If you’re going to buy a new computer in the next year or two, the decision will be more complicated.
It also will be more fun, with all sorts of new models that will make you think differently about what a PC is, what it does and how it works.
A catalyst for this change is the radical new design of Windows 8, which works equally well on a touch-screen tablet, a traditional laptop or an all-in-one desktop PC.
Helping things along are tiny processors that enable PC makers to build full-power machines in cases less than an inch thick.
New hardware designs were pushed by Intel, which seeded the market with prototype designs developed largely in Oregon. Microsoft also developed prototypes and decided to build its own tablets to raise the bar and showcase its platform.
The PC industry had to do something because lots of people were starting to think the most exciting option for their next computer was an Apple iPad. Looking ahead, I’ll bet computer shoppers will be more intrigued by the new Windows-powered machines.
Even the arrival of the iPad mini won’t be enough to keep people away from the new and different PCs and Windows-based tablets.
That is, if shoppers aren’t too confused by all the options they’ll face, not to mention the hurdle of learning a new operating system. The thinnest and funkiest new touch-screen computers will cost more than old-fashioned PCs, which also will come with Windows 8.
A PC tower and monitor — or a lower-end, standard laptop — may still be the cheapest options for a Windows 8 computer. The next step up will be to systems with a touch-screen display, which is especially nice with Windows 8, but not mandatory.
PC makers are building new “all-in-one” desktops around Windows 8, including designs that finally will approach the sleek case design of Apple’s iMac.
Windows 8 will bring a flood of tablets that may look similar but have big differences. Some will be full-power PCs that run most software made for Windows. Others will be iPad-like “Windows RT” models based on smartphone-type processors that run only new programs designed for the platform. The latter includes Microsoft’s own line of Surface tablets.
Dozens of thin, new laptops are coming. Intel is aware of about 70 models in the works that are thin and potent enough to carry its “Ultrabook” brand. That’s in addition to the 70 or so models with Windows 7 that launched since the summer.
Then there are the crazy new Windows 8 hybrids and convertibles PCs that flip, fold and slide into different shapes.
This is just the beginning. Even more hardware changes are likely in mid-2013, when Intel will launch new processors requiring PC makers to design another wave of new machines.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the different Windows 8 PCs:
The Jumbo Tablet: Sony calls it the Vaio Tap 20, but it’s really a humongous tablet with a 20-inch diagonal touch-screen display. On its stand, it’s a nice all-in-one PC that tilts back to use like an easel. Removed from the stand, it runs on a battery and can be carried around the house or used to play digital board games. It starts at $880 and comes in black or white.
The Ferris Wheel: The Dell XPS 12 is called a “Ferris wheel” design by Intel because of the way its display rotates. Dell calls it a “flip hinge touch-screen display.” Spin the screen, fold it flat and your laptop becomes a 12-inch tablet. It starts at $1,200.
The Channel Slider: The touch-screen display on Toshiba’s Satellite U925T tilts back and slides forward in a channel, covering the keyboard and turning it into a 12.5-inch, widescreen tablet with an Intel Core i5 processor and 128 gigabytes of solid-state storage. It starts at $1,150.
The Surf Slider: Sony also has a “channel slider” called the Vaio Duo 11, but it calls the convertible mechanism a “Surf Slider.” It starts at $1,100.
The Twist: Laptops with screens that twist and flop down over the keyboard to form a tablet have been offered since Windows XP Tablet Edition debuted a decade ago. New models are being offered with Windows 8, including the Lenovo Twist S430u, with a 12.5-inch screen and starting at $849.
The Tent: Lenovo has drawn kudos for its Yoga laptop with a 360-degree hinge that folds the display back until it becomes a tablet. You can also fold it around 300 degrees and pitch a “tent” that stands up by itself. A Windows 8 version with 13.3-inch screen starts at $1,099. An 11.6-inch version with the more-limited Windows RT software will start at $799 and arrive in December.