Windows 8 convertible devices: Born to fail

Microsoft and hardware makers have big hopes for "convertible" Windows 8 notebooks/tablets -- machines that do double-duty as notebooks and tablets. But convertibles and similar devices are bound to fail. They're a marketing concept in search of a reason to live, and there is none.

I base that in part on my review of the Dell XPS 12, a beautifully designed and engineered piece of hardware. At first glance, it's an ultrabook that's a bit on the heavy side at 3.35 pounds. The unit I tested had plenty of power under the hood to do its work -- an Intel Core i5-3427 running at 1.7GHz with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. It costs $1,199.99. More powerful and expensive models go for up to $1,699.99.

The device's screen is set in a frame, so you can flip it on a hinge 180 degrees. Flip it, fold the screen down, and you've got a tablet. Very nifty.

The problem is that yes, you've got a tablet -- a 3.35 pound lead sinker of a tablet. An iPad weighs less than half of that, at 1.44 pounds. The Microsoft Surface also weighs less than half of it it, at 1.5 pounds.

One of the main selling points of tablets is that they're light and portable. I spent a fair amount of time using the Dell XPS 12, and it's anything but light and portable. You quickly tire of using it. And you can't put it on your lap for long, because it heats up.

As for it as an ultrabook, it's heavier than other ultrabooks. A 13.3-inch MacBook air weighs about half a pound less at 2.96 lb., and the 13.3-in. Asus Zenbook UX31A Touch weighs 3.08 lb. Both devices have larger screens than the Dell XPS 12's 12.5-inch screen.

All this isn't the fault of the design of the Dell XPS 12, because it's a beautiful machine. It's the nature of trying to get a single device to do double-duty as a full-blown ultrabook and a tablet.

The same problem may well bedevil Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet, which will sport full-blown Windows 8 and a hefty price -- $899 for the least-expensive version. At those prices, the Surface Pro simply won't sell.

"The Pro is an ultrabook, only with more severe design constraints," Ezra Gottheil of Technology Business Research told Computerworld. Sameer Singh of Tech-Thoughts added:

"The real question is, 'What is the point of a two-in-one device or touchscreen PC?'. Legacy applications are not touch optimized, so using them on a Surface Pro, even with a Touch/Type Cover, is a sub-optimal experience compared to a traditional laptop."

Apple got it right: A tablet is different than a PC or notebook and used for different purposes. They need different operating system and necessarily require different engineering. Mixing the two, as Microsoft is doing, won't work.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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