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Saturday, 5 January 2013

Are Convertible, Touchscreen Laptops Really the Wave of the Future?

Convertible, Touchscreen Laptop

The Touch interface of Windows 8 has prompted the return of an old and mostly forgotten form factor: the convertible notebook. Mostly laptop but with some way of transforming into a tablet, these portable PCs try to do two things well.

Microsoft tried this a decade ago with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. According to an analyst at IDC, only half a million tablets shipped with that operating system in 2003, including both convertibles and pure tablet PCs. The same year, nearly 40 million standard notebooks shipped. Not exactly a resounding success.

Things have changed, though. The industry is different, Microsoft has a different attitude, and technology has advanced. What could make convertible tablets a success this time around?

The Embrace of Touch:

Win xp tablet edition


Windows XP Tablet PC Edition was a compromise, and not a very imaginative one. It took Windows XP and added a few tools that made it friendlier to stylus input. That still meant every tablet had to come with a stylus – and smart consumers bought a few extra for when they inevitably misplaced the first.

This time around, the input device is the finger. Perhaps – oh, who are we kidding, of course – prompted by the success of the iPad, Microsoft realised that users needed a direct connection to the screen to see it as an improvement. Otherwise, they were still using an input peripheral. The stylus was just a different kind of mouse or keyboard.

Realising that goal required more of a re-imagining of the interface than Windows XP Tablet PC Edition ever was. Rather than simply replacing the mouse cursor with the tip of a stylus so that tiny interface widgets could be touched with precision, those widgets needed to be made larger to accommodate fingertips. And once those widgets became that large, they needed to contain information, because they took up too much screen real estate to leave blank. Thus were born the Live Tiles of Windows 8.

Better Touchscreens, Better Laptops:

windows 8 touchscreen


In the dark old days of 2003, there were two main types of touchscreens: resistive and capacitive. Capacitive screens were more responsive, but required an electrically conductive stylus. (A finger would work, but those darn tiny interface widgets…) Resistive screens required a firmer press, but any stylus, pencap, or moderately pointy thingy worked. In short, there were benefits and drawbacks to each solution, leading to no real winner in the marketplace.

Now, in 2012, you’d be hard-pressed to find a resistive touchscreen anywhere. Capacitive screens used to cost more to produce, but economies of scale have erased that disadvantage, and the ascendance of the finger as primary input device make its use a no-brainer. The fact that they can be designed to detect several touches at a time makes them even more desirable.

The internals of laptops have improved as well. The increase in speed of processors isn’t so essential to the success of modern convertibles, though, as is increased density. More processing power can be packed in less space, along with more storage and memory capacity. It all doesn’t need as much cooling, either, allowing notebooks to be slimmer.
Which brings us to notebook manufacturers.

More Creative Convertible Designs:


As pointed out by Scott M. Fulton of, Windows PC 8 notebooks can look “Darn Different” from notebooks of the past. The touch interface prompted notebook makers to come up with different methods of getting the keyboard out of the way when it wasn’t needed.

Toshiba and Sony opted to slide the screen over the keyboard with their convertible models. HP’s Atom-based convertible detaches altogether from the keyboard dock, much like’s Microsoft’s own Surface detaches from its keyboard cover. Dell’s solution was to flip the screen within its bezel and fold it back down upon the keyboard.

Lenovo hedged its bets and created three different solutions. The Lynx unhooks from the keyboard like HP’s tablet and the Surface; the Twist looks like convertibles of days past, with the screen twisting 180 degrees on a central pivot point and folding back down; and the Yoga simply keeps opening, going from a closed clamshell to an open clamshell laptop all the way to a tablet with the keyboard on the opposite side.
All these creative form factors try to give consumers a tablet and a notebook in a single device. They’re thicker than dedicated tablets, to be sure, and generally larger screens make them heavier and bulkier. But they’re light and thin enough that users just might accept the compromise.

At least, that’s what Microsoft, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba, and other manufacturers are hoping.

John “jaQ” Andrews writes for Zco Corporation, one of the largest developers of mobile applications, 3D content and custom software in the world.

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  1. Phablet is the trend for this year but I still prefer using a laptop for tasks. If Phablet now can perform like a desktop PC then I might consider it.

    -Laura Davitt