Mobility

Is the smartphone-tablet-laptop hybrid the future of computing?

Smartphones that can also run as a tablet or even a laptop are appearing on the market. Nick Heath considers their prospects.

As smartphones become more powerful - packing dual- and even quad-core processors, we are seeing the evolution of devices that can also be transformed into tablets and a laptops - a number of which were on show at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this week.

These versatile, multi-use smartphones have steadily increased in number since last year when Motorola released the dual-core Atrix, a handset which can plug into a keyboard and be used as a laptop. At MWC yesterday Sony was showing off the Xperia P smartphone, which can be turned into a PC by plugging it into a dock that connects to a keyboard, screen and mouse. The show also demonstrated how smartphones are starting to encroach on tablet territory, with the five-inch LG Optimus Vu phone almost matching tablets for size and performance.

But it is Asus that has taken the idea of hybrid computing to the next level, showing off the PadFone at MWC, a device which blurs the line between phones, tablets and laptops.

The PadFone is a 4.3-inch dual-core smartphone that can be turned into a tablet by plugging it into the back of the shell of a 10-inch Android slate. If that's still not enough computer then you can go one better, plugging the PadFone into a keyboard dock to create a laptop.

It's a trick that Asus has attempted before with the Transformer Prime, an Android tablet that comes with a keyboard dock -in fact, the latest version of the Transformer, the 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor-powered Transformer Pad Infinity 700 series, was also announced at MWC yesterday.

Nick Dillon, analyst in Ovum's devices and platforms team, said: "We've been stuck in a mold of having smartphones and laptops and there's this whole category in between that hasn't been explored.

"We are seeing these smartphone platforms making their way onto different devices and people trying out different form factors. It's such as new area that manufacturers are going to have to make stuff and see if people like it because nobody really knows."

But these hybrid computing devices still need to make the case as to why consumers or business users would want to use their smartphone as a tablet or a PC.

Ian Fogg, analyst with IHS Screen Digest, said: "The current devices in that category - like the PadFone, like the Asus Transformer, like the Motorola Atrix or dock for Xperia smartphones - these devices feel very version one. I don't see them as a mainstream, mass market product."

"It's a hard thing to communicate the value of these hybrid products because they do different things in different ways.

He added: "I'm struck by quality and design of the Asus PadFone - it's compact, it's got a nice screen, it's a very good quality phone. My fear is that will be lost because of the complexity of the marketing message - to say it slides into this tablet and will become a tablet, and then the keyboard slips into the tablet and turns it into something akin to the existing Asus Transformer."

With new tablets and laptops coming onto the market all the time it's hard to identify precisely what the USP of a hybrid device is, compared to having a separate phone, tablet and laptop.

For instance, with increasingly ubiquitous connectivity and a host of cloud services that provide 24/7 access to content from anywhere with an internet connection, having all your content on one device is suddenly less important.

The only clear potential advantage in buying a hybrid over separate devices is, Dillon said, the prospect of saving money by buying one computing device and several accessories, rather than multiple computers.

What do you think? Would you buy an-all-in one smartphone-laptop-tablet or would you prefer to buy standalone devices?

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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