Can a Tablet Replace Your Laptop?
A tablet that’s as powerful as a conventional laptop but still slim and light enough to hold and tap with one hand was once the exclusive province of Hollywood’s imagination. But thanks to manufacturers’ ability to fit more powerful hardware into ever slimmer and lighter devices, it’s now possible to hold in your hand a tablet that can do almost everything your laptop does—and, in most cases, is even more portable. Think of it as an Apple iPad combined with the power and flexibility of the Windows 10 operating system.
Just as with any system, however, a Windows tablet requires you to make choices. How big and powerful do you want (or need) it to be? What sort of features are you looking for? And do you care about using it on the road, or will you only need it while you’re near a Wi-Fi connection? We’ll help you answer all these questions and more, and tell you which of the many Windows tablets on the market are our favorites.
First: Assess the Screen Size
Of course, just like the iPad line, with its range of sizes, computing power, and prices, there’s no single Windows tablet that fits everyone’s needs. As you begin shopping, you’ll note that they fall into a few different categories.
First are the inexpensive 10-inch models, designed to let you browse the Web and enjoy streaming a movie from Netflix or Amazon Prime. Because these budget-friendly devices usually rely on low-power processors and minimal storage, you’re better off getting one as a second or third device to serve alongside your laptop or smartphone. In other words, these aren’t the full-powered Windows devices that you might long for after seeing Westworld or another Hollywood fantasy.
Then there are larger 12-inch models that are designed to work in tandem with an included or optional stylus and docking keyboard, like the Microsoft Surface Pro. These give you a better way to take notes in class or type up an email or a term paper, and generally provide a well-rounded Windows experience. Finally, there are premium and business systems like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet, designed as productivity tools rather than media consumption devices.
Tablet Processors: Parsing Low-Power
With Windows tablets running the gamut from low-power entertainment devices to potent tools for productivity, how do you know which one to buy if you plan to use your device for both types of tasks? As with conventional laptops, a lot comes down to the processor.
Intel’s current lineup of Atom, Celeron, and Pentium processors include several chips built for low power usage and passive cooling. These are two necessary attributes for tablets, since they house nearly all of their components behind the screen, which itself generates heat.
These are typically designated with a “Y” somewhere in the chip’s model name, and they’re perfect for inexpensive tablets. They don’t require built-in cooling fans, and they offer usable performance that lasts for several hours on a single charge, or even a day or two of light use without visiting a power outlet. They lack the processing oomph you might want for applications like Photoshop, but they are ideal if you want to check Facebook and Twitter, then kick back with some YouTube videos or an episode of a Netflix show.
At the other end of the spectrum are Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors with a “U” in the model name, similar to the kind you’d expect to find in a full-fledged laptop. While these CPUs draw more power and require more cooling hardware, they offer a much higher level of capability, letting you get real work done. Tablets equipped with these processors are priced more like laptops (usually above $ 1,000), but you get performance to match the increased cost.
Settling in between these extremes are variants of Intel’s Core lineup with a “Y” designation. Like the Y series chips in the Atom, Celeron, and Pentium lines mentioned above, the Core Y series models also keep cool without needing a built-in cooling fan, but they offer more muscle to drive productivity.
Features and Connectivity
Once you’ve determined which processor will fit your usage pattern, it’s time to move on to the features that make handheld PCs far more flexible than conventional laptops. Sensors previously seen in smartphones bring new ways to interact with your PC, with accelerometers, gyroscopes, and e-compasses providing positional awareness for both automatic screen rotation and new immersive applications.
There’s even a Windows tablet version of FaceID, a new feature that lets you unlock your Apple iPhone or iPad Pro simply by looking at it. Called Windows Hello, the feature has been around for more than a year, and although it’s also available on laptops and desktops, it’s most useful on tablets that don’t have a keyboard handy to enter a complex, secure password.
And let’s not forget touch. With capacitive screens that track five or 10 fingertips at a time, you can pinch, swipe, and tap your way through any task, even those that would have required a keyboard and mouse only a couple of years ago. Many tablets also come with optional digital pens. Some are housed in “garages,” tiny holes in the tablet itself that secure the stylus and charge its battery. Others must be carried separately or attached via magnets to one of the tablet’s edges.
Then there’s the question of connectivity. With eminently portable designs, it’s only natural that some shoppers will want tablets that feature the same sort of mobile data that they enjoy on their smartphones. A few Windows tablets on the market have 4G and LTE connectivity (and thus require a separate data plan). Among the most notable are devices like the Samsung Galaxy Book2, which offers not only gigabit LTE speeds but is also powered by a processor designed for a smartphone, which gives it even more power efficiency than the Intel models discussed above.
Most Windows tablets sold in the US stick exclusively to Wi-Fi, though. Wider availability of LTE tablets depends on American wireless carriers striking deals with manufacturers to offer easier methods of purchasing data plans, as they have with Apple.
Don’t Overlook the Convertible Hybrid
Finally, what if you simply can’t live without a real keyboard, but don’t want the hassle of carrying a separate one around? Some convertible laptops have keyboards that fold around the back, so you can use them as traditional clamshell laptops, as tablets, or at any position in between. We’ve only included detachable Windows tablets here; to learn more about screen-rotating convertibles, read our roundup of the best 2-in-1 laptops.
The switch from a laptop to a tablet doesn’t come without issues, though. The thin confines of a tablet make worries about heat buildup all the more important—especially when that heat is literally in hand. Touch screens add a new opportunity for frustration when taps and touches won’t register properly, and the opportunities offered by docks and accessories also open up the chance to lose a valuable part of your PC while out and about—say what you will about tablets, but you’ll never misplace your keyboard while using a laptop.
We’ve waded through the current tablet offerings, and tested and compared dozens of tablet PCs to discover what works and what doesn’t. Here are our top picks for Windows tablets. If you’re not married to the Windows OS, read our report on the 10 best tablets overall, as well as our roundup of the best Android-based models.
Best Windows Tablets Featured in This Roundup:
Pros: Very bright, polarized screen. Long-lasting batteries are hot-swappable. Extensive selection of accessories.
Cons: Keyboard cover is a pricey extra. Unresponsive touchpad.
Bottom Line: The Dell Latitude 7212 is a well-designed, tough detachable Windows tablet that can take pretty much anything you (and nature) can throw at it. And compared with the rugged competition it’s a relative bargain.
Pros: Two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Terrific 3K touch screen. First-class keyboard. Aggressively priced Core i7 model.
Cons: Battery life could be better. Slightly balky touchpad. Pen isn’t magnetized to stick to the side of the tablet.
Bottom Line: With its redesigned ThinkPad X1 Tablet, Lenovo serves the Surface Pro notice. This 13-inch showpiece Windows 10 slate packs a fine pen, a top-shelf keyboard cover, and Thunderbolt 3 support.
Pros: Premium alloy construction. Elegant convertible design. Sharp high-resolution touch display in new larger size. Discrete Nvidia GTX 1060 graphics. Very long battery life. Multiple configuration options. Xbox wireless controller receiver is integrated.
Cons: 16GB RAM maximum. Surface Pen is an additional purchase. Adding SSD storage is pricey. Some finicky issues required troubleshooting in our tests.
Bottom Line: The Surface Book 2 is a feat of design, a top-of-the-line premium convertible 2-in-1 laptop that’s fast, long lasting, versatile, and portable. It’s even up for gaming.
Pros: Comes with keyboard cover and stylus. Typist-friendly keyboard cover. USB-C and USB 3.0 ports.
Cons: Underwhelming battery life. 64GB versus rivals’ 128GB of storage. Tiny, difficult-to-push power button.
Bottom Line: For half the price of Microsoft’s least-expensive Surface Pro with keyboard cover and stylus, Acer’s Switch 3 offers an appealing 12.2-inch detachable with a winning keyboard and USB-C connectivity.
Pros: Nice variety of ports and sign-in options. Bright, colorful screen. Good battery life.
Cons: Extremely pricey. Thunderbolt 3 only on Core i7 model.
Bottom Line: It’s costly, but the Dell Latitude 5290 detachable 2-in-1 hybrid hits all the bases to satisfy business users and IT managers alike.
Pros: Sleek, premium build quality. Comfortable keyboard. 4K touch screen that mimics writing on paper. Impressive 32GB of memory.
Cons: Expensive as configured. Heavy. Underwhelming graphics performance.
Bottom Line: The HP ZBook x2 is heavy and expensive, but this Windows tablet’s strong feature set gives creatives an excellent alternative to using a traditional laptop or desktop.
Pros: Speedy new 8th Generation Intel processor. Good battery life. Premium feel. Sleek all-black color option. Brilliant display. Well-implemented kickstand.
Cons: Minimal changes from previous model. As ever, keyboard sold separately. Not ideal for in-lap use. Somewhat restrictive configuration combinations. Limited ports.
Bottom Line: With a modest speed boost and a new color choice, the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 may not have changed much from the previous iteration, but what we loved about this 2-in-1 convertible then, we still love now.
Pros: Slim, sturdy design. Responsive 4K touch display. Includes intuitive pressure-sensitive pen. Body and pen buttons are customizable.
Cons: Expensive. Potentially steep learning curve. Unexceptional battery life. Limited color fidelity. Lacks USB Type-A ports.
Bottom Line: It may take some time to integrate into your workflow, but the Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16 is a powerful portable drawing device that offers the full Windows 10 experience, fast components, and top-notch build quality.
Pros: Low-cost entry point to the Surface line. Build quality is high. Small, lightweight design. Good potential for education use.
Cons: Middling speed. Keyboard is cramped and costs extra. Narrow for on-lap use. No full-size USB ports.
Bottom Line: The well-built Surface Go is the least expensive route into Microsoft’s superb Surface tablet line, and the most portable option. Just know that frequent travelers will like it best, and the core processing power is on the light side.
Pros: Excellent battery life. Thin and light. High-quality AMOLED display. Included keyboard cover and digital stylus.
Cons: Dull color scheme. Computing performance inadequate for anything other than basic productivity.
Bottom Line: With a power-sipping Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 processor, the Samsung Galaxy Book2 Windows tablet offers excellent battery life and LTE connectivity, but it suffers from lackluster computing performance.