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Are detachable computers the best of both worlds?

Laptops are workhorses; tablets are lightweight and fun. New detachable computers promise it all.

Published: September 2014

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This was the vision: that somewhere between a laptop and a tablet there would be room for the perfect Web-surfing, movie-watching, clothes-shopping, game-playing, e-mailing, social-networking, document-producing device.

It would be a chameleon. On your desk, it would have a keyboard and trackpad, as well as a processor and an operating system powerful enough to run full-featured software. For Web-surfing on the couch, the keyboard would fold away or detach, leaving you with a touch-friendly device that turned on instantly and ran your favorite mobile apps.

The first of those devices arrived several years ago, but the category got a boost in 2012 when Microsoft introduced the Windows 8 operating system, which runs on desktops, laptops, and tablets. The company launched its first generation of Surface tablet computers at the same time.

Two years later, Surface is in its third generation, and it’s in competition with a range of hybrids from Lenovo, HP, Asus, and Toshiba. They come in various configurations. Arguably, though, the most interesting devices have keyboards that detach completely when you want the portability of a tablet. In recent testing, we tried to get at just what the perfect detachable computer would do—and whether ordinary people like what’s out there now.

So far, manufacturers have been more enthusiastic than potential users. In a recent survey of 1,431 readers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, only 2 percent of respondents said they had bought a laptop with a detachable screen that could be used as a separate tablet. Perhaps people don’t care for those devices, but it’s equally likely that they’re just confused.

It’s hard to know what to make of a device if you don’t know how to classify it. Are they laptops that can pinch-hit as tablets when you don’t need the extra bulk? Or are they tablets that can step up to do a full computer’s job when asked to? And if they can’t do all things equally well, which compromises are worthwhile in the pursuit of computing versatility?

There’s no clear answer, at least not yet. That’s why we tested each device twice, once as a laptop and once as a tablet. (The results can be quite different.)

And to get at that question of what detachables are really for, we decided to ask a number of ordinary people what they thought. We put some of the models we tested in front of electronics users who said they were interested in a hybrid. They tried them in our labs and at home, performing a variety of tasks. Then we posed a simple question: “Is this machine right for you?”

As a laptop

A feathery (2.5-pound), 10.1-inch touch-screen PC with 13 hours of battery life at a great price. But: The processor struggles at times, and the keyboard is cramped.

 

As a tablet

Battery life, display, ease-of- use, and performance are very good. But: At 1.3 pounds, the T100 is heavier than stand- alone tablets (although light for this group).

As a laptop

Excellent price and an impressive 12-hour battery life when docked. But: The device is heavy at 4.6 pounds, and the 128GB hard drive is comparatively skimpy for a laptop.

 

As a tablet

Great performance on gaming apps, decent 9.1-hour battery life, and a huge 13.3-inch screen. But: There’s a penalty for that big screen— the Split weighs 2.3 pounds.

*Being replaced by the $600 Split X2 13 r010dx.

As a laptop

A bargain that offers good battery life (8 hours) and very good performance, and it’s lightweight (2.3 pounds). But: It has just 2GB of memory; others in this group have 4GB.

 

As a tablet

Beautiful high-res display, decent sound, excellent performance—perfect for movies and games. But: At 1.4 pounds, the Lenovo is heavy compared with stand-alone tablets.

As a laptop

A feathery 2.4-pound laptop with a large 12-inch display and excellent performance. But: The 128GB hard drive is relatively small. (Note: The keyboard is sold separately.)

 

Handles complex gaming apps with aplomb, and the beautiful high-resolution screen excels at displaying movies. But: It’s very expensive—and heavy at 1.8 pounds.

 

 

 

They all tried detachables

Janice Romanosky frequently works outside her office. She’s looking for a single device to run Microsoft Outlook and display photos and other files when she travels. (She owns a tablet, but the process of transferring files to it is laborious.) Janice tried an Asus Transformer Trio 12-inch, which is being replaced by newer models.

Verdict: Janice is sold on the category, but needs a much bigger screen.

Michele Oram is a staff member at Consumer Reports who wants a device that can run Microsoft Office for work and also be used for apps and e-books. She already owns an Apple iPad. After living with the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for several days, she is sold on the detachables category.

Verdict: Michele likes the Surface Pro 3 as a versatile work machine, but says the Apple iPad beats it as a stand-alone tablet.

Owen Bryan, who also works at Consumer Reports, wants to replace his desktop computer, which he uses for e-mail, Web browsing, gaming, and videos. He liked the HP Spectre he tested but would have preferred a smaller screen and a rear-facing camera. (His Spectre is being discontinued, but HP will still offer Split detachables.)

Verdict: A thumbs-up. Owen says he’s ready to swap devices right now.

Making the decision

Several of the detachables we tested ended up at or near the top of our Ratings as laptops. The consumers who came into the lab for our usability study agreed: A number of them said that they would consider one next time they went shopping for a computer.


But the users weren’t completely happy with how the detachables operated in tablet mode. And they raised several objections about the hardware and software. Some found the hybrids to be too heavy and bulky in tablet mode. And the Windows 8.1 OS used in the machines was polarizing. Yes, it had some fans, but others found the dual laptop/tablet interface to be confusing and inconsistent. That said, none of the people who tried a detachable thought that the concept was a bad idea.


It may be that detachables just haven’t hit their stride yet. If designers and engineers can nail that perfect combination of light weight, versatility, intuitive user interface, and processing power, we may have a different story to tell in another year or two.


Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the November 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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