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Computing on the go
Not sure if you want a laptop or a tablet? How about a hybrid laptop — a computer that tries to combine the best of both devices. But when it comes to performance, is it a compromise too far? We’ve tested standard and hybrid laptops.
They’re also known as convertible or 2-in-1 laptops. They are smaller and thinner than a standard laptop, have touchscreens, and hinges that allow the keyboard to be flipped over, rotated or detached entirely, which then transforms the “screen” into a standalone tablet. However, their smaller size sometimes means they don’t have the processing power of larger standard laptops. A hybrid gives you a tablet’s portability, but with the advantages of having a keyboard and ports, such as USB and mini HDMI.
Types of hybrid laptop
This hybrid allows the keyboard to detach from the touchscreen, so it can then be used as a tablet.
A downside is ports, such as USB and HDMI, are usually on the keyboard, so you generally lose this functionality when you detach the screen. How the screen and keyboard connect is important. Some hybrids have a magnetic connection, and communicate using Bluetooth. However, Bluetooth can occasionally disconnect and take a few seconds to reconnect. It can also drain the battery, as it needs to be running whenever the keyboard is connected. A physical dock connection between the keyboard and screen is a more reliable option.
This hybrid keeps the keyboard attached — you simply fold it back like you would the cover of a magazine.
The keyboard turns off when it’s flipped over, which means you can hold it or pass it around without accidentally typing lines of unintelligible text.
Some fold-back laptops can be fixed in a “tent” position (an inverted V). Handy for working on or watching videos while sitting at a desk. Basically, this feature turns the laptop into a tablet with a stand.
Hybrid or clamshell?
One of your first decisions is choosing which type of laptop — a hybrid or the classic “clamshell”? Here are the pros and cons of each.
Processing power similar to a desktop
Larger screen sizes
Space for more ports
More spacious keyboards
Screen only opens to a fixed point
Most don’t have touchscreens
Often heavier than hybrids
Built-in display stand when folded back
Lighter than clamshells
Ports can be accessed in tablet mode
Keyboard can be disabled when folded back
When carrying folded back, the keyboard can be awkward
Not very stable on uneven surfaces
Takes time for the OS to switch from laptop to tablet mode
Often doesn’t come with a stylus for drawing and handwriting notes
Screen can be detached and used as a tablet
Lighter than clamshells; when detached is lighter than fold-backs
Often comes with a stylus for drawing or handwriting notes
Easy to read e-books on when in tablet mode
Most ports can’t be accessed when in tablet mode
Not very stable on uneven surfaces
Some keyboards have trouble connecting to the screen, particularly Bluetooth models
As the screen is heavier than the keyboard, they’re often top-heavy
Takes time for the OS to switch from laptop to tablet mode
What to look for
Buying a laptop? Here’s what to consider.
Screen size – How you’re going to use your laptop is crucial for deciding your optimal screen size. If you want to watch lots of videos, work on multiple programs simultaneously, or have sight issues, you’ll want a screen that’s at least 14 inches. A smaller screen is better for travelling or if you only use your laptop for web browsing and social media.
Battery life – Battery life can be an issue for laptops and hybrids in particular. Due to their compact size, they generally have smaller batteries, so you may have to charge it after only a few hours use. You should expect a laptop battery to last between 4.5 and 10 hours, depending on its capacity.
Optical (DVD) drive – If you think you need a DVD drive, make sure the model you look at has one. Once commonplace, these drives are now much rarer. For example, none of our tested laptops had one. However, you can buy an external DVD drive.
Storage size – Ensure the laptop’s hard disk drive (HDD) is big enough. Hybrids have a slim standard hard drive, an SSD (solid-state drive), or a combination of these. Some laptops, such as Chromebooks, have comparatively small hard drives (though we recommend going no lower than 16GB) and store the majority of their data in the “cloud”. For example, the Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Chromebook has a 16GB hard drive, instead of the more standard 500GB-1TB.
Connection type – Hybrid laptops have two main methods of connecting: docking – which is where small ports on the screen and keyboard join together – or Bluetooth. Bluetooth uses more power, which can affect how long your charged battery lasts.
Operating System (OS) – Presently, Microsoft’s Windows and Apple OS X are the main operating systems. However, Google’s Chrome OS is gaining in popularity as it is a cloud-based OS, meaning the computer doesn’t need a big processor or hard drive so the laptop can be thinner and lighter. There aren’t any “bad” operating systems, so we recommend sticking with what you know. However, if an OS has something in particular you want, such as Apple’s video-editing prowess or Chrome OS’s focus on cloud storage, then switching could be a good idea.
USB ports – There are two types of USB port currently being used in laptops, USB-A – the standard USB port that has been commonly used for years, and USB-C, a new smaller version that lets data, video, sound and power all to be transferred from the same port. Being able to share all this from one port means a laptop can be thinner and lighter. Another advantage of USB-C is it can be inserted into a port either way, meaning there is no “incorrect” way to plug it in. However, a downside of these ports is that they require different adapters to use with other devices, such as your TV, printer or phone. How fast a USB port runs depends on the protocol it’s running. Most new computers will have ports running USB 3.0 or 3.1, but older ports could be running USB 2.0. Most laptops have 2 or 3 USB ports, with most using USB 3.0.
Keyboard – Before buying, try out a laptop’s keyboard. They can vary in size and feel, so you’ll want to see if it works for you. Make sure the keys aren’t too close together and it’s not awkward for you to use.
Numeric keypad – Laptop keyboards are often smaller than standard keyboards, this means they often don’t have a numeric keypad and instead only have the number keys across the top of the keyboard. If you need a keyboard to have a numeric keypad, it pays to check.
Touchpad – Touchpads are the compact version of a mouse, this allows laptops to be self-contained portable computers. Check you’re comfortable with the size and location of the touchpad. Some have physical keys for simulating left and right mouse clicks. If you don’t like using a touchpad, you can still connect a mouse.
Processor – How fast your computer runs often depends on the central processing unit (CPU). But how well a CPU performs also depends on how much random access memory (RAM) is installed. The CPU is like the engine of a car and the RAM is the number of cylinders in the engine. The bigger the engine size and the more cylinders it has, the less it has to work when you’re working it hard. We think an i5 or m3 CPU, or higher, with at least 4GB RAM should suffice for the average user. For more information, see our Guide to CPUs below.
Graphics – Laptops don’t generally have a graphics card and instead the general processing and graphics processing jobs are shared by the CPU. This means graphically intensive programs, such as gaming and video editing, can slow down other computer processes. Games for young children are usually fine though as their graphics tend to be more simplistic.
Smaller on the inside
When we tested the Asus TP200S, it only had a 32GB HDD. While you can get this model with a larger hard drive, we tested the base model. It barely had enough room for the operating system, Windows 10, and there wasn’t room for us to install the latest updates at the time of testing.
Laptops with a small hard drive are aimed at users who use cloud storage and run a relatively small OS such as Chrome. We think the minimum hard drive size for laptops running the larger Windows OS should be at least 64GB, so installing critical updates doesn’t become an issue.
SSDs and HDDs
Solid state drives (SSD) have a series of flash memory chips. This means they have no moving parts, which makes them more resistant to damage. In comparison, a hard disc drive (HDD) has a spinning magnetic disk – hence the whirring noise you can hear when it’s running.
Our tech experts have had a quick play in the office with these gadgets.
When it comes to performance, a laptop can be just as powerful as a desktop PC but there are some drawbacks.
A laptop has limited ports compared to a desktop, as there is less space to install them. Laptops usually have between 2 to 3 USB ports and an HDMI or mini HDMI port, whereas desktops usually have at least 6 ports and can potentially have as many as you can fit.
Laptops can get hot, which can be uncomfortable if you’re using one on your lap.Make sure a laptop’s exhaust vents are clear. If you don’t, then a laptop can’t expel the hot air it generates and its interior heats up. Over time, this can damage a laptop’s internal components.
A laptop will have a trackpad. It allows you to control the cursor by running your finger over the pad’s surface. Your finger’s movement is interpreted the same as the movements of a mouse. However, if you still crave a mouse, you can easily add one.
Laptops have a smaller keyboard and unless you buy a large laptop, you will often find the numeric keypad is missing and less commonly used keys have been combined. For example, you may find the F4 key and the volume down key are combined. To activate F4 you need to hold down the Fn (function) key first.
Laptops, and especially hybrids, tend to have shared graphics. This means the same processor and memory is used for running the computer and the screen. Any graphics and processing activity, such as playing games, are slower with shared graphics.
From a standard laptop to a hybrid
Hybrid laptops have touchscreens, which means they can be used like a tablet. If you haven’t used a tablet before, here are some basic touchscreen tips:
There is no double click on the touchscreen, instead they use a long touch.
To zoom in, pinch and move your fingers out. Reverse to zoom out.
The keyboard will appear on screen whenever you touch a text field/box. If it doesn’t, try touching in some white space, and then touch the box again.
For hinged models, check the quality of the hinge. Repeated movement of a hinge can cause structural issues – plastic hinges aren’t as durable as metal hinges.
If the hybrid has a detachable screen, check how the screen and keyboard attach. If it docks with a small plug connecting the screen and keyboard, check there are substantial parts of the body around this plug so you don’t accidentally bend or break it.
If the keyboard connects through Bluetooth, remember using Bluetooth can reduce a laptop’s battery charge.
Guide to CPUs
The CPU (central processing unit or processor) is a computer’s “brains”. This unit carries out all the tasks your computer needs to run.
Makers – There are two major laptop CPU manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Most computers bought at retail stores will have processors from one of these manufacturers.
Series – Each processor is labelled with a name marking the series (also called generation) of processor it is. The latest Intel laptop series are sixth generation (formerly called Skylake), and the latest AMD laptop processors are the A-series.
Cores – A CPU consists of a series of cores. The more cores it has, the more tasks the computer can do simultaneously. For heavy users, we recommend a quad-core or higher processor.
Frequency – Frequency is the speed (also known as clock rate) your CPU can potentially operate. It’s measured in gigahertz (GHz) and each processor core has the same frequency. If you’re planning on playing graphically intensive games, it can affect how smoothly the game plays.
64-bit and 32-bit – In previous years, computers and operating systems were 32-bit, and before that they were 16-bit. Now, most new computers are 64-bit. These measures are a type of computer architecture. Before installing software, check it’s compatible with the architecture your computer is running. For example, you can install 32-bit software on a 64-bit computer, but you can’t install 64-bit software on a 32-bit computer.
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