New laptops and hybrids emerge as 'fatbooks' are kicked to the curb

Old-school laptops are out of favor, as PC makers experiment with new form factors to compete with tablets

The trusty old laptop is being kicked to the curb, with PC makers trying to spice up their offerings by pushing a variety of hybrids, tablets, and smaller-screen devices at the Computex trade show in Taipei this week.

Asustek Computer, Acer, and Dell have all introduced tablets and markedly different laptop designs in an effort to revive their flagging fortunes. Many of the products use Intel's Atom chip or next-generation Core processor, called Haswell, which was also launched here.

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Some of the thin-and-light laptops have detachable screens, or displays that can slide or rotate. There's also an uptick in the number of products being offered with Google's Android OS, as Windows 8 struggles to find its feet on touch-screen devices.

PC shipments have been in a terrible slump, thanks partly to the surging popularity of tablets, and PC makers are trying to adapt to the new reality. Many are replacing old-school laptops -- which Intel executives refer to as "fatbooks" -- with new styles that can be adapted for different uses.

Some are inspired by tablets and emphasize touch and long battery life, though vendors insist they also come with PC-like performance. And while Taiwan's manufacturers are all taking about reinventing the PC, many of them can't resist the urge to throw in a keyboard.

As every year, Asus has introduced some of the most attention-grabbing designs. Perhaps most intriguing was its Transformer Book Trio, a dual-OS device that Chairman Jonney Shih described as a laptop, tablet and desktop all rolled into one.

The Trio can start life as an 11.6-inch Android tablet running on an Intel Atom chip. It can be turned into a Windows 8 laptop by attaching a keyboard accessory. But the keyboard, which has its own Core i7 processor, can function independently as a Windows 8 desktop when connected to a wireless display. The Trio has a 1920 x 1080 pixel screen, and up to 64GB of storage. Pricing and a launch date weren't provided.

Also on display here was Acer's 8-inch Iconia W3, the first small-screen Windows 8 tablet. Until now, Windows tablets have come with 10-inch or larger screens, and Acer is reacting to a trend towards smaller devices driven by Amazon's Kindle Fire and Google's Nexus 7. The Iconia W3 weighs 540 grams -- heavier than Apple's iPad mini and the Nexus 7 -- and is expected to be priced between $400 and $500. It has a 1200 x 800 pixel screen and comes with up to 64GB of storage.

Dell showed off the XPS 11, a hybrid device much like Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga. The 11.6-inch Gorilla Glass screen can be folded back through 360 degrees so that the XPS 11 turns into a tablet. The keyboard fits snugly into the chassis, so that unlike the Yoga it's less apparent when the device is used in tablet mode. The screen can display images at a 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution. Pricing wasn't provided, but the product is due to ship worldwide by December.

Design and screen size matter, but functionality, portability and long battery life are more important, according to Kirk Schell, vice president of computing products at Dell.

It may take some time to find out what designs consumers really go for, Schell said. The market is changing fast and there are probably unexplored opportunities to tap into.

The PC industry won't stand still, either, and Intel is looking to add more features and functionality, such as facial-recognition log-in, voice controls and 3D cameras.

"Personal computing is alive and well, it's just morphing," said Kirk Skaugen, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's PC Client Group, in an interview. The market that was once comprised of generic desktops and laptops is now made up of all-in-one PCs and hybrid laptops that can double as tablets.

"You get all the greatness of the PC, but you are getting all the things people have been used to in the tablet," Skaugen said.

That's not to say people don't want pure tablets -- and not ones running Intel chips, either. Perhaps the product that caused the greatest stir at Asus's press conference was its Memo Pad FHD7. It wasn't the tablet's Android OS or ARM-based processor that wooed the crowd, but the price tag, which starts at just $129. That's difficult for a Windows PC in any form factor to match.

Still, Intel believes tablets in their current form remain secondary devices, for content consumption rather than creation. And through its new Haswell chips, Intel says its partners will offer full-powered laptops -- and tablets -- that can be used for editing video and other demanding tasks.

Application requirements are not going to slow down in the years ahead, it believes.

"The next generation of experiences ... will drive up the performance needs," Skaugen said. "There's an inflection point that we're right in the middle of."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's email address is agam_shah@idg.com.

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