Someday, Apple's iPad and rival tablet computers may completely replace the PC for a large number of users. But for now, tablets are mainly a companion device, a diversion for those times you'd like a fun, portable computer and don't need to do real work. But that may all change this week at CES, the consumer electronics show expected to attract more than 100,000 visitors to glitzy Las Vegas.
The major device manufacturers are unveiling a plethora of tablets based on Google's Android operating system as well as Microsoft's Windows. One early contender from Lenovo puts both operating systems on the same machine and gives users a complete notebook and tablet experience.
I had the opportunity to see a demo of Lenovo's IdeaPad running both Windows 7 and Android in notebook and tablet form Tuesday, and came away quite impressed. Naturally, I might see five or ten tablets that blow it out of the water by the end of the week, but for now I think Lenovo has a very promising solution to the conundrum of providing the fun of tablets to users who aren't ready to give up the traditional laptop.
That's because Lenovo's IdeaPad hybrid running Windows 7 and Android really does give you both. At first, the Lenovo machine looks just like a regular laptop, although a bit small with a 10.1-inch screen. But as Lenovo "brand ambassador" Stephen Miller demonstrated, you can switch between Windows 7 and Android with a simple flip of a switch. And even more amazing, the notebook running Windows acts as a dock for the Android tablet, letting users remove the monitor and use it in just the same way you'd expect to use any Android-based tablet.
Lenovo calls it "the IdeaPad U1 hybrid with LePad slate, a unique two-in-one device that combines the mobility of a media-rich, high-definition slate featuring access to Android applications and a keyboard base that provides a full Windows 7 computing experience."
While moving from Windows to Android on the IdeaPad seemed almost instantaneous, it took a bit longer to move from Android back to Windows. An adventurous user could potentially solve that small problem by replacing Windows with the faster-booting Ubuntu Linux. But the switching times between Android and Windows are small enough that it probably wouldn't bother most users.
While iPads, iPhones and Androids are already moving into corporate networks, I can't help but think that a tablet/notebook combo running both Windows and Android will make the whole concept even more palatable to IT directors. Even those IT shops that aren't quite ready for Android would be willing to let users hook up a Windows notebook to corporate systems.
The specs for Lenovo's hybrid IdeaPad are impressive compared to standard netbooks, but may not live up to the full laptop experience. A spec sheet distributed by Lenovo shows two different sets of statistics, one for notebook mode and one for slate, as the system consists of two different devices. In notebook mode, IdeaPad runs an Intel Core i5 processor with speeds of 1.2 GHz and 2GB of memory. By way of comparison, the Windows 7-based Lenovo ThinkPad I am typing this blog post on has double the RAM and processor speed.
In slate mode, IdeaPad will have a 1.3 GHz processor from Qualcomm, 1GB of RAM and 16 or 32GB of flash storage. The notebook portion, by the way, will have a sizable 320GB hard drive. The system demonstrated at CES had one USB port but no disc drive or SD card slot.
You'll be able to buy the tablet portion by itself for about $520 but the whole system including the Windows 7 notebook will set you back $1,300, more than twice the cost of a basic Apple iPad.
The price point "is more notebook-y" than a typical tablet, Miller notes. But the cool design and usefulness of the Windows/Android combo will be alluring to a wide range of consumers and business users, he predicts.
"Everybody wants a tablet. Everybody still has a notebook," he says.
Still, the $1,300 price point makes it nearly as expensive as a version of the Apple MacBook Air that has a larger screen and 4GB of RAM. Tablets are definitely the cool product of 2011, so perhaps the combination of a notebook and tablet will convince consumers that it's worth buying even if they're not getting the same amount of power they might receive in a traditional laptop.
Lenovo is trying to build excitement for the new IdeaPad even though it's not for sale in the United States yet. The demo version is running Android 2.2, and Lenovo will release a commercial version in the U.S. once Google unfurls Android 3.0, expected this summer, Miller says. The commercially available version will also feature newer Intel chips and graphics processors.
The IdeaPad hybrid will be available earlier in China, in the first quarter of this year.
While Lenovo's Windows/Android tablet looks like an enticing device, it will have plenty of competition for the spotlight at CES. NEC, for example, is expected to show off a dual-screen tablet running Android and there are likely to be many other interesting takes on the tablet space. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will give a keynote speech Wednesday, and it's possible he could discuss how future versions of Windows or Windows Phone 7 might play into the tablet market (although some reports say Microsoft will instead discuss a new television offering at CES). Whatever happens on the tablet front, we'll keep you updated the rest of the week at CES.
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
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