The other tablet: Convertibles in an iPad world

Long before the iPad arrived, convertible tablets found a small following. The sudden interest in tablets got me wondering just how far convertibles have come, and whether one could be a credible replacement for both a laptop and iPad.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Long before the iPad arrived, computer makers began experimenting with tablet PCs running Windows. Slates without keyboards got little traction, but convertible tablets with keyboards found a small following-largely among business users who spent a lot of time out of the office.

It has been a while since I've looked at these convertibles, and a lot has changed. Microsoft Windows 7 has better support for touch input, Intel's latest chips provide better performance and battery life, and integrated 3G wireless makes these devices more compelling. The sudden interest in tablets got me wondering just how far these convertibles have come, and whether one could now be a credible replacement for both a laptop and iPad.

See gallery: Can convertible Windows tablets give iPad some competition?

Over the past several weeks, I've been testing two of these convertibles, the HP EliteBook 2740p and the Lenovo ThinkPad X201 Tablet. Both are based on 12.1-inch WXGA (1280x800) displays, and use the latest Core i5 and Core i7 processors. I've also had a chance to try out the comparable ultraportables, the EliteBook 2540p and ThinkPad X201, which helped to highlight what you gain (and give up) by opting for a convertible over a standard laptop or slate tablet.

[Update: Here are the links to my reviews of the HP EliteBook 2740p and Lenovo ThinkPad X201 Tablet.]

HP and Lenovo aren't the only ones with convertibles. The competing Dell Latitude XT2 is based on the older Core 2 Duo ultra low-voltage processors, and Fujitsu and Panasonic also sell 12.1-inch convertibles for business users. HP also has a consumer 12.1-inch convertible, the TouchSmart tm2, which just received an upgrade to the new Intel chips.

I'll post more detailed impressions of the EliteBook 2740p and ThinkPad X201 Tablet over the next couple of days, but first a few general thoughts on this niche.

The latest convertibles look a lot like conventional ultraportables, and aren't much bigger or heavier. The only giveaway is the extra space in the back designed to hold the hinge that allows the screen to swivel around and lie flat. The ThinkPad X201 Tablet that I tested had a larger 8-cell battery that extended even further from the back, while the EliteBook 2740p had a thin "slice," the HP 2700 UltraSlim battery, which snaps on the base to extend battery life. Both convertibles weigh less than four pounds making them as easy to take on the road as an ultraportable. Of course, that's still a lot heavier and bulkier than an iPad or e-book reader, and this makes a big difference when you are using it in tablet mode to read documents.

A big advantage to these convertibles is that they use Core i5 and i7 processors giving them the same performance as ultraportables and even larger laptops. The EliteBook 2740p uses standard Core i5s, while the ThinkPad X201 Tablet is only available with ultra low-voltage Core i7s. The standard voltage processors provide better performance, but at the expense of battery life. Either way these convertibles are significantly more powerful than slates, whether they use Apple's A4 processor, other ARM-based chips from the likes of Marvell or Nvidia, or Intel's Atom. Convertibles also include the features of a full-fledged laptop such as up to 8GB of memory, expansive hard drives, 2-megapixel Webcams, integrated 3G wireless, memory card slots, three USB 2.0 ports and, in the case of the 2740p, FireWire. Unlike the EliteBook 2540p, though, neither of these convertibles has an internal DVD drive.

Where convertibles-and all Windows tablets, for that matter-really need work isn't the hardware, it's the software. Windows 7 has better support for tablets, and this makes it easier for developers to build applications that are optimized for multi-touch or pen-based input. But there are few Windows applications that really take advantage of this to deliver a different user experience. The ones that worked best for me in tablet mode were OneNote 2010 for taking notes (the handwriting recognition is surprisingly good), and for reading long documents, Kindle for PC and Adobe Reader 10.1. Lenovo added a SimpleTap utility that makes it a bit easier to adjust some system settings with touch, but oddly HP excluded the TouchSmart applications on its consumer PCs from the 2740p.

Windows still has no answer for the App Store (iPad and iPhone) or the Android Marketplace with their array of touch-enabled apps, and this is one of the factors holding back Windows tablets. This can be a bit overblown, however. The fact is convertibles can do anything a laptop can do, and run many of the same types of apps and services available on the iPad. But most Windows apps aren't really designed for touch and the experience lacks the variety, convenience and serendipity of the App Store.

Overall a convertible tablet is a fine alternative to a conventional laptop. It delivers the same performance, features and battery life of an ultraportable-in a package that is only slightly larger and heavier. But as a substitute for an iPad, it is harder to recommend. Windows convertibles are much bigger and heavier than slates, and they lack the instant-on, long battery life and software experience of the iPad. If you want a tablet for reading research reports and the occasional e-book, a convertible gets the job done. But if you want a companion mobile device you can use continuously throughout the day-to check e-mail and social networks, browse the Web, and listen to music and watch videos-then you want an iPad, or one of the many Windows 7, Android or WebOS slates due to ship later this year.

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