Hybrids have gotten a lot of hype lately, with a slew of touch-enabled laptops and flipping, folding convertible designs launching so far this year. But with some of these new hybrids—specifically smaller tablets with docking keyboards—there’s been a nagging question that I can’t quite shake: Are hybrid tablets the new netbooks?
You remember netbooks, right? The minuscule clamshell PCs, with 8-to 10-inch screens and crowded keyboards, caught shoppers’ attention as much for their sub-$500 prices as for their compact form factors. For a brief period a few years back, netbooks were the hot new thing, selling like proverbial hotcakes—but it didn’t last. Those hotcakes didn’t even stay sold as customers returned their cheap netbooks in droves.
Complaints touched on everything from screen dimensions (in many cases, too small to display full-size webpages) to keyboard width (too tiny for traditional typing), but the biggest gripe by far was about the processors. Shoppers went looking for inexpensive alternatives to laptops, but found that netbooks’ pint-sized CPUs wouldn’t always support the programs they were accustomed to, or provide the speed they expected.
Though you’ll still see one or two being sold as inexpensive systems for K-12 students, by and large the netbook is now all but extinct. The ultrabook has come on the scene, offering portability with the promise of a full-fledged processor, but the prices usually bottom out around $700. Apple’s MacBook Air models eventually jump-started Intel’s Ultrabook category, but so surpassed the underpowered netbooks of the time that they are rightly considered part of another category.
As tablets and hybrid ultrabook designs have begun cropping up recently, it’s starting to feel as if the netbook is rearing its head yet again. Ten-and 11-inch tablets are being released with docking keyboards and Windows 8, designed to provide the convenience seen in iPads and Android tablets, but with the additional productive capability and software support of a Windows PC. These little tablets share many of the defining features of netbooks. Dinky Atom processors? Check. Chintzy 32-bit versions of Windows? Check. Small screens? Check. Cramped keyboards? Check.
But there are some key differences as well. For example, the keyboards are slightly improved over those on netbooks, with many lessons learned from earlier disasters. You won’t see one coming in at less than 10 inches, where keyboards on the largest netbooks topped out at 10 or 11 inches—and most systems were equipped with nearly useless keyboards 8 or 9 inches in size.
Small screens are also less of an issue, as they are now wide enough to display content without cutting off webpages, and the Web has adapted to smaller displays thanks to smartphones and other mobile devices. And where netbooks were often used at arm’s length like a laptop, tablets are more ergonomically suited to cradling and carrying. Higher screen resolutions also play a part, with most hybrids offering 720p and a few even sporting 1080p. The result is a much more readable, usable display.
Where the Atom processors used in netbooks were slow and clunky, the newest batch of Atom CPUs deliver speedier performance and superb battery life. Intel has pushed hard to close the gap between their mobile and PC chips, desiring a stronger presence in mobile markets, and the Atom platform is the beneficiary of this progress. The results aren’t on par with the latest Core processors, but you will find solid basic performance. More important, the current Atom CPUs can run all of the legacy apps that the netbooks of yesteryear could not.
Finally, the usage model has changed. Only a few years ago, netbooks were expected to be primarily productivity machines, letting you type documents, fill out spreadsheets, and so on. Since that time, online services like Netflix, Facebook, and Skype have exploded. For these sorts of uses detachable hybrid tablets are perfect, letting you curl up with a movie the way past generations curled up with a good book. You can Skype and chat and browse to your heart’s content. And with a docking keyboard, you can actually do some work, whether that means taking notes in a classroom or meeting, preparing spreadsheets, or designing a presentation.
So, although detachable hybrid tablets certainly share a family resemblance to netbooks, they are ultimately their own devices, with their own pros and cons. One of the biggest benefits of these new devices is all-day battery life—and I do mean all day. Some of the latest Atom-powered tablets offer well beyond the 8 hours needed for a full workday, and then supplement this with a second battery in the docking keyboard, letting you go from dawn to dusk and into the night without stopping to charge.
Will 2013 see a repeat of the buy-and-return cycle that killed off netbooks? Between the improved capability of today’s systems and the evolution of buyers’ expectations, I think shoppers are safe. Vendors and manufacturers, on the other hand, have a very different concern: If people can already do most of this with the smartphones and tablets they already have, who will want to buy a Windows tablet?
Source : PCMAG