If this is the dawn of the “post-PC era,” then the economy never got the memo. While the tablet segment is finally growing (thank you, Apple), the five-times-larger PC segment is actually growing faster in terms of units, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Industry analysis firm IDC predicts worldwide growth in tablet shipments from 2013 to 2016 to be about 32 million units per year. In the same period, the rate of PC shipment growth will be about 38 million units per year. 

For 2013, IDC predicts Windows 8-based tablets will constitute merely 6% of units shipped worldwide. This means, despite all this business about the new Start Screen bridging the functionality gap across platforms, Windows 8 isn’t really about tablets. It’s about injecting PCs with the desirability of tablets. 

Avoiding The Commodity Trap

While the PC market is not dying, PCs themselves must evolve more quickly into something more desirable, more functional, more adaptable to the purposes of consumers in this decade. Otherwise they will continue their slide into low-margin commodity products – largely indistinguishable from each other. PC vendors desperately need the next waves of their product lines to be significantly, tangibly different from their predecessors, in order to justify increasing their prices and profit margins.

This is why Windows 8 looks so different. While reviewers have raised a ruckus about Microsoft designing the new Start Screen to take over the entire display, making Windows 8 more difficult to use even for veterans, there is a reason why Microsoft did this: For a Windows 8 PC to justify a price point above that of the iPad, it has to look demonstrably different from a Windows 7 PC. You couldn’t photograph a Windows 7 machine, put it in a sales brochure, and have it look different from a Windows Vista computer. But you can see Windows 8 from the opposite end of the mall.

In 2006, vendors wanted Vista to be demonstrably different from Windows XP. Microsoft tried to demonstrate this difference with aesthetic nuances like translucent window frames and 3D task switching, and then tried to divide PCs into categories based on how well they supported these nuances. Consumers were rightly confused, and some even sued.

To avoid a repeat of the 2006 debacle, Microsoft had to make Windows 8 not only look entirely different, but enable new PCs to acquire some of the more desirable characteristics of tablets. That’s why this next wave of PCs will promote noteworthy differences in two key areas:

1. Touchscreens

The relative success of touchscreens on PCs will be more important for Windows 8 than its comparable success on tablets.  

Up until now, most consumers looked for middle-tier laptop machines that provided good processing power and nice features, at price points around $900. The first middle-tier Win8 notebooks with touchscreens are  priced around $1,200. Acer’s new Aspire S7-191 has an 11.6-inch screen with 16:9 aspect ratio and respectable 1920 x 1080 resolution (“true HD”).  It’s based on Intel’s third-generation Core i5-3317U processor, has 128GB of solid state storage and 4GB of RAM, weighs about two-and-a-quarter pounds, and sells for $1,199.99.

Dell’s new XPS 12 also has true HD resolution, a 12.5-inch screen, and sells for $1,199.99 (one senses a theme).

The XPS 12 uses the same Core i5 processor, has the same storage capacity, and the same memory.  Dell’s value-add will be style, which has not always been its strong suit. Though the XPS 12 is still a clamshell laptop, its display is mounted along the middle horizontal axis to a hinge bracket.  So you can flip the display inside the bracket 180 degrees, close the clamshell, and use XPS 12 as a tablet.  While the conversion may be shockingly cool for some, for folks who’ve had experiences with Dell in the past, the effect may be just a bit creepy, like a 1959 Philco Predicta TV chassis.

Toshiba’s Satellite U925T has a touchscreen that folds all the way back like a yoga instructor, and then slides forward over the keyboard. It’s a unique effect, but to get a price advantage over Dell of just $50 ($1,149.99), Toshiba traded off screen resolution (1366 x 768) and graphics power, settling for Intel’s “dynamic memory” – allocating memory blocks from the system as needed, rather than using its own discrete graphics memory. 

For $1,399.99 ($200 more than the price of its model 191), Acer bumps the screen size of the Aspire S7-391 up to 13.3 inches. Instead of a full convertible, though, Acer extended the 391’s hinge so you can fold it all the way back, turning your PC into something of a “surface,” to borrow a phrase.

In a move that will likely confuse some customers, HP will mix the Envy, TouchSmart and Intel Ultrabook brands together in one device, which is a bit like naming a car “Cadillac Chevy Shelby.” The Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 is based on the lower-performing Intel Core i3-3217u processor backed up with an AMD graphics processor, 4GB of RAM, and a standard 500GB hard drive, though with a 32GB solid-state accelerator.  All this crank the weight up to about 4 pounds.

The 14.4-inch display will project 1366 x 768 resolution, which is not well-suited for 1080p video, and will definitely look blocky compared to tablets. It also won’t have Dell’s cool tablet-morphing hinge. But it has a $799.99 price tag – a respectable price point for an entry-level PC compared against a $500 tablet. And it helps establish a precedent for PCs as having some greater value than tablets.

2. Power Efficiency

We’re getting closer to the time when you can complete a full day’s work on a single charge. The next dramatic improvements may not come from CPU manufacturers like Intel refining their architecture and manufacturing processes, but by Microsoft adopting a new application architecture.

Last July, in a self-published article on power optimization through software, Intel engineer Manuj Sabharwal showed that simply replacing the routines used by typical Windows programs to tick away the passing moments while they’re idle with the idle process code used in the new WinRT engine, battery life on notebook PCs could be extended by an order of magnitude. That means reclaiming 90% of lost battery power!

While Windows 8 battery life estimates remain similar to those for Windows 7 devices (averaging about 5 hours for laptops, closer to 8 hours for Ultrabooks), other efficiency factors could increase battery life down the road. In Windows 8 the Desktop is no longer rendered using the 3D accelerated engine. While not as cool, it’s also more power-efficient. And though it’s still difficult to find the exit from a Windows RT app (with the touchscreen, there’s a new “wipe-down” gesture), the fact that it consumes almost no power when idle makes quitting them less critical.

The Catch-22

While it’s tempting to toss away the remnants of the “PC era” as old and unfashionable, there’s still a sizable functionality gap between tablets and PCs. Until bandwidth and cloud storage are both cheap and ubiquitous), work devices will require sizable local storage and high processing efficiency during heavy workloads. They’ll also need gesture methods other than just touch, plus real keyboards – not something ripped off of an Atari 400.

The first round of Windows 8 PCs come a step closer to the mobile work device we’ll eventually settle down with. But the strange permutations of convertibility and hybrid hard-drive/solid-state combinations suggests this new class of PC hasn’t yet found its footing.  

While we wait for the perfect Windows 8 PC, tablet prices continue to fall,. Ironically, that may create reasons why tablets will not replace PCs. Tablets could become affordable enough that they don’t have to do double-duty as PC-substitutes just to remain desirable. Plenty of people will choose a tablet, but if you want PC functionality… you can still buy a PC.

PC photos courtesy Acer America, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba.