As the world became transfixed on new smartphones and tablets, the transformation of laptops went unnoticed by many until now.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. That proverb may describe the ho-hum feeling some have had for laptops since the rise in popularity of smartphones and tablets.
But many laptops available today aren’t just laptops anymore. A confluence of cutting edge technologies and design have revolutionized them into 2 in 1 devices that give people a clamshell, keyboard operated portable computer that also functions as a tablet.
While high end MacBook Pro, Alienware gaming and ultra-thin laptops like HP ENVY SmartTouch perform better than previous generations, the most dramatic change can be seen in the new breed of hybrid laptop-tablet computers, which are unlike anything on the market just two or three years ago.
When the smartphone craze kicked into gear about seven years ago followed by the rise in popularity of tablets, laptop innovation didn’t stand still. It continued to evolve well beyond the Centrino era, when Intel made built-in Wi-Fi standard for laptops and devoted $150 million to ignite the spread of public hotspots, which led to a wireless Internet revolution in 2003.
By that time, laptops barely resembled an Osborne 1, the first laptop introduced in April 1981.
The Osborne 1 had a 5-inch screen, weighed 24.5 pound and sold for $1,795. That’s the equivalent of about $4,600 in today’s US dollar value.
By 2003, the first laptops with Intel Centrino Mobile Technology weighed closer to six pounds and sold for an average of $1,399, which would be about $1,800 today.
A lot has changed in three decades, but particularly in the past four years there has been significant changes to the laptop.
In 2010, Dell showed for the first time a prototype Dell Inspiron Duo, which was a laptop with a 10-inch screen that flipped and folded onto its keyboard to function as a touch screen tablet.
Soon after, laptop innovation sped up significantly boosted by a $300 million fund from Intel that helped computer makers to design thin and light Ultrabook models. This new class of laptop immediately led to very sleek designs but also a new breed of 2 in 1 prototype devices that transformed from laptop into tablet mode.
“To get to 2 in 1s, we needed all of the innovation that made Ultrabook possible,” said Rob DeLine, general manager of Intel’s 2 in 1 and Ultrabook segments.
Today, one in 10 laptops sold in U.S. and across Western European retail stores is a 2 in 1 device, according to DeLine. Although year over year sales of 2 in 1 devices is about 180%, DeLine says market research shows that many people don’t know enough about 2 in 1s or have no idea that they exist.
“Most are finding them and touching them for the first time inside retail stores,” said DeLine.
He said that a survey by Intel show that 66% percent of people who were shopping for a tablet said they would consider buying a 2 in 1 instead.
That is likely because these 2 in 1 devices function for productive needs as well as pastime pleasures.
“Getting to a design that combines form and function isn’t easy,” said DeLine. “We worked with device makers to combine what people have come to expect from their laptops with new experiences they are enjoying more with touchscreen tablets. But the devil then becomes the details.”
Getting the right screen quality and sturdy, functional hinges are challenging when it comes to keeping selling prices low, said DeLine.
Better Designs at Lower Prices
Today, there are over 60 different designs that transform by folding, twisting, and even detaching from the keyboard.
“Leading edge components and design mean they can’t compete with mainstream prices on traditional laptops, but when compared with the cost of a laptop and a tablet together the economics change.”
Comparing early 2 in 1 models, like the Acer W510 to a new feather light, fanless Llama Mountain prototype that Intel revealed last month, Paine sees 2 in 1s getting close to removing all compromises that have hampered some early models.
The Llama Mountain detachable concept has a 12.5-inch screen measured 7.2mm thick. Intel also showed a 10-inch version, which was lighter and only 6.8mm thick. Both are thinner than an Apple iPad Air.
Making this sleek design possible is the Intel Core M processor (codenamed Broadwell-Y), a forthcoming chip built with 14-nanometer transistors, which are smaller than today’s 22-nanometer 4th generation Intel Core processors.
The new technology will be most energy efficient Core processor in the Intel’s history.
“This step to fanless Intel Core-powered designs is as significant as always-on was for PCs in 2012,” said Paine.
He points to the $599 HP Pavilion 11 X2 as a good example for how fanless, low-cost, core-based 2-in-1s are progressing.
DeLine expects to see new, thinner 2 in 1 devices hitting the market in the months ahead, including the ASUS Transformer Book t300 Chi, and already sees several other systems selling for below $400 US.
While DeLine says that traditional clamshell laptops won’t disappear, he believes more people will turn to 2 in 1s.
“The performance is there and as a variety of prices become available, people will have more reason to buy one device that is both a tablet and a laptop,” he said.
2 in 1s For Work
“The interest in 2 in 1s so far that we’ve seen, has been especially in business users who are mobile,” said Tim Bajarin, President of Creative Strategies.
“If an individual is looking for something that has a lot of versatility, especially where they need a keyboard, as well as a tablet, this is really a good buy for them.”
At Tomorrow Lab, a product design and consultancy in New York, mobility and power are paramount in their pursuit to turn hardware prototypes into market-ready products.
“It’s great when someone needs a laptop and they can answer emails and they have a full keyboard,” said Pepin Gelardi, a Partner at Tomorrow Lab, describing how Intel-powered 2 in 1 devices are used in his office. “Then as soon as you want to use it to present something, it’s great for one-on-one presentations. There’s nothing quite as compelling as being able to touch a presentation.”
According to Josh Hilliker, senior marketing manager at Intel’s Business Client Platform Division, touch functionality on computing devices is the latest expectation in the enterprise. Using touch screen devices “is often a more natural way of working on something together compared with a keyboard or clicking a mouse,” he explained.
For business owners Ashik and Jenelle Mohan, whose work requires them to constantly be on the go, having the strength of a laptop, but ease of use of a tablet has been a helpful tool in growing their business. Their online gallery, Born of Sound, creates sound-forms by turning audio recordings into tangible works of art.
“We have the flexibility of the Intel 2 in 1 PC to be mobile between our home as well as our studio,” said Jenelle. “And even sitting outside having a cup of coffee, still able to answer emails or work on some social media aspects.”
“The Intel processors have completely opened the doors for our business,” added Ashik. “[They] allow us to take these enormous files of audio that we get from all around the world in different languages and formats, and create beautiful sound forms.”
2 in 1s For Play
With the versatility of the 2 in 1 design, and the rise of touch computing, users are finding new ways to interact with their devices beyond the workplace. Interactive studio Infrared5 works with emerging technology, and used the 2 in 1 to build a second screen gaming experience for players.
“It’s easy to think of it as just a tablet or a laptop, but there’s this other mode which is awesome, especially for demoing stuff,” explained Infrared5 co-founder Chris Allen.
In easel mode, people could easily see and try out new games in new ways, he said.
“It’s really exciting the types of experiences you can create with this.”
As device makers find ways to bring together the right balance of tablet and laptop capabilities, there will be some interesting design experimentation, said DeLine.
“Right now, we’re seeing some 2 in 1s that are better tablets than laptops or vice versa,” he said. But he is also seeing some interesting new designs like the Lenovo Miix 2-10”.
This particular convertible laptop and tablet has an Intel Atom processor that runs the Window 8.1 operating system. The 10.1 tablet connects to a keyboard for work or can be flipped around to become a hands-free multimedia player for watching 1920 x 1200 movies with quality audio from the JBL stereo speakers and subwoofer built into the detachable keyboard dock.
It’s one of many examples showing that laptops are just laptops anymore.
As DeLine said, once people get their hands on one of these new 2 in 1 devices they might wonder why they would buy a tablet when they can have a 2 in 1 laptop.
Osborne 1 computer photo by Wikipedia.