Much of the media attention at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) surrounded new computer styles, shapes and sizes -- perhaps signaling a change from the tried-and-true laptop form factor popularized over the past two decades.
One attention-getting device is the Dell Inspiron Duo, which looks like a typical netbook at first glance but actually transforms into a tablet when you remove the LCD touch display. Lenovo offers a similar model called the LePad U1, but that hybrid was first announced over a year ago.
Another laptop, which uses dual touchscreens instead of a physical keyboard, is the Acer Iconia. The main advantage of this new form factor is that the keyboard can be customized or changed altogether depending on what you need the laptop to do.
Another model, the Razer Switchblade, has keys that display different words or icons depending on the application -- say, for gaming or for getting real work done.
So, are these new form factors innovative? Sure. Practical? That's another -- and perhaps more important -- consideration altogether.
As usual, the hardest part about deciding whether these new form factors make sense is just being careful to avoid the lure of something being new and interesting, and then determining whether they will actually make sense for real work. To find out, we caught up with industry experts to weigh in on the pros and cons of alternative computer styles.
Does 'one size fits all' work?
"We've all been conditioned into believing that something that's remained fundamentally unchanged for decades is a classic, successful, perfect design that needs no additional modification," begins Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ontario. "In the case of the basic laptop, however, classic doesn't mean ideal -- despite the fact that the basic laptop has become an icon of business and consumer computing, it's been apparent for years that its one-shape-fits-all form factor falls short."
Levy says enterprise and consumer buyers are often "complacent," and in turn stick with a familiar design. "Because of this, hardware vendors, afraid of introducing the PC world's equivalent of the Edsel, have shied away from stretching the form factor envelope."
Times might be changing, however.
"The tablet is the first truly successful post-laptop design for a mobile productivity device in a generation -- it has opened the door to other hybrid hardware designs by softening buyer resistance anything that strays too far from the trusty old laptop design."
The new laptop-tablet hybrids may just be a smart new form factor, he says.
"The Dell Inspiron Duo (aka Sparta) is just close enough to existing form factors that buyers might be willing to give it a shot. It's evolutionary, not revolutionary, and that could be more than enough to begin to give Dell some sales momentum in this emerging market slice."
Options are good
On whether small-to-midsized businesses should invest in a nonconventional design, Leslie Fiering, research vice president at Gartner, says it all depends on the needs of the company.
"A tablet, for example, is really designed for media consumption rather than content creation -- therefore those who need to do a lot of typing should probably stick with a physical keyboard."
Fiering says the question isn't "Should I go out and buy one of these new kinds of computers?," but rather "What can I do better with an alternative form factor over my existing hardware?," she asks, rhetorically.
That said, Fiering concedes she's not a big fan of the virtual keyboard in general.
"They tend to be more error-prone because they don't give feedback; I've seen people use these [onscreen] keyboards after three months and they still make the same mistakes and some start getting bone soreness through the pad of the fingertip," adds Fiering.
On the flipside, Fiering says on-the-go types who spend a lot of time viewing or listening to content might benefit from a keyboard-less computer.
While she's "skeptical" about two operating systems, Fiering says the Lenovo LePad U1 hybrid -- a Windows laptop with a snap-off screen that becomes an Android tablet -- offers the "best of [of both] worlds, as you get a slate and keyboard to dock it in."
Businesses open to change
The surge in new form factors can also largely be attributed to Apple's success with the iPad, says Levy, as they "force buyers to realize that laptops aren't the exclusive choice for mobile productivity."
Rob Fleischer, partner and executive vice president at Sandbox Strategies, a public relations and marketing firm that handles videogame and tech clients, says they use iPads at work.
"We have iPads and we use them regularly as they're great for entertainment when traveling [and] we've adapted business presentations to show on iPad, which has worked out well."
While Fleischer admits there are times when a physical keyboard is a more ideal interface than touch, he's open to new concepts.
"Out of the new products on display at CES, I'm most excited about the Motorola Atrix," says Fleischer.
The Atrix is an Android-powered smartphone that can be docked in a 2.2-pound laptop shell with 11.6-inch screen, full-sized keyboard and trackpad. Therefore, when docked, users can interact with the smartphone's content as if it were a PC -- and the dock charges up the phone at the same time.
"Sure, we're all using iPhones right now, but the idea of having a single phone/laptop is awesome," says Fleischer. "The phone with the laptop dock looks like a really great solution for us: we can travel light, work remotely, and have the ability to really get stuff done."
In the end, that's the ultimate goal: being productive, even if the laptop is completing new and different.