A few thoughts on laptop/tablet hybrids

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Resurrected from the dead for 2011, the Lenovo Ideapad U1/LePad hybrid tablet/laptop takes the concept of hybrid tablet/laptops to a new level. However, they could have done so much better, at least in my opinion. Read on to find out what this device is, and how they should have done it according to my fantasies.

It’s practically impossible to find any hard info on this device as it was originally showed off last year but then scrapped and brought back with the same name but whole new set of specs as OSes utilized. From what I’ve found though, the current iteration of the LePad tablet has a 10.1″ screen, 1.3Ghz Snapdragon single-core CPU, 8 hours of battery life and Android 2.2. This is pretty crappy as far as specs go these days, but it has a trick up its sleeve: it’s also the screen on the Lenovo Ideapad U1. We’re not talked a keyboard dock that adds a keyboard to the tablet like Asus’ Transformer, instead we’re talking a fully spec’ed laptop which has a tablet dock instead of a screen.

The idea here is that when docked, the tablet will act as the display for a Windows 7 computer with a 1.2GHz Intel Core i5-540UM CPU (with i7 options available). Unfortunately there’s WAY too little information available about this thing, so it’s hard to say how well they’ve made it work. Judging by the specs of the tablet, it’s unlikely to be a revolutionary device.

This got me thinking though about what a company with ideas and resources could do with this idea. Imagine Apple deciding to merge the Macbook Air and the iPad 2 into a similar device. Here are some of the possibilities I can imagine off the top of my head:

  • Ability to run both OSX and the mobile OS at the same time and fast switch between them. Since different hardware runs the OSes, only the video input actually changes, so this is not an issue
  • Ability to access files from the other devices’ onboard memory from both OSes. Example: dock your iPad 2 into the AirDock, work on a document in Microsoft Office in OSX, then save it on what OSX reads as an external storage device which is in fact the iPad 2. Take the iPad 2 with you, open an an app (let’s call it AirDock Connect) and from there open the file in other apps, like Pages. Would also let you import files into AirDock connect to make them show up in OSX, of course.
  • Ability to charge the tablet from the dock’s battery, and the ability to extend the dock’s battery life with the tablet. The current 11″ MacBook Air has a 35Wh battery, the iPad 2 25Wh, so if you could make these “help eachother out” then a docked iPad 2 running in OSX mode only (not dual mode like I mentioned above, which would require the iPad 2’s internal hardware) could potentiall run for 8+ hours. Likewise, using the AirDock as a charger only (say you bring it on a business trip and don’t need to use OSX until you find an outlet, but your iPad is out of power) would let you charge the iPad fully. External batteries packs are expensive, this would double as one.
  • Ability to output video through the AirDock’s HDMI connector from the tablet OS, as well as use the USB ports and SD reader. In other words, what you need a camera connection kit or HDMI adapter for on today’s iPad 2 you could do with an AirDock. The current (11″) doesn’t have SD nor HDMI, but my imaginary AirDock has both, naturally!
  • Ability to connect to an external display and run both OSes at the same time; one on the tablet display, one on the external display. Pretty much any laptop (that doesn’t run Windows 7 Starter…) can do extended desktops, but this would run OSX on the external display (using the HDMI connector from the above bullet point) and iOS on the tablet display. As an example, I would then have Reeder open on the iOS side and reference article sources while writing an article here on NBT on the OSX side. If I was doing an app review, I could take screenshots on the iOS side and access them directly from the OSX side via the feature mention in bullet point 2.
  • Built in remote desktop software that would also support Ad-Hoc Wifi connections. Leave your AirDock in the charger at home and control it via 3G or Wifi from the other side of the city would be one possibility. Another would be to go into a conference, plug the AirDock into the projector, fire up Keybote with a presentation and then take a seat at the tablet, using the iPad and Ad-Hoc Wifi to control the presentation.
  • AirPlay: AirPlay is a great existing feature on iOS, but you need an Apple TV to send anything to your TV. With the AirDock, you simply connect that thing to the TV, and then bring the iPad with you on the couch. You can either use the remote desktop software to control OSx on the TV, use Apple’s existing Remote app to control iTunes running on the AirDock, or play videos, music and apps from iOS on the TV by using the AirDock as an AirPlay receiver.
  • Ability to use the dock’s hardware controls as game controls. APIs would be released to take advantage of keyboard controls and similar inputs in iOS. Like N.O.V.A 2’s price, portability and easy download method but not a fan of the controls? Plug in a mouse into the AirDock and rock out with full FPS controls on an iOS FPS game that you only paid $1 for.
  • Ability to automatically switch screen rotation using the iPad’s accelerometer. Are you a Photoshop user? Turn the Tablet upside down (screen resting on the tablet, keyboard pointing up), grab a stylus and edit your photos with a precision that would normally cost you insane amounts of money (Wacom digitizer displays).
  • 3G, GPS, Bluetooh, webcam. The iPad 2 has all of this, most laptops only have Bluetooth and a webcam. Surf with OSX from anywhere using the iPad as a modem, access Google Earth, maps etc with the GPS and skip the Bluetooth module and webcam on the AirDock altogether and use the ones in the iPad.

These are just the features that I personally thought up off the top of my head. If this type of hybrid concept is done right, the possibilities are endless. Having a tablet and and laptop separately means that you pay for the screen twice, and have features in one that you have to pay a lot of money to add to the other: 3G, GPS, SD card reader, USB port, HDMI output, extra battery power, webcam. Having a system like this integrates both with one another, and saves parts costs that can help bring down cost to make it cheaper than buying both separately. Everything I mention above are things that are possible today, with today’s technology. Someone just has to take those technologies and put them together.

My example was Apple based, because the slim form factor of both the Air and the iPad 2 would make the resulting device a slim device as well- and Apple also has the resources to do this. In reality though, Apple wouldn’t piss all over their Apple TV sales with the Airplay feature, and they certainly wouldn’t add all of this in an initial release- instead they’d roll it out maybe two features per year so that screen rotation and 3G access would be features of the AirDock 5. At the same time, none of the other bozos out there (Motorola, Lenovo, HP, Asus, etc) has the balls to invest what is needed for this to be what it can be instead of the half-assed product that the Lenovo option is. It’s just my silly dream either way, and if anyone actually makes a device that does this I’ll be thrilled no matter if it’s iOS, WebOS, Blackberry OS or Android

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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