Convertible, Touchscreen Ultrabooks and Introducing WiDi Tablets

Posted on 10 December 2011, Last updated on 10 December 2011 by


The Ultrabook news category got a little over-excited yesterday on news that Asus would be showing a touch-capable convertible Ultrabook at CES, despite the fact that it sounds like Intel put it together as a demonstrator and that it may not actually be that useful.

Tech journalists love stories that cut across multiple categories, especially a fledgling one and the keyword-stuffing that some editors did was interesting. Windows 8, iPad and MacBook Air were mentioned but very few people gave thought to whether this combination of all-round capability would be more, or less, than the sum of its parts. My opinion, below, is that the traditional convertible won’t be that successful and it might be better to focus on ‘ultraslates’ rather than ‘ultra-convertibles’ although I’m also proposing a very interesting alternative too that could be a breakthrough for Windows tablets.

I have a touchscreen, convertible ultra-light notebook here with me right now. Actually its a thin convertible 10″ notebook from 2009 but it’s built to much the same design constraints as an Ultrabook. It’s got an SSD, it uses an efficient Atom platform (of last generation – ivy bridge is likely to be larger than this) with a battery that keeps the weight to the 1KG level. There’s a multitouch screen and its running windows 7. It even has a 3G module. The S10 was a quality item from Viliv a company that produced some great niche Intel/Windows touch products but has recently gone under. Is that a red flag perhaps?

Despite the exciting design, the S10 doesn’t work well as a tablet. Why? It’s got nothing to do with thickness or processing power or battery life. It’s just too damn heavy. Its a super light notebook but super heavy tablet. That weight problem will forever continue with convertible devices as tablet-only, tablet-focused equivalents remain 30-60% lighter than the latest tablets.

Anyone remember the Asus T91 and Asus T101? How about the Lenovo S10-3T? I still have the latter and I used a Gigabyte 1080 convertible netbook for nearly two years. I’ve had more experience with touch-enabled notebooks than most people but I only used them in specific ways. I used the touchscreens quite a bit for window dragging, selecting, drag and drop and for some, but not many, annotations – all in ‘notebook’ mode. I never once used the device in tablet mode, outside photos and demos. I’m an average kind of user. Doctors, artists, transport planners, pilots and other vertical markets are different but Ultrabooks are targeted ar the mainstream user. Convertible touchscreen Ultrabooks and the mainstream user don’t match together well.

Weight is a huge barrier to casual tablet use.

Will Windows 8 provide a reason to jump the barrier though? I don’t believe so. Put it this way – if you took the best tablet user experience in the world and delivered it in a 2.2lb package, no-one would be interested outside some niche user groups. Simply imagine an iPad with double the weight.

There are a few other issues for Windows 8 convertible Ultrabooks…

  • Battery life on these ultra-convertibles will be inferior to ARM based solutions, at least until the end of 2013 and the Haswell one-chip solution. (Note that there could be some interesting Atom-based solutions coming up in 2012 but I expect these to be running Android, not Windows.)
  • There’s a lot of catching up to do in the application race. I do believe Windows Metro will attract some great developers but it won’t offer the leading edge of mobile applications
  • Windows 8 Metro touch requires a side-swipe. I’ve learnt that it can be akward with screen bezels. Touch panel covers, possibly scratch resistant, will have to go across the whole facia of the screen to provide stepless edges. That also impacts cost and weight.

There’s going to be some in-fighting going on with marketing departments, product managers, designers and engineers right now. The marketing teams must be getting extremely excited about hitting multiple hot keywords with a single device. There are some great advertising and hype possibilities there and to many people it sounds fun and exciting. Indeed, it can be fun if done well but the designers and engineers will struggle with this. They know there are technical limits and cost impact and that the weight will be a problem. The product manager may find that even if he finds a solution, when he takes it to the financial director they may turn it down as being too good. Why sell one device when, given strong brand ecosystems, you can sell two?

There might be a solution though.

Introducing WiDi Tablets

Ever thought about a removable or mobile screen that uses Wi-Di technology to provide up to 1080p resolution on a lightweight touchscren? I have. I’m wondering if an extension to the Wi-Di specifications to enable touch data to be sent to the ‘desktop’ part of the Ultrabook might be possible. In that case, and given that technologies like panel-self-refresh could really help, you would just  need a screen with a Wi-Di TX/RX device and a battery of about 10wh for a very light, 1lb, 10″ tablet that could last 5-10 hours. The awesomeness continues when you think about one Ultrabook, many Wi-Di Tablet screens at different sizes. Multiple concurrent tablets even? The idea sounds more than possible to me but I don’t think it’s something we’ll see in 2012. Wi-Di is, I believe, a lossy transport so it would need to made lossless for a good experience but maybe there are other solutions out there. I saw a remote display solution demonstrated at Droidcon NL a few weeks ago which could be perfect. Dream Chip have an openGL mirroring system called Xbounds. It wouldn’t work for everything but it might be good enough to mirror the important Metro layer. Intel, I propose you get someone from Intel Capital’s Ultrabook Fund to take a look at this, or indeed, the whole idea of wireless remote tablets because the detachable display is probably the best way to approach touch on Ultrabooks.

You heard it here first though. Wireless tablets and Ultrabooks could go together in a very disruptive way.

Touch, Ultrabooks and 2012

In 2012 the market for convertible touch Ultrabooks will be small. I’d rather have companies focusing on quality Ultrabooks, ‘Ultraslates’ and mobile tablets at a lower price rather than trying to mash it all together. Wouldn’t you?

13 Comments For This Post

  1. bearforce1 says:

    Hi Chippy,

    I love your sites.

    I too have thought of the solution you mentioned. A detachable wireless hi res touch screen. I hope it is simple with the new wi di system and that someone actually does it.

    It would be my perfect device.

    Do you know if anyone is looking at this. I hope Gigibyte might have a go.

  2. Chippy says:

    I’m sure others have thought about this. The display port standard supports is signalling too so a wireless version of that might be the answer. Simple rdp over wifi too. I Will take the question of remote wireless tablets to CES with me.

  3. Michael says:

    All sorts of crap will come and go as history as shown but only the ultrabook and the tablet will survive eventually. The notebook and netbook will die in a matter of years.

    So all these, are just bullshit. Nothing more, nothing less. Its just to get the geeky tech journalist excited and orgasmic.

  4. codewriter says:

    Chippy, your thoughts are about solving some of the current issues of computing portability including weight, battery life, processing power, usability, etc.

    Could it be that a prototype/proof-of-concept device is needed or maybe even currently being considered?

    Remember ViewSonic’s portable, wireless device from several year ago?

    Just follow the thread until it forks/moprhs into something else or maybe the real thing!

    Keep it going…

  5. Paul says:

    I personally can’t wait to get a convertible Ultrabook. I love using them in slate/tablet mode in team meetings to deal. Gruß. Mindmap, brain storming etc. And I can send the results per email without bothering with cameras, poor lighting… Presentations in tablet mode are great to. I can draw into my presentation, underlined, circle, draw arrows… The audience gets a far more dynamic experience than with plain

  6. vjachi says:

    Well Chippy don’t be so sceptic. I need exactly that sort of devices. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
    I need mobile device with me. I use many windows based programs so I need Windows first. Second sometimes I use the hardware capabilities so I need power in that device. In the other time I need multimedia device – mail, reading, films. I also need keyboard for typing. The options for me:
    1. That “new device”.
    2. Heavy notebook and tablet.
    I think that convertable PC will coats 1200-1300$. Little bit more than ultrabook, so I will have to buy cheap notebook and tablet as alternative for the same money. As I need MOBILE device I can’t take the both. There are some good tablets, like Transformers prime, but it’s too small for me and as I said I need windows.

    Don’t look at it like on the sexy tablets we know. That’s not a toy like the tablets. You can actually do work on it. And in the free time you can use it like a toy. That will not kill the tablets and it shouldn’t because they are designed for different purposes.

  7. RKW says:

    Great article.
    I am looking forward to convertible ultrabooks. Intel created this category of laptop to compete with the Ipad, but so far, Ultrabooks compete most directly with Macbook Airs. The idea of an ultrabook to me is a device that can do it all. Tablets lack a true keyboard, and notebooks are not as user-friendly as a tablet when one is lounging on the sofa. But a convertible can do it all.
    I concede that your points are all good ones –greater weight, shorter battery life, bezel size…etc. Wi-Di, if it can perform the functions of a tablet, can be a real contender. Otherwise, Wi-Di seems pretty limited to me unless one already has or plans to purchase a Wi-Di capable tv/monitor. I will have to conduct more research on this technology.
    The laptop I’m writing this email on has a touch screen, but it is not convertible, so I almost never use it’s touch capability. The keyboard is “in the way”. I didn’t buy it because it is touch capable. I found that out after and was pleasantly surprised. It was purely value added for me. But if my laptop could convert, there are times that i would definitely use it. I like the ability of tablets to change the orientation of the screen on the fly when reading some web pages, documents, online magazines, graphic novels etc.
    Until ultrabooks incorporate viable touch, I will likely stick with laptops because of their value–lower price, more ports, standard sized ports, more powerful processing, discrete graphics option, and the psychological comfort of the dvd drive. I expect quite a lot of Ivybridge laptops will have SSDs or SSD caching also. So ultrabooks–marketing-wise at least– need to do something to keep ahead of laptops in terms of delivering a more pleasurable/superior user experience when laptops become more responsive due to their SSDs.
    I think convertibles haven’t done well in the past (pre-Ipad) because of the price premium, and the hardware (CPU) was often a generation behind with very few options. But apple has taught the public to not only embrace touch, but to demand it in premium consumer products (read: iphone, ipod touch, ipad etc). I think the market is ready for convertibles this time, and mass quantities of convertible screens will lower prices and keep the premium down so that convertibility will become almost value added. The “sexiness” of convertibility will also help justify the price premium over mainstream laptops and make ultrabooks more competitive with tablets.

  8. Leilo says:

    This is why I believe Asus has the right idea with the Transformer Prime, only attach the keyboard when you absolutely need it so you’re not burdened with the extra weight/thickness at all times.

    I would be willing to bet over the next year we are going to see alot of these types of devices running Android & W8(ARM) but very few convertibles.

  9. Michael says:

    Prices are dropping so fast. I think next year, it might go down to $500

  10. Adam says:

    The ASUS EEE Pad Transformer Prime is the ideal hardware form factor and has EPIC battery life.

    All I need is an Asus Transformer Prime running Windows 8 and a virtualization product that lets me run x86/x64 apps and I’ll be insanely happy and my wallet will be nice and fat to boot.
    -Give me a Transformer Prime with a 128GB SSD and Win8 for $700 and the afore mentioned emulator software and Intel and their exorbitant profit margins and crap battery life can be out of my life forever.

    If Intel could compete on battery life, cost, and form-factor we’d have a different conversation but Ivybridge is only shaving 1 watt off of Ivy Bridge and that’s not going to get it done.



  11. Chippy says:

    Have fun with what’s going to be a very slow Windows 8 device! Seriously, a 32-bit Arm cpu with netbook-like performance specs is going to mean you’ll need that battery life. My advice is to wait for a few years (or more) and arm v8 processors.

  12. Gus says:

    I’ve used a convertible tablet pc for years. What I’ve learned is that I need the hi-res screen, pc power and keyboard for work, but I don’t need them attached. I often use profile tablet mode, but rarely while using the keyboard.

    Like Adam, I find the ASUS Transformer approach intriguing for an “ultrabook”. Put the guts behind a wide angle screen, and then put some extra battery juice behind a keyboard that also acts as a travel cover. I’d be happy to carry the extra weight to have tablet and pc options handy.

  13. max says:

    I notice your careful to always say CONVERTIBLE touch screen ultrabooks will not be popular in 2012. I also agree and even though widi and wireless tablets are very cool and i’ve pondered about it before, i just want a touch screen on a normal ultrabook; no swivel hinge just a normal two hinge open like a book system but a touch screen there for the occasional prod when using the mouse seems like to much work. I know its a bit of a novelty but i would gladly pay an extra hundred or two for one, i’ll put down even more if you can squeeze a wacom pen system into the palm rest bellow the keyboard.

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