Portable desktops don't make great tablets—at least, not yet

Consumer Reports News: June 18, 2013 11:38 AM

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You're forgiven if an ad for "the world's most portable desktop" confuses you. But don't be surprised if claims like that pop up more frequently, because computer manufacturers are beginning to make so-called portable desktops, complete with battery, that can be used something like a giant tablet.

We saw several of these "tabletop" models earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, and we're now testing three models in our labs. All have a touchscreen bigger than those of virtually any tablet or laptop, and the ability to be used upright with a keyboard, like a regular all-in-one desktop, or laid flat on a table and unplugged, like a tablet. I took a look at three "tabletop" all-in-one models. Here's what I learned.

Asus Transformer P1801 ($1,300). The 18.4-inch display on this Asus desktop (pictured above) sits in a base from which it can be removed and set down on a tabletop or the floor. That's different than the other two models here, since those are true all-in-one computers with stands that convert them to tabletops.

But what really sets the Transformer apart from the others is hinted in its name: You can switch from Windows to Android with a simple press of a button located on the side of the computer. Problem is, for Windows computing on this model, the Core i5 processor and hard drive reside in the base—and that affects performance. To run Windows 8 from the removed tablet, you have to configure the tablet to run a remote Windows program.

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Even while I was sitting close to the base, touch movements were a little behind. There was also a noticeable lag in videos, and mouths didn't keep up with words. It was the same for both streaming and downloaded videos. If you have a fast Wi-Fi network that isn't busy with other computers downloading and streaming you might have better luck and a smoother experience.

Video playback and touch response were much smoother out of the base when I switched to Android, because the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor it runs on is built right into the display. There's also a solid-state drive built-in. You get access to all the Google Play apps.

Battery life on the P180 was 4.5 hours running Windows remote and 5 hours on Android. It weighs 5.6 pounds without the base. The base itself was thick, so it ate up a lot of space.

Dell XPS 18 Touch (photo: Dell)

Dell XPS 18 Touch ($1,000). The first thing you might notice about the Dell XPS 18 is the pair of legs that prop it up from the back. They felt relatively inflexible, but looked like they might be a little shaky if they had to hold up to the rougher touch that kids might subject a computer to. For $100 more you can get a Dell powered stand that's much more sturdy.

Fold the legs down to change the all-in-one desktop into an all-in-one tabletop. Unlike with the Asus Transformer, this one contains all the parts in the display, as does the Lenovo model below. The result was better video playback and touch response. But there's a lack of Windows apps that make the best use of a tabletop computer, and that weakness shows up here. In addition, on the air-hockey game we tried out, the puck had trouble keeping up with our fingers as we pushed it around.

This one had the best battery life of the three I looked at, with 5.25 hours. It weighs a bit less than the Asus at 5.1 pounds, and the display measures 18.4 inches. It uses a Core i3 processor.

Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon (photo: Lenovo)

Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon ($1,700). There's really not much that's portable about the 27-inch, 18.5-pound Horizon. An ad for this desktop pushes the limits of plausibility, when it shows two small girls sneaking into the Dad's office, where Dad is nowhere to be seen and the Horizon sits on a desk. The next scene shows the girls in another room, Horizon flat on the floor, happily playing a game. There's no indication of how the desktop got there, but I'd bet a thin-and-light laptop those two little kids couldn't have carried it alone.

The Horizon has a springy stand that easily folds down when you push the display into tabletop mode. Unfortunately, it left scratch marks on the counter from the numerous times I'd moved it up and down.

I liked the interface, called Aura, that the Horizon uses. Aura pops up automatically when the Horizon is laid flat, and it's a wheel that lets you select music, photos, video, games, and Android apps. Aura uses a third-party application, called BlueStacks, that allows it to run Android apps in emulation mode. The Android apps seem to run well enough, although they are slow to load and respond due to the emulation. Some of them can also look strange since they are made for a smartphone-sized screen, not the giant screen of the Horizon.

Aura is fun to use. For example, you can spread your photos across the desktop, arranging and viewing them any way you like.

Lenovo also provides a number of games specifically designed for tabletop computers. This model came with one e-die, two strikers, and two joysticks for playing games like Monopoly and air hockey. You can buy more separately. But I was disappointed by their performance. In the Monopoly game, for example, you can roll either the physical die, or virtual ones by swiping the screen. But the physical die was too bouncy and kept rolling off the table onto the floor. In addition, after rolling the physical die, there was an extra step, where the virtual die automatically rolled itself to the number on the physical one, before the Monopoly piece would advance. I also noted a lag while playing air hockey with the strikers.

Battery life on the Horizon was shortest of these three at 3.5 hours. It uses a Core i5 processor.

Bottom line: If you want a desktop computer that provides access to both Windows and Android, the Asus is your best bet. It's easier to switch from one to the other than the Lenovo. It also had the best performance of the three. As for using any of them as a tabletop computer, the gaming capabilities that made them unique left me feeling unsatisfied. Stick to tablets for now. We'll post full Ratings of all three later this week.

Donna L. Tapellini

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