I attended a press briefing for a new kind of portable computing device which its inventors are calling a “laptop” and have been trying out a review sample.
Unlike today’s one-piece slate form factor, the laptop has a hinged top which when open forms the screen. The lower piece, called the keyboard, has physical buttons representing the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and other useful inputs, more or less matching the on-screen input panel we are used to.
The makers claim that a keyboard is faster to use than an input panel, but I am not convinced. One of the problems is that you are either looking at the screen, or the keyboard, and it takes a lot of practice to type without looking at the keyboard and missing what is appearing on the screen.
The real benefit is that without an input panel, there is more space on the screen for the application. Still, bearing in mind that the input panel disappears when not in use, this is not really such a big deal.
The downside of the laptop is that the two-piece design makes it bulkier and potentially more delicate than a conventional tablet. I also found that while it works fine on a desk, in a constrained space such as in an aeroplane seat the hinge design is awkward to use, and on several occasions I gave in to the frustration and used my normal tablet instead.
If you are standing up, the laptop is horrible to use, whereas a tablet works fine: you can hold it in one hand and control it with the other.
Laptops will be more expensive than tablets because of the more complex design, though we were shown a cheaper variant that has a passive screen which does not respond to touch.
This is odd to use; at first you find yourself constantly stabbing at the screen by mistake, but eventually you can train yourself to do everything with the keyboard. Just make sure you do not ever switch back to a tablet, otherwise when you come back to the laptop you will find yourself stabbing the screen again!
In order to mitigate the lack of touch control on these low-end devices, the designers have added an on-screen pointer which you can think of as a virtual finger. A small area in the centre of the keyboard is touch-sensitive, and moving your finger there moves the on-screen “finger”. You can then tap or click a button to simulate a finger tap.
It is a clever idea, though operating at one remove from the screen itself takes some getting used to. In the end though, it feels like a step backwards and for most users the extra cost of the normal touch screen is well worth it.
My view: for certain specialist tasks the laptop may catch on, but I cannot see it succeeding in the mass market.
Inspired by Ten failings that will check the tablet’s rise