Should you get a hybrid laptop? A user report card

Hybrids -- laptops whose displays detach to become tablets -- may be expensive and bulky, but they seem to be working for some users.

The hybrid PC is all about promise. It's a laptop and it's a tablet. It meets your business needs and it meets your media-consumption needs. It supplies a keyboard when you want it and leaves behind that added bulk when you don't. It's two, two, two devices in one.

But what's the reality? Does this kind of configuration really hold up in everyday use? Is this jack-of-all-trades design a master of only some?

To find out, I spoke with former laptop users who decided to try a hybrid and then asked them to assess their new machines' features. The responses were both surprising and enlightening, and may just change your mind about what kind of computer to buy next.

For purposes of this story, I focused specifically on Windows-powered hybrids that offer a display with a removable keyboard dock (or, if you prefer, a keyboard with a removable display). Keep in mind that I'm not talking about convertibles, which are basically laptops with hinged touch displays that can fold back onto the keyboards. These tend to be heavier and harder to wield when used in tablet mode.

The idea here is to see if a fully separable design affords greater benefits.

Why a hybrid?

With so many hardware options to choose from -- convertibles, tablets, traditional laptops, etc. -- what drove these folks to a hybrid? Among the top motivators: Convenience and flexibility.

"I liked the idea of the flexibility of using the screen separate from the keyboard, which could theoretically address iPad envy and the need for a new laptop at the same time," says Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Chicago. He adopted an Asus VivoTab to replace both an office desktop and an aging HP laptop.

Hybrids such as the Asus VivoTab RT allow users to work with the device as either a tablet or a laptop.

Network engineer Harold Gale, owner of Quakertown Computers in Quakertown, Pa., wasn't necessarily looking to replace his laptop, but did want "something more convenient and portable" to read e-books, watch streaming TV, browse the Web and check email. He chose an Acer Iconia W510 with the optional keyboard dock, and ultimately found he was using it instead of his laptop for a lot of day-to-day business.

For Detroit-based WJR 760AM radio host Foster Braun, who opted for a Microsoft Surface Pro and Type Cover keyboard, the allure was an "in-between" device that wouldn't necessarily tie him to his desk, but that offered a much larger screen than his phone. Braun suffers from various health issues that restrict him to a recliner for much of his day and the Surface "allows me to transfer a lot of middle-level work there," he says -- tasks like email, blogging, Web browsing and light image editing.

"The hybrid seems to be the answer to that equation," echoes programmer/analyst Michael Nagele, who works for the University of Illinois Foundation in Champaign, Ill. "Small enough to be portable, but big enough to enjoy media consumption or be able to get work done if the need arises." Nagele chose an Asus VivoTab RT because he "wanted to try Windows 8 for myself and see what all the fuss, pro and con, was about."

How they're used

In theory, a hybrid would be split pretty evenly between work and leisure tasks, the keyboard enabling office suite and other software-driven operations, the screen pulling free for book reading, movie watching and Web browsing. But did the scales tip in one direction or another once buyers actually started using the machines?

They did for Rabbi Chalom. "It turns out I use the system almost exclusively as a laptop," he reports. "I prefer to read on a Kindle with e-ink, [and] I can flip through email or play music while doing dishes faster on my phone, so [the hybrid] tends to live in my daily office bag as a laptop." Likewise, Chalom said his VivoTab serves laptop duty almost exclusively while he's traveling.

Nagele initially used his hybrid for media consumption -- "Netflix, Hulu Plus, games and Web surfing," he says. But because it came pre-loaded with Office and offered deep integration with Microsoft's OneDrive, "I find myself using it more and more since I can do everything on one machine. [I can] multitask and not worry about the battery running out."

"If I attend meetings, conferences, or generally leave the office, I grab my hybrid," says Harold Gale. "I also use [it as a] tablet when I need to work in wiring closets, as it fits nicely in the tightest of spaces." Gale adds that although he still bounces back to his laptop at times, he relies on the Acer W510 for everything from "general office tasks" to reading to watching training videos.

Overall, most of the users surveyed seem to end up using their hybrids as laptops first and tablets second.

What users like

Just as telling, when asked what they liked most about the systems, users pointed less to the hybrids' trick of separation of screen and keyboard and more to the traditional advantages you might find in an ultrabook or any touchscreen-equipped Windows 8 laptop.

Chalom, for example, loves the combination of a traditional keyboard touchpad and a touch screen. The latter makes it easy to switch back and forth between programs, while the touchpad offers "the precision of a mouse pointer that my stubby fingers don't provide."

He also likes the VivoTab's OneDrive integration, but notes, "that's really Windows 8.1 more than Asus specifically." Likewise, he appreciates the "fast booting, but I think that's also a feature of Windows 8 generally."

Speaking of which, "I have learned to appreciate landscape mode and really like the way that thumbs are a big part of how I now manipulate the screens," says Braun. "I also like the way I can bounce back and forth between the keyboard and the touch screen."

Nagele praises his VivoTab RT's battery life, which he says blows away that of laptops he's used. "With the hybrid, I can use it for a few hours on Monday evening, put it on standby and the battery is not drained when I open it for use Tuesday or even Wednesday." Not so with a traditional laptop, he says, which "needs to be near an electrical outlet, even when it's on standby."

Nothing thus far points to any hybrid-specific benefits for Gale, but he did discover at least one key advantage: "If I need to do a presentation, I can undock the tablet, lay it on the podium, and not have a screen blocking the audience from seeing me."

He also speaks highly of his Acer's battery life, which he pegs at about six hours for the tablet alone and 12 to 14 hours when it's docked with the keyboard. (The Acer Iconia W510 keyboard dock incorporates its own battery, which according to Acer can boost the tablet's runtime by as much as nine hours.)

That is arguably one of the best tools in a hybrid's arsenal and something a convertible can't match. Microsoft's forthcoming Power Cover, designed for the Surface Pro 2, will similarly layer an extended battery beneath its keyboard/cover combo.

What users don't like

Perhaps unsurprisingly, users' dislikes mostly fall into the same general-computing categories as their likes. Says Chalom of his hybrid: "The system can be a bit touchy. Sometimes it sleeps harder than a frat boy on Sunday morning, so getting it to wake up can be a challenge."

The system can be a bit touchy. Sometimes it sleeps harder than a frat boy on Sunday morning, so getting it to wake up can be a challenge. Rabbi Adam Chalom, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

He has to disconnect it from the keyboard and reconnect it before it will boot up. And occasionally the mouse pointer decides to stop working, so he needs to use the Function keys to disable and re-enable the mouse, "and then it works fine."

Hybrids can also suffer from everyday Windows issues. Braun finds cut-and-paste functions "spotty" on the Surface's touchscreen, while Gale notes that "some apps don't respond well to touch, mostly when you need to use right-click."

Ironically, the very keyboard that can boost a hybrid's versatility and longevity can also be a sore spot among users. Braun, Chalom and Nagele all use the word "cramped" in describing their hybrids' keyboards, to the point where Nagele retreats to his laptop or desktop when he needs to do a lot of typing.

Gale also discovered shortcomings in the areas of "expandability, upgradability and repairs." If you want to upgrade the SSD, for example, you can't because it's soldered in. And he was forced to buy micro-to-standard adapters for his Acer's micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports. They were only $5 each "but it's just two more cables that I have to worry about losing," he says.

Hybrids: Yea or nay?

Users' overall satisfaction with their hybrids seems to have more to do with Windows and various aspects of the hardware than with the basic execution of the hybrid design. One could argue, then, that a convertible would serve just as well, and perhaps even better, given the wider selection of models and configurations currently available.

That said, all four users report that they are thoroughly pleased with their hybrids. Chalom didn't expect that the new machine would work out as well as it did. "Being so light, I take the system with me every day on the off chance I wind up somewhere I could use it," he says, "whereas before I would only take my heavier laptop when I knew I would need it."

Gale was "expecting tablets to be slow and sluggish; however I was quite impressed with how well this tablet functions," he says. "I don't think it's made any meaningful changes" to the way he works, "but it's enhanced the ability of how I can get things done."

Finally, Nagele reports being "pleasantly surprised by the battery life" of his hybrid, having been frustrated with Android devices that would be "three-quarters drained after half a day of sitting on my desk without really being used."

Would he buy another hybrid? "I'm not ready to go 'tablet only' and forgo the keyboard," he says, "but the ability to have both form factors is a big plus."

The three other respondents also state they would buy hybrids again, though they're hoping to see more variety and lower prices. Notes Gale: "I've become so accustomed to the way [the hybrid] works for me. I can't see not having one."

Rick Broida has written about technology for nearly 25 years. He pens the popular Cheapskate blog and writes for Computerworld, PC World, Popular Science and Wired.

This article, Should you get a hybrid laptop? A user report card, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.

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