CES Dispatches: Sony, Lenovo revive tabletop PC idea

Intel and its PC allies are reviving an idea that many in the industry had given up for dead long ago: tabletop computers.

As a result, for the first time in more than a decade, the desktop PC industry is starting to see some innovative new designs that don’t come from Apple and aren’t inspired by the Mac maker.

In recent years, much of the innovation in PCs has come on the laptop side of things. First netbooks, then ultrabooks and now convertibles emerged as whole new categories of notebook computers.

On the desktop side of things, the PC makers have largely decided to follow Apple’s lead when it comes to new designs. Each generation of iMac has quickly been followed by a host of look-alikes.

But taking a page from their work on convertibles, which represent the industry’s attempt to make laptops more tablet-like, PC makers are starting to make more portable desktops. I know that sounds like an oxymoron; almost by definition, desktops aren’t portable. But it’s true.

At the Consumer Electronics Show here in Las Vegas, Lenovo and Sony are demonstrating all-in-one PCs that can be taken off the desktop and used on your kitchen or coffee table.

The new machines have large screens like traditional desktops — 27-inches in the case of the Lenovo machine, 21.5-inches on the Sony one. But they also include batteries and multi-touch capable touchscreens. The former allows you to carry them around and use them without immediately looking for a power outlet. The latter allows multiple users to interact with them at the same time without needing keyboards or mice.

At it’s booth on Tuesday and during its press conference on Monday, Intel demonstrated how consumers could lay these new desktops flat on a table and play family-style games on them. So, multiple family members could gather around and play Monopoly or air hockey. Or friends could play poker, using their smartphones to display their individual hands, while using the tabletop PC as the table.

The idea of tabletop computers has been around for years now. Microsoft made a big push on such devices nearly five years ago when it introduced the original Surface, later dubbed PixelSense. Unlike the new tabletop machines, Surface used a system of cameras, not touch-sensitive screens, to determine when users were interacting with it. And while the new tabletop computers are relatively thin — somewhere around 6 inches in the Lenovo’s case — the original Surface was big and chunky, resembling an old tabletop video game machine you might find in an arcade or at your local pizzaria.

It remains to be seen whether the new generation of tabletop PCs will catch on with consumers. Sony’s Vaio Tap 20 just hit store shevles in October, while the Lenovo IdeaCenter Horizon won’t go on sale until this summer. The VaioTap carries a $880 starting price, which is nearly double the average price consumers were paying recently for PCs of all kinds — laptops and desktops. No word yet on what the larger Horizon will cost.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (274 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.