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CES 2013: How tablets are changing desktop computers

By Chris O'Brien

7:00 AM PST, January 10, 2013

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This week at the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show, we have reported on personal computer makers' attempts to reinvent the laptop. The wild popularity of tablets has stymied sales of laptops. As a result, PC makers are trying to create machines that combine the best of tablets and laptops. 

But there's another piece of that trend that didn't make it into our earlier report. That same dynamic is now extending to ye olde desktop PC, which is now in line for its own radical changes. 

Sales of desktop computers are also declining. And there's nothing like a looming disaster to encourage companies to take drastic measures.

"What’s bleeding over is the motivation to do something different and take risks," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst of Moor Insights and Strategy. "And that’s a great thing for the PC industry. Because the last five years, before the threat of tablets, there was not a lot to get excited about."

During the Intel news conference on Monday, executives sketched out their vision of the future of desktops, or what they have taken to calling "all-in-one" computers. At first they describe what sounds like the evolution of Apple's desktop Macs, with the entire CPU now built into the display. No more separate CPU tower, no more spaghetti strands of wires cluttering the floor, no fans sucking in mounds of dust.

Instead, everything becomes wireless, including the keyboard, the mouse, and the Internet connection. 

But PC manufacturers want to take Apple's lead and try to push past it. They're making these new all-in-ones with touch screens. And in many cases, the stands are collapsible, allowing the PC to tilt, or even lie completely flat. And in some cases, the hope is that families or businesses will treat these machines as semi-portable, finding them convenient enough to carry to different rooms or offices. 

The most eye-catching announcement at CES was Lenovo's IdeaCentre Horizon Table PC. With a 27-inch touch screen, the Horizon can be touched by several hands at once, which the company hopes will encourage everything from family gaming to business collaboration. The table PC switches between the standard Windows 8 environment when you tilt it up and the multitouch environment when it goes down. 

Vizio announced an update to its all-in-ones with Windows 8, which includes touch screens. And ASUS debuted a new desktop called Transformer AiO with an 18.4-inch screen. In this case, the "desktop" is a large tablet that slides into a dock that holds it vertically. It runs both Windows 8 and Android. And it has a handle in the back to encourage portability when you lift it out of the dock.

As with laptops, PC buyers will now have a variety of forms to choose from, which could be both exciting and confusing. Who knows which combinations and designs will catch on.

Still, it's clear the experimentation will continue. And it's also clear that PC execs believe that touch screens and flexibility, things that have made tablets such a hit, are going to be built even more deeply into PCs. 

"The all-in-one is evolving," said Kirk Skaugen, who heads Intel's PC client group. "All of this is trickling into the all-in-one."

Follow me on Twitter @obrien.