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Turning the tables on the traditional home computer

Tabletop PCs are a new category of device that can be used as a giant, family-sized tablet or paired with a keyboard and a mouse and operated like a traditional desktop computer. The next big home computing trend or a flash in the pan?

business Updated: Jun 05, 2013 11:00 IST

Tabletop PCs are a new category of device that can be used as a giant, family-sized tablet or paired with a keyboard and a mouse and operated like a traditional desktop computer. The next big home computing trend or a flash in the pan?

Described as an all-in-one, all around the home, the HP Envy Rove is the latest in a growing line of what are being dubbed tabletop PCs. Its 20-inch display can be laid flat and used as a giant tablet, or with its stand extended, as a traditional monitor for use with a keyboard and mouse.

Less than a year ago, the tabletop PC didn't exist, then Microsoft rolled out the Windows 8 operating system, which is optimized for both touch and keyboard input and Sony took a chance on a new form factor that made the most of the OS. Called the VAIO Tap 20, it launched in November and when placed flat in ‘table' mode, supports multi-touch input from up to four different people simultaneously, making it perfect for browsing and sharing social media and adding a new dimension to multiplayer video gaming. Fast-forward six months and there is already a burgeoning range of such devices on the market from Dell, Asus and Lenovo too. With HP -- still the world's largest PC maker -- joining the market, it looks like the tabletop PC could become the next big consumer PC trend.

On paper, the concept is the perfect marriage of entertainment, multimedia consumption and productivity, especially for family homes and shared households where, before the invention of the tablet, everyone had to gather around a fixed desktop to look at a set of holiday photos or Skype a friend or relative.

However, some technology watchers remain skeptical: "Tabletop PCs, at this time in the computing market, are a solution looking for a market opportunity," says Jeff Orr, Senior Practice Director at ABI Research. He points to the original Microsoft Surface, which five years ago was a table-sized tablet designed for use in offices and public spaces such as bars and hotel lobbies to highlight that manufacturers have been experimenting for some time with this type of device which redefines the computer as an "interactive piece of furniture" rather than a "destination appliance."

"The applications for tabletop PCs so far have been limited and fairly novel, with most examples showing groups and families playing digital board games or acting as an information centre for solving TV-based mysteries," continues Orr.

Combining total functionality and mobility

Indeed, when Lenovo revealed its 27-inch IdeaCentre Horizon Table PC in January, the focus was on interactive gaming. It ships with a selection of pre-loaded games and apps from Electronic Arts among others as well as a special set of accessories that include four joysticks and "eDice" for playing virtual board games.

Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon Multimode Table PC boasts a 27-inch full HD display but weighs almost as much as a TV. Photo: AFP

Orr believes tabletops are part of a larger trend towards more portable all-in-one computers (AIO). "With the advancements in mobile technology and battery-powered handsets, we expect AIO PCs to incorporate batteries into designs that would allow for disconnecting from electrical power to move the system to other locations. This freedom of cords and location enables AIO PCs to be incorporated in ways similar to the tabletop PC concept without having costs and limited functionality obstruct the potential use cases," he says.

Asus's approach to the tablet is slightly different as the stand and the display of Transformer AiO P1801 are essentially two separate computers. Photo: AFP

Currently, each of the tabletops on the market offers only limited performance when cut from its cord with battery life between two and four hours. And although portable in the sense that they can move from room to room they can't replace a tablet in terms of ease of use. The Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon Table PC's 27-inch screen could prove difficult to carry around the home, never mind on public transport, but none of the other devices that fall into the same category so far are exactly small with either 18- or 20-inch displays.

However, unlike tablets, (with the notable exceptions of the Surface Pro and the Acer Iconia W3) these tabletops run the full desktop version of Windows 8 and in the case of Sony's VAIO tap 20 and ASUS Transformer AiO P1801, also support optical drives for burning DVDs and (in the case of Sony) watching Blu-ray films. What's more, they could be the key to making the traditional computer more sociable by tapping into the aspects of the internet, of gaming and of watching video that tablets and smartphones have unlocked, and taking them to another level. A shift that Lenovo calls "interpersonal computing."

The original tabletop PC, the Sony VAIO Tap 20 features a built-in optical drive for Blu-ray and DVDs. Photo: AFP

First Published: Jun 04, 2013 10:42 IST