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In biology, there’s a phenomenon called hybrid vigour, where certain traits are enhanced in the offspring of genetically-dissimilar parents. Something analogous has happened in recent years in the business laptop market, which was traditionally characterised by dull corporate workhorse devices — seemingly untouched by the hand of a creative industrial designer — capable of running email, a web browser, Microsoft Office, and not much else.
Then the climate changed thanks to consumerisation and BYOD, the corporate laptop met the consumer tablet, and the modern convertible hybrid was born.
Before long, analysts’ PC shipment reports and forecasts were mentioning premium ultramobiles — including these 2-in-1 hybrids — as a beacon of growth in an otherwise gloomy picture of long-term decline.
What is a hybrid laptop?
Hybrid laptops come in various guises, but all have a touchscreen and can function both in traditional ‘clamshell’ mode and, by folding the keyboard section out of the way or removing it altogether, in tablet mode. The former are usually called ‘convertible’ laptops, while the latter are known as ‘detachables’.
Early convertible solutions used a hinge that swiveled around a single point, but these days the preferred design is a multi-point hinge that can support the screen at any angle from laptop mode (around 120 degrees) to full 360-degree tablet mode (with the keyboard facing outwards). In between, there are orientations that manufacturers characterise as ‘tent’ and ‘presentation’ modes.
Detachable designs fall into two categories: tablet-first devices — exemplified by Microsoft’s Surface Pro– with relatively flimsy add-on keyboards (optional in the Surface Pro’s case) and kickstands; and laptop-first devices — exemplified by the Surface Book 2 — with a proper keyboard base and a hinge capable of supporting the system in traditional laptop mode (without a kickstand).
Choosing a hybrid laptop: Laptop-first or tablet-first?
Your first decision when choosing a hybrid laptop is whether you want a laptop-first or tablet-first device. Basically, the more time you spend creating content at home or in the office versus consuming content in mobile situations, the more likely a laptop-first device — probably a convertible — will prove suitable. Convertible laptops are generally sturdier and have better keyboards, but are heavier and more awkward to use in tablet mode; on the other hand, detachable laptops give you the flexibility to leave the keyboard section behind and just use the tablet part if the use case permits.
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Before you start looking at detailed internal specifications, make sure you’re clear about factors relating to the display: as well as screen size (13-, 14- or 15-inch) and resolution, consider the sturdiness of the hinge mechanism or keyboard attachment, and also things like bezel width and the quality of the touchscreen’s palm-rejection technology when used in tablet mode.
If you’re going to use your hybrid laptop outdoors or in challenging environments, don’t forget to examine the touchscreen’s brightness and ascertain whether it can be used with gloved hands. Some hybrids support stylus input, so check on that if it’s important to your workflow. And if you’re going down the rugged route, check out offerings from Dell and HP among leading vendors, and specialists like Panasonic, Getac, and Xplore.
Other industrial design factors to consider are: the variety and placement of ports and slots; the camera and audio subsystems (particularly if you’re going to be doing regular video calls); estimated battery life; and security features such as authentication (via fingerprint and face recognition or smartcard); and disk encryption. Mobile broadband (4G LTE) is available on some, but not all, hybrid laptops, so don’t forget to check for that if it’s important to you.
All of the above factors will affect the price, but of course a major cost driver will be the system’s basic specifications — processor, RAM, graphics, and storage. Let’s look at typical choices for entry-level, mid-range, and top-end hybrid laptops:
Hybrids have recently extended into workstation territory with HP’s 14-inch detachable ZBook x2 G4, which packs a 2.8GHz Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, Nvidia Quadro M620 graphics, and a 512GB Turbo Drive SSD. We’ve also seen the first detachable Chromebook, also from HP: the Chromebook x2.
Best hybrid, convertible and two-in-one laptops H1 2018
Here’s ZDNet’s current list of the best hybrids — running either Windows or Chrome OS — on the market.
Check back later in the year for an update.
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