As Apple's iPad decimates the netbook market, PC makers are looking for ways to fight back.
The latest generation of touch-friendly tablets have taken the world by storm. Apple's wundertablet redefined mobile computing, but today it has strong competition from Android-powered devices running the latest Honeycomb tablet update. They're not alone, with RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook, HP's TouchPad and a slew of Windows 7 devices also chasing a slice of the burgeoning tablet market.
Today's tablets are designed to hit that sweet spot between phones and computers, targeting people who want to both work and play while sitting at a desk, riding on a train or relaxing on the couch. Such devices are clearly aimed at the same people who might have bought a netbook a few years ago.
While tablets attempt to strike a balance between portability and usability, the new wave of hybrid devices take a different approach. Some let you hide away the QWERTY keyboard when it's not required, while others let you rip the keyboard off completely.
When you're looking to create content, a physical keyboard makes life much easier than tapping away at a slab of glass. Most tablet makers concede this fact by offering optional wireless keyboards, and you'll even find third-party cases with built-in keyboards. Such solutions tend to lack a proper hinge, making it difficult to angle the screen precisely when working at a desk or balancing the device on your knees.
Hybrid devices tend to favour a netbook-style physical hinge to overcome this issue. The beauty of hybrid devices is that when it's time to consume content - reading books, watching movies or playing games - it's easy to get that keyboard out of the way.
PC makers such as Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, Fujitsu, Asus and Acer have all developed radical hybrid devices which convert a netbook into tablet. Meanwhile handset maker Motorola has taken a different approach, turning powerful smartphones into netbooks.
There's more than one way to skin this cat. Samsung's Sliding PC 7 Series looks like a 10.1-inch tablet running a touch-screen friendly version of Windows 7 on an Intel Atom processor. Its impressive party trick is that you can slide up the screen to reveal a keyboard and then tilt the screen forward like a traditional netbook (although you don't have the same control over the screen's tilt angle). The Sliding PC is 21.4mm thick and weighs in at just under 1kg, so in tablet mode it's certainly not as petite as the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1v. Samsung was showing off the Sliding PC 7 at the start of the year and said it should sell for around $799, but we still haven't seen it hit the shelves.
Dell has taken a different approach with the Inspiron Duo, which sells for $US550 but is yet to make it to Australia. It also looks like a 10.1-inch Windows 7 netbook running on an Intel Atom processor. The magic trick is that the display flips backwards - swivelling inside the bezel. Now you can fold the lid down to create a tablet. It's not exactly a feather-weight, weighing in 1.5 kg and measuring 28.7mm at its widest point.
Meanwhile you'll already find the Fujitsu Lifebook TH550 on Australian shelves, although it's not cheap at $1599. It's a 10.1-inch notebook which packs an Intel Core i3 processor. The TH550's entire lid swivels sideways and then folds down onto the keyboard with the screen facing upwards to form a tablet. It's another beefy tablet substitute, measuring 32.4mm thick and weighing in at 1.4 kg.
Rather than hiding the keyboard, Acer's Iconia 14-inch dual-screen notebook abandons it completely in favour of a virtual onscreen keyboard and trackpad on the lower screen. The Iconia packs an Intel Core i5 processor, but there's no optical drive so it's not quite a fully-spec'd notebook. It weighs in at a hefty 2.8 kg, so it's too big and cumbersome to hold sideways like a book. Available in Australia, it'll set you back a cool $2499.
So far we've covered clunky Windows 7 devices trying to hide their keyboards in order to mimic a tablet, but there are more innovative products around.
Lenovo's IdeaPad U1 is a Windows 7 netbook with a detachable display. When separated, the U1 abandons Windows and boots up Android. To achieve this trick it features both a Core i3 processor for running Windows and a separate Snapdragon processor for Android. The U1 has been sighted at trade shows but its release has been delayed and it's not expected to go on sale in the US until the end of the year.
The detachable Android-powered Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 is on Australian shelves today, with the 32GB tablet selling for $799 including the keyboard. The Transformer tablet tips the scales at 680gm and runs Honeycomb on an NVIDIA 1GHz Tegra 2 processor. It features a mini-HDMI port and micro-SD slot but no USB ports. Instead it relies on a 40-pin connector for linking to your computer, an AC charger or the keyboard dock.
The keyboard's slot is attached to a hinge which lets you fold the tablet down onto the keyboard, like a notebook lid. The dock features two USB ports, a full-sized SD card slot and a 40-pin slot so you can connect it to your computer or AC power. The icing on the cake is a built-in 24.4W battery which boosts battery life from 9 to 16 hours. The keyboard takes up almost the full width of the base and about two-thirds of its depth, leaving room for a decent-sized trackpad with left and right-click buttons underneath.
Together Transformer tablet and keyboard are around 25mm thick and weigh 1.3kg, which is comparable to your traditional 10-inch netbook. The tablet, keyboard and touchpad integrate smoothly to offer a decent notebook-esque experience, with support for two-finger scrolling and even a USB mouse.
Another alternative is the $840 Motorola Atrix. It's a 4-inch Android smartphone which slips into an 11.6-inch netbook shell, which costs $449 and weighs in at 1.1 kg. The Atrix also runs on a Tegra 2 processor and its strength is the Ubuntu-based webtop interface which launches when you slot the phone into the keyboard. Webtop runs a full version of Firefox 3.6 while also letting you view the phone's homescreen and use all the features. Unfortunately webtop is let down by the shell's small keyboard and limited trackpad.