Tablets with attachable keyboards: The "Future of Laptops"

Here’s two bold predictions for you.

Prediction 1: In 5 year’s time, the majority of new laptop computers will actually be tablets with attachable keyboards.

Prediction 2: In 5 year’s time, the majority of new laptop computers will have touchscreen displays

As Scott Adams once said – the thing about predictions is that when the time limit expires, people have either forgotten them entirely or you were right all along and you are being lauded as a visionary.

These predictions aren’t that bold. If you look at Microsoft’s Surface, it seems that this might be what they are thinking as well. Perhaps Surface is a signpost product. A “hey guys, the future is over here” sign post to the current crop of laptop vendors who seemed to be at a loss as to a sense of direction beyond “a few minutes longer battery life, a few tenths of a millimeter thinner, a couple of more dots per inch”. A “see this design – make more stuff like this or wind up as relevant to future office environments as the typewriter”.

I’ve been thinking about this a while. I recently got myself an ASUS Transformer Infinity. Functionally it’s an Android Ultrabook with a detachable touch screen/tablet. All the components are in the tablet and the keyboard functions as an extra battery. I love the form factor of this device, and it’s 1920x1200 touch screen. It’s a wonderful device let down by an operating system that’s a bit rubbish. I could use it to work if it had applications and an operating system that allowed me to do that. Unfortunately Android apps are designed with phones in mind rather than laptop computers in mind and very few of them successfully make the transition. It may be easier to scale down a desktop operating system to work on tablets than it is to scale a phone operating system up to work on desktops.

I also have an iPad 3. It’s a great device for consuming content. It’s not so great when it comes to creating it. Onscreen keyboards are fantastic for twitter updates and short email messages, but writing a few thousand words using an on screen keyboard is like trying to do backstroke with your arm stapled to a duck .

Most of the problems that plague the iPad, also plague straight tablets running Windows 8. I have an ASUS EP 121 Tablet running Windows 8. Great tablet, but doesn’t have it’s own attachable keyboard. When I want to sit down to do some serious work, I have access to the software I need to do the work, but the lack of a keyboard drives me up the wall. I do have a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard. It’s possible to prop up the tablet and use it that way, but it’s definitely a kludge. The keyboard wasn’t designed for that specific tablet and carrying around a separate keyboard with it’s separate batteries gets annoying.

Surface (and other RT devices) solve this problem.

Microsoft’s Surface comes with a snap-on keyboard designed precisely for the tablet and it has a kick stand to ensure that it props up properly, something that my EP 121 lacks (I even got to the stage of using a photo holder for this purpose when taking my EP 121 places). This is a signpost I hope manufacturers follow in future. Attachable keyboards that “snap on” to the device they are made for are far superior to 3rd party generic Bluetooth keyboards. However, if you do a lot of typing, a laptop is only as good as its keyboard.

As good as the Surface is, I’m more excited by the “spiritual cousin” of the Transformer Infinity, the ASUS Vivo RT – which is briefly reviewed in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=DF8Kc9LM084 The keyboard dock functions as an extra battery, giving you 15 hours rather than 8. It’s also a “real keyboard”. Surface comes with one as an add-on, but the cover keyboard looks like it might not be appropriate for long typing sessions. If Lenovo could somehow get their Thinkpad keyboards to work with some sort of detachable hi-resolution touch screen, I’d have found my holy grail of laptops.

I suspect the prediction about touch being included in future laptop screens is an easy get. If you have used a laptop with a touch screen, you’ve probably already felt that sinking feeling you get when you go back to using another device that doesn’t have a touch display. Using touch with a trackpad feels more natural than using a trackpad alone. There are certain actions that feel more natural with touch (swiping between applications is one of them) and this is doubly so when you use Windows 8.

The prediction about “it’s all tablets with detachable keyboards in the future” is a bit more of a punt. We’ve definitely reached the stage where you can build all the components that traditionally sat into a laptop into a tablet without making it excessively large. Slap a detachable keyboard, which also neatly evades “convertible laptop syndrome”, and manufacturers to get the best of both worlds.

Is there a future for laptops with attached keyboards and without touchscreens? It all comes down to the question “is there a need to place the CPU, RAM and other components under the keyboard rather than behind the screen”? Razer’s concept tablet “Project Fiona” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCN5q7Xo9qI suggests that maybe even most gaming laptops could have everything behind the screen rather than under the keyboard.

Surface and the crop of Windows RT tablets represent tablets that you can accomplish the same work on that you’d currently use to use a laptop to accomplish. If that’s not a death knell for the original laptop form factor, I’m not sure what is.

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Orin Thomas

Orin Thomas is a contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and a Windows Security MVP. He has authored or coauthored more than thirty books for Microsoft Press, founded the Melbourne System Center,...
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