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A 2-in-1 laptop or two separate devices: Which makes sense for you?

Convertible and detachable computers score on versatility, but some of the cons may surprise you

Published: March 18, 2014 04:00 PM
Microsoft Surface Pro 2

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Since the launch of Windows 8 in October 2012, PC makers have been pushing convertible and detachable laptops, also referred to as 2-in-1s, harder than ever. These versatile PCs aim to provide the functionality of a laptop and a tablet in one device. There are so many of these devices, and so many varying designs, that we wrote a separate story, "New Windows computers offer appealing alternatives to traditional laptops," to help you (and honestly, us) keep them straight.

It's easy to be drawn in by the allure of a single device that can serve as a laptop for productivity and writing e-mails at home and work, and a tablet for scrolling through Facebook, surfing the Web, or playing Candy Crush Saga while you're commuting or lying in bed.

But opting for a convertible or detachable PC, rather than a separate laptop and tablet, involves some inherent compromises. And believe it or not, it could be cheaper to buy two separate devices than a 2-in-one. For many, a separate tablet and laptop may be a better choice. Here are some pros and cons.

Screen size  

Apple kicked off the tablet craze with the 9.7-inch-screen iPad. But reports in recent months indicate the smaller iPad Mini is outselling the larger iPad Air—possibly by a lot. And the research firm Gartner indicates that Android tablets overtook Apple iPads in sales in 2013, "fueled by the low-end smaller screen tablet market." It's safe to say that consumers are finding out that they prefer tablets with screens in the 7-to-8-inch range. It doesn't hurt that they are less expensive, either. Now, ask yourself how big the screen on your current laptop is. Chances are it's at least 13 inches, if not larger.

Most convertible devices try to split the size difference, with screens in the 10-to-12-inch range. Recent well-reviewed examples include the 10.6-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and the 12-inch Dell XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook. The problem is that unless you have very good eyesight, running traditional Windows programs (Adobe's Creative Suite, for instance) on a screen this small can be squint-inducing—especially since many of the screens on these devices have higher resolutions than they used to (1080p or higher). Windows 8.1 was tweaked to be easier on the eyes on small, high-resolution displays.

So basically, tablets are better small (especially if you want to use them while commuting), and laptops are more comfortable to use when they have a larger screen—especially if you frequently do complex tasks.

Like to travel light?

Logically, you'd think opting for a 2-in-1 device would lighten your load. But that's not always the case. The complicated, usually metal hinges of convertibles often make these devices heavier than similarly priced laptops. The 13-inch Sony VAIO Pro laptop, for example, weighs just 2.3 pounds, and an iPad Air weights in at 1 pound. The Dell XPS 12 Convertible Touch Ultrabook is 3.3 pounds—the same weight as the two other devices combined.

Of course, some 2-in-1s have detachable screens. So when you don't need the physical keyboard, you can leave it at home. But one of the better-reviewed detachable laptops we've reviewed, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2, weighs about 2 pounds even without the keyboard—much heavier than, say, the Nexus 7 tablet or the current-generation Apple iPad Mini, both of which weigh 0.7 pounds and have similar screen sizes. So if you shop with weight in mind, you can certainly pick up a laptop and a tablet that together weigh about the same or less than most convertible laptops.

If you're shopping for a new computer, do your homework with our buying guide and Ratings

Dell XPS 12

Android and iOS have (almost) all the apps

While there are millions of traditional Windows programs, there are only a little over 100,000 touch screen apps available for Windows 8. That may sound like a lot, but iOS and Android each have more than a million apps in their respective app stores. So if you choose a Windows convertible (or tablet), there's a good chance that you won't be able to find some of the apps your friends are using on their Google or Apple iOS devices.

Touch screen games in particular are lacking on Windows 8. Of the top 10 iOS and Android games in the Apple App Store and Google Play when we wrote this report, only one title (Gameloft's Despicable Me: Minion Rush) was also available in the Windows app store.

Price

You might think that choosing a single device would be cheaper than buying a laptop and a tablet. It certainly can be. A top-rated thin laptop, such as the 13-inch Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, and a current-generation 7.9-inch iPad Mini will set you back about $1,600—enough to buy just about any convertible.

But you could also pick up the 14-inch Lenovo U430 touch screen laptop for about $640 (its current price at Best Buy) and add a 7-inch Nexus 7 tablet to your shopping cart, for a total of about $870. The higher-rated convertible and detachable laptops we've tested, meanwhile, are priced at about $1,000 or more.

Two devices, or a 2-in-1?

We've established that choosing a convertible or detachable Windows laptop involves making some screen compromises, probably carrying some extra weight, possibly paying more, and not having as many touch screen apps as those who buy a Windows laptop and an a separate Android or iOS tablet. So who should buy a convertible laptop?

Those who prefer the simplicity of one device or who don’t want to deal with learning or maintaining more than one operating system should consider a 2-in-1. Those who do the majority of their computing at home are also a good fit for convertibles and detachables, as their extra bulk of the device in tablet mode won't matter much when sitting in the kitchen or lounging on the couch.

For those who travel a lot, a convertible can also be a good choice for a couple of reasons. One device will take up less space in your luggage than two—especially when you consider charging cables and accessories. And the more versatile designs can be better suited to working or playing in cramped quarters, such as an airplane tray table or a crowded coffee shop.

Bottom line

You shouldn't discount the idea of a 2-in-1 device by any means. But don't be fooled by advertising and marketing into believing they're the best solution for everyone, either. There are still plenty of decent low-cost laptops available that, combined with a separate tablet, might be a better fit for your needs and budget. Convertibles and detachables get a lot of credit for their versatility, but two devices can be just as versatile as a 2-in-1.

—Matt Safford

   

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