Are We Ready for the Windows 8 Tablet/Ultrabook Hybrid?

Microsoft, Intel and hardware makers are betting big on the Windows 8 tablet/ultrabook hybrid. Though these devices offer advantages, their success will depend totally on whether the public embraces Windows 8, and that's not likely.

News that Intel and its partners are working on 110 Windows 8 ultrabook designs (of which 30 will be touch-enabled) to go on sale by next year got me thinking about how much further a laptop can evolve.

More and more I'm thinking that the ultrabook has lots of life left on its own and will also amalgamate with the tablet to some success as a hybrid. Intel is definitely banking on the convertible laptop/tablet model, and is intent to push the form factor in new and creative ways. This week at Computex, a series of Windows 8 laptop/tablet hybrids from Acer, Asus and MSI that use Intel Ivy Bridge processors took center stage.

Ok, you might say that the multi-touch functionality that's essential on a tablet will go to waste on an ultrabook with a physical keyboard and mouse. Who wants to lift his or her arm to tap and swipe a screen that's out in front of you. Won't our arms get tired? I agree, but you'd be surprised how habits change. We've become so accustomed to touching our smartphone and tablet screens, would it be such a stretch to reach out and touch our laptop or desktop screens if the touch option is available.

The Windows 8 Metro Start Screen, which pulls out tiles based on broad categories like People, Calendar, Photos, Weather, Store and Music, will be the gateway to touch on an ultrabook. This is a tough sell because so far Windows 8 navigation has been frustrating to many, particularly on a PC. I have not used Windows 8 on a tablet, but I have used the Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a non-touch laptop and after struggling with the Metro UI with a mouse and keyboard, I'm convinced that the tablet is the only place where Windows 8 Metro navigation is viable.

Is it a Laptop? A Tablet? Whatever, PC Makers Just Hope You'll Buy it

Attempts at this hybrid model so far have come in the form of slow, heavy, ill-equipped Windows 7 devices. They've been all but ignored. But unlike Windows 7, Windows 8 was designed from the ground up to work with touch screens.

Tablet users are accustomed to lightweight iPads and even smaller and lighter models such as the Kindle Fire. So as much as possible, Microsoft and its partners will need to reduce the weight of a Windows 8 tablet/ultrabook hybrid. Nothing will hurt Windows 8 tablets more than if they are too thick, awkward, heavy and pricey, with mediocre battery life.

I'll hold off judgment until I've fiddled with a Windows 8 hybrid. I really like the idea of having options within one device. If I want to play Angry Birds on a touch screen I can do that, but if I need the physical keyboard to do some writing, I can fold the device over seamlessly and do that. Again, it's all about design execution. If the hybrid is in any way clunky or awkward, users will get aggravated and bail. They will do the same if Windows 8 navigation causes headaches. If these devices are too expensive the people will never show up at all.

So despite lots of promise, the odds are stacked against Windows 8 hybrids. But if any operating system can pull off the hybrid, it's Windows 8, the first of its kind designed for both PCs and multi-touch tablets.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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