Oct. 16, 2012 at 4:21 PM ET
Windows 8 is just around the corner, but if you want to get the most out of it, you'll probably want a touch-capable PC. Sure, you could go with Microsoft's own Surface tablets, but Sony, Dell and other makers of traditional PCs might have something to say about that. Their latest crop of PCs were built with the new Windows in mind, and they're all about giving you the convenience of a tablet without losing the power of a laptop.
All the major brands are embracing Windows 8's touch-focused interface with designs that range from straight-up tablets to convertible Ultrabooks (for our purposes, thin and light PCs that don't compromise on specs) to all-in-one PCs with touchscreens. Here are a few you'll be able to choose from:
Dell has its head-turning XPS 12 Convertible (shown up top), which lets the screen spin on a frame to make it into either a laptop or tablet, depending on the situation. The 12.5-in. screen is 1080p and it's got a decent Core i5 processor and plenty of RAM. At $1,200 and up it's something of a luxury item, though.
Dell's main ultrabook offering, the XPS 13, was recently updated with a new Intel Ivy Bridge processor. The design might not be as striking as the XPS 12, but it's aluminum and carbon fiber, so it'll be light and strong. It's still not a budget option, though, at $1,000 to start.
Sony takes a different approach to the convertible, with a sliding design that, according to various hands-on previews, is more solid than it looks (and the 11.6-in. 1080p screens should be very sharp). The Vaio Duo 11 also recently had an update to the latest line of Intel processors, though you may want to upgrade from the default Core i3. And the fact is that this experimental form factor isn't for everyone, so be sure to try it before you buy it. Sony's convertible starts just below Dell's, at $1,100.
In addition to sleek notebooks, Sony also has an interesting in-betweener called the Tap20. Its 20-in. screen, propped up on its kickstand, could be a serviceable desktop but also small enough to carry elsewhere or use as a portable device, for watching a movie in bed or the like (though at 11 pounds you may not want it on your lap). Unfortunately, it's a bit lacking inside: A slow 5400RPM hard drive and low-voltage mobile CPU mean it probably won't be your main PC — but it may excel as a living room or kitchen accessory.
Acer has upgraded much of its laptop line with touchscreens, and its flagship S7 series also has a Gorilla Glass top — which is good if it stays intact, but as the iPhone has shown, even Gorilla Glass can be broken. The 13-in. and 15-in. versions (both 1080p) have hot specs, but they aren't cheap, at $1,200 and $1,400. If you don't mind an extra millimeter or two of thickness, the S5 series might present a better value.
Then there are the W700 and W510 (above), a pair of tablets that are intended to live a double life with docks that make them more like full-fledged computers. The W700 slots into a cradle that will charge it and add USB ports, and the W510 clicks into the top of a keyboard dock. They've both got mid-range specs, and mid-range prices: The W700 will be $800, and the W510 $700.
Lenovo takes a more laptop-centric approach; its IdeaPad Yoga looks like a normal thin laptop but exhibits its flexibility by allowing the screen to tilt so far back that it becomes the front. There are 11-in. and 13-in. versions, at $800 and $1,100 respectively.
Lenovo's ThinkPad Twist is also a touchscreen permanently attached to a keyboard, but as the name suggests, the screen swivels around and lays down flat on the keyboard, as other ThinkPads have done before. This 12.5-in. version starts at $850, which gives you a little room to upgrade before you hit that critical thousand dollar mark.
Asus and Samsung are both bringing 4G LTE-connected tablets to AT&T, both of which can be combined with a keyboard for that laptop-esque experience. The VivoTab RT from Asus is similar to Microsoft's first Surface tablet in that it runs Windows RT, the version of the OS made for mobile ARM processors. At $600, it's a more budget option, with a lower-resolution (1366x768) 10.1-inch screen, a powerful but aging processor, and only 2GB of RAM.
The Samsung ATIV line starts with the Tab, then as you add more features, the SmartPC and SmartPC Pro. The Tab is similar to the Asus device above: It runs Windows 8 RT and has a 10.1-inch screen and modest ARM processor. The SmartPC, true to its name, runs the full PC version of Windows 8, and gains a bigger screen, 1.5GHz Intel processor and a few other features. The Pro version ups the resolution to 1080p and makes more storage and faster processors available.
Where is perennial PC market leader HP in this roundup? As it turns out, they're mostly avoiding this first phase of exotic Windows 8 PCs. Their only real contribution is the business-oriented ElitePad 600, which doesn't really compare favorably with anything listed here.
Lastly, you could do a lot worse than Microsoft's sleek, internally designed Surface devices. The great looks, unobtrusive kickstand and sweet Touch Cover keyboard are extremely tempting, although at the moment we only know the pricing and availability for the lower-end ARM-based Surface RT model. It starts at $500 for the 32GB version, but you have to pay $100 extra to get it bundled with that very necessary keyboard. The Pro version of the Surface, due in three months, will be more expensive but very capable, likely comparable to most machines above. Pricing for that should be announced in the next week or so.
Most of these devices aren't set for release until Oct. 26, so look for reviews around then. Prices may change as well, and of course Black Friday is just around the corner, so it may be worth waiting a month to see if your favorite electronics retailer puts a few of these on sale.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.