Tablets investigate

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.

14 comments
Elric Lerin
Elric Lerin

I will definitively buy a mobile computing device with telecommunication abilities ! For 10 years Nokia sold his N95 as being such a device... But without touch screen, without that power, without real keyboard extension, and so on. The next "smartphone" I'll buy will be a central unit for all my computing needs... and I hope, I can plug it in my "TV" screen too to create a "hbbtv" without the need of a box. Wait a minute... what's the name of that device ? A computer :-)

humhu
humhu

I think there is one important USP. Most people cannot afford these expensive tech gadgets. As Dillon says, you don't have to buy multiple devices. But it's even better. Most people cannot even afford one device, but Telecommunications companies offer these great deals that allows even the poorest amongst us to have a portable computer. If you cannot buy anything, but want to have everything, you are tempted to choose one of these all-rounders. Take me for example: by buying one device I went from a digital illiterate, to the most up to date person with the latest technical advancements. (from zero to hero with only one device :-) )

warboat
warboat

This is just a taste of what is to come. I already envisage this type of phone transformers. To take the concept further, I like to also see the cardock where you dock the phone into a dumbscreen in your car and it becomes a carputer and can access information from your car like odometer reading and fuel tank level so you can use it to track fuel usage and remind you to change the oil etc. Also would like to be able to use the base keyboard dock wirelessly (via bluetooth) so that I can connect the phone to any HDMI screen and wirelessly operate the fone on the big screen using the keyboard dock. While people are complaining about having all-eggs-in-one-basket, I complain about having to update apps on several devices and having to sync data all the time. It is a waste of bandwidth. With the padfone becoming your ONE personal computer, you only update apps on one device, you only update OS on one device, you never need to sync. As for storage, we can easily modularise it by using a NAS or even a wireless portable battery powered version. Redundancy and backups is easy and we don't worry about having to upgrade the device with more storage, we have our own personal mass storage, our own personal, free bandwidth, internet independant cloud. Further down the track when wireless display protocols become much more standardised and efficient in terms of CPU and battery usage, we will move to thin client type docking where the devices like the tablet and lapdock will connect and run a VM in the phone. The devices will just be input and output for the CPU, the phone. When that happens we just upgrade our phone and all our devices will inherit its abilities. We are getting there.....

kmurali_sg
kmurali_sg

From a business user perspective, the hybridization is inevitable and welcome but each has independent usage in circumstances. I would rather encourage innovative companies like Asus to take this to the level and make the following 'dream' possible in the nearest future. 1. A Tablet that is light but powerful enough for a business user to use it for business use - including number crunching, etc. It does not have have large internal storage and other jazzy things but it should have enough computing power and more RAM (4GB or 8GB). The RAM on the tablet is still very small to run business applications - this may be to do with hardware (RAM) availability itself. It is perfectly fine to use external storage through USB. 2. The smartphone (

ypsrudy
ypsrudy

I think it might work. As a person who does field work it would fit in nicely with the type of work that I do. I work for a real estate company and have to do home inspections. When I get to a job I start taking pictures which I can do with a phone. then download them onto tablet/laptop to view them. If the phone rings while I'm working I would expect it to answer the call either from the tablet itself or by bluetooth earpiece. I could keep the phone in the tablet while driving in the car and answer calls by my ear piece. Benifit would be that phone would charging off the tablet while inside. Talk about long battery life. Yes I think this would work for me... Mr D.

ggarland
ggarland

I don't want to pay for two devices. I need a tablet to accomplish my field work, and I need a phone to stay in communication. What seems logical to me is to have a tablet with phone capabilities. With a blue tooth head set, and a tablet that has phone capabilities built in, you have both of these devices in one unit with a screen big enough to be useful. If it has a docking station that will connect to monitors, keyboards, printers, etc that is even better. And if it was Windows so I could use the programs I need .... What more could anyone want.

skennedy10
skennedy10

I spend most of my time in front of a computer, but since I program in Access, my work is not transferrable to the current phones. I would love to have a phone that did both. Skennedy

scott.a.pozner
scott.a.pozner

When it is all said and done, MFP's are ubiquitous to the small business owner. They don't have resources or space to buy a separate printer/fax/scanner. It just makes more sense from a cost standpoint that our devices all go this way. Look at the smart phone today. People aren't buying dumb phones and a tablet separately because they want it all in one device and they want it now. Taking your smart phone to a dock so you can use it in the office is the next logical extension of the device. Not everything will be in the cloud because their are too many things that require tighter security than the cloud can offer companies. All in one is inevitable, look at the MS OS itself. It's business model was successful because it took the best of what was out there and put it all into the OS. Everyone really wants one device that does it all. Data backup will keep up so if a device is lost, everything can be reloaded on another device leaving the client down a minimum of time.

Regulus
Regulus

Way back in the early '70's i bought what I thought was the King of tape recorders. It was a 7" reel-to-reel, Cassette & 8Track. And, you could tape back and forth between functions, so that you didn't need to buy an extra deck for making cassettes or 8Tracks for the car. I soon found out that if any one thing went wrong (which it frequently did) you also lost the use of the other two while it was in the shop getting fixed. I learned a good lesson with that experience which taught me to avoid the Printer-Copier-Fax machine craze and counsel numerous others also. I have had soooo many people come back saying that they had listened to me the first time. (The printer is down, so now I have no fax? How do I run a business that way?) Now we are supposed to swallow a SmartPhone-Laptop-Tablet ? The laptop fouls and I'm out my telephone and tablet also. Etc. The reliability of these items is just not deep enough for - all your eggs-in-one-basket, as the other gentleman said.

swerson
swerson

And what do we do with the chance to someday buy that new phone, another day that new tablet and finally that incredible brand new notebook for christmas. Think about it, we love to save money, but we live for gadgets.

adornoe
adornoe

If the basket is stolen or lost or dropped/broken, then you basically have lost all your eggs. The only eggs left would be those "stored" in the cloud, but, the device itself would need to get replaced, with the data on the device perhaps lost forever. But, for any hybrid to ever be able to replace the desktops and laptops, they better be able to support the larger screens/monitors and ergonomic keyboards. Otherwise, they'll remain just the handheld touch gadgets of today, no matter what the main guts inside.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

when one misbehaves a bit. I can live without the Internet while out and about, but I do need a phones. I already got a great digital camera, so I don't want or need a poor one in my phone, but down here (until very recently) you had no choice about paying for all the extra crap when you bought a mobile phone. So you spend a few hundred more for what you don't want as you got no choice.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

that's the basket everyone was in. It wasn't common for consumers to have more than one computing / communications device, or for them to have their data stored anywhere other than on that single device. With a little planning, we managed quite nicely back in those Dark Ages.

adornoe
adornoe

to so many devices. Now, with smartphones and tablets and laptops and desktops and XBoxes and other gadgets, our data and applications and usage are getting distributed. If we lost one of the devices or resources, chances are that, some of the applications and data are still to be found somewhere, and not all will be lost, like in "one hybrid device". The times, "they are a-changing".