HP, Samsung Face Identity Crisis With Tablet-Laptop Hybrids

Gadget makers are now creating a new class of computer that’s supposed to be the best of both worlds, in an attempt to grab market share from Apple. Does anyone want these things?

At a hotel in New York City earlier this week, HP showed off the HP Envy x2…notebook? Er, tablet. Sorry, no, it’s the HP Envy x2 notebook-tablet.


The device is part of a growing trend of products that OEMs are tagging “hybrid PCs,” which attempt to combine tablets and laptops. Essentially these devices are the modern-day equivalent of the “all-in-one PC,” the arbitrary branding manufacturers used for all-purpose devices for gaming, media, and productivity. (See: every PC.) Not wanting to lose out on either market, device makers have decided to have their cake and eat it too by attacking tablets and laptops at the same time, a strategy that has led to an identity crisis. “It’s called the x2, like times two, because it’s two designs,” says David Conrad, director of product management at HP. “It’s not just a tablet; it’s not just a PC.”

The Envy x2 is a sleek 11.6-inch tablet with an aluminum finish. The tablet is super thin at 8.5 mm (“slimmer than an iPad,” boasts Conrad) and also super lightweight. That is, without the bulky keyboard HP has glued to the Envy’s bottom.

The Envy x2 would be gorgeous on its own–by far the most compelling tablet we’ve seen thus far from HP–yet the company sees benefit to adding a laptop-like keyboard to the device–to arbitrarily make it match a laptop’s size and solidity. “Because it’s a notebook that can be a tablet, we wanted to make sure it was believable as a notebook in the way it looks and feels,” Conrad says. “We’ll only sell it like this; we won’t sell it in two pieces. We can’t just have a clip-on keyboard.”

HP is performing marketing acrobatics to make sure consumers don’t view the Envy x2 as a tablet with an “attachable keyboard,” which it is: The hard drive and other guts of the PC are in the tablet; the keyboard simply contains some extra ports and battery life. But HP is intent on calling it a “detachable screen that becomes a full tablet when separated from the keyboard.” Again, this distinction is arbitrary: According to HP, it’s not an “attachable keyboard” simply because the keyboard feels more laptop-like than the accessories we’re used to attaching to iPads?

HP isn’t the only device maker facing this identity crisis. This week, Samsung also showed off its Slate PCs, tablet-laptops that can pop off a keyboard console to become a full-fledged tablet. Dell unveiled its XPS Duo hybrid. Asus has touted its Padfone as a (circus-like) “3-in-1 device,” wherein the smartphone can become a tablet, and the tablet can become a laptop, and the Stylus pen can become a phone. (Seriously.) And Microsoft has received much press for its Surface tablet, which features a built-in kickstand and attachable cover that doubles as a keyboard. (If the Surface works as Microsoft says, it will be the most creative solution to the problem we’ve seen yet.)

In that sense, we’re a whole new class of tablets that want to be PCs, and PCs that want to be tablets. HP boasts that this “solves the ‘Do I bring my notebook or tablet?’ dilemma.” That’s simply not true: When facing this dilemma before heading to work or hopping on a flight, consumers will still have to ask, “Do I bring my notebook or tablet?” The dilemma isn’t solved simply because the devices are combined. Rather, it’s created a new dilemma of having to consider bringing along accessories like attachable keyboards and Stylus pens.


Apple, from its perch high above as the top seller of tablets, has avoided this problem altogether, and watched as its competitors have struggled to differentiate their products. “Anything can be forced to converge,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a recent earnings call. “The problem is that the [converged] products are about tradeoffs: You begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left at the end of day is not pleasing to anyone. Some people will prefer to have both [together], but to make the compromise of convergence–we’re not going to that party. Others might, but we’re going to play them both [separately].”

Added Cook, “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are not going to be pleasing to the user.”

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.