Early last year, after attending CES 2013, I proclaimed that hybrids will be the true successor to the PC. The devices shown that year, though sometimes half-baked, were promising. Some (like Lenovo’s Yoga) were excellent. There was a sense of hope surrounding the devices, and a feeling that this may be the weapon that the computing industry needs to beat back the forward march of mobile tech.
Yet even now, a year later, there’s very little to show in the way of progress. CES 2014 featured a woefully slim list of new hybrids. Recent introductions, like the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the ASUS Transformer Book Trio, prove that the category is still wrestling with some fundamental issues. What’s wrong, and how could they be fixed?
PC OEMs still don’t get it
Reviewing PC hardware sometimes feels like critiquing the art of a mad-man whose memory never extends beyond a few months. One great PC does not guarantee that its successor will be on par, and excellent systems are often better than those which come after.
Most of today’s new hybrids aren’t much better than the Acer Iconia Tab W700 we reviewed in February of 2013, and many remain more expensive. Since the W700, we’ve reviewed the Asus Transformer Book Trio (which was outrageously expensive), the Acer Travelmate X313 (more expensive, yet slower), the Toshiba Click (buggy and slow), and a roster of other newcomers that didn’t match up. The HP Spectre 13t x2 and Surface Pro 3 are the only devices we’ve reviewed in a year and a half that improve on the Acer W700, and even they don’t win in a blowout.
Clearly, something is wrong with the way OEMs build hybrids PCs. Someone at Acer, for example, took a look at the Travelmate X313 and said “Sure, that’s fine. Sell it.” Why? The device was far more expensive than it should have been, and in many areas had less to offer than its predecessor. Similar complaints can be aimed at the Asus Trio, Toshiba Click, the Lenovo Yoga 2, and so on. This sort of attitude could work when the PC had no competitor, but now a growing roster of alternatives exist.
Microsoft actually appears to be the most committed to quality as, in spite of the Surface’s flaws, it at least makes major improvements with each iteration. The fact that Acer, Asus and Lenovo are being outpaced by a company that didn’t even build PC hardware prior to 2012 doesn’t look good. These companies need to get serious, but instead they seem to have slacked off, at least as far as hybrids are concerned.
Wintel drags everyone down
Ah, but don’t think that Microsoft can dodge any blame. The Surface itself is a niche product because of its intense focus on productivity and high pricing, but it’s not the problem that most requires criticism. Windows is that problem.
The root of the issue isn’t even Windows the operating system, flawed though it may be, but Windows the product. The fact that Microsoft charges a significant sum for each license automatically puts PC makers at a disadvantage against tablets and, now, Chromebooks. This is how Microsoft makes its money, but it’s also a roadblock that’s holding PCs back against the surge of tablets that cost just a few hundred bucks.
Intel deserves similar criticism, as I pointed out in a piece about persistently un-affordable Ultrabooks. Building a price-competitive hybrid tablet with an Intel Core processor is virtually impossible, but the only alternative Intel sells, Atom, is so slow that it significantly hampers the user experience.
These issues no doubt are part of the reason why PC makers have difficulty delivering great systems with consistency. The software and hardware required to build a hybrid adds a couple hundreds dollars to the system’s cost right away, which is like forcing a cross-country runner to fill his shoes with concrete before participating in a marathon.
But even if PC makers were on their game, and the pricing for Windows and Intel processors suddenly lowered, hybrids would likely still struggle. There’s a fundamental flaw that’s crippling their progress; display size.
The issue is rather simple. Computers works best with a display that is large. Tablets, however, don’t work well when the display exceeds about 10 diagonal inches, and some people prefer an even smaller device. There’s no easy way to compromise between these two ideals; someone is going to end up unhappy.
Again, the Microsoft Surface Pro is a great example. Early models had a 10-inch display, which was a good size for a tablet, but proved too small for serious PC usage. The Pro 3 has changed tactics by switching to a 12-inch screen, but this move makes tablet use more awkward, despite the new model’s reduced weight.
Even worse, there’s no obvious solution to this problem. The only thing that comes close is a display with virtual bezels, called Smart Frame, shown by Intel in 2013. When used as a PC, the display space covered most of the device’s face, but when used as a tablet, a portion of the screen’s border could deactivate itself to serve as a bezel, and give users a place to grip the system. We’ve not heard any news about this technology for over a year, however, so its future is unclear.
Good idea, bad execution
The events of the past year have conspired to make hybrids far less attractive than they initially appeared to be. Manufacturers have not brought new, quality choices to the market. Windows 8.1’s latest update has done little to increase its appeal or lower the price, Intel’s new low-cost Atom processors have proven to be lackluster, and the fundamental screen size problem remains unsolved. Overall, things aren’t looking great for the category.
This doesn’t mean the idea no longer holds promise; the reasons for the initial excitement remain. The hybrid dream of a single, low-cost system that can replace both a PC and a tablet remains as alluring as ever. Yet, the companies that could make this dream come true seem actively indifferent to the possibility, as if they believe Android and iOS tablets are fads that will simply disappear on their own accord.
Remaining stubborn continues to do damage to Intel, Microsoft, and others. This attitude also restricts the options that are available to consumers. In theory, PC hybrids offer an alternative to tablets, but their unrealistically expensive pricing and numerous flaws make them a false choice. Sure, they’re available, but few people actually buy them because paying more for less is never a good idea.
In this sense, struggling PC hybrids don’t just do a disservice to the companies that make them. They also do a disservice to everyone interested in technology. There could be a new category, a third way spanning the gap between laptops and tablets. But this option will never become real unless the computer industry accepts that yesterday’s tactics won’t work on today’s buyers.