The PC and tablet industry is currently going through a bit of a revolution. At one stage tablets were the new hotness – the device to replace the PC as your default computing platform. But now Windows PCs are having a resurgence, this time in a new, 21st-century skin: the two-in-one.
As tablet sales peaked as consumers realised they were great for consuming media but then dwindled as the same consumers discovered their increasingly larger smartphones were good enough for that. No one really needs a smartphone and a tablet that can basically perform the same duties and run the same apps.
Meanwhile, the PC industry has been slowly contracting, suffering from six consecutive quarters of declining sales, according to data from Canalys. But the one device that is rising – up 13% in a quarter – and it’s another convergence device, much like the smartphone. Part Windows PC, part tablet, the two-in-one.category covers touchscreen laptops that turn into tablets and tablets that can turn into laptops with a detachable keyboard.
One of the reasons they’re rising in popularity is that they’re actually quite good.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was desktop computing giant Microsoft that practically invented the tablet (if you discount Star Trek’s PADD of course), as long as a decade and a half ago. In the early 2000s, its Windows XP-based so-called Tablet PCs came in a variety of forms, including what we now know as a tablet, as well as convertible machines that folded back on themselves and even so-called hybrid machines that detached from their keyboards.
The trouble then was that while the concept was sound the technology to make them useful wasn’t. They had short battery lives and resistive touchscreens that were unresponsive and bulky. Fast forward to 2012 and Microsoft tried again with the Surface. It used the latest low-power chips, displays and large-format touchscreen development borne of the mobile tablet generation triggered by the launch of the iPad in 2010.
It took several years of improvements, but Microsoft has succeeded in forging the revitalised category, helped on the operating system side of things first by the tablet-friendly Windows 8 and now by Windows 10. Having lived with a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and several other Windows-based tablets for six months, I’m a convert.
Laptops are, frankly, boring. But a full Windows computer is still necessary for most people, so the concept of a PC that can double as a makeshift tablet for media consumption is appealing. Until recently that meant bulky, expensive devices that were heavy and expensive.
Now the two-in-one category spans almost every capability and cost. Cheap ones are, as you might expect, not as nice to use, but they get the job done. Even the lowest-power processors are capable of doubling as general computing machines.
More expensive ones, including the Surface Pro 4, are more powerful than most will ever need and last as long as a laptop between charges. They’re also as light as a laptop, if not a little lighter, and often have better screens.
They do not, however, behave the same way as mobile tablets such as Google’s Pixel C or Apple’s iPad Pro: they’re laptops in tablet shells, and so aren’t as fast to power on from standby and don’t last as long. But that’s OK for most people. They’re mostly a PC, something you use at home where power is constantly available or on the road as you would a laptop.
At the same time the shortcomings of the tablet form factor – mainly the bulk of the machine and the quality of the detachable keyboard – are gradually being reduced. Today’s removable keyboards available with Samsung’s TabPro S or the Surface Pro 4 are as good, if not better, than many laptop keyboards.
Treated as tablets, there is still an app gap, of course – the handling of high-resolution screens by Windows still isn’t great, and standby time is an issue. But a new breed of Windows tablets made by experienced smartphone manufacturers, and produced as consumer electronics as much as PCs, are on their way.
Treated as laptop replacements, Windows 10 two-in-ones are no longer a gimmick – they’re are actually worth buying, which is never something I thought I’d be saying when Microsoft first floated the idea.