Invasion of the tabletop tablets: Are these fiendishly clever hybrids the ultimate family PCs?

At a Glance
  • LENOVO, INC. IdeaCentre Horizon 27

    PCWorld Rating
  • Dell XPS 18 Touch With Stand

    PCWorld Rating
  • Sony Tap 20 SVJ20217CXW All-in-One PC

    PCWorld Rating
  • Asus Transformer AiO P1801

    PCWorld Rating

Windows 8 has spurred a lot of unusual hardware designs, but few are as intriguing as the tabletop tablet. Imagine a full-fledged all-in-one PC that lies flat on whatever surface you have handy. It's a design that offers all the screen real estate and CPU performance of a touchscreen all-in-one, along with the portability of a battery-operated tablet.

With display sizes ranging from 18.4 inches to 27 inches, the new hybrids are ostensibly perfect for modernizing "family game night." And, indeed, these machines are bundled with touchscreen versions of board games, air hockey, poker, and other digital diversions. If you use these PCs as their manufacturers intended, your hybrid machine will be a family-room desktop computer by day and a living-room gaming platform by night.

But is this an experience that consumers want or even need? Asus, Dell, Lenovo, and Sony sure hope so. Each computer maker took an independent path toward the invention of this novel form factor, though the companies were certainly compelled by a single market force: Traditional PC sales are falling off a cliff. HP plans to get into the game, too, but its Envy Rove won’t ship until July.

As with any experiment in crossbreeding, the goal is to generate a new life form that's superior to its parents. Is that what happened here? Yes and no.

None of these machines pose a threat to Apple’s iPad or any small tablet running Android or Windows 8. After all, these monsters are too big to fit in a backpack or messenger bag. And three of the four lack a key feature common to the best all-in-ones: an HDMI input, which allows you to plug in a gaming console or set-top box and use just the display. Finally, none of these computers provide enough GPU horsepower to fully support graphically intense games such as BioShock Infinite or the latest Call of Duty installments.

Lenovo
Thanks to their massive touchscreens, you can operate these giant hybrids flat on a table or propped up in your lap.

That said, the new tabletop tablets deliver all the key features we've come to expect from all-in-one PCs, including the ability to run all the same software, and to connect to printers and other peripherals. And by virtue of their large displays, the new hybrids deliver better Web browsing and media streaming than any tablet I’ve used. Finally, while action games may not make sense for this new kind of system, these machines could reinvent multiplayer gaming, with multiple people gathering around a single, giant tablet to play electronic versions of Monopoly or Risk.

Could this new form factor save the desktop-PC industry? “Portable all-in-ones alone won't help revitalize the PC market,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insight and Strategy. "But combined with hybrids, convertibles, and thin notebooks, they will have a positive impact. Ironically, success comes down, in part, to a successful reception of Windows 8, which currently lacks enough apps to inspire some buyers."

Some of these all-in-one/tablet hybrids are better than others, but all of them are interesting. And whatever you think of Windows 8, you can thank Microsoft’s maligned OS for their existence. Read on to discover how well each company executed on the promise of marrying the all-in-one desktop PC to the portable Windows 8 tablet.

Asus Transformer All-in-One P1801

While Dell, Lenovo, and Sony adopted the same essential design for their respective all-in-ones, Asus—in typically inconoclastic Asus fashion—took a completely different approach. In fact, a better description of Asus's machine might be “all-in-two,” because the Transformer All-in-One P1801 is essentially two discrete computers, each with its own CPU and operating system.

The Transformer P1801’s base houses one computer powered by a quad-core 3.1GHz Intel Core i5-3450 CPU and 8GB of DDR3/1600 memory. When the 18.4-inch, ten-point-touch display is docked to the base, the combination functions as a conventional desktop all-in-one. Remove the display from the dock, and it becomes a giant tablet running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). The display provides a native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels.

Asus
Asus took the most daring design route, but its remote-desktop mode is problematic.

The base unit is a well-equipped computer all its own. In addition to the quad-core CPU, it has a discrete graphics processor (Nvidia’s GT 730M, with its own 2GB frame buffer), a 1TB 7200-rpm hard drive, wired and wireless network adapters (gigabit ethernet and 802.11n), a DVD burner, four USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port (occupied by the transceiver for the wireless mouse and keyboard), and a memory card reader.

The base also has built-in speakers, mic and headphone jacks, and an HDMI output so it can connect to an external monitor. With a second monitor attached to the system, one person can use the base station as a regular Windows 8 computer while someone else uses the display as an Android tablet.

ROBERT CARDIN
The Windows computer is in the Transformer P1801's base, and can run independently of the Android computer in its detachable display.

That’s because the tablet has its own quad-core microprocessor—an Nvidia Tegra 3—with 32GB of flash memory. You can access the storage in both the tablet and the base station while you're using the system in Windows mode, but the Android side can see only the tablet storage. The tablet has its own 802.11n Wi-Fi network adapter, so you can surf the Web as well as download, install, and use Android apps and games. While the display is docked and the Transformer P1801 is operating in Windows mode, you can initiate a download and undock the display, and the download will continue uninterrupted.

The display has its own stereo speakers, a mic/headphone combo jack, one USB 2.0 port, and a memory card reader, but its 1-megapixel webcam operates only while it’s in PC mode. The display’s built-in handle makes it easy to carry, and its fold-out stand lets you use it on a table or desktop (reclining at up to a 100-degree angle). The Transformer P1801’s display is only slightly heavier than that of Dell’s XPS 18 Touch, weighing 5.29 pounds.

In addition, the Transformer P1801 has a third mode that renders it truly unique in this group: It can switch between running as an Android tablet and as a remote Windows 8 desktop. This flexibility means you can remove the display from its base and take it into another room, where it will function as a wireless touchscreen for the Windows 8 session running on the docking station. You have limited range in this mode, however, and response time can be laggy. Most people will find having a truly portable Windows computer to be a better value.

The Dell XPS 18 Touch scored better on our WorldBench 8.1 Desktop benchmark suite—earning a mark of 171 to the Transformer P1801’s 153—but we can attribute that difference primarily to the presence of the SSD cache drive on Dell’s machine. The Transformer P1801 performed better with games and productivity apps. The Asus model delivers a better price/performance ratio too, especially when you consider that you can use its base unit as a PC (provided that you connect another display) while someone else uses its display as an Android tablet. But the Dell unit has more sex appeal.

Asus Transformer P1801

Pros:

Two computers in one

Desktop Core i7 CPU in the base unit

1TB, 7200 rpm hard drive

Cons: 

Mode switching can be clumsy 

Webcam not functional in Android mode

No HDMI input on either the base or the display

Bottom line: 

The Transformer All-in-One is a world apart from the other portable all-in-ones we’ve seen, but it’s not as sexy as Dell’s XPS 18 Touch.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Dell XPS 18 Touch

The XPS 18 Touch is one of the best tablet/all-in-one hybrids I’ve seen, but I hope Dell introduces a second, larger model. While an 18.4-inch touchscreen is ginormous for a portable computer, it’s just a little small for a desktop machine.

The screen boasts a high resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, however, and photos, movies, and websites look great on it. And since the device is outfitted with an Intel Centrino Wireless-N 2230 Wi-Fi adapter, you can stream its video output to a big-screen TV with a built-in Wi-Di adapter or to a box (such as Netgear’s NeoTV) that can connect to any TV. The XPS 18 Touch provided very good battery life of 4 hours while streaming HD video in our tests, so it should last much longer if you’re just surfing the Web.

ROBERT CARDIN
Don't buy a Dell XPS 18 Touch without its excellent stand.

Because the system relies on the graphics processor integrated into the CPU—a low-power 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U with hyperthreading support—you shouldn’t expect to play hard-core games on it. While it did manage to run Dirt Showdown at the display’s native resolution at a rate of 44.9 frames per second, it turned Crysis 3 into a slideshow, with a frame rate of just 1.5 fps. Its all-around performance was much better, achieving a WorldBench 8.1 Desktop score of 171 (compared to our reference all-in-one system, an Acer Aspire U A5600U-UB13, which scored 100).

The XPS 18 Touch has 8GB of DDR3/1600 memory. And unlike your typical tablet, this device comes with a 500GB hard drive (supplemented by a 32GB SSD acting as cache), plus a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. The tablet has a media card reader, two USB 3.0 ports, and a combo headphone/microphone jack. A 720p webcam is built into the top bezel, alongside a dual-mic array for Skype videoconferencing.

Measuring only 0.7 inch thick and weighing less than 5 pounds, the XPS 18 Touch is easy even for small children to carry. Two plastic feet flip out of the back for use as a conventional all-in-one on a desk or tabletop with the mouse and keyboard. Alternatively, you can lay it almost flat (completely flat if you fold the feet in) or prop it up in your lap and use the touchscreen.

ROBERT CARDIN
The Dell XPS 18 Touch is amazingly thin and light.

Dell bundles two games that take advantage of the touchscreen display when it’s lying flat: the music game Fingertapps Instruments and an air-hockey simulator. Games and programs that rely on finger taps, such as pinball simulators and the aforementioned music game, offer the best experience with touchscreens. While playing the air hockey game, I noted considerable lag between the time I slid my finger across the screen and the graphically rendered puck responded.

Dell also provides a sturdy stand (an optional accessory on the less-expensive models) that will charge the tablet’s battery on contact. But the stand doesn’t provide much in the way of guidance as you lower the display into it. A Dell spokesperson said this was an intentional design decision, so that children wouldn’t need to place the display in precisely the right spot, but the tablet won’t charge if they don’t. (Personally, I wouldn’t want small children toting an 18-inch tablet around the house in the first place. But that’s just me.)

The XPS 18 Touch’s smaller dimensions render it much more transportable than my other favorite monster tablet, the Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon, and its ultrathin profile and low weight beat the tar out of the Asus Transformer All-in-One P1801 and the Sony Tap 20. I like it a lot.

Dell XPS 18 

Pros: 

Very thin and very light

Supports Intel's Wireless Display technology

32GB SSD for fast boot times

Cons: 

No discrete GPU

5400 rpm hard drive

Plastic feet feel flimsy

Bottom line:

It's great to see such a solid execution of a new form factor this early in the game. The XPS 18 Touch would be even more exciting if Dell took a page out of Asus' playbook and added a more functional dock.

Rating: 4 stars

Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon

Lenovo’s IdeaCentre Horizon is the boldest expression of the portable all-in-one concept to reach the market. Asus, Dell, and Sony have giant tablets. Lenovo has a computer the size of a tabletop—its display measures a full 27 inches. In fact, the company showed us the prototype of a cool rolling stand for the Horizon earlier this year, but it’s not yet available for sale.

Lenovo does bundle several other accessories for playing games on the Horizon, including four joysticks, four strikers (for playing air hockey), and one example of “e-dice” (a wireless die that informs the computer which number is face up after a roll). The Horizon comes with a variety of games that take advantage of its tablelike design, including Monopoly, air hockey, and roulette.

Lenovo
The Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon's massive 27-inch screen is its biggest selling point, but that feature also makes this computer exceedingly heavy.

The large display renders the Horizon the best all-in-one PC in this group, as well as the best casual gaming platform, but it has one drawback: Its resolution is limited to 1920 by 1080 pixels. If you’re a stickler for detail when it comes to precision tasks such as photo editing, you probably won’t like seeing the pixels spread so far apart. But that’s not the type of application Lenovo’s engineers had in mind when they designed this machine.

At a Glance
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