When hybrid tricks devolve into hype

Commentary: In a breathless bid to differentiate their devices, PC makers are looking to outdo each other by adding unique ways to twist, turn, and tear apart their screens and keyboards. At some point, it becomes a case of diminishing returns.

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Acer's Aspire Switch 10 includes a nearly superfluous "display mode." Acer

Laptop/tablet hybrids stress versatility -- so much so that Microsoft and its partners are trying to position plain old laptops as passe. But rather than be outmoded, some companies are determined not to be outdone.

For three decades, the clamshell stood as the ideal combination of portability and posturing for a PC. It worked in one mode -- with the screen at a range of angles balanced by the weight of the keyboard in the base. At the dawn of the original Tablet PC circa 2001, a few laptops became convertibles. One could twist the keyboard around to use them as tablets, creating two usage modes.

Then, came Apple's iPad, with its single mode. With the addition of Apple's Smart Cover and similar peripherals, though, it could be used in two additional modes: a tilted upright mode for passive viewing (sometimes called a "tent" or presentation mode) and a slightly raised mode for easier viewing of the screen and somewhat more comfortable ergonomics while typing. Third-party covers and accessories have added a few more viewing angles or modes.

The Microsoft's Surface 3 demonstrates how new modes can be useful. The first two generations of the tablet, with its integrated kickstand, could also create two modes, with the more adjustable hinge on the Surface 3 ushering a raised flat design that makes typing on the tablet without an attached keyboard a decent experience. Even if one has the Surface's Type Cover, this is a handy alternative in space-constrained settings such as an airplane tray, and it's just about the only practical way to use the Surface's on-screen keyboard without any add-ons.

Sometimes, though, adding new modes can simply be a distraction. Acer has deftly merged the convertible and 2-in-1 approach with its Aspire Switch 10, a 10-inch Windows device that features an easily detachable, latch-free design. The Switch combines elements of tablet and convertible forms. You can remove the tablet when you want the lightest-weight option or prop it up in tent mode as one would with the Lenovo Yoga hybrid line.

While the Aspire Switch 10 has much to offer, it begins to demonstrate how piling on extra modes doesn't add much to a PC's value. Acer dubs as "display mode" the insertion of the tablet into the keyboard base so that its display faces away from the upward-facing keyboard. The result is almost functionally the same as tent mode, though arguably with a bit more base stability and angle flexibility. The accessibility of the keyboard could also allow for behind-the-scenes tasks such as advancing a slide in a presentation, Acer asserts.

In the end, though, mode mania can lead to the kind of pointless one-upmanship that once characterized the megapixel race.

Last month, Toshiba followed up a five-mode hybrid shown off at CES with the seven-mode, 13.3-inch Kirabook L93. Enabled by a Bluetooth keyboard that separates from a lower base segment, the Kirabook includes clamshell, tablet, and tent modes, as well as what Toshiba calls desktop mode (which allows the keyboard to be used a distance away from the monitor), canvas mode, and stand mode. There's also a dubious flat mode in which the keyboard and display are aligned at a 180-degree angle, which is really just a pit stop on the way to tent mode where the keyboard is folded behind the PC.

As Brad Linder observes at Liliputing, there is little functional difference among desktop, tent, and stand modes, although one might find getting to one mode more expedient than another depending on the mode from which one is transitioning.

Ultimately, just about all of these modes revert back to the three or four basic scenarios of the clamshell and tablet. In addition, accommodating some of these modes could add complexity, cost, and additional points of failure. Variations may make for good marketing copy, but piling on more and more modes ultimately provides little consumer benefit and won't translate into marketplace success.

 

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