We take a look at some alternatives to Microsoft’s flexible mobile device
The humble laptop has come a long way since the bulky blocks with tiny screens we once called portable. Once weighing almost as much as a flatscreen monitor, laptops now come in much more streamlined form, with ultra-thin and compact versions making the portable form factor indispensable for many.
Eventually, technology evolved even more and we were graced with the arrival of the PDA, which in turn heralded the tablet and modern smartphone. These touchscreen devices opened up a whole new world of possibilities, with input being freed from the standard keyboard and mouse touchpad. Touchscreens allowed greater ease of use, not to mention a whole heap of new application types.
The problem with a lot of portable touchscreen devices is a lack of power. Although the performance of such devices, like the ubiquitous iPad, has increased, with tablets that now offer more power than ever before, users who need the kind of power you’d usually find within a desktop computer have found options lacking. Some professions and interests simply don’t work well with such devices. Writing, for example, isn’t something you really want to do on a tablet, as touchscreen keyboards are, for many, no alternative to a real keyboard. This has relegated touch devices to more casual use or for less demanding tasks. By far the most common uses of these are social networking, casual gaming, small-scale remote work and general daily tasks. This is good, but wouldn’t it be good to have a device that had it all? A device that could do everything a tablet can do, with the added bonus of also delivering proper laptop functionality. Well, there is just that kind of device, with one of the most popular being Microsoft’s Surface.
On The Surface
For the unaware, Microsoft’s line of Surface systems are hybrid laptop tablet devices. Using a rather nifty combination of touchscreen tablet and detachable, portable keyboard, the unit brings the best of both worlds to users. Seen by many as the best ‘2-in-1’ option around, the Surface range successfully bridges the gap between laptop and tablet and has some of the most powerful models on the market, with the Surface Pro 4 being the current high-end version.
Able to function as a fully fledged laptop, thanks to the attachable keyboard, and as a tablet complete with stylus, it’s a device favored by users of all kinds, from casual to professional, students to industry experts.
This all sounds like a sales pitch, sure, but the Surface really has changed the portable market, so much so that it’s already spawned a host of clones and alternatives. This is good, because the Surface range isn’t cheap, with the Pro 4 costing around £1,000. That’s not a price for everyone, and for less you could actually get a far more powerful desktop PC or standard laptop. What if you want the flexibility of a Surface, but can’t afford it or if you actually want more power and can spend even more? Well, those clones we mentioned may just be your answer.
Thanks to the success of the portable market and Microsoft’s Surface, there are now plenty of other options to choose from, many of which cost less than Microsoft’s system and some that may even have superior features. We’re going to take a look at some of these here, exploring what alternatives you can find for your budget.
Send In The Clones
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
We’ll begin with the baseline, the device we’re going to judge all others by, and we’ll also focus on the current high-end model, The Surface Pro 4. This is the top-of-the-line model at the moment, and its specification includes a Core i5 6300U 2.4GHz CPU, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD and a 12.3” screen. It runs Windows 10, of course. You can get different specifications, with more RAM, different CPU and so on, as well as up to 1TB of storage, and this will affect the price accordingly.
The overall performance of the Surface line is impressive for this kind of device, and although it won’t outperform either an actual laptop or PC, it’s a decent middle ground, making it a perfect choice for people who need a bit of both. The real flexibility comes from the design, which so many devices have copied, hence our round-up.
The Surface is, in essence, a tablet, but it runs a normal, computer OS and comes with a detachable keyboard or ‘Type Cover’, which also doubles as a lid and screen protector. It also includes a stylus, giving users total flexibility when it comes to use. It’s lightweight, and the detachable keyboard and fold-out stand on the rear mean it can be used in any situation, be it at home or the office, in a study hall, on a train or anywhere else.
The screen is a PixelSense display that features low contrast and glare, so it’s usable in most light levels, even outdoors. It also has a fairly decent battery life of around eight to nine hours, which is pretty good for this kind of mobile device and certainly a whole lot better than any laptop.
The overall design of the Surface is great, and it’s clear a lot of testing and thought went into creating a device that successfully bridges the gap between home and mobile computing without sacrificing too much on either side. Sure, you’re not going to be gaming much on it, but for the casual user or mobile worker, this is a great option. As we said, though, it’s also expensive, so what we need are some alternatives.
Around £600 for the iPad. Apple Pencil costs around £80 and the keyboard around £160.
An obvious choice for anyone looking for an alternative to Microsoft devices is any offering from Microsoft’s main rival, Apple. In this case, the clear choice is the iPad Pro. Apple’s iPad range is arguably the main reason tablets are now as popular as they are, and the powerful iPad Pro delivers more of the same.
It features a high-quality 12.9” screen (more than five million pixels), the A9X CPU, 4GB RAM and up to 128GB of storage, depending on the model you go for. As with other iPads, the feel and build quality here is top notch, and the screen is as responsive as ever. However, on its own the iPad Pro isn’t quite as tempting as the Surface Pro, because it lacks the extras. These can be purchased separately, however.
For an extra cost, you can buy a smart keyboard, which functions like the Surface Pro’s offering, as well as doubling up as a stand (which the iPad lacks natively). The real stand-out here, though, is the optional Apple Pencil. This also costs more money, but it’s possibly one of the most advanced stylus models you’ll find. It features multiple pressure sensors as well as the ability to detect tilt. It’s fantastically useful for any artist or designer and is also designed for 3D design use.
With all of its extras, the iPad Pro is a worthy contender, although iOS will never appease the more technical users who prefer the flexibility of Windows. The extra costs needed to make it compete with the Surface is also a concern. On its own, the iPad Pro is certainly cheaper, and even with the cost of the keyboard and Apple Pencil, you’ll still save money. If you’re on a strict budget, however and you’re looking for an alternative due to money concerns, this may still be too expensive.
HP Spectre X2
HP’s take on the Surface is the Spectre and it’s a good machine that may have a smaller screen (12 inches) and less powerful CPU (Intel’s Core M range), but it still packs plenty of power and some good design choices that make it noteworthy.
With up to 256BG of storage and a great included keyboard that’s thin and lightweight, as well as some high-quality Bang & Olufsen audio, it’s a attractive Windows device. What’s also impressive is the inclusion of a larger, more powerful battery than many other options, which should provide around ten hours of use on a single charge. The flick-out stand is a good touch too.
Sadly, the Spectre isn’t likely to be found all that much cheaper than the Surface Pro 4, so unless you find a decent used or refurbished deal (we found one on Amazon for £790), you may prefer to go for the market leader and stick with the Microsoft device.
HP Inc Elite x2 1011 G1
Around £1,500-£2,000 depending on specification
As far as alternatives to the Surface go, this is certainly one of the most expensive, costing far more than Microsoft’s device. The price will vary, of course, depending on the specification of the system you go for, but for the money you’ll get a secure system that incorporates a fingerprint scanner and some powerful software that can keep your data safe. The screen is a little smaller, at 11.6 inches, but the unit has a large 8GB RAM, Intel HD graphics and a good 1080p screen. It also has a good battery life of around nine hours.
The thing is, at this cost, you’d expect a system that matches or even betters the Surface in many ways, and although this is a good unit, it’s really not enough to justify the added cost, at least not unless you really ramp up the spec, in which case the cost could be more than double that of the Surface. The keyboard is also a lot bulkier, being more of a dock than an attachment. The extra battery in the keyboard dock does allow for the longer battery life, but if you’re looking for more portability, this isn’t the best option, and many users would probably be best looking for cheaper alternatives.
Around £850 upwards, depending on specification
Intel is the largest producer of consumer systems, so it’s not surprising it has an entry in the 2-in-1 tablet market.
The XPS 12 is a strong unit that features an Intel Core M CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD (based on a £850 unit spec). The screen is a 12.5” full HD LED that supports ten-finger multi-touch.
One of the best features is the keyboard, which is of excellent quality, and it connects to the tablet using a simple magnet-based system that makes it easy to dock and undock. Unfortunately, the dock is fixed, and the screen cannot be moved or tilted, meaning you’ll have only one viewing angle. Aside from this hiccup, though, it’s a solid system that offers a good deal of performance. The price is still quite high, though, and again, it’s a matter of deciding if the slightly lower cost to the Surface is worth it.
Around £800 upwards, depending on specification
IBM’s Lenovo range may not be as popular as the likes of Dell, but it includes some high-quality systems nonetheless, such as the IdeaPad Miix 700, one of its stabs at the 2-in-1 format. The Miix comes with a decent keyboard that connects using a pair of special hinges, which allow screen movement for flexibility in viewing. The screen itself, which is a 12” model, is great quality and is higher resolution than many other alternatives. The CPU is a Core M series model, with Intel HD graphics.
In the standard packages, the IdeaPad Miix 700 doesn’t pack the same level of storage as some other deals, but even the lower-end version comes with 128GB, which should suit most users who need such a device. Performance wise, it’s a perfectly solid system.
Lenovo Thinkpad 10
The Lenovo range is synonymous with business use, and IBM’s series is popular with the corporate and enterprise community. This is evident with this affordable device, which offers more conservative features on the whole, but some others that are more suited to industry use.
For example, the screen of the unit is much smaller than most, at only 10.1”, and the CPU is a lower-powered Intel Atom 1.6GHz. It has 2GB RAM and 64GB storage (although this can be changed depending on cost). These aren’t exactly earth-shattering specifications, but the 1080p webcam is perfect for video conferences, and the keyboard is a great option for heavy typing and all-day use, an area where many 2-in-1 case keyboards aren’t well suited. There’s also a special dock that turns to the unit into a laptop, complete with USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet and HDMI. The tablet itself also has a USB 2.0 port.
Although not a high-powered option, this is an affordable alternative to the Surface, and it has plenty of power for casual and business use, so if you don’t need much muscle in your mobile device, this is a decent choice.
Asus Transformer Book T300
No, it’s not a robot assassin from the future or a robot in disguise. Instead, it’s a reasonably priced system from Asus that fuses a solid tablet with a laptop dock to deliver 2-in-1 flexibility. Asus often delivers high-quality systems, and this is no different, even at such a cheap price.
It has a 12.5” 1080p screen, and the CPU is an Intel Core M 1.2GHz with 8GB RAM. The £500 model features 128GB SSD storage and integrated Intel graphics. It runs Windows 8.1 out of the box, but you can obviously upgrade to Windows 10 for free, which is a good idea. The keyboard, which feels more like a standard laptop keyboard, clips into the tablet easily and allows plenty of movement in viewing angle.
Like the Lenovo, this isn’t a benchmark setter by any means, but it’s a good, solid system for most day-to-day use. It works a little better when used as a laptop, but the tablet screen is good quality and it successfully delivers good 2-in-1 capabilities.
Surely one of the cheapest 2-in-1 units, Acer’s Aspire Switch 10 E costs a fraction of most other models, and if you’re on a strict budget, it’s probably one of the better options, even if it is far less powerful.
It makes a lot of sacrifices, such as a smaller 10.1” display, lowerend Intel Atom CPU, limited 2GB RAM and only 32GB of storage, which is the major downside, but if you simply want a useful mobile device for work or light daily use, that’s still plenty of power and space.
The build quality, while good, isn’t at the level of more expensive units, of course, and the keyboard dock isn’t as solid, but for the price there’s really little to worry about here.
Vaio Z Canvas Signature Edition
If you’re looking for even more power than Microsoft’s Surface Pro, there are a few models that can top this. The Vaio range is known for luxury, and it’s back with this 2-in-1 that certainly packs in some serious muscle.
At the heart of the unit is an Intel Core i7 running at 1600MHz and 8GB RAM. There’s a 256GB SSD (more expensive models go to 1TB) and Intel Iris Pro graphics 5200. The IPS muti-touch screen is 12.3 inches with a resolution of 2560 x 1704 and is great quality.
It comes with a good keyboard and specialised pen. When docked, it functions as a rock solid laptop, but whatever configuration you use it in, it’s a powerful option, one that’s targeted at high-end users who need this kind of power in a 2-in-1.
Although it’s powerful, it’s also expensive, and you can expect you pay as much as £2,500 or even just under £3,000, which is quite a chunk of change.
That’s just a few of the possible 2-in-1s you can get that offer an alternative to Microsoft’s Surface, so remember to shop around online for the best deals, and don’t always go for the most popular device right away. You may regret it.