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Is it a laptop? A tablet? Whatever, PC makers just hope you'll buy it

Vendors like Asus, Acer and Gigabyte are trying out everything to find the winning formula among consumers

By and Michael Kan, IDG News Service
June 07, 2012 11:52 AM ET

IDG News Service - One thing apparent at Computex this week is that computer makers really aren't sure what consumers want in a PC, and they're throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

There might never have been such a wide variety of computer styles on display as there are here in Taipei. Many use Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 OS, or the Windows RT version for ARM-based processors. Others run Google's Android software, though that OS has been less visible this year than last.

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There are laptops with screens that twist and fold in every direction, some with touch-screens and some without. There are 7-inch tablets and 10-inch tablets, and tablets that come with attachable keyboards and others that don't. The line between a tablet and a laptop has almost ceased to exist.

There's an all-in-one PC with a large monitor that can be unclipped and carried like a giant tablet, and other monitors that can be turned on their side in portrait mode. There's a smartphone that snaps into a tablet that snaps into a keyboard, turning the whole thing into a laptop.

The products are made possible by better, cheaper components, by the new touch interface in Windows 8 and by Intel's ultrabook formula. But they're also driven by a sense of urgency among PC makers, desperate for a hit product that can outrun the iPad and revive their fortunes.

"We were expecting to see a lot of experimentation at the show and we got it," said IDC analyst Brian Ma. It's probably good for consumers, who get to vote with their wallets to decide the winners. But many designs will surely fail or be relegated to niche markets. Charles Darwin would be impressed.

One of the more inventive companies is Asustek Computer, which popularized the netbook a few years ago. Asus Chairman and impresario Jonney Shih had more surprises at a news conference Monday. One was the Taichi, which looks like a standard Windows notebook, except that when the lid is closed the outside can act as a second, touch-screen display, so the device becomes a tablet.

It's not bulky, either; Asus says the Taichi is as light as its Zenbook. And when the lid is open, the inner laptop screen and the outer tablet screen can be used simultaneously, so people sitting opposite each other can both view what's on the display. It could be useful for presentations and sales pitches, or it might not be useful at all: Time will tell.

Also unusual was Asus's Transformer AiO, which looks like a normal, all-in-one PC but has detachable, 18.4-inch touch-screen that can be used as a wireless display. More unusual, at the push of a button the display can switch from Windows 8 to Android, becoming "the world's biggest tablet," as Shih put it, carting it across the stage under his arm. Unfortunately, the screen froze during his demo and he had to move on.

Acer also has a new all-in-one PC, shown by Microsoft's Steve Guggenheimer in his keynote Wednesday, with a large monitor that can swivel on its side into portrait mode. He also showed an Acer laptop whose ports are hidden at the back to make it as thin as possible, but which drop down when needed at the push of a button in a half-centimeter panel.

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