At IFA, Convertible PCs Give Hope to Intel, Microsoft, Others

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-09-07

At IFA, Convertible PCs Give Hope to Intel, Microsoft, Others

PC makers from Lenovo and Toshiba to Asus and Sony at the IFA 2013 show in Berlin this week showed off new convertible systems that feature processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices and Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system.

Such two-in-one systems, which can be used as traditional laptops or as tablets, offer consumers and business users an alternative to the usual notebooks and the growing numbers of tablets, and are seen by some vendors and analysts as a way to halt the decline in worldwide PC sales, which have suffered in the wake of the rise of mobile devices.

It also gives vendors that have fallen behind the mobility trend—in this case, chip makers Intel and AMD as well as Microsoft—a chance to gain some traction in a mobile market where most devices are powered by energy-efficient systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) designed by ARM and made by Samsung, Qualcomm and others, and run Google's Android operating system or Apple's iOS.

Intel and others are putting a lot of time, effort and money to create the technology that will encourage OEMs to build these new convertible form factors, and if the product rollouts at IFA were any indication, system makers are giving it a shot. Lenovo at IFA unveiled new Yoga and Flex systems, all of which run on Intel chips and support Windows, while one of Toshiba's new offerings, the Satellite Click, is powered by AMD's A4 Elite Mobility chips. Like those offerings from Sony, Asus and others, these convertibles can be quickly transformed from notebooks to tablets and back.

"People around the world have told us they love the flexibility of Yoga and Horizon's multimodes," Tom Shell, vice president and general manager of Lenovo's Business Group PC Division, said in a statement from the show. "Our new Flex products represent this multimode future of PC design."

Intel officials have said over the past few months that the company's new Core chips based on the "Haswell" architecture and the upcoming "Bay Trail" Atom SoC based on the new "Silvermont" microarchitecture are helping fuel a range of new ultramobile form factors, including more than 50 two-in-one designs that CEO Brian Krzanich told analysts and journalists in July are "in the pipeline."

AMD is looking for similar responses to its recently released power-efficient "Kabini" and "Temash" low-cost chips. Microsoft officials are pushing Windows 8.1 for PCs and tablets alike.

However, it still remains to be seen whether consumers will gravitate to these systems—which offer better flexibility, pricing and power efficiency than traditional laptops—or will continue to spend their technology dollars on iPads and other tablets running iOS or Android and are powered by ARM-designed SoCs. As the new systems begin hitting the market and the holiday shopping season gets under way, vendors and analysts will get a better view of how things will shake out over the coming months.

"We view … the broadening of the tablet market as important," Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of AMD's global business units, said Sept. 4 during a presentation at the Citi 2013 Global Technology Conference. "I will also say, though, the blurring of the new form factor is something that we should pay attention to as a market. So the difference between a tablet and a convertible and a hybrid in terms of technology is not so much, and you will see this holiday season a number of new form factors coming out from the OEMs that will test the hypothesis around hybrid, how big is that market is going to be. You can see that they really start blurring with peer tablets and clam shelves. So I think that the key for me is to really see the new form factors and their adoption in the market."


At IFA, Convertible PCs Give Hope to Intel, Microsoft, Others

Global PC sales have been falling for several quarters as users have embraced devices like tablets that are touch-enabled and less expensive than many PCs. Many tech vendors were caught flat-footed by the rapid transition toward mobility, particularly in the years after the 2010 release of Apple's iPad. IDC analysts in July announced that in the second quarter, PC shipments fell 11.4 percent, and in August, they lowered their forecast for the year, saying shipments will decline 9.7 percent, despite the improvements in Windows 8.1 and the power-efficiency increases in x86 processors.

Jay Chou, senior analyst for IDC's Worldwide PC Tracker, said the industry is still struggling to come up systems that will entice buyers away from tablets.

"While efforts by the PC ecosystem to bring down price points and embrace touch computing should make PCs more attractive, a lot still needs to be done in launching attractive products and addressing competition from devices like tablets," Chou said in a statement after the second-quarter numbers were released.

However, Intel executives are optimistic about the new systems—including convertibles and hybrids—being created by OEMs based on the company's Haswell and Bay Trail offerings.

"Now what you're seeing is [Haswell is] unleashing a lot of innovation within our customer base to bring two-in-ones to the market places—so touch-enabled devices, detachables, convertibles—where you get best of a PC and a tablet in one," Intel CFO Stacy Smith said Sept. 4 during the Citi conference. "I think the combination of all of that certainly sets the stage for a lot of volume growth in the two-in-one category. … So there are segments of the markets where I think we're likely to see good volume growth."

Mobility will be a key theme for Intel during its Intel Developer Forum 2013 event starting Sept. 10. The show comes around the same time Smith said the company should start seeing customer response to the multitude of Haswell- and Bay Trail-based systems running Windows 8.

"There are dozens of designs coming to market, and when you just kind of go OEM-by-OEM, design-by-design, and you're looking what's coming to the marketplace, it's unlike anything I've seen in my 25 years," he said during the Citi conference. "I think the question … is what price points will those enable on shelf and how aggressive will the customer base be in terms of getting the assortments and SKUs out there, and I think that story plays out over our September and October, where we'll really start to see that."


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