October 19, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Convertibles: The new laptop bling?

Hold on to your keyboard. Laptop computer screens that flip around to become convertible tablet PCs could be an increasingly common sight within the next three years.

With manufacturing prices dropping and Microsoft touting tablet PCs, shipments of the products are expected to hit 9.7 million units by 2008. That's up 708 percent from the 1.2 million units expected to ship this year, according to a forecast by market researchers at IDC. Convertible notebooks are expected to make up the majority of those shipments, IDC said.

The projected number of tablets is small compared with the overall number of notebooks. After all, 62.5 million notebooks are expected to ship this year, and that number is forecast by IDC to climb to 100.3 million in 2008.

Notebook gallery

If every one of those tablet PCs that ship in 2008 were actually a convertible notebook, fewer than one out of every 10 notebooks shipped would have tablet capabilities. Still, that's a big jump from the less than 2 percent share of notebook sales tablets now have.

Just as past hardware trends--from personal digital assistants to flat-screen monitors--took years to claw out a share of the world's tech spending before really catching on, convertible laptops are still in that early stage where they have to be proven even to bleeding-edge buyers.

"Manufacturers and consumers are still trying to figure out what to do with tablets and if they make sense for their daily lives," said IDC analyst Richard Shim.

But it's fair to say the convertible notebook share of total laptop sales could increase as the years go by for one simple reason--price. Today, making a convertible laptop can cost $300 more than a typical notebook. But as manufacturers ramp up their tablet production during the next two years, that premium could drop to $75, said Roger Kay, an independent analyst.

Also, as PC manufacturers deal with constant pressure to reduce the prices of their basic models, tablet capabilities could well become one of those nifty features PC makers offer to up their profits.

Tablets come in two basic forms: notebooks with screens that flip around 180 degrees and lay flat over the keyboard to make a tablet, and so-called slate tablets, which look more like an Etch A Sketch toy. The slate-style devices weigh between 3 and 4 pounds and can cost as little as $1,000. Convertible tablets weigh a bit more and retail for as little as $1,200, depending on features.

Companies like Gateway, which released an updated version of its laptop designs on Oct. 6, are optimistic about the future of tablet PCs.

"We can see a time in the future when we (and other OEMs) have a line of notebooks that can either be purchased in traditional or convertible form factor because they are manufactured using similar resources," said Gateway spokeswoman Kelly Odle. Gateway is joined in the market by Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, Toshiba, Fujitsu and several others.

Microsoft, which has been a major backer of tablets, has been making the rounds with educators and developers to tout the benefits of tablet-based computing.

Back to the future
While the Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 is currently available with the purchase of a tablet-style device, users can get free upgrades at the Microsoft Web site. The next version of the Tablet OS is slated to be part of the upcoming Windows Vista Home Premium Edition. The Premium version, which is based on Vista Home Basic, is similar to the Windows XP Media Center Edition (XP MCE) but adds features designed for tablet PCs such as improved handwriting recognition and ability to use a tablet's stylus to pan through documents.

If popularizing convertible displays on notebooks sounds far-fetched, consider the path wireless networking cards took to becoming a staple in laptop computers. Less than five years ago, consumers needed to purchase Wi-Fi cards separately if they were even thinking of accessing a hot spot. For PC makers, that required installing a dedicated PCI slot and staffing their perspective help desk employees to help consumers unfamiliar with the setup procedure. Nowadays, embedded wireless networking cards are more the rule than the exception in laptops.

There are major challenges to overcome, of course. Currently, PC makers use separate manufacturing processes for clamshell and convertible laptops, particularly when it comes to attaching the display. The core hardware for a standard laptop generally uses two hinges on the outside of the notebook. By comparison, a convertible works on a single-hinge model, which is usually anchored to the underlying frame. Simply installing a rotating screen on a standard laptop chassis is uncommon.

But a concept that just a few years ago seemed like another fanciful idea still has plenty of room to run. After all, even pen computing, one of the great venture capital sink holes of the 1990s, eventually morphed into PDAs.

And few people these days would call a Sidekick or a Treo smart phone just a silly little gadget.

10 comments

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It's official...
The word "bling" has officially jumped the shark... please, please.. make it stop.
Posted by Bizplanman (13 comments )
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Yay...
One more gadget on a computer to break,... that rotating reversible
hinge has GOT to be weaker than a normal one.
Posted by corelogik (680 comments )
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I'll buy one when...
I'm pretty impressed with the hinge on my boss' Toshiba. Seems pretty sturdy. There is a technical glitch, though, with the little catch that locks it in tablet mode. Sometimes it doesn't register that it's locked and doesn't change the display orientation, or while he's using it, if he jostles it, it sometimes changes orientation. I wonder if there's a way to turn off the automatic reorientation. Pressing a button would be far less annoying than having it occasionally flip on you.

I'm still waiting for Dell to offer one. And for prices in general to drop. Then I'll buy one. Until then I'll stick with my desktop. But eventually, I'll get a new computer, and it's going to be a tablet. The design is convenient and much easier to use on the couch kicking back watching TV than a regular laptop.
Posted by TV James (680 comments )
Link Flag
"Bling"?? Nice way to get cheap page views, CNet.
Quick slang lesson: "bling" means a visible trapping of success; something someone else sees and envies.

Yeah, kids everywhere are gonna want to flip their screens around and start scribbling on their tablet PCs like hospital nursing assistants.

Always giving your readers credit for intelligence...
Posted by M C (598 comments )
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Stuck in the yesteryear...
I have been usin my Tablet PC (HP TC1100) for quite some time now. I now think differntly when it comes to managing info on a pc.
The biggest striking difference is of course the pen input. It is not perfect and can get cumbersome at times, but hey even after so many years in development your regular off the shelf PC would still require a huge amount of skill before it can actually be used.
There needs to be a shift in thinking from computer programmers on how to design new applications, and how to redesign the old ones with the Tablets in mind.
Right now we are stuck in a yesteryear of Keyboard and Mouse as the only way of interfacing with your PC. Yah, I know the voice is coming one day... however for that your PC is way too underpowered. Maybe in 5-6 years if Moore's law holds true. Even then you will have to train everyone how to use it... You pc today however has enough horses already to be a Tablet and voice is never going to replace your pen, it will add to it but your pen is still going to be your pen.
Tablet has this form and it is the most natural way of using it. Think about it as a pad of paper, a book, a binder with documents, your daytimer... you can make notes, draw, highlight important sections etc. and never loosing it's digital form.
Students all over are starting to use them. Have you ever seen a program called Go Binder? from agilix.com . It will actually run on you regular laptop. Or Mind Manager?... if you think that Microsoft's One Note works great on your PC wait till you use it on your Tablet PC
Posted by Montevale (31 comments )
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Tablet PCs - hinge
I have had my Toshiba Portege for two+ years. I love it. It is a joy to use. The hinge has never been a problem. I spilled tea on the keyboard and cracked the screen, Toshiba repaired them in good time. This laptop fell off the bed, 30 inches, and is still working. It is great and very versatile. Even when I get frustrated with the touch mouse keypad I can use the pen to get around the screen. I just wish Toshiba would go back to using the eraser head pointing device.
Posted by tvwill (2 comments )
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Convertibles
It makes it possible to use them on the airplane despite the bozo in
front tilting his head into your lap and the airlines willingness to
get 400 seats on a 200 seat airplane.
Regards,
Posted by billhennigan (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hinges are tough
I've actually just played around with a Gateway convertible notebook, and the hinge is just as tough (or tougher) than a regular notebook hinge. I picked it up by the screen, and it felt completely secure. It never made me worry about the hinge. From everything I found, the convertible notebooks ought to be taking over the world of notebooks.
Posted by askirk87 (2 comments )
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Price as a barrier to entry.
I think the writers premise is flawed. Laptops are viewed by general consumers as a step up above a standard desktop - and the pricing up until recently has reflected this. Touchscreen/convertable/tablet PC's are generally seen as more sophisticated. As is often the double edged sword to this perception, it is both viewed as a premium and also presents a learning curve. Yes, this is going to present a slight barrier to entry.

However, as the pricing drops and microsoft pushes (As well as all the other teeming manufacturers pushing for primary demand to soar - after all, these features will still probably command some premium for a while yet.) the market for this product is only going to explode. Laptops have only themselves come in big since manufacturers started providing advanced features for a low price. There is no reason to expect any different diffusion pattern for this line extention.

The good news is that the early adopters are finally being heard by someone. I know a lot of people just hate, hate, hate microsoft, but I am extremely pleased to see them actively leading (From what I've heard here on news.com)the way for once (Yeah... it was really good that they got the 64-bit windows out in time for AMD - I mean Intel's 64-bit launch.) with pretty sophisticated advancements in the next version of windows. This is going to substantially increase acceptance by users who already view the ability to write and interact with the view screen as a dersireable feature.

After looking over the laptops featured with this article, and thinking about the advancements that will soon be avialable, my upgrade cycle seemed like it was desperately looming.
Posted by Hydrofirex (9 comments )
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