The launch of Windows 8 was accompanied by the launch of some interesting devices: laptops with special configurations that allow them to be used as tablets. There’s the Dell XPS 12, the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, and the HP Envy x2 – although the latter pushes the definition a bit. Despite the differences in implementation, they all share a basic concept: they can be used either as laptops, with a keyboard and trackpad, or as an all-touch tablet computer, essentially bridging two previously distinct pieces of hardware in an unparalleled way. But what does this mean for the future of both tablets and laptops?
I’m fond of the idea; tablets are rapidly reaching a stage where they are on par with laptops in both power and price, and it seems only sensible to take advantage of any opportunity to add physical keyboards and so on to tablets to enhance users’ productivity. The largest disappointment, though, is the importance of Windows 8 in this equation. Windows 8 is the only mainstream operating system with hybrid interface adequate for both tablet and laptop use. Unfortunately, I’m not overly interested in making the upgrade to Windows 8: for over a year now, I’ve been using a modified version of Ubuntu as my primary operating system, alongside Windows 7 Ultimate (for legacy purposes), and I’d like to carry on doing so.
This almost immediately dissolves my interest in any of these tablet-laptop convertible devices. If I buy one of these systems and install a Linux distribution over the operating system with which it ships, then I’ve basically taken away the tablet functionality. While the introduction of Unity was a decent attempt at creating a usable tablet interface for Ubuntu, it isn’t yet at a stage where I would feel comfortable using it with an all-touch interface – not to mention the fact that I use Gnome Shell as my preferred desktop environment on my computer. (For the less technically-inclined readers out there: I’m essentially using an alternative, relatively unpopular piece of software on my desktop computer that is arguably even less compatible with only a touch screen.)
Mac users probably face the same problem. Apple have given no indication that they’ll be merging the iPad and MacBook product lines in the near future, despite the growing similarities between iOS and OS X, namely the introduction of the Mac App Store and the frustrating changes to the scrolling gestures on the multitouch trackpad. A convertible laptop-tablet from Apple is a couple of years away at the very least, and the “stylish” firm may not even move in that direction at all if the current Windows-based devices fail to shift. Indeed, no matter how inevitable the merger of laptops and tablets seems, the prevalence of such hybrid devices will be determined first and foremost by contemporary consumer response.
There’s also the question of whether the shift will be made in favour of tablets rather than laptops; most of the devices today described as convertibles are laptops that close into a bulky slate that works as a tablet. In the case of Lenovo’s Yoga, it involves folding the keyboard back in a half-impressive, half-hilarious way; in the case of the Dell XPS 12, it means rotating the screen within an odd-looking metal frame, which doesn’t look or feel particularly sleek or streamlined. Is it more sensible, then, for us to see tablets with keyboard/trackpad attachments, like the HP Envy x2? This device is a standalone tablet for all intents and purposes, which attaches to a keyboard whenever you want it.
In that way, it’s not too far from a plain old tablet. There’s an official accessory available for my own tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook, which consists of a case holding the tablet to a wireless keyboard and trackpad attachment, which creates the feeling of a regular laptop (except a tiny, 7” one). The Surface Pro is Microsoft’s flagship Windows 8 tablet, and it tries to push its keyboard attachment as making the device a viable alternative to a full-blown laptop. If this is the path down which manufacturers decide to go, we’d see Apple cut the MacBook line entirely in favour of the iPad with a keyboard attachment – a move which could kill a huge portion of their userbase which doesn’t like the “walled garden” approach to application privileges and the deep integration of iTunes and the App Store. Right now, the Yoga-style approach seems the likeliest to gain traction, so long as the software is right.
That’s, ultimately, my biggest criticism of these products: the hardware is too far ahead of the software. The ideas are exciting; I really want to see flexible devices that can be used in all sorts of different use cases – switching between tablet and laptop configurations is as monumental as shifting between portrait and landscape orientations. The operating system, though, has to be right, and Windows isn’t in the place it needs to be. The Windows 8 interface hasn’t won over a huge proportion of Windows 7’s userbase, it won’t win over Linux users like me, and it won’t win over Apple fanatics (unless the MacBook undergoes some huge design upheavals). I’m not cynical enough to say that the future of the tablet-laptop convertible is grim – only that the software isn’t quite ready to win over the mainstream.