop looks unusual. Aside from its touchscreen, it's just the same as any other
Last but not least, there’s a category of products that have been demonstrated but might never be launched, at least for mass market consumption. These are devices that are fanciful, expensive and not limited by any concerns of pragmatism. Asus takes the cake here with its Taichi design, which solves the problem of turning a laptop’s screen around by simply using two screens. When folded shut, the lid lights up into a full Windows 8 tablet experience, and when it’s open, the inner one behaves just like a laptop screen would. You can even use both simultaneously; mirrored or independent of each other—though the lid would have to be kept perfectly upright, causing inconvenience to viewers on both sides. The Taichi was unveiled in June last year but has only just become available in a few countries. Samsung has demonstrated a similar concept, but its launch plans are unknown. Maybe this idea will take off if manufacturing costs can be reduced, but for now, it’s impractical and unlikely to attract many buyers.
Dockable tablets and convertibles generally cost anywhere from Rs 60,000 to Rs 1,20,000 depending on the configuration. Your options will depend on your specific requirements. Cost-conscious buyers don't have any options at the moment. At the lower end of the market, buyers still have plenty of laptops to choose from, but no hybrids of any type. Tablets might start to enter that price bracket, but there will be compromises (such as Atom instead of Core processors and tiny SSDs instead of hard drives). All the hybrids we've seen so far have 13-inch or smaller screens, so you're out of luck if you need more than that. If processing power is what you're after, there are better choices at every hybrid device's price point. You have to consider very carefully whether you want to spend so much money on a snazzy hybrid device; especially laptops in this price range are generally a lot faster and just about as portable, and you might actually be able to buy a solid laptop and an iPad for the same amount of money. Hybrids are innovative, fun to use and attention-grabbing, but we're still struggling to find scenarios in which any of them is a superior choice to a similarly priced laptop.
The Sony Vaio Duo's hinge is solid, but not very attractive. Very little space is left for the keyboard
No matter what type of device you decide to buy, you still need to ask yourself the same old questions: Where and how do you expect to use it? How much power do you really need and how little can you live with? What is your budget and how far are you willing to stretch it? How long do you need the battery to last? What devices and services will you need to use? For entertainment purposes, tablets are a compelling alternative to laptops. For business and studies, you still need a solid keyboard. People on the move need something that can be whipped out quickly and balanced anywhere.
While the arrival of so many devices in new shapes and sizes might make a trip to the showroom more daunting, we’re optimistic about the future because it looks like manufacturers are ready and willing to innovate and take advantage of new technology. Over the next few years, processors will consume even less power, batteries will last longer, components will become cheaper and production techniques will be fine-tuned. We expect the market will eventually gravitate to just a few physical design types once people have had a chance to try the choices available. We can’t wait to see what the next wave of innovation will bring.
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