The mobile sidekicks
The market is replete with tablets, convertibles, and notebooks of all shapes and sizes, and most of us use at least one of them as a sidekick to our main desktop PC. We don't have a full set of recommendations here, but we can point you to the devices we think are most worthy of your consideration. We'll introduce them by category, in order of price.
These are slates that aren't designed to mate with keyboard docks or the like.
Google's Nexus 7 FHD, which is manufactured by Asus, might just be the best Android tablet around. Its 7" IPS display has an impressive 1920x1200 resolution and looks great. The quad-core Snapdragon processor delivers snappy performance, and the 16GB base storage capacity is decent given the $229 starting price. It's also worth noting that Nexus devices deliver a pure Android experience unfettered by vendor-specific customizations. As a result, they typically receive OS updates long before other tablets.
On the iOS front, our pick would probably be Apple's new iPad mini with Retina display. This tablet has the same basic specifications as the new iPad Air, but it's smaller, lighter, and $100 cheaper. Where the iPad Air tips the scales at an impressive one pound, the iPad mini Retina weighs only 0.88 lbs—and it's 5.3" across instead of 6.6", which should make portrait-mode typing easier. The new mini also boasts a higher pixel density than the Air, since it crams the same 2048x1536 resolution into a smaller, 7.9" panel.
The iPad mini with Retina display starts at $399 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only model. We'd probably spring for the $499 32GB version in order to leave plenty of room for all those fancy iOS games.
A relatively new device category, convertibles are basically tablets that can be docked with a keyboard to double as a quasi-notebook. We're not too excited about straight-up Windows 8.1 tablets, but we do see the appeal of convertible designs, since they can be used comfortably for both productivity and content consumption.
Asus' Transformer Book T100 is a bargain at $349 with a full-fledged copy of Windows 8.1, one of Intel's new Bay Trail processors, and a keyboard dock that's included in the default package. We were pretty impressed when we reviewed this system not long ago. Performance was snappy, and battery life was excellent, at 10 hours for web browsing and 12 hours for video playback. This thing is really light, too; the tablet and dock components each weigh 1.2 lbs.
The downsides? Well, the Transformer Book T100's 10.1" IPS display has only a 1366x768 resolution, and the machine's build quality isn't anything to write home about. Hello, glossy plastic! Also, the $350 model isn't listed at Newegg; we only see the $399 variant, which has 64GB of solid-state storage instead of 32GB. Come to think of it, that's probably the one you should get anyway.
We haven't reviewed HP's Split 13 x2, but it looks like an interesting alternative for someone who wants their convertible to be more laptop than tablet. The Split has a larger, 13.3" display than the Transformer Book T100 (still with a 1366x768 resolution, though, sadly), and it weighs more, at 2.36 lbs for the tablet component and 2.53 lbs for the dock. However, instead of a Bay Trail Atom chip, the Split packs a Haswell-based Core i3—and its larger footprint leaves room for a full-sized keyboard and touchpad. For $700, that's not a bad deal.
HP also offers a similar system with AMD guts: the Pavilion 13 x2, which starts at $600 with a 13.3" 1366x768 IPS display, an AMD A6-1450 "Kabini" processor, and 64GB of solid-state storage. This convertible weighs the same as the Split 13 x2, but it should be slower. It may be worth looking into, though.
Ultrabooks and premium laptops
We're going to skip low-end and mid-range ultrabook recommendations this round, because, well, most of those systems kinda suck. Getting something with a decent display and a Haswell processor means spending at least a grand—and even then we're not all that thrilled with what's available. If you want a real, high-quality laptop for serious productivity work, then we recommend springing for one of the premium systems with high-PPI panels.
Surprisingly, Apple's $1299 13" MacBook Pro with Retina display is the most attractively priced offering in this category. The MacBook Pro has a razor-sharp 2560x1600 display resolution, and it also features a Haswell Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of solid-state storage, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a nine-hour battery, and an uber-slim chassis that's just 0.71" thick. It has one of those great Apple touchpads, too, which is still head and shoulders above what other PC vendors offer.
This may be a Mac, but it also runs Windows natively if you supply your own copy. We recommend at least giving OS X Mavericks a try, however. Who knows? You might like it.
For a similar, Windows-only system, check out the QHD+ version of Samsung's Ativ Book 9 Plus. The $1,400 price tag is steeper, but the 13.3" display has an even higher 3200x1800 resolution—and touch-screen capabilities. Other components include a Haswell Core i5 chip, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of solid-state storage, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a 7.5-hour battery. Windows 8 comes pre-installed, of course.
The Ativ Book 9 Plus is also remarkably light at 2.56 lbs, which is nearly a pound lighter than the 3.46-lb MacBook Pro Retina. To be fair, though, the MacBook does have a higher battery life rating.
Honorable mention: Chromebooks
Dude, don't buy a Chromebook.
Well, unless you're really sure you want one.
Chromebooks look and feel like well-built ultraportable laptops, and their low prices often make them seem too good to pass up. The thing is, they all run Chrome OS, which isn't an operating system in the same sense as Windows, OS X, or Linux distros like Ubuntu. Chrome OS is essentially the Chrome web browser with a smattering of extremely limited local applications to handle basic file management, photo viewing, video playback, and the like. That's it. Anything of consequence—even accessing system settings—happens inside the browser, and any third-party "apps" for Chrome OS are either web apps or just plain websites.
With a Chromebook, there's no way to run Word or LibreOffice; you're stuck with online productivity tools like Google Docs. There's no way to download Skype; you must use the web-based version built into Outlook.com or switch to Google Hangouts. There's no Steam, iTunes, uTorrent, Notepad++, Photoshop, or any other local applications dear to you. It's web apps or bust.
Offerings like the HP Chromebook 11 (asking price: $279) can make good, affordable mobile sidekicks if you just need to browse the web and write term papers. But we strongly advise prospective buyers to keep Chrome OS's limitations in mind before they click the "add to cart" button.
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