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.
|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.
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 1920×1200 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…
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 2048×1536 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.
|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 1366×768 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 1366×768, you’ll have to put up with a lower pixel density.
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 (2160×1440, 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.
Ultrabooks and premium laptops
|13″ Macbook Pro with Retina display||$1,299.99|
|13.3″ Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus||$1,399.99|
Whoa, whoa. Are we skipping straight to thousand-dollar systems? What happened to regular notebooks?
Good question. The short answer is that vanilla notebooks outside the convertible and premium ultrabook categories tend to be, you know, not so great. It’s not that they aren’t capable productivity workhorses; it’s just that most of them have lousy keyboards, low pixel densities, and crummy battery life. One can occasionally luck out and find a machine with just one or two of those shortcomings, but avoiding these issues altogether calls for a budget in excess of $1,000.
Probably the best deal north of the thousand-dollar mark right now is Apple’s 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina display. Good keyboard? Check: Apple’s laptop keyboards are among the best in the industry. High pixel density? Check: the 2560×1600 native resolution gives you a pixel density of 227 PPI. Good battery life? Check: the 72-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery is rated for nine hours of web surfing.
There’s plenty more to be excited about. The base config comes with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Apple pre-installs OS X Mavericks, which is pretty solid as far as operating systems go, and it provides drivers for Windows, should you choose to dual-boot (or go Windows-only, which is also possible.) Finally, if you live near an Apple Store, you also get the benefit of Apple’s terrific in-store customer service, which is head and shoulders above the kind of support big PC makers typically provide.
If the thought of using a computer with a fruit logo makes your skin break out in hives, there are Windows-toting PC notebooks similar to the Retina MacBook Pro. One of them is Samsung’s Ativ Book 9 Plus, which has roughly equivalent specs and an even higher display resolution: 3200×1800 (which works out to about 275 PPI). The rated battery life on this laptop is a little shorter, though, at 7.5 hours, and the built-in Wi-Fi is only 802.11n.
Also, keep in mind that a lot of Windows apps don’t handle high-PPI displays gracefully. That may change thanks to the influx of cheap 4K monitors, but at least for now, OS X should deliver a better high-PPI experience.
A note on Chromebooks
For the most part, Chromebooks lie at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the premium notebooks mentioned above. Chromebooks are small, cheap, and surprisingly limited in their functionality.
HP’s Chromebook 11, for example, costs only $279 and features an 11.6″ IPS display with a 1366×768 resolution, an ARM-based Samsung Exynos processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of built-in storage. Naturally, it ships with Chrome OS, which is less of an operating system and more of a glorified web browser running on top of a Linux kernel.
The premise of Chrome OS is that, with a handful of exceptions (for basic file management, video playback, and the like), the web browser is the center of your world. All third-party applications and games are meant to be web-based, and there’s really no out-of-the-box way to install anything like a native copy of Steam, iTunes, or Photoshop—or The Gimp, for that matter.
If this is going to be your second or third computer and you just need a web-browsing, note-taking machine for school or work, that’s probably fine. There are lots of good web apps out there nowadays, including online versions of Microsoft Word and Excel. For anything more involved, though, we’d strongly recommend that you consider something else. Heck, even an iPad can run the kinds of native apps and games Chrome OS just doesn’t support.
Because some Chromebooks are Intel-based, some folks might be tempted to squeeze Linux or Windows onto them. Keep in mind that most Chromebooks are stuck with 16GB of built-in storage. The idea is, of course, that everything should be stored in the cloud. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite fit the modus operandi of traditional operating systems, which involve a reasonably hefty footprint and additional storage requirements for third-party software.
So, no, you probably shouldn’t get a Chromebook—unless you’re really, really sure you want one.
What’s on the horizon
That about covers our recommendations in the realm of currently available systems (or almost-available ones, in the case of the Surface Pro 3, which doesn’t come out until June 20). We’d be comfortable buying most of these machines for ourselves, provided we were in the market for new gear right now.
What about the systems that are just around the corner? Is anything truly groundbreaking mere months away from release?
Well, yes, actually. Intel’s next-generation Broadwell processors are due out later this year, and one of them, the Core M, promises to enable a new breed of convertible tablets: thinner, lighter, fanless systems that should still pack a lot of processing punch.
We haven’t gotten confirmation of this yet, but we expect Asus’ upcoming Transformer T300 Chi will be powered by the Core M. That machine will have a 12.5″ screen with a 2560×1440 resolution, and it will be just 0.56″ thick… with the keyboard dock attached. For reference, the Atom-powered Transformer T100 is 0.8″. If Asus plays its cards right, the Transformer T300 Chi could very well be the finest dockable convertible ever.
Broadwell isn’t going to be out right away, though. In the nearer term, we’re intrigued and hopeful about some of the systems unveiled at Computex earlier this month. Those include
64-bit Bay Trail convertibles are also starting to break cover, which is a welcome development. Earlier this year, Scott deplored the absence of such systems, which have the potential to offer a great blend of portability, versatility, and affordability, all without restrictive memory limitations. HP’s Pavilion x360 and Lenovo’s Yoga 2 11 both wrap Bay Trail in a 64-bit package with 4GB of RAM, though they don’t have detachable keyboard docks. Sadly, we’re still on the lookout for a 64-bit version of the Transformer T100 with 4GB of RAM—or something like it. We’ll probably have to update this guide as soon as we find one.