Hardware: Is There a Reason to Upgrade?

By Carol Kopp  SEP 24, 2012 3:00 PM

As fall begins, computer manufacturers hope their new hybrid tablet PCs are powerful enough to move consumers and business.


MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL A decade or more after the last big wave of computer buying by consumers and businesses, hardware makers are hoping to convince them that it’s finally time to upgrade.
The timing is hardly ideal, given the aura of uncertainty about the US economy, signs of slower growth in Asia, and the near certainty of hard times ahead in Europe.
Worse, many businesses and consumers seem to have taken a vow never to replace a device until the old one literally starts shooting flames. This rule, notably, has not applied to the smartphone or the tablet, especially if it’s made by Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).
In part, that may be because the new ones looked just like the ones they replace. Maybe they were a little faster, sleeker, lighter, or more powerful, but there wasn’t much there to brag about.
That’s changing, right now and over the next few weeks. Virtually all of Apple’s competitors are hoping to create demand for a product that will combine in one device the functions of the tablet, the laptop, and -- in some cases -- the desktop. At least two new product introductions common to the non-Apple computing world are forcing this redesign of the basic black or silver box that is the computer. The producers of both these products have the deep pockets to make sure everybody hears about it many times a day from now through the holiday season:
  1. Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows 8 is about to be released for new devices, portable or desktop. The operating system has been thoroughly (if belatedly) redesigned from the ground up for a mobile world, with dual capabilities for touchscreen or keyboard use.
  2. Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) is producing new and more powerful chips for a category it has trade-named the “ultrabook,” which is intended to suggest laptop speed and power with a notebook’s smaller size and weight. Intel is by no means the only chipmaker working on that, but it owns the “ultrabook” tag, and the company is working to make it synonymous with light and speedy.
On and around the official late-October launch of Windows 8, more than 30 new devices for it, many carrying the “ultrabook” logo, will be introduced by computer makers including Acer, Asus, Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), Lenovo, Samsung, Sony (NYSE:SNE), and Toshiba. An Irish blogger is keeping track online.
These devices include laptops that convert to tablets as well as desktops with a touchscreen option, plus some products that throw in motion control and/or voice command capabilities. HP has an ultrabook with a screen that snaps off of its magnetic hinge to function as a tablet. Asus has its own model with a standard screen that flips around to be used as a touchscreen. Samsung will introduce hybrid screens up to a jumbo 27 inches in width that accept commands by hand gesture and voice as well as touch input.  Acer is showing a laptop that folds flat for touch screen input, while Toshiba’s touchscreen pops over the keyboard like a lid.
And then there’s Microsoft’s own version, the Surface, which uses the reverse side of the keyboard as a cover. Different versions of the Surface will run on chips from Intel and ARM Holdings.
As product design features, some of these are pretty minor. But all of them are trying for a better answer to a very contemporary problem: Why must we choose between a “media player,” or tablet, and a “workhorse,” or laptop, for a task, or a road trip, or a day out?
Nobody can say whether any or all of these options, or the operating system they run on, is spiffy enough to convince people to go with Microsoft instead of Apple.
At the high end, the models that use Intel’s ultrabook chips are struggling to keep their prices below $1,000, the price point they see as critical to wide acceptance. At the low end, they all fear that somebody — maybe Microsoft itself — will lowball it with a $199 device that nobody else can match.
The problem at the moment is that few of these devices have gotten a proper test-drive from reviewers, and none are in the stores. Expect the flood on or about October 26, when Microsoft officially launches Windows 8.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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