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New hybrid tablets are evolving

Surface Pro 2
Surface Pro 2
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Tablet computing has only been around for a few years. It was easy to predict that many of the best features of laptops and tablets would slowly combine into a new type of device. Hence, there is now an identifiable trend for hybrid devices. On June 4, 2014, Hewlett Packard announced its latest entry into the hybrid arena, riding the coattails of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 that was announced on May 18. Additionally, on June 3, 2014, Asus also announced a hybrid device in development.

Although the hybrid concept was first introduced by Microsoft with the introduction of the Surface Pro, the forward momentum for Windows hybrid tablets appears to be focused on Intel processors, support for pen input, larger 12 inch screens, usable keyboard attachments, and thinner/lighter profiles. While the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is currently the hybrid device leading the way, other vendors are not far behind, and will likely offer some superb alternatives in the not too distant future. The overall future of tablet hybrids is going to significantly benefit education.

The story continues to unfold. Windows tablets are moving to address productivity issues that often limit the usefulness of tablets in education, particularly in higher education and secondary levels. Productivity has been a key distinction between laptop functionality and tablet functionality. It makes a lot of sense to incorporate more powerful technology into tablets to make them more versatile.

Productivity in education moves beyond the simple ease of use. Although ease of use is always important, there are other factors that are perhaps more important in a device aligned with learning needs. Much of content creation requires keyboard input. Students create much of their work by writing papers and typing. The keyboard is still the primary method of user input for many student activities. The absence of an efficient keyboard with a tablet is too limiting for most students. LCD screen keyboards are suited to limited text input only. The rise of well designed attachable keyboards to hybrid devices that are efficient addresses a major need for students.

Note taking and annotating text are very prominent student needs. The ability to write naturally and effortlessly on a screen, much like writing on paper, is addressed through pen/stylus input. The Surface Pro and the newer generation of tablets will have active digitizers built in, thus enabling students to write naturally and efficiently. As the use of digital text increases, the need to annotate and write in margins of text becomes much more of a central issue. Many students do not enjoy reading digitally because of the difficulty of annotating. This is changing, and will benefit students perhaps more than any other user profile.

Windows tablets also offer the option to run any software as one would on a laptop. Microsoft Office continues to be the standard office software used in higher education, and also in secondary levels. While there are other alternatives, the Microsoft Office products are still the leader by a wide margin. The ability to run a full version of Office with no compromise is a big deal. Combined with the ability to run Windows software, a Windows based tablet offers much more software functionality iPad or Android tablets. Apps are great, but don't meet the full needs of students.

The powerful processors that will be part of the hybrid movement is notable. The Surface Pro 3 is mated with the latest generation of Intel processors. The same should follow with competing hybrid alternatives. The hardware will also include support for peripheral devices such as a printer or mouse. Mouse functionality for many software programs just makes the experience more productive. Touch cannot do everything, so it’s nice to have the option for a peripheral mouse when needed.

Like all new technology, the price always starts high. In the case of the Surface Pro 3, much too high for most schools and students. HP and Asus are tight lipped about their new products, and will not release any pricing information until the release, which is expected in the fall. Whether they will compete on features and/or price is unknown. It would be a safe assumption that the new devices will most probably fall in the $1000 range. Likely, students and schools will wait for the market to mature, and for prices to drop to more affordable levels.

The main issue is that devices are evolving, and the new functionality will serve students better than the current generation of tablets. It’s way too soon to declare that hybrids are ready to eclipse laptops, but it seems the future is being created.

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