There has been a lot of buzz recently about “hybrids,” a combination of laptop and tablet that usually involves a hinge and Windows 10, the newest version of the operating system from Microsoft.
A number of companies, from Microsoft to Lenovo, are experimenting with the form factor. The “hybrids”—also known as a two-in-one—usually take the form of a laptop, but the screen can be detached and then used like a tablet, albeit a big one.
Microsoft was one of the first to move on the new form factor with the Surface Pro, a device that awkwardly fused something approaching laptop power with a touchscreen that detached. Unfortunately, it came too early and was panned by critics for being underpowered and heavy.
The second version of the Pro got more attention and other manufacturers, like Lenovo, built their own versions. The original Yoga, launched in 2013, was also underpowered and ran a soon-to-be-discontinued version of Windows called RT, which combined the worst elements of Windows into one package.
Since then, however, the internals have got more powerful, the software better, and the prices more compelling. Except there is still one glaring problem that has not been addressed - trying to be both a laptop and a tablet doesn’t really work.
The machine that is lauded as the perfect example of how a laptop and tablet should be fused together is Microsoft’s own Surface Book, which was launched late last year. It is powerful, runs Windows 10, and looks nice, but also starts at £1,290 which puts it out of reach of most consumers.
While the Book is at the high-end, there are many hybrids at the lower-ends that are not as good and these are the ones that consumers will buy in the highest volume. The Dell Inspiron 7000, for example, starts at £380, but only got three out of five stars.
The Book was, and still is, accompanied by an advertising campaign that touts its credentials as “the ultimate laptop”. Other companies have followed suit, buying ad space anywhere and everywhere to promote the cool ways in which their computer can fold.
One of the only companies that has not followed the trend is Apple, having stuck by the MacBook and iPad range as two distinct entities. When asked why, CEO Tim Cook said that two-in-one PCs are like “a hybrid of a toaster and a refrigerator” that “doesn’t please anyone”.
The reason the PC industry, which is made up of some colossal players, is looking so hard for the Next Big Thing is that sales of traditional computers are tanking as people move over to a smartphone or tablet. As sales go down, new and cool things must be invented to make up for it.
There is a precedent for this: Netbooks.
The category, which was also heavily promoted by PC makers, was made up of cheap computers that tried to be something they weren’t and did it very badly. Windows was fashioned into a lightweight operating system and hardware was pared down to be accessible at a very low price.
At one point, netbooks accounted for over 20% of all PC sales, according to one study. However, most major manufacturers stopped making them in 2012 and the category died a tragic death.
Sadly, this is most likely how the “hybrid” market will go, too. After an initial sales boost, driven largely by marketing, customers will realise that the solution—then netbooks, now “hybrids”—isn’t actually ideal and, as such, they are better off with a tablet for lighter things and a laptop for actual work.
This outcome is, by and large, not very good for PC makers who, besides a few, have no hand in making smartphones and tablets. Dell, for instance, makes a set of 2-in-1s but has basically nothing else to compensate if, and when, sales fall; in turn, it will do everything in its power to keep pushing the “hybrid” idea.
For some people, “hybrids” are a cool idea, but for most people they are oversold, underpowered, and do the job of a tablet or a laptop half as well as the real deal.