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

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.

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.

Yet another Acer laptop, the aptly named Yoga, has a screen that folds out flat through 180 degrees, and then keeps folding all the way back on itself, so the device becomes a tablet with a keyboard on the back. Why? Maybe just because it can.

Not everything at the show is gimmicky. There are standard laptops in all sizes, made thinner and lighter thanks to the upcoming “Ivy Bridge” variant of Intel’s Atom processor, which can get by with smaller, lighter batteries. Gigabyte Technologies showed a laptop with a carbon fiber casing that weighs just 975 grams, lighter than Apple’s MacBook Air. The X11 will go on sale in the U.S. and Europe later this year from $999.

At the other end of the spectrum is Dell’s Alienware M18X, a hulking machine the size of a small briefcase with a “starting weight” of almost 5.5 kilograms. Billed as the “world’s most powerful laptop for gamers,” it’s priced from $1,999 on Dell’s website.

Toshiba, meanwhile, announced an ultrabook with an unusual, 21:9 aspect ratio, for watching movies in wide-screen format without black bars eating up screen space at the top and bottom. The Satellite U845W (called the U840W in Europe) is due later this year, priced from $999 in the U.S.

There’s also variety in the smartphones, with each trying to find the sweet spot for screen size, and most larger than the 3.5-inch iPhone. Samsung’s Galaxy Note, one of the biggest at 5.3-inches, has been disparagingly called a “phablet,” as it’s midway between a phone and a tablet. Its Galaxy S III, due later this year, will be 4.8 inches, while HTC’s One S is 4.3 inches.

Asus wins for the most out-there smartphone idea. The PadFone, which was announced in February and just went on sale in Taiwan, looks and operates like a normal Android phone but also snaps into the back of a tablet, in a concealed dock. The tablet is useless without the phone, but with the phone inside, the tablet uses its OS and processor and effectively gives the phone a larger screen.

The tablet has its own battery and can recharge the phone while it’s in the dock, and the whole set-up can snap into a keyboard, turning it into a laptop. There’s still no ship date outside Taiwan.

The designs here highlight a basic difference between Microsoft and Google on the one hand, and Apple on the other. Apple — which doesn’t attend Computex — spends years designing a small handful of products until it releases something it thinks is perfect. Microsoft and Google provide software, tools and some guidance to a multitude of vendors, and let them compete on the implementation.

The result is more variety in the worlds of Windows and Android, and sometimes lower prices, but whether the products here will be more successful remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: It’s become hard to say what some of them are.

“It’s hard to say what’s a tablet and what’s a notebook now,” said Gartner analyst Tracy Tsai. “Every notebook is a tablet, or every tablet is becoming a notebook. It’s all mixed together.”

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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