New twists on laptops: Purebred tablets vs. hybrid laptops

PC makers agree that hybrids with keyboards give them configuration flexibility and the ability to add more memory and storage

The lines between laptops and tablets are blurring with a new generation of hybrid devices, which are multi-mode laptops that can also function as slates.

Hybrid devices turn into tablets by just manipulating the screen, solving portability problems and saving users from carrying multiple computing devices. The hybrids have many features derived from tablets, including touchscreens, long battery life, multiple connectivity options and quick boot times.

Hybrids came out of the need to shake up traditional laptop designs with users moving away from laptops to smartphones and tablets. Most hybrid devices remain heavier than tablets, but ship with a screen and keyboard base, with hardware in both elements closely connected.

Some interesting hybrid devices include HP's Envy X2, which at first glance looks like a laptop, but turns into a tablet when the screen is detached. Lenovo's Yoga laptop has a different take, with the screen folding to turn the computer into a tablet. Dell's XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook has a screen that flips inside the frame to turn the device into a tablet.

Many hybrids today ship with 10-inch or larger screens, Windows 8 and Intel's Atom Z2760 tablet chip or Core processors, which are usually found in laptops. The PC makers are united in believing that the devices are laptop first, and tablet second. But sometimes the definition of hybrid devices can be muddled -- some PC makers sell tablets with an optional keyboard and call it a hybrid.

HP, for example, says the hardware in the keyboard base and screen in Envy X2 are closely connected, even though the screen detaches to become a tablet. HP is not selling the tablet unit separately, but it is instead packaging it with the keyboard base for $850.

PC makers agree that hybrids with keyboards give them configuration flexibility and the ability to add more memory and storage, plus plug in powerful processors and graphics chips. Most hybrids with Core processors can be full PCs and run 64-bit applications, while tablet-only processors can be slower and run only 32-bit applications.

The electronics in tablets are highly integrated, while a hybrid design provides flexibility to add more components that help make devices more powerful, says Peter Hortensius, senior vice president of the product group at Lenovo.

"All of the Yoga designs use the base for putting the processor," Hortensius says. "This is just a better place to put it."

There are challenges in making thin products, but the different designs -- tablet or hybrid -- helps address different usage requirements, Hortensius says.

"The market is huge and there will be many people that like different kinds of things. We want to satisfy their needs," Hortensius says.

Tablets have been widely accepted, but there is still some confusion around hybrid devices, says David Daoud, research director at IDC. Advertising has shown what hybrid devices are capable of, but units are not readily available at retail stores to test.

Usage and price will ultimately drive adoption of hybrid devices, and the challenge is to get users away from buying a tablet like an iPad, which has a well-defined mobile usage pattern, Daoud says.

While hybrids start at around $700 to $800. the iPad starts at $500, and tablets with a smaller screen like the Google's Nexus 7 and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD start at $200.

There is also the option to buy tablet-first models like Lenovo's IdeaPad Lynx or ThinkPad Tablet 2, and then attach a keyboard accessory. A hybrid is the closest a traditional laptop can get to a tablet, and may be good for those who need to type and run corporate applications.

"If you take a keyboard-free system, the ergonomics become an issue," Daoud says. "If you're going to use it as a power device for productivity, it makes sense you grab a hybrid model."

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Agam Shah

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