CES dispatches: Convertibles take the stage

One of the themes of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show is likely to be convertibles: computers that can switch between laptop and tablet modes.

On Sunday, at several preview events, we members of the media got a glimpse at some of the convertibles that will be on display here. What we saw were a variety of different designs, each of which exploring the idea of what it means to have a device that can replace two other gadgets. In fact, Shawn DuBravac, the chief economist and senior director of research at the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs CES, expects some 30 to 40 different convertible designs to be on display once the show floor opens on Tuesday.

Among the convertibles I saw at the preview events were two from Lenovo and one from Toshiba, all of which were running Microsoft’s Windows 8.

At CES Unveiled, the official pre-show sponsored by CEA, Lenovo was demonstrating its ThinkPad Helix and IdeaPad Yoga convertibles, each of which offers a different twist on the theme.

The Helix, which will go on sale in the first quarter, features a detachable screen. What’s different about it is that users can re-attach the screen either so that it faces the keyboard or so that it faces away from it. This allows you to use it either like a traditional laptop or, by reversing the screen and folding it back on top of the keyboard, to use it like a large tablet with an extra-long-lived battery.

Lenovo plans to offer the Helix, which has an 11.6-inch screen, with a starting price of about $1,500. The device offers 10-total hours of battery life — but only when its two parts are connected together. The tablet-like screen, which is 1.8 pounds, only offers 6 hours by itself.

The Yoga, by contrast, doesn’t offer a detachable screen. Instead, it’s screen is connected to a hinge that can turn nearly 360 degrees. That allows you to fold the screen back on top of the bottom of the computer to use it like a tablet or to fold it part way and prop it up like an A-frame house to display images.

The computer has sensors inside it that can detect the viewing angle of the screen and flip what’s displayed so that its right-side up, no matter the screen’s angle. And it includes sensors that will detect when the screen is folded back on the keyboard to turn the keys off so you don’t accidentally enter text.

Lenovo actually introduced the Yoga last year, but this year it’s offering a new 11-inch model that it plans to offer for $800 and up starting this summer. Unlike the previous 11-inch model, the new model includes an Intel processor and full Windows 8, rather than Windows RT.

Meanwhile, at its own press event, Toshiba showed off its Satellite U925t convertible. Like the Yoga, the U925t’s screen folds instead of detaches. But the U925T’s screen folds in a different way.

Instead of closing shut like a typical laptop, its screen folds back to 180 degrees, then slides forward to cover its keyboard. That’s both how you convert it into a tablet and how you store it when you’re not using it. The Toshiba representative I spoke with assured me that the Gorilla Glass screen won’t get scratched in a bag even though it’s not protected; I remain skeptical.

The U925T features a 12-inch screen and Toshiba is offering it for $1,200.

The potential advantage of convertibles is that they allow users to replace two devices — tablets and traditional laptops. But they offer significant compromises. They’re more expensive, heavier and tend to have shorter battery lives than tablets. And they are thicker, heavier and often more expensive than non-convertible, ultra-thin laptops.

What’s more, they’re dependent on Windows 8, an operating system I’ve panned for being difficult to use. Too often users are likely to find themselves in the frustrating position of having to use the old, traditional Windows desktop while their convertibles are in tablet mode or using Windows 8’s new touch-screen interface while in laptop mode.

Still, it’s exciting to see all the experimentation with computer designs, even if few — or none — catch on with consumers.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (250 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.