The Right Tool for the Job
Computer/tablet hybrids — are they worth it?
The continuing emergence of new types and classes of smart devices — from computers to phones to tablets to watches — has been accompanied recently by the blurring of the lines separating them. Seemingly traditional laptop computers now often fold or come apart to become tablets, while traditional tablets purport to be powerful enough to replace computers.
As much as I like the idea of reducing the number of things I have to buy and set up and carry around, I fear that the actual usefulness of these types of crossover capabilities is more hype than reality.
In full disclosure, I approach this crossover concept with a degree of skepticism. When Microsoft made a big deal a few years ago of the fact that Windows 8 could offer the same experience on a computer, tablet and phone, my reaction was “Why would anyone want that?” My computer has two 24-inch screens, and my phone fits in my pocket. Is there really any point in trying to unify the two experiences?
Furthermore, more than many people seem to realize, a touch screen is a much different way of interacting with a device than a keyboard and mouse. Wouldn’t I want an operating system and applications that are specifically designed for the type of input I’ll be using?
Microsoft’s negligible share of the phone market is evidence that my skepticism is at least partially justified. The vast majority of people find that using a Windows computer is not a good reason to use a Windows phone.
On the other hand, the unquestionable success and positive reviews of the computer/tablet hybrid Microsoft Surface Pro and its imitators are evidence that certain types of crossovers can and do have broad appeal.
Open to the possibility that I was missing something, I recently spent a few days with an HP Elite x2, a Windows-based hybrid that is very similar to the Microsoft Surface Pro, i.e. a powerful touch-screen computer with a detachable keyboard. I had been using a traditional Windows laptop for real work and an iPad Mini for web browsing, email, Reddit and a few other apps. Maybe one device could replace them both and simplify my life?
As I expected, I found that replacing the laptop was no problem for the Elite x2. With the right setup and specs, which include a dock and a real keyboard and mouse and external monitors, today’s Windows hybrids are fully capable of serving as traditional computers. If you happen to use Windows applications that benefit from touch screens or electronic pencils, then a hybrid is probably a better choice than a traditional computer.
But it did not take long for me to realize that the current Windows hybrids are a long way from replacing my iPad Mini. The additional features and the additional weight make the experience technically and physically unwieldy, which is the opposite of what I want in a tablet.
At the same time, Apple is pushing the idea that a tablet like the iPad Pro can replace a computer. For me, that’s just silly. If a tablet is about simplicity, a computer is all about multitasking. It’s about working simultaneously in three applications on three screens, at least one of which probably needs to run on Windows. I’ll gladly deal with the complexity to gain the technical flexibility.
So, for now, I’ll hold firm to my position that a computer is not a good tablet and a tablet is not a good computer. Maybe Microsoft or Apple or Google or someone else will find a way to bridge the gap successfully, but I’m starting to think that before that happens a wholly new type of device with a wholly different way of interacting will replace them all.
Working on the HP Elite x2 (a Windows-based hybrid that is very similar to the Microsoft Surface Pro) I found that:
Today’s Windows hybrids can effectively serve as traditional computers.
More technically and physically unwieldy, it was not a good substitute for my iPad Mini.
Steven Ellis has spent the last 16 years working at the intersection of business and technology for Bellwether Technology in New Orleans, where he serves as the company’s vice president.