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TR's June 2014 mobile staff picks

Complements to our desktop PCs

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Once upon a time, our TR System Guide covered not just PC components, but also peripherals and what we called "mobile sidekicks": the notebooks, tablets, and convertibles we recommended to supplement our desktop builds. Unfortunately, covering all of these things in a single guide became more and more of a challenge over time.

Earlier this year, we revised the structure of the System Guide to focus exclusively on PC components. Our aim was to cover peripherals and mobile gear in separate articles. Besides making the System Guide itself less unwieldy to update, breaking out those sections into stand-alone articles was meant to give us more time to spend on each one—resulting, hopefully, in better content.

Our first revised System Guide went up in February, and we published another update last month. In the meantime, we also put up our first peripheral staff picks as a standalone article. Today, we're completing the set with our first standalone mobile staff picks.

There haven't been that many big developments in the notebook and convertible markets in recent months, so our favorites are by and large the same. Still, the stand-alone format has given us the opportunity to refine and elaborate on our recommendations a fair bit. We've also added some new gear introduced at Computex earlier this month, and we've waxed poetic about upcoming and unreleased products in our new "What's on the horizon" section. This should, all in all, be an informative read for anyone seeking to supplement their desktop build with some mobile hardware.

Straight-up tablets

Product Price
Nexus 7 $229.99
iPad Mini with Retina display $399.00

Let's kick things off with tablets—just plain tablets designed to be used without detachable keyboards. We're not overly fond of larger offerings here, since they tend to be heavier and bulkier, and their larger screens don't unlock very much extra functionality. We're also avoiding the murky waters of low-end 7" slates, which tend to have lower-resolution screens and other such shortcomings. Rather, our current favorites are Google's Nexus 7, which is made by Asus, and the iPad Mini with Retina display, which is made by you-know-who.

Source: Google.

The Nexus 7 is the more affordable of our two picks, at $229, but it's by no means less desirable. Its 7" IPS screen has a 1920x1200 resolution, yielding a pixel density of 323 pixels per inch (PPI). The Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM under the hood team up to deliver snappy web-browsing and multitasking performance. Finally, since this is a Google Nexus device, the Nexus 7 ships with the latest Android release, lacks ugly vendor-specific customizations, and should receive future updates promptly.

The Nexus 7's only real downside is its 16GB of integrated storage, which seems a little stingy by today's standards. You can get a 32GB version of the device, but it's priced at a disproportionate $40 premium over the 16GB version. Ah, if only there were a microSD slot to allow for DIY storage upgrades...

Source: Apple.

Speaking of locked-down hardware, Apple's iPad Mini with Retina display is our other favorite tablet. At $399, it's definitely pricier than the Nexus 7, but it has a slightly larger screen with a better aspect ratio for portrait-mode web browsing. It's also somewhat more powerful. In fact, the iPad Mini with Retina display basically shares its internal specs with the full-fledged iPad Air, despite costing $100 less. The two iPad variants even have the same 2048x1536 screen resolution, which yields an even higher pixel density of 326 PPI on the Mini, since the screen size is smaller (at 7.9" vs 9.7").

The iPad Mini's smaller display makes for a lighter, more compact tablet, too. This thing weighs only 0.73 lbs, down from a full pound for the iPad Air, and it's only 5.3" wide instead of 6.6". Beside the obvious advantages of a smaller, lighter device, the iPad Mini's narrower shape should make for easier typing in portrait mode.

Like the Nexus 7, the iPad Mini with Retina display comes with only 16GB of default storage and lacks microSD expansion. Apple prices 32GB, 64GB, and 128GB versions of this tablet at $499, $599, and $699, respectively, which is even more preposterous than the premiums Google charges. Oh well. At $499, the 32GB iPad Mini with Retina display is still a better buy than the 16GB iPad Air, we think.

Convertible tablets

Product Price
Asus Transformer Book T100 (w/ 500GB HDD) $339.00
HP Split 13 x2 $699.99
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 $799.00

Here, we have our convertible tablets: devices that, while fully capable of operating as discrete tablets, are really designed to pair up with detachable keyboards or keyboard docks for a more laptop-like experience.

Asus' Transformer Book T100 is the most affordable of the bunch, at $339 for the base model with 64GB of built-in storage. There's also a $374 variant with 32GB of built-in storage and a 500GB auxiliary hard drive nestled in the keyboard dock. The extra capacity on those spinning platters is welcome, but we're not so keen on the reduced flash storage, which is what you'll be stuck with when the system is undocked.

The Transformer Book T100 ships with Windows 8.1 and one of Intel's Bay Trail processors, which means it's more or less a fully featured PC crammed inside a 10" tablet. Plug in the keyboard dock, and the T100 turns into a mini-notebook ready for productivity work. We reviewed the T100 last year and came away quite impressed with its performance and battery life. The system's battery run times clocked in at 10 hours for web surfing and 12 hours for video playback.

The only real downsides here are the 2GB memory capacity, the 32-bit operating system, and the 1366x768 screen resolution. Considering the price, however, those blemishes are easy to look past. For what it's worth, we haven't yet found a comparable system with a 64-bit version of Windows and 4GB of RAM.

For folks who need a convertible that's more notebook than tablet, the HP Split 13 x2 is worth a look—though we haven't reviewed it yet. It follows the same formula as the Transformer Book T100, but it features a 13" display, a Haswell-based Core i3 processor, and 4GB of RAM. This ought to be a more powerful machine than the T100 overall, and its full-sized keyboard should make long typing sessions more comfortable. The rated battery life sounds pretty good, too, at 10 hours.

Just keep in mind that the Split 13 x2's faster hardware and larger screen have their shortcomings. The tablet part of this machine weighs 2.36 lbs, and the whole thing tips the scales at 4.89 lbs put together. Also, since the screen resolution is still just 1366x768, you'll have to put up with a lower pixel density.

Source: Microsoft.

The Surface Pro 3 is a strange animal. It's sold sans keyboard, but Microsoft claims that, when paired with the $129.99 Type Cover, this device is capable enough to replace both your laptop and your tablet.

Not unlike the Split 13 x2, the Surface Pro 3 comes with a Haswell processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage capacity in its most affordable incarnation. The Surface's display is smaller, though, at 12", and it's got a higher resolution (2160x1440, yielding 216 PPI) as well as an unusual 3:2 aspect ratio. Microsoft says the bizarro aspect ratio lets the Surface Pro 3 show 6% more content than a run-of-the-mill 13" laptop.

The Type Cover, which is sold separately, adds a full keyboard and touchpad to that package. It doesn't have a hinge like the docks for the Asus and HP convertibles, though. Instead, it attaches to the Surface Pro 3 magnetically, sort of like Apple's Smart Covers. The tablet then uses a retractable kickstand to prop itself up.

This kickstand arrangement may sound awkward, but it has one major upside: it prevents the keyboard's weight from limiting the display's range of motion. Most hinged convertibles are somewhat top-heavy, since all the critical hardware sits behind the screen, so they'll only let you open 'em up so much. The range of motion can be increased by weighting the keyboard, but that just makes the system heavier to carry around. For reference, the Type Cover adds only about 0.65 lbs to the Surface Pro 3's weight.

The Surface Pro 3 also comes with a free Surface Pen, which allows one to doodle on the screen and take notes using Windows' handwriting recognition scheme.

With all that said, we're still not sure how comfortable the Surface Pro 3 and Type Cover combo is to use on one's lap. We also haven't tested the thing ourselves. Our recommendation, then, will have to be a tentative one for now.