Will Consumers Change Their Mind On Convertibles?

Walt Mossberg at AllThingsD has a review of 3 convertible Windows 8 tablets which is succinct, but makes a subtle point (if you read between the lines): a convertible laptop/tablet is a compromise. None of the devices he reviewed are particularly light or thing. None of them have battery life that approaches the iPad or mainstream Android tablets. And, as we’ve seen from past reviews, Windows 8 doesn’t seem to be a great tablet OS, and the presence of tablet features may have compromised the traditional PC experience. But these convertible tablets beg a bigger question: will consumers change their mind on these things?

Convertibles Are Not New

Convertible tablets are not new. I have a Toshiba convertible, made in 2002, that runs Windows XP Tablet edition. It was one of many tablet computers available that ran this version of Windows. Fujitsu offered both a convertible and a slate (what we would consider a “tablet” today). There were others around from other manufacturers. The idea of having a device that was a laptop when you needed a real keyboard, and tablet when you didn’t, has been around a while.

Here’s the thing: virtually no one bought them. They had compromises. They were heavier than their laptop-only cousins. They were more expensive than a laptop of similar power. They required the use of a special (and typically expensive) stylus. No apps were really built for touch interaction. The devices appealed to some verticals (like healthcare and mobile jobs like insurance sales), but mainstream enterprise and consumer buyers ignored them.

Better Than The Old, Not The New

Are these newer editions better? Arguably, they are. They are certainly thinner and lighter than anything built around WinXP Tablet. The batteries last a lot longer. The operating system is at least built for touch interaction, even if a lot of apps aren’t yet. Compared to the first attempt at Windows tablets, these newer convertibles are measurably better in every way.

But they aren’t being compared against machines built over the past decade. They will be compared against the iPad and Android tablets, as well as modern Ultrabooks and the Macbook Air. In all cases, they come up wanting. They aren’t great tablets, mainly because Windows 8 doesn’t seem to be a great tablet operating system. The ones where the screen detaches to become a tablet at least become competitive in size, but the battery life is unimpressive. Those that are the “traditional” convertible, where the screen is flipped around, or slides over, to cover the keyboard seem just sad. Twice as heavy (or more) than a regular tablet, and heavier than most Ultrabooks, they aren’t any more convenient than just carrying an Ultrabook and a tablet separately.

Limits + Compromises = Niche Appeal

The biggest problem I’ve seen (on paper) is that these convertibles offer limited processing power when compared to an Ultrabook, and not much more than most other tablets. And those that do carry more oomph under the hood are even less portable (and offer less battery life).

I think the compromises are what are going to harm these things. For people who need real keyboards, particularly when doing a lot of typing, the convertibles are just too underpowered when compared to Ultrabooks or other notebooks. As tablets, they seem to be subpar. The only upside might be the price, given they are cheaper than buying separate notebooks and tablets. But will that price be enough to offset the compromises?

In the end, I suspect that these devices will only attract a small niche of users, much like the predecessors did in the Win XP Tablet days. Mainstream users won’t sit on the fence, they will pick one path or another. People who need or want physical keyboards will pick Ultrabooks and traditional notebooks. People who want or need a tablet will pick a tablet. Many that want both, and are willing to pay the price, will simply buy one of each. People are doing that now, to some extent.

But many more have decided that they don’t really need a physical keyboard. Some numbers put the iPad, by itself, as nearly 10% of the entire personal computing market. The growth trajectories for conventional tablets could mean that tablets will largely displace notebooks in a couple of years (possibly less). It doesn’t appear that the world is exactly clamouring for convertible tablets, when the traditional tablet is selling about as fast as they can be manufactured.

There will always be a market for a convertible tablet. However, I have seen nothing to indicate they will become mainstream, any more than their predecessors did. They are niche devices for a small segment of the mobile computing population.