ThinkPad Tablet vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 as laptop replacement

Summary:Tablets are powerful computers, and using one with a good keyboard can function as a decent laptop replacement. I put two Honeycomb tablets to the test to see which is better for this purpose.

Many tablet owners dream of using the thin slates as laptop replacements. The draw is lightening the gear bag on trips and enjoying the all-day battery life possible with most tablets. I have been using two different Android tablets this way for a while to see if it is possible to leave the laptop at home in favor of the light tablet. The ThinkPad Tablet is all business given its focus on the enterprise worker, while the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is more consumer friendly. I put them both head-to-head as laptop replacements to see how each would fare.

The test

Both of the tablets run Android Honeycomb, and this test is not intended to determine how well the OS works. My intention was to see how the hardware worked as a laptop, plus any special software each tablet ships with that the other lacks. All apps designed for Honeycomb tablets work equally well on both tablets so that's not in question.

The primary requirement to use a tablet as a laptop replacement is a good keyboard, especially given how much writing I do when mobile. The onscreen keyboard can serve in a pinch, but a good hardware keyboard is a must for serious work.

See also: Logitech Tablet Keyboard full review See also: ThinkPad Tablet with Keyboard Folio full review

I used the Logitech Tablet Keyboard case with the Samsung Galaxy Tab. I reviewed this keyboard recently, and found it to be a solid accessory ($100) for the Tab. This keyboard connects to the tablet over Bluetooth, and has special control keys to facilitate running the Tab from the keyboard.

The ThinkPad Tablet has a leather folio available ($100) that houses a keyboard specifically designed to turn the tablet into a laptop replacement. This keyboard plugs into the Tablet's USB port, and has an optical trackpad with two mouse buttons to allow using the tablet like a laptop.

This test ignores the tablet aspects of the two devices, and concentrates on each duo of tablet and keyboard. The keyboards were carefully observed to see how well they handled typing, controlling the tablet, and general usage.

Portability

It wouldn't make a lot of sense to leave the laptop at home if the tablet/keyboard combo is not more portable. This means smaller and lighter than most laptops. This is aided if the keyboard is not a totally separate piece from the tablet. Both of these keyboards form a case for the tablet, becoming one piece when combined. This makes it easy to just pick up the tablet/case and throw it into the bag.

Size is important, and the Galaxy Tab wins in this category. Even though the keyboard/case is aluminum, it is still much smaller than the ThinkPad Tablet in the portfolio case. It will fit in the smallest of bags, the Tab is lighter than the ThinkPad when used as a slate.

Winner: Galaxy Tab 10.1

Ease of Use as a laptop

Nothing is better than taking a gadget out of the bag and getting straight to work, so ease of use is important. The different methods of operation make one of them easier to use than the other. The Galaxy Tab's keyboard is wireless, and must be charged to use. It doesn't need to be charged often, but if you're heading out for a business trip you don't want it running dry at an inopportune moment.

The Tab's keyboard must be turned on to work with the tablet, and Bluetooth must be enabled for any session with the keyboard. It is easy to leave all of this on all the time, but that has a minor impact on battery life for both the tablet and the keyboard.

The ThinkPad Tablet connects to the keyboard via a full USB port that the ThinkPad has on the side. The folio case lines the plug up with the tablet port when it is inserted, and once plugged in the combo is ready for use. The keyboard stays plugged in the whole time the tablet is in the case, so all that must be done for a work session is taking the case out of the bag, opening it and turning on the tablet. It has no battery so there is nothing to keep charged.

Winner: ThinkPad Tablet

Keyboard quality

I write for a living so the keyboard is very important to me. Both tablets and keyboards are pretty good and will serve most folks well. They are near full-sized keyboards and have good key layouts that rival most netbooks.

The Galaxy Tab keyboard exhibits behavior common to Bluetooth models that sometimes affect performance. The keyboard goes into standby mode if not used for a while to save battery. It reconnects automatically when a key is hit, but there is a slight delay when this happens. The ThinkPad keyboard is not wireless so it does not have this delay.

Typing is good on both keyboards, but the ThinkPad is better of the two. I can type just as fast on this keyboard as I can on any laptop, and that is significant. Lenovo is famous for its ThinkPad laptop keyboards, and this tablet model is just as good. It is a keyboard without compromise, and it is significant to have a real laptop keyboard for a laptop replacement.

Winner: ThinkPad Tablet

Ease of Use as a Tablet

While this test is about the laptop replacement capability, these are both tablets at heart. What makes this type of combination shine over real laptops is the ability to take the tablet off the keyboard and use it as a slate.

The advantage of being a wireless keyboard means the Galaxy Tab can be simply lifted off the keyboard and used as a tablet. When it's needed as a laptop replacement, the Tab can be placed in the slot on the keyboard and it's back to typing.

The ThinkPad Tablet is plugged into the keyboard, and it can be difficult to remove from the case for use as a tablet. Plugging it back into the keyboard is easy enough, but removing it not so much. It is obviously designed to be left in the keyboard case most of the time.

Winner: Galaxy Tab 10.1

Special features

Both keyboards have special tablet control keys designed to make interacting with the Honeycomb interface easier. These keys allow you to jump to the Home screen, and do things like control the tablet's volume if listening to music in the background. The two keyboards are very similar in capability in this area.

The ThinkPad Tablet Keyboard Folio has a feature that the Tab keyboard lacks, an optical trackpad in the middle of the keyboard. This makes for a user experience that is much more like using a "real" laptop. Being touch tablets, Honeycomb doesn't have a cursor on the screen but when you touch the ThinkPad's trackpad one appears on the tablet screen.

The cursor works as it does on laptops, and it is easy to work with the interface without taking your hands off the keyboard. I didn't think this would be a big deal at first, but quickly found the trackpad to be a welcome feature.

The ThinkPad Tablet also has a $30 option for a pen that allows taking ink notes on the screen. While this special feature fits the needs of the professional worker likely to be using the tablet as a laptop replacement, a design decision by Lenovo prevents taking quick notes with the pen while in the keyboard case.

The app included for taking ink notes only works in portrait orientation, rendering it impossible to jot a quick note while in the keyboard case. What might be an advantage over other tablets being used as a laptop replacement, that is not the case.

Winner: ThinkPad Tablet

Style

I have come to realize that many folks require style in the gadgets they use. For these users it is not enough to be a productive gadget, it must look good while doing it.

While the Galaxy Tab is an attractive tablet, and the keyboard has a nice brushed aluminum case, the ThinkPad in the folio looks more stylish to me. The portfolio is nice leather and can be carried in the hand, looking very professional. The ThinkPad Tablet in this case looks at home in the conference room, more so than the Tab in its keyboard case.

Winner: ThinkPad Tablet

Price

The ThinkPad Tablet with 16 GB of memory (Wi-Fi only) retails for $499, and the Keyboard Folio is another $100. The Samsung Galaxy Tab also retails for $499 and the Logitech Tablet Keyboard is $100. This makes the decision between the two tablets even harder, as price is not a factor.

Winner: Tie

Conclusion

I find both the Galaxy Tab and the ThinkPad Tablet to be decent laptop replacements, with a nod to the latter due to the superior keyboard. The ability to use the trackpad as a laptop is also an advantage over the Galaxy Tab.

The Galaxy Tab is a thinner, lighter tablet compared to the ThinkPad Tablet, and if those are major considerations it gets the nod. It is easier to remove from the keyboard and use as a tablet, too.

The ThinkPad Tablet used in the Keyboard Folio is as close to a laptop as any tablet I have tested. The keyboard is as good as a laptop's, the trackpad makes it work like a laptop. It looks professional for use in the workplace, far more than the Galaxy Tab with the Logitech keyboard.

My personal selection for a laptop replacement would be the ThinkPad Tablet with the Keyboard Folio. This would fit heavy use as laptop, more than using the tablet alone. If you anticipate using your device as a tablet foremost with only occasional keyboard use, the Galaxy Tab is a better fit given its thinner and lighter form.

Note: I have not tested the ASUS Transformer, which no doubt would fare well as a laptop replacement. Its keyboard dock is just like a laptop, and the Transformer in this dock literally becomes a laptop. While that may appeal to some, I personally prefer these two smaller keyboards tested. If I wanted to carry a real laptop around all the time, I would do just that. I could be wrong about this but the Transformer in the laptop dock seems like overkill for my purposes.

Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Samsung, Tablets

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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