Why Two-in-Ones Are the Future of Laptop Computing

The definition of a laptop is getting cloudy.

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If you’re looking to buy a Windows-based laptop this holiday season, here’s something to consider: We in the industry know that most people who buy laptops keep and use them, on average, for 4.5 years. Over the last 15 years or so, the laptop form factor has stayed pretty much the same; the only thing people had to really consider was price, weight, screen size and processor.

But with the entry of products called two-in-ones and convertibles, the definition of a laptop is getting cloudy. These are products that can be either a tablet or a laptop based on their configurations. Starting this holiday, Intel and its partners are beginning a strong campaign to push two-in-ones and convertibles using the slogan “a tablet when you want it, and a laptop when you need it.”

There are over a couple of dozen to choose from now, but at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in early January, there will be at least 50 products introduced under this branding campaign. Some will be as low as $299, but most quality two-in-ones will start at around $499 and go up to as high as $1299 depending on the configuration.

I have seen many of them and some are highly innovative and very well designed. Many use Intel’s Bay Trail processors, although some even use Intel’s lower-voltage dual-core Y processors, which are performance processors that still help conserve battery life. Others use AMD’s newer low voltage processors too.

Up to now, the big issue around these products is that they have been considered tweeners — average tablets and only okay in laptop mode. But the new breed of two-in-ones that will come out next year are getting closer to being the best of both worlds.

A good example of this is the Dell Venue 11 Pro model that I have been testing. It has a dual-core Intel i5 Y processor, an 11-inch screen and an optional keyboard case that packs an extra battery. The tablet by itself gets about 7 hours of battery life and the keyboard battery option one promises as much as 14 hours of total battery life.

This product performs great as a tablet and when paired with the keyboard works just like a laptop. Interestingly, when I took it on a trip and had to go through security I assumed the TSA would consider it a tablet and let it stay in my bag when going through the X-ray machine. However, they made me put it through the X-ray because in its tablet/laptop combo configuration, they considered it a laptop.

All Things D just did a review of Lenovo’s newest Yoga and it, too, is a great product within this category.

There is another interesting thing that Intel is doing within this platform: As you probably know, the ecosystem of Windows 8 apps is very small compared to iOS and Android. Unfortunately, developers are just not flocking to Windows to create apps at the same pace as they are for iOS and Android. This is a huge problem for Windows buyers since the lack of apps is a real consideration when thinking about buying a Windows 8.1 system. Some PC vendors are doing something called PC Plus, which will launch at CES. This means that a PC Plus machine will run Windows 8.1 but will also run Android apps as well. They are doing this through software emulation. I’m not sure what kind of performance you can expect, but this is their way to try and bring more touch-based apps to the Windows ecosystem.

The folks from Bluestacks also have an Android-on-Windows product that I have tested. I consider it a better solution, but Intel’s PC Plus initiative just validates that Bluestacks was on the money when it created this cross-platform design years ago.

So expect to see a lot of Windows systems that can also run Android apps in the New Year. By the way, Google does not actually sanction this and Microsoft has not taken a position on this dual-OS integration idea yet. It will be interesting to see if this takes off and, if so, how Google and Microsoft will feel about it once it hits the market.

There is also another interesting angle to these in that some of them have docking stations so they can be connected to a monitor, thus making them three-in-ones: a tablet, a laptop and a desktop. The Dell Venue Pro I am testing is an example. This brings a great deal of versatility to this platform. If I go off to a lunch, I just take the tablet. When at my desk, I just dock it to the monitor. In meetings, I take the tablet with the keyboard and use it as a laptop.

This type of versatility is quite compelling and as these products get more powerful, I believe they will literally become the future of laptop computing.

That said, if you are thinking of buying a new Windows laptop this holiday, I suggest you consider one of these two-in-ones or convertibles. If you are buying a traditional laptop and, like most, expect to use it for at least three to four years, products like these give you perhaps a more future-proofed design. With add-ons, they can actually stay more up-to-date over this time frame. Also, even if the emphasis is on it being a laptop, the extra feature of the screen turning into a tablet with all of your apps, data and files makes them an even a better option if you find one that really meets your needs.

There is one caveat, though: While two-in-ones are becoming better and I think they represent the future of laptops, many people are still buying traditional laptops along with a tablet that’s used as a secondary device. That could be a good strategy, too. Yet, if you look at these two-in-ones and convertibles, many are really compelling as versatile replacements for mainstream laptops. At the very least, I believe you should do some homework to see if one would work for your particular needs.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.