Lines between tablets, notebooks and ultra-mobile PCs blur

How does a tablet differ from a notebook or an ultra-mobile PC? Here's how to determine which is which.

Enterprise buyers will become more confused this fall when new tablets and touchscreen notebooks blur the lines between the form factors.

Vendors, such as Microsoft, which jumped late into the tablet market following the exponential success of the Apple iPad and Google Android-based tablets, have attempted to redefine tablets by including devices that are far larger than a tablet should be.

Indeed, the industry's definition of a tablet PC has morphed from a device that is smaller than a laptop but larger than a smartphone to include devices such as ultra-mobile PCs, which offer a rich set of mobile functionality normally seen on their notebook counterparts.

In a recent Windows certification newsletter, Microsoft said it is tightening the definition of tablets for certification purposes by restricting it to systems with a screen size of 17 inches or less. The clarification came because partners said Microsoft's original tablet definition also included touch-based, all-in-one devices that used a battery, but aren't, in reality, mobile devices.

But Microsoft's high-end 17-in. screen size, which the company still places into the tablet category, is a hefty device, and isn't particularly mobile. Uses for an extra-large "coffee table" tablet are more likely reserved for vertical applications, such as those in the graphics market, rather than mainstream corporate use.

As the industry heads into the fourth quarter of this year, vendors are expected to unleash a variety of new tablets and low-cost, touch-based notebooks that will further blur the line between what is considered a tablet and what isn't.

What's in a name?

Tablets: Touchscreen, lightweight products that offer mobility, such as Apple's iPad. The devices' diagonal screen size is about 7 inches -- bigger than the "phablet," a combination smartphone and tablet device -- to about a 12-in. screen diagonal. Tablets used to be distinguished not only by their size and touch, but also by their operating systems, which were different from those on full-fledged PCs. Microsoft's entry into this space with a full version of the Windows OS has changed the definition.

Ultra-mobiles: Devices that are compact and light and offer the portability of a tablet, but function like a full PC. This category may include small-screen clamshell devices like a Chromebook or Surface Pro, or hybrid devices that also offer a detachable keyboard. Devices in this category may be termed "ultra-light" or "ultra-slim" notebooks as well, based on the product's size and weight. These devices generally weigh under 4 lbs.

Notebook: A notebook computer (or laptop) is a full-fledged PC that is heavier than the ultra-slim notebooks, weighing 5 lbs. and above. These devices often replace the traditional desktop PC. Even though the notebook PC is mobile, it is still heavier than the ultra-mobiles like a Chromebook or even a 3-lb. MacBook Air.

For all intents and purposes, industry segmentation for tablets represents a moving target as vendors come out with hybrid PC devices that fold and turn into a tablet, lie flat and detach. However, those PC devices are still large when compared to a 7.9-in. iPad mini, a 10-in. iPad, the newly unveiled 7-in. Samsung Nexus 7, or a Galaxy Tab 3.

Analysts' opinions about the tablet size cutoff vary, though they all say the number of inches should be far below 17.

"A definition is evolving, and we are now going through a time where we are looking at what we set out [to be the] difference between a tablet and tablet PC," said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president of consumer technologies and markets at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. To her, a tablet can be up to 12 inches, maximum.

Others agreed.

"When you get above 10 inches, it's a tabletop," countered Bob Egan, chief analyst at Sepharim Group in Falmouth, Mass.

Tablets meet a market need for highly mobile devices that are larger than a smartphone but not as heavy or costly as an ultra-notebook PC -- extremely lightweight, fully functional PC-like devices, like a Macbook Air. Previously, notebooks were constrained by weight and battery life, but those challenges are becoming less significant with the arrival of technology such as Intel's Haswell chips and solid-state disk storage. The distinctions between tablet and non-tablet systems regarding mobility, battery life, instant-on and even a full operating system such as Windows 8 are blurring.

Meanwhile, vendors are building convertibles without excessive premiums, Egan said. "It's now about capturing market share," he added. Volume market share for both tablets and devices like hybrid and ultra-mobile PCs could offset lower hardware margins for vendors if strong demand for the technology continues in the coming years.

Gartner expects the market for tablets to grow nearly 68% to worldwide shipments of 201.8 million units this year, and 276 million units in 2014. Market research firm IDC said it expects tablet sales to grow 58.7% this year, reaching 229.3 million units, while also surpassing portable and desktop PC sales by 2015.

But vendors have a big job ahead of them as enterprise buyers sort out their strategy for mobile devices.

Taxonomy is needed to set barriers for segmentation, but mapping devices to end-user needs is more important, said Jennifer Langan, director of marketing at Samsung's Enterprise Business Division in Ridgefield Park, N.J.

Enterprise IT needs to approach mobile devices from the perspective of end-user segmentation, she said. IT needs to contribute to the company's bottom line by understanding end users and mapping their jobs to the devices, Langan added.

"The era of one-size-fits-all is done," Egan noted.

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