The mobile sidekicks
These days, a good desktop PC usually isn't enough. Tablets and laptops are everywhere, tempting us with their slim, slick enclosures and glossy displays. But which ones should you buy? We've put together a short list of some of our favorites, which may help you decide.
Let's start with tablets and the big daddy in that world: Apple's iPad. We're up to the fourth generation, which offers essentially the same features at the same $499 starting price as the third-gen model—just with higher-performance internals and one of those newfangled Lightning connectors.
We've made extensive use of the second- and third-generation iPads here at TR, and we like them quite a lot. The 2048x1536 Retina display on the latest models looks gorgeous, and both default iOS apps and third-party software usually feel fast, smooth, and responsive. Those foldable Smart Covers are pretty nifty, too.
This is Google's Nexus 7, which you may have heard of before. The tablet will set you back only $199, yet it's surprisingly well outfitted, with a Tegra 3 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of solid-state storage on the base model, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and the pièce de résistance, a seven-inch IPS panel with a 1280x800 resolution. We really dug the Nexus 7 when we reviewed it this summer—so much so that it earned a TR Editor's Choice award.
You can also get Android in a larger package. Asus' Transformer Pad Infinity boasts a 1920x1200 resolution that's nearly as dense as the iPad's, and the base model will only set you back $438 with 32GB of solid-state storage. We've reviewed the Transformer Pad Infinity, and while we think the iPad has a more fluid interface overall, we're quite fond of the Transformer. Asus sweetens the pot with a neat, laptop-style keyboard dock (asking price: $145) that boosts battery life to a whopping 16.6 hours in our web browsing and video playback tests.
Now, what about those new Windows 8 slates?
At $499, Microsoft's Surface for Windows RT is priced right up against the new, fourth-generation iPad. That's a little bold on Microsoft's part, since the Surface has a lower-density screen (only 1366x768 across 10.6", instead of 2048x1536 across 9.7") and weighs a little more (1.5 lbs vs. 1.44 lbs). The Surface's Tegra 3 processor is a fair bit slower than the iPad's A6X chip, as well.
Still, the Surface has some features the iPad lacks, like a full-sized USB port. Microsoft has also built the Surface with an integrated kickstand, so you can easily prop it up on a table in widescreen mode without a fold-up cover. Speaking of covers, Microsoft offers two of those. There's the $99 Touch Cover, which has a touchpad and a pressure-sensitive keyboard with no moving parts. (Simple pressure from your fingers triggers key presses.) Then there's the Type Cover, which has a more conventional keyboard built in.
These covers snap into place via a magnet, much like Apple's Smart Cover does on the iPad. That means they double as a screen protector when the device isn't in use. Since there's no hinge, however, using the Surface with those things on your lap may be a little awkward.
Asus' $549 VivoTab RT avoids such awkwardness by adopting the familiar convertible design of Asus' Transformer tablets. When docked, the Vivo Tab RT essentially looks and behaves like a 10.1" netbook. There's a hinge, and the keyboard dock includes both extra connectivity and an additional battery, which increases the rated run time from nine to 16 hours. When undocked, the VivoTab RT looks like any other standalone tablet. It's certainly very thin and light, at 0.33" and 1.15 lbs. The hardware is pretty similar to what Microsoft puts in the Surface, too: a Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage capacity on the base model. The VivoTab RT's screen is slightly smaller, measuring 10.1" instead of 10.6". You can read our review of the VivoTab RT right here.
Now, there is one big caveat with Windows RT devices like the Surface and VivoTab RT: they don't run x86 or x64 software (i.e. basically every Windows application out there that wasn't designed for Windows 8's Modern UI interface). To get Windows 8 in a convertible tablet format without losing x86 compatibility, you want devices running Intel's Clover Trail or Ivy Bridge processors.
Clover Trail-based systems cost a little more than their ARM counterparts. Samsung's Ativ SmartPC XE500, for example, is listed for $649.99 at Newegg. HP's Envy x2, a similar Clover Trail-powered convertible tablet, will set you back $849.99. Both of these convertible tablets have 11.6" screens, so they're a little bigger than the Windows RT offerings. (They still have 1366x768 display resolutions, though.) The rated battery run times seem decent, but some folks have questioned whether these systems are really speedy enough to handle Windows 8.
If you want the best performance, then you'll have to pony up for something with an Ivy Bridge CPU. Options there include Samsung's Ativ SmartPC Pro 700T, which is pretty much an ultrabook turned into a convertible, touch-enabled tablet. It costs just under $1,200 at Newegg and features an 11.6" 1080p display, a Core i3-3317U processor, and 128GB of solid-state storage. Battery life is rated at up to eight hours, and the whole thing weighs in at 3.53 lbs with the dock. We'll have a review of this puppy ready for your perusal soon, so stay tuned.
Windows 8 has also given rise to some... unusual systems, like the $1,049 Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. This machine's hinge allows its 13" screen to fold back over the bottom of the laptop. That lets you use the system like a jumbo-sized tablet, provided you don't mind having the keyboard and touchpad exposed on the other side.
This is a proper notebook, in any case. It has a Core i7 processor, up to 8GB of RAM, 128GB of solid-state storage, USB 3.0, and all that good stuff. The screen even uses an IPS panel with a decent 1600x900 display resolution. Lenovo quotes a thickness of 0.67" and a weight of 3.4 lbs, which is pretty standard for ultrabooks these days.
Of course, there are also more conventional laptops out there running Windows 8. One of those is the non-touch version of Asus' Zenbook UX31A ultrabook. As far as we can tell, it's physically identical to the model we reviewed in September, save for the bundled operating system. For $1,100, that's not a bad deal at all. Asus' website also lists a touch-enabled version, but we're not seeing it listed at Newegg or Amazon.
Folks seeking a touch screen and a lower price tag may like Asus' VivoBook X202E, which sells for only $499.99 at Newegg right now and features an 11.6", 1366x768 capacitive touch screen. With a 17W Ivy Bridge processor, 2.9-pound weight, and 0.8-0.9" thickness, it doesn't stray far from the ultrabook formula. We weren't very impressed with the system's performance, battery life, or display quality, but hey—you get what you pay for.
Further still down the price ladder, HP offers a Windows 8 version of its Pavilion dm1z ultraportable for $399.99. This little 11.6" machine features AMD's Brazos 2.0 platform (with an E1-1200 APU and Radeon HD 7300 integrated graphics) and has pretty decent specs for the price. An earlier version of the dm1z earned our coveted TR Editor's Choice award. We lauded the system for not only looking great on paper, but also being exceptionally well-built for a cheap ultraportable.
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