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TR's November 2014 mobile staff picks

Core M and phablets ahoy

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Quite a lot has changed since we spun off the mobile section of the TR System Guide into our first mobile staff picks.

In just five months, we've seen the arrival of Intel's Core M processor, which has brought about a new generation of Windows tablets and convertibles. Google has also released Android 5.0 Lollipop along with a fresh batch of Nexus hardware. Meanwhile, Apple has let loose iOS 8.0 along with a bevy of new iPhones and iPads.

All of this calls for a new edition of the mobile staff picks.

As before, our selections will be based on our own personal preferences. We won't cover every device type or every price point. Instead, we'll focus on the kinds of products we'd be most likely to buy for ourselves. Also, while we may not always have the time or the opportunity to test every recommendation first-hand, our suggestions are based on a combination of experience, careful research, and healthy debate among TR's editors. Separating the wheat from the chaff isn't easy, but we hope we've singled out some of the nicest mobile hardware available this holiday season.

Convertible laptops
Let's kick things off with the newest of the new: some of the first commercially available convertibles (a.k.a. two-in-ones) to feature Intel's Core M processor.

The Core M is the first chip based on Intel's new 14-nm Broadwell microarchitecture, and it promises to infuse fanless, ultra-thin systems with performance previously available only in bulkier, actively cooled machines. Watt for watt, this chip offers considerably better performance and battery life than previous-gen Haswell-Y processors. The Core M should also be much speedier than the Atom chips inside lower-end tablets.

Our selections below also include the Surface 3 Pro, which is based on Haswell silicon. We've kept the Surface around because it's in the same size and weight ballpark as some of the new Core M machines, and it's both sleekly designed and aggressively priced.

Product Specs Starting price
Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000 Display: 10.8" 1920x1080 (204 ppi)
Processor: Intel Core M-5Y10 (Broadwell)
RAM: 4/8GB
Storage: 64/128/256GB + microSD slot
Battery life: 10 hours (20 hours with dock)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, LTE
Thickness: 0.42"
Weight: 1.62 lbs
(4GB, 64GB,
no LTE,
no dock)
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Display: 12" 2160x1440 (216 ppi)
Processor: Intel Core i3/i5/i7 (Haswell)
RAM: 4/8GB
Storage: 64/128/256/512GB + microSD slot
Battery life: 9 hours (web)
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.36"
Weight: 1.76 lbs

(Core i3,
4GB, 64GB,
no dock)

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 2 Display: 11.6" 1920x1080 (190 ppi)
Processor: Intel Core M-5Y10/Core M-5Y70 (Broadwell)
RAM: 4/8GB
Storage: 128/256GB + microSD slot
Battery life: 8 hours (12 hours with dock)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.37" (1" with dock)
Weight: 1.75 lbs (2.89 lbs with dock)
(Core M-5Y10,
4GB, 128GB)

The Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000 might be the best bargain of the bunch, thanks to its 10-hour battery life rating and $700 starting price. Shell out another $220 for Dell's keyboard dock, which turns the system into a clamshell laptop, and the company claims you'll enjoy up to 20 hours of unplugged time. Just make sure to get the "Dell Tablet Keyboard - Mobile" and not the "Dell Tablet Keyboard - Slim." The latter is cheaper but doesn't have a battery built in (or a hinge, for that matter).

Slightly upmarket from the Venue is the Surface Pro 3, which has a larger display with a different aspect ratio and a higher resolution. The extra pixels don't result in a substantially higher pixel density (216 vs. 204 ppi), but some folks may prefer the extra vertical headroom afforded by the 3:2 aspect ratio. Most other Windows tablets have 16:9 screens, which can be a little awkward to use in portrait mode.

The Surface Pro 3 doesn't have a keyboard dock like the Venue. Instead, Microsoft sells the $130 Type Cover, which includes a keyboard and touchpad and doubles as a screen cover. The Type Cover latches on magnetically, so users have to rely on the Surface's "kickstand" to hold the screen up at an angle. That may not be the best setup to use on your lap, but at least the Pro 3's new kickstand allows for fine-grained adjustment of the angle of the display.

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

Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix 2 is also worth a look. It's the most expensive of the bunch, and its 11.6" 1080p display also has the lowest pixel density. However, the base configuration offers double the storage capacity of the Surface and Venue, and the keyboard dock is part of the bundle. That dock boosts the system's battery life to an ample 12 hours, and the fact that it has a ThinkPad-style keyboard and TrackPoint nib doesn't hurt, either.

Oh, and like the Surface, the ThinkPad Helix 2 ships with an included digitizer pen.

Ultrabooks and regular laptops
If convertibles aren't up your alley, then you'll probably want a regular laptop to do real work (and to get into heated arguments on Internet forums). We've got you covered there with three systems that range from the uber-affordable to the classy and pricey.

Product Specs Starting price
Asus EeeBook X205TA Display: 11.6" 1366x768 (135 ppi)
Processor: Intel Atom Z3735 (Bay Trail)
Storage: 32GB + microSD slot
Battery life: 12 hours (web)
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth
Thickness: 0.69"
Weight: 2.16 lbs
Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus Display: 13.3" 3200x1800 (276 ppi)
Processor: Intel Core i5/i7 (Haswell)
RAM: 4/8GB
Storage: 128/256GB
Battery life: 7.5 hours
Connectivity: 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.54"
Weight: 3.06 lbs
(Core i5,
4GB, 128GB)
13" MacBook Pro Retina Display: 13.3" 2560x1600 (227 ppi)
Processor: Core i5/i7 (Haswell)
Storage: 128/256GB
Battery life: 9 hours (web/video)
Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Thickness: 0.71"
Weight: 3.46 lbs
(Core i5,
8GB, 128GB)

Netbooks are back, baby! Asus' EeeBook X205TA harkens back to the glory days of uber-cheap ultraportables, with a rock-bottom price tag, small footprint, and 12-hour battery. This thing's specs are relatively good except for the stingy 32GB eMMC storage—though happily, the system can take a 64GB microSD card. 96GB should be sufficient for the kind of software and files one might need on a neo-netbook like this one.

At the other end of the spectrum lie the 13" MacBook Pro Retina and Ativ Book 9 Plus, two 13" ultraportables with high-PPI displays. The MacBook is the pricier of the two, and it might be the best, thanks to its excellent keyboard and touchpad, its nine-hour battery, and the superior high-PPI support in both OS X and Mac software. The MacBook can also run Windows, either as a primary OS or in a dual-boot configuration, and a visit to the nearest Apple Store should take care of any problems you run into. For $1,300, it doesn't get much better than that.

Those allergic to fruit logos may prefer the Ativ Book 9 Plus, a Windows system that's thinner, lighter, less expensive, and equipped with an even higher-resolution display. Our brushes with Samsung ultrabooks have left us with lots of good things to say, and the Ativ looks like a good buy. Just keep in mind that it has less RAM, shorter battery life, and 802.11n Wi-Fi instead of 802.11ac. (A model with 8GB of RAM is available, but it costs $1,499.99.) Also, we should reiterate that high-PPI support in Windows remains something of a work in progress. All too many Windows apps still don't handle high-PPI resolutions very well, which can turn what should be a premium experience into, well, something that's not.