What I learned from seeking out a single tablet / laptop solution (again)

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(s goog) Pixel and my daily tablet is an iPad(s aapl) 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(s bbuy) to purchase one of the more popular hybrids: An Asus Transformer T100 for $349. The Surface 2 uses a Tegra 4(s nvda) chip and runs Windows(s msft) RT while the T100 has a relatively new Intel(s intc) 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(s amzn) 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(s 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(s hpq) 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.