2-in-1 laptops have gained in popularity in recent years. In this post, we highlight what a 2-in-1 laptop is and the pros and cons it comes with.
A 2-in-1 laptop also known as a convertible or hybrid laptop is the latest new ‘big thing’ in the laptop computer space. Billed as the “perfect combination of a laptop and a tablet”, they often feature large touchscreens and the ability to switch between using it as a laptop and a tablet.
What are the advantages of 2-in-1 laptops? What are the drawbacks? Are there certain people and use cases best suited for convertible laptops? What are the most popular 2-in-1 laptops on the market?
In this article, we’ll explore the main features of a 2-in-1 laptop and give you all the information you need to know if you’re shopping for a new convertible laptop.
What is a 2-in-1 laptop?
Broadly, a 2-in-1 laptop is any laptop computer that can turn into a tablet. These devices are mainly aimed at creative folk like artists, graphics designers, students, and those looking for a better content consumption experience.
Their users love the space saving, not having to carry around two devices, and having all their files available and ready, no matter which mode they plan on using.
2-in-1 laptops. first came about in the early 1990s with the release of PCs like the Compaq Concerto and the IBM ThinkPad 360.
These mostly niche devices never gained traction due to their limited feature set, fiddly resistive touchscreens and lack of touch support in Windows.
It wasn’t until the early 2010s when the first attempts at a mainstream 2-in-1 laptop started to show some success. The first widely popular convertible laptop came with the launch of Microsoft Surface line in 2013.
This second wave of 2-in-1 laptops was a response to the iPad and the way Apple was able to re-invent the tablet market. These manufacturers like Microsoft and Lenovo were hoping that consumers were looking for an iPad-like experience but still wanted the laptop form factor.
There are two main 2-in-1 laptop form factors, convertible (attached) and hybrid (detached).
Convertible Laptops (Attached)
Despite sometimes being used as a catch-all term for any 2-in-1 device, a convertible laptop refers to a tablet computer that has a keyboard that is able to rotate, fold or slide away but can’t be physically detached from the laptop.
The most common implementation of this attached design is the rotating-hinge or netvertible design. To demonstrate this form factor, let’s take a look at the Dell XPS 2-in-1.
This laptop is intended to spend most of its time in laptop mode, operating as any other premium laptop would. However, once you’re ready to enter tablet mode, all you’ll need to do is flip over the screen and grip it around the display.
Often, convertible laptops are uncomfortable and unwieldy to use in tablet mode. For example, holding the XPS 2-in-1 all day in tablet mode as you would with an iPad would be extremely difficult. Therefore, these are unsuited to be tablet replacements – and should really only be considered if you’re looking for a decent laptop that can turn into a tablet occasionally.
There are two main use cases that this form factor is brilliant for. These are:
- Blending work with leisure (occasional content consumption). Need a laptop for serious work but want something that can transform into a Netflix machine at the end of the day. There are often little disadvantages holding back the experience in laptop mode and therefore not much to trade-off for the ability to watch movies on your 2-in-1 like an iPad.
- Artists, graphics designers and 3D modellers looking to occasionally use a touchscreen. As the computer’s components can still be in the chassis of the laptop, high performance 2-in-1s tend to be attached convertible laptops. Therefore, these are great choices for professional creative folks who need a laptop that can handle taxing workloads and also have some tablet functionality.
Hybrid Laptops (Detachable)
With hybrid laptops, you can detach the keyboard and use the device as a true tablet. These are, of course, further from traditional laptops than convertibles, with the keyboard attachment being closer to a keyboard cover.
The guts and components of the 2-in-1 will therefore need to fit into the display/tablet side of the device. This does mean there’s less space for high-performance processors, dedicated GPUs and more importantly beefy cooling systems. Therefore, you’re unlikely to find ultra-fast professional-grade detachable laptops.
The hybrid form factor is the one that Microsoft has opted for with their Surface Pro line-up.
Hybrid laptops are great for those looking for a ‘tablet first, laptop second’ sort of device. With the ability to entirely get rid of the keyboard, it’s far more comfortable to hold it as a tablet.
On the other hand, the keyboard and trackpads of hybrid laptops tend to be less comfortable and easier to work on than traditional laptops and convertibles. Sure, they’re still far better than the vast majority of keyboard covers made for tablets and iPads. But the serious work experience suffers a bit on hybrid laptops.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. The Surface Book feels almost identical to a slightly top-heavy laptop, but can fully detach.
Which type should I opt for?
With the exception of Microsoft with the Surface Pro and Surface Book, most manufacturers have preferred to make convertible laptops instead of hybrid ones.
HP no longer make their detachable HP Pavillion x2, whereas Lenovo seem to be putting most of their 2-in-1 focus into their Yoga line of flip convertible laptops.
If you’re looking for a mostly normal laptop experience, a convertible laptop offers very few disadvantages for laptop people. It doesn’t take too much extra engineering to make a hinge that rotates by 360-degrees, and so laptops like the XPS 2-in-1 and the HP x360 aren’t all that different from their non-2-in-1 counterparts.
If you’re looking for a tablet first, then a hybrid is your bet. The best detachable 2-in-1 is by far the Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Book. The Pro is geared towards stylus usage, and it’s Microsoft’s best attempt at pushing Windows 11 with Pen. The Book aims to be a ‘best of both worlds’ between laptop and tablet.
The Elephant in the Room: The iPad Pro/Air with Magic Keyboard Cover
The main drawback of 2-in-1s being effective tablets is Windows 11. Touch input and tablet mode still isn’t anywhere as seamless as on an iPad. In the past, devices like the Surface Pro did have a one-up on Apple by having mouse support, a file explorer and true USB mass storage support.
And, back then, Apple made it abundantly clear: the iPad is a tablet and the MacBook is a laptop.
However, that was then. Now, with the release of later generations of the iPad Pro, iPadOS and most recently the Magic Keyboard, that’s all changing. iPads now support mouse input, file transfers and a full file explorer. It isn’t the same as a laptop, but it’s good enough to do real work (documents, spreadsheets etc.) on it.
With the Magic Keyboard and its brilliant trackpad, an iPad Pro is dangerously close to being a great laptop. Whereas Windows 11 2-in-1s and Chromebooks aren’t anywhere near as good as an iPad as a tablet.
If you’re looking for a tablet-first, laptop-second, consider an iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard. In 2022, an iPad is good enough to be a laptop. Can it really be said that a device like the Surface Pro is good enough to match an iPad as a tablet?