Since Microsoft first introduced the versatile Tablet PC over a decade ago, the idea of having a device that was effective as both a hand-holdable tablet and a full-on PC has been a siren’s song in tech. In the case of the Tablet PC, it was always a little too clunky, a little too expensive, and a generation behind in power — so it never sold well. Asus started nibbling at the space with its Transformer products, but until now they have been Android-only — so while they can look like a laptop, they can’t run PC software. Until this week. Asus claims its new AiO (All-in-One) will support both full-up Windows as a desktop and Android as a (huge 18-inch) tablet. Does the AiO mark the coming of age for hybrid devices, or is it another Frankenstein doomed to be relegated to the back pages of Wikipedia like the Tablet PC?
Why Android and Windows make sense together
Windows 8 tablets are attracting a lot of attention for their potential to run all the desktop applications we’ve come to rely on over the years in the trendy form of a tablet. Whether it’s needing Photoshop, Quicken, your favorite games, or just plain Microsoft Office, it isn’t easy to simply dump the PC and move to a tablet right now — even one with a keyboard like the Asus Transformer. A Windows 8 tablet — especially one using an x86 chip — could solve that problem nicely. Unfortunately, Windows 8 tablets won’t run many of the nifty tablet applications developed for Android and iOS. Sure, some top ones will be ported, and as Windows 8 becomes popular more will be moved over. But it will be years before Windows 8 catches up on tablet applications — if it ever does.
By running both Windows and Android, a hybrid device has the potential to support the best of both worlds. It would operate as a full-on desktop or laptop when assembled, or as an Android tablet when used as a hand-held device.
Android emulator or ARM chip?
Hybrids are likely to be built in two very different ways. The first will simply be a version of the Asus Transformer with an x86 chip running an emulator like BlueStacks. Asus already has a deal for BlueStacks on its other PCs, so it makes sense to try something similar with its tablets. The big advantage of this design is simplicity: Only one processor to worry about, and a proven form factor for the product.
The other, more radical, way to build a hybrid is epitomized by the newly announced AiO. Specs are scant, but while it definitely will feature an x86 chip in the dock, it is likely that the “tablet-only” mode running Android will be accomplished using an ARM chip in the tablet portion. That allows for better battery life and for leaving the x86, along with all the other “PC” hardware, in the dock. It can also guarantee full Android compatibility and performance comparable to that of a dedicated tablet.
The downsides of the dual-processor approach will be cost and complexity. Adding an ARM chip by itself won’t cost much, but it’ll require its own memory and support chips. The device will also need to integrate the two operating systems enough that users can share files and not become too confused when switching back and forth — the prototype crashed during its maiden demo at E3 trying to do just that. So, while the concept is very appealing, the devil will be in the details. I don’t think I’d want to be the first one on my block to buy one.
An 18-inch tablet — Are they serious?
The initial Asus hybrid design for the AiO is a desktop all-in-one with a removable monitor. The monitor can act either as a wireless display (it’d be nice if it used some standard like WiDi so it could be paired with other computers, but Asus doesn’t mention that) or as a stand-alone 18-inch tablet running Android. Obviously 18-inch tablets aren’t going to suddenly replace the 7-inch or 10-inch tablet in your briefcase, but for home entertainment, multimedia, or gaming, the 18-inch size might actually be a plus. At least the on-screen keyboard would finally be large enough for even the fattest of hands!
It’s unlikely Asus went to all the trouble of a dual-OS design for just this one product. So, if the concept works out, we can expect to see more practical dual-mode devices, likely in packages similar to the current Transformers or even the newly announced dual-displayAsus Taichi. If Asus can really nail the integration, a hybrid device could be compelling. At that point it’ll be a battle between an emulator like BlueStacks and a second, ARM, processor, to see which wins out in the market.
Devil’s Advocate: Why a hybrid won’t work
While I’ve carried both an Android tablet (currently an HP Touchpad running ICS) for over a year, a funny thing happened a few months ago. I realized that, since I could use the tablet for situations like watching movies in tight airplane cabins, I didn’t need as small a laptop. As a photographer, the tradeoff between a laptop usable for Photoshop and one that I could use everywhere was always a struggle. Now, since I didn’t need to compromise nearly as much, I found myself grabbing a “too good to pass up” LogicBuy deal on a Dell with a truly gorgeous, but large, 16-inch IPS HD screen and Core i7 processor. It has terrible battery life, but since I have the tablet for meetings and airplanes, that’s okay.
So ironically, while I started the process of hunting for a tablet thinking I could find a hybrid solution, I’ve wound up with two very different devices — a 10.1-inch tablet and a 16-inch 5+ pound laptop. That’s going to make me think very carefully before taking the plunge into a hybrid that tries to combine the two into one device.
If you can survive with a 10- or 11-inch laptop, and want to hang on to your Windows applications, then a Windows-plus-Android hybrid may be the perfect product for you. However, if you haul out your laptop when you need a large screen or heavy-duty processing power, you’re probably better off sticking with separate devices. In my case, I can already see my dream of a single, perfect device fading into the future yet again.
Finally, Asus’ hybrid has made me consider one rather exciting possibility: If it’s possible to create a Windows/Android-x86/ARM device, maybe it’s also possible to build an all-in-one that combines Windows 8 and Windows RT. This would probably be a more graceful solution than the Asus Transformer Book, which crams a Core i7 CPU and discrete Nvidia graphics card into a tablet form factor, and will no doubt have very little battery life. If Asus could build an ARM Windows RT tablet that docks with a high-power x86 “keyboard”…