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Summary:

Microsoft introduced its 2-in-1 products nearly 14 months ago. The device type didn’t fit my needs then but I recently took another look, buying an Asus Transformer T100. It’s still hard to make a hybrid laptop / tablet due to requirements at odds with each other.

Transformer Book T100 Back

Last year when Microsoft released its Surface tablets, I had high hopes. Why? Mainly because the idea of having one device work as a laptop and a tablet as needed appealed to me. Other similar devices followed but these hybrids still fell short for how I work and play.

So I ended up doing what you’d expect: Buying a laptop and a tablet. My current laptop is a Chromebook Pixel and my daily tablet is an iPad Air. We’re nearing 14 months since these 2-in-1 devices arrived in number so I recently took another look at them. The verdict so far? Better but still not ideal.

I’ve been testing out a Surface 2 for several weeks and a few days ago I went into a local Best Buy to purchase one of the more popular hybrids: An Asus Transformer T100 for $349. The Surface 2 uses a Tegra 4 chip and runs Windows RT while the T100 has a relatively new Intel Atom (Bay Trail) chip and runs full Windows 8.1.

Transformer T100 Book

I had thought to “turn” the T100 into a Chrome OS-like tablet; running Chrome in Windows 8 mode as the default browser literally replicates the Chrome OS environment, complete with the Apps launcher and support for Packaged Apps to run outside of the browser. Here’s what it looks like:

chrome in windows 8 mode

Unfortunately, my experience tells me these devices still face clear challenges that are at odds with one another.

  • On tablets, screen size equals weight: The tablet experience is better on a relatively smaller screen, say 11 inches or less. That’s because the bigger the screen, the larger and heavier the device will generally be. A good tablet experience requires a light slate that you can hold for any length of time without having to put it down. Too big and too heavy means the tablet won’t be enjoyable to use for a long time.
  • The smaller the screen, the potentially smaller the keyboard: This is important in laptop mode. The T100 looks to use the same small chiclet keys and tiny trackpad found on the old Asus netbooks. Microsoft has done an excellent job in this regard: The Surface Touch and Type Covers have generously sized keys and they’re a joy to use. Even the Zagg Folio keyboard case for my iPad Air, which has a smaller screen than the T100 has larger keys. Of course, it has no trackpad taking up space because there’s no trackpad support on the iPad.
  • For laptops, more screen tends to be better: The T100 uses a 1366 x 768 resolution display for its 10.1-inch screen, for example. Even after tweaking settings for DPI scaling and zoom view in the browser, it really pushes the limit of what I’d call a good experience; scroll bars and such are hard to tap on screen or with the trackpad, for example. This is the same screen size that most diminutive netbooks used; I know because I used a netbook as a full-time computing device for over a year. It was tolerable then, but my tired old eyes need a little more screen and higher resolution. I’ll chalk that particular issue up to me and not the devices, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say a 10.1-inch display is perfectly suited for a laptop.

The Surface 2 hits a little closer to the mark though: It has a 1920 x 1080 resolution screen sized at 10.6-inches. It’s better in both cases, but I can’t install the Chrome browser on it, so it’s not for me. It’s worth noting that the Windows 8 application catalog has grown enough that it’s not a major obstacle for me at this point. Metro mode has grown on me. I’m even used to reading my Kindle books in portrait mode on the Surface 2, even though it makes for a “long” page due to the aspect ratio. As a result, a Surface Pro 2 could fit the bill and I may take a closer look at it, although that doubles the price range for me. Then again, that cost is still cheaper than what I paid for the Pixel and my iPad!

Of course, there are plenty of other hybrid choices here; I’ve been looking through them for the past few days. Dell has the Venue 11 Pro which has similar internals to the T100, although the Atom chip is clocked a little faster, and it brings the screen to 10.8-inches. HP’s Pavilion x2 11 has an 11.6-inch screen which may be pushing the tablet use. And from there I find there are several 13-inch and up hybrids. Here’s a 13-inch version of the Pavilion x2, far too big for comfortable tablet use.

pavilion 13 x2

I’ve completely ruled all of these out because of Rule No. 1 above: Using a tablet larger than 10 inches or 11 inches is like carrying a 22-inch LCD and saying I have a portable HDTV. It’s simply not ideal at all.

I realize that some people own a hybrid such as the T100 or a Surface device and it works completely well for them. I’m not suggesting they’re bad devices; I’m simply sharing my experience in finding out that they don’t meet my needs. My gut says more people have similar needs, else these hybrids would be offsetting the large declines in PC sales of late.

More importantly though is the very idea of an uncompromising 2-in-1 solution, which more than a year after launch doesn’t seem all that much closer to offering computer nirvana. It’s difficult to create one product that meets two use cases when they have competing requirements.

Unless I change my mind in the next week or two, these devices will be going back and I’ll do what most people do: Use a laptop when I need it and a tablet the rest of the time.

  1. Get a Thinkpad Yoga (not the Yoga Pro, or Yoga Android…must say “Thinkpad” before the “Yoga” part, so you’re not getting the consumer level version…like it appears all the other stuff you seem to have tried.

    Then you’ll have your do it all combined device.

    Wait til January, and you can get one with a built in fine detail stylus as well.

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    1. The ThinkPad Yoga is an even worse solution IMO: The screen doesn’t detach, so it’s like a 3.5 pound tablet. ;)

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    2. Toby Overstreet Friday, December 6, 2013

      I would not mind buying Yoga Pro 2 which sports like 3200×1600 screen resolution. WOW! But will it run great? I have read reviews of Lenovo laptop lines, they seem not so great. Hmm. Maybe they are too individually opinionated based on their experience. I know everyone has different experiences.

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  2. Christopher Masak Friday, December 6, 2013

    So you effectively tried to buy a $350-450 item (Asus T100, Surface) to replace a $1300 and $500-600 pair of devices and you’re complaining that it isn’t 100% as capable? Duh. It’s 20% of the cost yet does, by my estimates based on your descriptions, more than 90% of what you want it to do, just not as comfortably.

    For the average person that MASSIVE gulf in cost is well worth the slight weight differences or slightly cramped keyboards.

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    1. Christopher, this post has far less to do with the cost and more with the feasbility of a true “no compromise” laptop / tablet. I could drop 100% of the cost of my Pixel and iPad into a product but it still won’t “fit” because of the three scenarios mentioned.

      Your point about these devices do most of what I need “just not as comfortably” is pretty much the point; this is a form factor that is — so far — not as effective as two separate devices for most people.

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      1. Toby Overstreet Friday, December 6, 2013

        For me, for a hybrid tablet/laptop, I feel it is important to decide how much will you use the tablet, and the laptop for. For hybrid tablet/laptop, there are different specs like, some are running on dual core chips, some are running on haswell chips. There are three popular choices of the memory ram: 2 GB, 4GB or 8 GB ram. There are different storage capacities such as 32 GB, 64 GB, 128 GB, 256 GB, and newly 512 GB.

        For me, I prefer to have a hybrid tablet that can run on 4 GB or more, 128 GB or more on a current Haswell chip. Not only that, the screen resolution is very important to me because I have experienced a netbook with a resolution of 1024×600. It is frustrating. I feel like I cannot do anything but view one window a time. I learned my lesson. Never go for a lower resolution ever. I would buy either 1280×800 or 1920×1200, but I would choose the highest resolution like 1920×1200 or 3200×1600 (which is on Lenovo Yoga Pro 2). But the higher resolution is not necessary better, but it can give you more room in one screen definitely.

        So times like this, I would be willing to pay more to satisfy my need and for my daily use. I will be sporting a 8 GB, 128/or 256 GB storage capability running a full Windows 8.1 (or Pro) on a current Haswell chip and a higher resolution like 1920×1200. Yeah. I know it will gonna cost me a lot of money, but I definitely will be happy for a LONG time.

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        1. bernieplugable Sunday, December 8, 2013

          One thing not mentioned in the article is pairing a USB 3.0 docking station with these tablets running a full copy of Windows (Intel / AMD).

          This is potentially the best of both worlds: the portability of a tablet, plus as many high-resolution monitors and other connectivity options as you’d want, when at your desk.

          This video shows what’s possible with a Plugable USB 3.0 dock:

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  3. Great review. Thanks Kevin. I recently had a Retina iPad Mini that I took back earlier this week. I wanted something larger like an iPad Air as the mini was a little too tough on these old eyes. I was considering the T100 due to is value (office preinstalled, full windows etc…), but I’m not so sure after reading this.

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    1. Shawn, I highly recommend taking a look at the T100 in a store. The screen size / resolution may work for you, especially after spending some time tweaking it to your liking.

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  4. Paul matencio Friday, December 6, 2013

    Did you run octane 2.0 benchmark on this T100. It should be pretty slow compared to the Acer C720. It would nice to run it before you return the device and share your result.

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    1. I did indeed. I forget the exact number but it was between 5,000 and 5,100.

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  5. Toby Overstreet Friday, December 6, 2013

    If you want to download Chrome on a Surface tablet, get Surface Pro or Pro 2, but it is a hefty price, of course, unfortunately. If I want to go hybrid between a laptop and tablet and want to download legacy programs, like Chrome or apps with older versions like XP or 7, I would be willing to pay that much for a Surface Pro 2 myself.

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  6. What’s wrong with the venue 11 pro? It has a screen less than 11 inches, but has twice the pixel count of the t100, it has a slightly larger screen, it is slightly faster, and best of all it is versatile. Having USB 3.0 built into the tablet would be wonderful, and with active stylus support it would be easier to hit smaller elements on the screen.

    I dunno. I feel like it would be perfect for you, by maybe not. Maybe the venue 8 pro would be the perfect chrome tablet? Handwriting could be an interesting way to do input: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/ativ-smart-pc-500t-windows-8-atom,3360-2.html

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    1. Toby Overstreet Friday, December 6, 2013

      I just looked at the Dell Venue 11 Pro. It has a similar spec as Surface Pro 2. It is gonna be a tough decision. But I am leaning onto 8 GB memory RAM, which Surface Pro 2 has. I only see that Dell sells up to 4 GB.

      I have used Dell products at work, and I wasn’t that impressed, but again, they are leased computers, so it may be a different story if you own one entirely, it may run great. Unfortunately, I never own a Dell before, so I really cannot say anything about it. I have owned Toshiba, HP, Compaq, and ASUS (twice). I am sure Dell is an excellent brand name, great for businesses, but for home use: would it be a great choice? Hmm. I was sure that I would buy Surface Pro 2 until you mentioned it, then now I have to do a bit more research before I buy anything.

      In the old days, it is much simpler in choosing a computer, but today, there are so many computers/laptop/tablets make it difficult to decide which one I want. :-/

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  7. Kevin, might there be another class of device that we could consider here? I would submit that 2-in-1s are merely touch-based portable PCs with the benefit of detached portion for a more casual, lap-based experience.

    A tablet, I would say, by definition needs to be light and most likely ARM-based. Surface RT, Surface 2, and Lumia 2520 are of course Windows tablets with a kind of direct analogue to the iPad and Android tablets. I’d consider anything with a “desktop” to be a PC and therefore not constrained by the same requirements as a tablet.

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    1. Additionally as the expectation for a touch-based experiences increases from consumers, I think we will have to start considering a whole different class of device that is touch-based but not tablet per se. Eventually, touch-based PCs will be so common that the synonymous nature of capacitive touch and tablets won’t exist in the minds of consumers or PC manufacturers.

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  8. Additionally as the expectation for a touch-based experiences increases from consumers, I think we will have to start considering a whole different class of device that is touch-based but not tablet per se. Eventually, touch-based PCs will be so common that the synonymous nature of capacitive touch and tablets won’t exist in the minds of consumers or PC manufacturers.

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  9. Kevin, I am also waiting for a Android/chrome os device. Would be nice if Google could use the next Nexus 10 with a Asus Transformer like dock and Android / chrome os dual boot. Or even better some virtual machine where chrome and Android run the same time.

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  10. Interesting read Kevin. I had a similar epiphany when trying to find a replacement for my aging Toshiba Qosmio X305 notebook. I finally came to the conclusion that building my own mini-ITX desktop system would provide more performance and cost less than a traditional 17″ desktop replacement notebook. In fact, with the money saved, I could spurge on a 4K monitor and finally jump off the 1080p bandwagon notebook manufacturers have been resting their laurels on.

    Granted, your needs are different than mine. I like to stress performance hardware with F@H, extreme multitasking, intense gaming and serious video/audio workloads. I’ve now outgrown the constraints of what a desktop replacement notebook can do in terms of capability, and in dealing with poor fans, cooling and maintenance.

    http://lgponthemove.blogspot.com/2013/10/off-beaten-track-desktop-renaissance-or.html

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