Think different about convertibles

I saw this week's Top Shelf and it was very relevant to me as I was trying to decide on a new device to replace my laptop.

Phase 1

I've always agreed that a convertible device isn't as good a laptop as a pure laptop and isn't as good a tablet as a pure tablet. Where I disagreed was if this was the right way to look at things. Should people compare a Surface Pro to an iPad for thinness, lightness and battery life? Should they compare it to a laptop for screen size, comfortable keyboard and trackpad? I'd argued that no, the right way to look at such a convergence device was the other way around that compared to people trying to make the iPad into a laptop with a keyboard cover, the Surface Pro made a better laptop than an iPad. Compared to carting around a Macbook Air everywhere to watch movies on with the odd bit of typing, the Surface Pro was a better tablet than a Macbook Air.

This was quite a counter-intuitive way of thinking and not many people could understand this. The convergence device is never going to best a pure device on the characteristics of that device type. That's not the point. The point is that the flexibility in form factors and being ok at each form factor and the ability to carry a single device that suffices in each environment matters more than having the best at each type but at the cost of the weight and financial cost of carrying both.

With a Surface Pro, many desktop apps can't easily be controlled by the finger but they can at least be viewed and run and carried in a package that is 1KG instead of 2KG (MBA plus retina 10" iPad).

Phase 2

Phase 1 used to be how I thought but now my thoughts have evolved. I think convergence was the easy and wrong way to look at convertibles. We shouldn't be thinking of these devices as replacing a laptop and tablet. By doing so we are already constraining our thinking about these new devices and form factors.We are constraining ourselves to take a mixture of specifications and preferences that have so far defined what is the ideal e.g. thinness, lightness, long battery life, touch friendly OR powerful, good keyboard/trackpad, lap use, complex applications.

We should instead be thinking about a web of use cases, use styles and preferences. Take the Dell XPS 12 (XPS Duo in some markets). One could take the traditional approach of it is trying to replace a laptop and a tablet and come to the conclusion of worries about reliability relative to a laptop and weight compared to a tablet. Or one could think: I want a laptop to use at home on a desk and type etc, I want something watch movies on and read on the sofa and train. With that web of use cases, you want something that is a laptop first and foremost but you also want something that you can sit in your lap tablet-style and use (especially on small train seats with not a lot of space). With that particular seated use case, two-handed use is fine, weight and thinness don't and shouldn't matter so much but the ability to have a screen flat on your lap without the rest of the machine resting against your stomach matters.

Similarly with the Surface Pro. It could be considered like a portable Mac Mini - (plugged into external keyboard, mouse and monitor at home), then a thick but high-res screen on the train seat, a passable laptop at the desk in the hotel room. It's going to be rubbish for commuting on metro trains where you're standing up, it's going to be rubbish for using like a laptop in your lap. Does it fit your web of use-cases? (It also allows for 1:1 pixel mapping between an FHD movie and the screen).

I think we need to change the language of our communication in the tech world to something that is more helpful for readers. Instead of asking is it a better tablet than the iPad, is it a better laptop than the Samsung Book 9 Plus, let's talk about the use-cases something is going to hit.

The Dell XPS 12 makes crap tablet, if a tablet is defined as something holdable standing up in one hand. The surface Pro is a terrible laptop if it's defined as a computer you type on in your lap. You could talk about the Dell as a laptop that lets you watch movies on the train without worrying about the screen angle, or the Surface Pro as a small box with a screen that is passable in any situation.

TL:DR Rambled on and lost the gist of my point. My real point was: stop thinking of something as merging tablets and laptops and being in the middle of two ideals. Think of it as a laptop+ that trades off one use case for another, as a tablet+ trading off some things for others and that "pure" laptops and tablets are actually quite extreme product form factors than necessarily ideals.