Surface Go 2, IdeaPad Duet offer strong competition for baseline iPad

The new offerings leverage mature desktop operating systems to compete on flexibility and value.

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Competing head to head with the iPad has been fraught with peril, especially when that competition has been based on Android. Higher-end, more differentiated products have seen some success, though. Apple has fielded a strong and steadily improving iPad Pro line, the latest additions to which have included the Magic Keyboard accessory. But, at the high end, Apple is fighting to displace PCs that have been able to rely on mature desktop operating systems as opposed to owning the baseline with the form factor it popularized. The battle with the Surface Pro, for example, has become an annually renewed rivalry, while Google jumped into the fray last year with the Pixel Slate.

Also: Microsoft takes the wraps off its new spring Surface devices

Now, Windows 10 and Chrome OS, the two operating systems powering those devices, have taken root in smaller form factors and lower prices in the form of the Surface Go 2 and the Lenovo IdeaPad Duet. The Go 2 represents Microsoft's attempt to build further momentum after finally getting the small 2-in-1 value proposition right with the first Surface Go, which emerged as a solid choice for light productivity. Even though its Pentium Gold processor represented a significant step up from previous Atom-based products like the ASUS Transformer Mini, it could sometimes lag a bit.

Like Apple with the baseline iPad, Microsoft has ridden the display cost curve to squeeze more real estate in the Surface Go while leaving it compatible with the previous generation's Type Covers. More significantly for those who valued the product's excellent portability more than its affordability, Microsoft now offers the option of a Core m3 processor that gives the smallest Surface a performance kick as well as LTE. So enhanced, it is still cheaper than any MacBook, but pricier than the baseline iPad, even with Apple's Keyboard Cover (which has not yet been updated with a trackpad). It also makes it a downmarket minimalist alternative to the Surface Pro X even though it lacks that product's style and exceptional battery life.

In contrast to the Go 2, which represents Microsoft's fifth try at the sub-11-inch 2-in-1, if one includes the first two Surface RTs, Lenovo's IdeaPad Duet Chromebook is the first real crack at a consumer-focused 2-in-1 following the chunky education-focused Acer Chromebook Tab and the pricey Pixel Slate. Lenovo has clearly focused on flexibility and value. The tablet's keyboard cover and kickstand included with the device can each be removed, offering a naked 7mm slate with a two-toned gray and light blue coloring that looks youthful but not juvenile. But connectivity is very limited with a single USB-C connection and no headphone jack.

Unlike the Surface Go's Type Cover, the Duet's keyboard cover is about as thick as the tablet itself, and adding the kickstand necessary to use it makes for a relatively bulky and heavy "sandwich." In addition, while the keyboard has a small rubbery gap between the keys and the bar that includes the Pogo connector, it can't be tilted up to meet the screen like the Surface Type Cover, making the combination feel less stable on the lap. On the other hand, the material allows the keyboard to wrap around the back of the tablet, even with the kickstand component attached.

Particularly for a device meant to directly take on budget notebooks, the decision to make the kickstand a separate component is odd. It is essentially required to use the keyboard and it adds overall thickness. Yes, it allows propping up the tablet without the keyboard attached for, say, watching a movie but, if that's the planned scenario, why not build it into the back of the device like the Surface? Based on other products, it doesn't seem to be a cost issue, and integrating the kickstand results in only incrementally greater width, less than that of the separate part. Furthermore, as implemented, the additional part covers much of the Duet's two-toned design.

The Duet ships with the latest version of Chrome OS, which has been maturing as a tablet OS that can run Android. Its latest significant improvement, though, concerns its original app, the browser, which now allows selecting tabs from larger, more touch-friendly tab previews revealed by swiping down from the top of the display. Like many of Chrome OS's touch-friendly accommodations, though, it is available only while the keyboard is detached for now. Google notes that it is making a push for larger displays in Chrome OS and Android, which would be welcome news for those long-frustrated by neither operating system really nailing the tablet form factor to date.

The Duet's shortcomings compared to the Surface Go 2 are easy to forgive given that the former starts at $399 without the Type Cover and the latter retails for $279, including the keyboard and kickstand. At that price, its greatest assets versus entry-level Windows PCs and other Chromebooks are its versatility and portability, at least on a stable surface. With the Surface Go 2, they represent iPad alternatives for those who still mainly prefer to work in a windowed environment.

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