Sales of traditional notebooks are slipping while the market for tablets and convertible 2-in-1 devices is on the rise. Should your next computer be a tablet with a keyboard? The answer to that question depends on how you’ll use the device.
Tablets are slim and lightweight, even with add-on keyboards. The emphasis is on portability, and are best for people frequently on the move.
Flexibility is another major asset. A keyboard can be added for typing emails and reports, or removed for video, ebooks, and games.
Apple’s iPad is the most popular choice for those looking for a laptop alternative, as iOS is better suited for touchscreen-only computers than Windows, and high-end Android tablets never found a market. Options range from the 7.9-inch iPad ($329) to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro ($799).
The performance of today’s Apple A-Series processors used in the company’s professional models is comparable to that of many notebooks. It takes Intel’s Core i7 processor to beat Apple’s A10X Fusion chip in general productivity tasks, as laptops with Core i5 or slower chips don’t do as well. In short, even a high-quality notebook can feel slower than an iPad Pro if the notebook is running a budget-friendly Intel processor.
Geekbench 4 is a cross-platform test that simulates real-world usage scenarios (higher scores mean better performance):
Professional-grade iOS software is available, including Microsoft Office, Chrome, and much more. That said, even the most advanced iPad applications offer fewer features than Windows or MacOS ones. That’s why some people feel more comfortable also having a desktop computer that stays in their home or office for tasks the iOS device can’t quite handle.
By contrast, tablets running Windows are fully capable of being someone’s only computer because they can run the full array of business and productivity software written for this platform. Microsoft’s OS makes these tablets feel less “user friendly” than iOS devices though, and they have a higher starting price. For example, the 10.6-inch version of the Samsung Galaxy Book starts at $499.99 and the base Microsoft Surface Pro is $799.
Both of those base models use an Intel Core m3 processor, which isn’t up to really challenging tasks like high-resolution video editing or cutting-edge games. The best performance requires going up to the Core i7 version of the Surface Pro, which starts at $1,599.
Much of the extra bulk of a notebook is often battery, so one would think that they’d blow tablets away in time between recharges, but that’s not how it works out. Tablet makers choose chips that emphasize battery life, while laptop makers more often focus on low cost or graphics performance. As a result, tablets almost always vastly outlast notebooks for general use. All the iPad models are good for 12 or 13 hours of regular use, compared to 6 to 8 hours on a single charge for a good laptop. In our tests, the Apple MacBook Pro (2016) lasted only about 6 hours before needing to be plugged in, for example.
Want a tablet but can’t decide between a Windows and an iOS one? Read our Microsoft Surface Pro (2017) vs. Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2017) comparison.
Laptops have been very popular for decades because they hit the “sweet spot” of being able to do everything most people need while being only a moderate hassle to carry around. As millions of people can attest, a Windows or MacOS clamshell is fully capable of being someone’s only computer. It won’t be as portable as a tablet, or as powerful as a desktop, but it will certainly get the job done.
We’ve already discussed that the general performance of notebooks and tablets is comparable, but laptops generally dominate tablets in graphics performance. As an example, lets compare the Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop and the 12-inch Samsung Galaxy Book Windows 2-in-1.
3DMark Fire Strike measures the overall gaming performance of the GPU (higher scores mean better performance):
This is why gaming laptops are a popular category, but there’s no such thing as a Windows-based gaming tablet. And Windows is the only platform for serious gamers, as the latest and greatest titles are coming first to Microsoft’s operating system, and maybe sometimes years later for iOS or MacOS … if at all.
And it’s not just games. Some business-related applications are available only for Windows, and software designed for artists is MacOS only, so an iOS device is not always an option.
The average notebook has a 14- or 15-inch display. Because tablets emphasize portability, their screen size maxes out at about 13 inches, and cheaper models are about 10 inches.
Those who want a larger screen but don’t have a large budget have to choose a laptop. A 15-inch model can be had around for about $500, while tablets in this range have 10-inch displays. Just be wary, as budget clamshells won’t offer performance or battery life nearly as good as comparably-priced tablets.
A good notebook will have three USB ports, video-out, and an Ethernet port for expansion. iPad users have to make do with one multi-purpose Lightning port, and many Windows tablets have just one or two USB ports, and perhaps a video-out port.
Speaking of expansion, if you want to be able to upgrade your device instead of just buying a new one every other year then notebooks have tablets beat, period. While many budget laptops and even many premium Ultrabooks have internal hardware that is essentially soldered or glued together like a tablet, most business notebooks and gaming notebooks are designed with user upgrades in mind. If you want to add RAM or a faster SSD to your computer in a few years then don’t look for a tablet.
There’s no obvious winner in this competition because laptops aren’t creaky old grandpa boxes and tablets aren’t just overgrown smartphones. And that’s to the benefit of computer shoppers; everyone can buy the type that best fits their needs.
Tablets are a better fit for people who prefer portability and/or simplicity. Laptops are more suitable for those willing to take on some extra bulk for additional capabilities. Pick which one is right for you.
And please don’t denigrate those who make a different choice. They didn’t make a mistake, they just have different priorities.