For years, when you needed a real laptop, the only way to get it was by turning to a laptop. As mobile processors became more powerful and operating systems more flexible, you had a choice: You could either stick to the traditional clamshell design or go with a tablet that gave you less functionality and power, but greater convenience by pulling the keyboard from the equation in general. So it was just a matter of time before enterprising manufacturers realized that adding or removing the keyboard was all that was needed to turn one into the other. Now the resulting product, a 2-in-1, is not just its own product category – it is one of the most popular in the PC industry.
First out: What is a 2-in-1?
In short, a 2-in-1 is a touch-optimized convertible laptop or detachable tablet with both a touch screen and a physical keyboard of some type. When you need full-touch keys and a touchpad, you can use 2-in-1 in the same way as a regular laptop. However, if you need or want full access to only the screen for an extended period of time, this is also an option. And you can flip back and forth between modes whenever you want, usually with just a second of effort.
That said, you’re still buying a PC with a full operating system, whether it’s Chrome OS or Windows 10. In the future, macOS may be a player, but so far Apple has pointed to people who need a touch screen and tablet / laptop convertibility towards its iOS-equipped iPad and iPad Pro lines, paired with an optional keyboard. A 2-in-1 running macOS is just not on the Apple menu yet.
For our purposes, we divide 2-in-1 devices into two kinds: the convertible laptop (one machine in one piece) and the removable tablet (which is divided into two).
Convertible laptops: Twist in multiple modes
The convertible laptop can transform from laptop to tablet and back again, with most systems having a hinge design that allows you to rotate the keyboard part through 360 degrees, away from the road behind the screen. This type of 2-in-1 is the best choice if you plan to use the keyboard a lot, as you are guaranteed to always have it with you. (Writing the great American novel or even a regular business report on the hard, flat surface of a virtual on-screen keyboard is an experience you do not want your worst enemy.)
Because of the movement that a convertible laptop hinge allows, you are often able to use these systems in a variety of modes. If you want to be able to share the screen with everyone in a meeting, you can place the keyboard part face down on the desktop (called “stand” or “display” mode) and have the screen appear in front in kiosk style. Or you can support it on its leading edges (in so-called “tent” or “A-frame”), which take up less space than the other modes. For flexibility, it’s hard to beat this kind of 2-in-1.
In a convertible machine, the battery and motherboard are usually located at the bottom (as in a traditional laptop), so it is balanced for use on the lap or a tabletop. The clamshell’s stable bottom lid is also a better writing platform than the sometimes flimsy panel on a removable keyboard case. There is also more space for batteries in a laptop (the lower half never goes away), resulting in improved battery life.
Disadvantages of this type of machine include a little extra weight from these batteries, as well as some extra thickness, as the hinge mechanisms are a little more complex than a laptop. Also, because the bottom half is permanently attached, a convertible means you always carry the extra weight and bulk of the keyboard wherever you go.
Detachable tablets: Two devices in one
A removable tablet 2-in-1 is basically a tablet with a keyboard case or a keyboard dock. The dock setting is a bit more stable than the keyboard case, but the general idea is the same: You can remove the keyboard part of the tablet and leave it when you want maximum portability. Microsoft’s various removable Surface devices (the Surface Book, Pro and Go families) are the cutting edge models of this kind.
Windows 10 slate tablets (and their removable counterparts) tend to weigh less than 2 pounds alone, and adding the keyboard case or dock can double the overall weight of the system. A tablet with a well-designed keyboard dock is functionally indistinguishable from a clamshell laptop, and some removable docks include extra battery cells that can greatly extend the time you are able to work without an electrical outlet. Simpler keyboard cases usually lack features such as extra battery cells or USB ports, and most will be noticeably physically flexible. But if a keyboard is just an occasional need for you, chances are you do not mind.
The advantage of the keyboard is that it is generally thinner and lighter than the usual lower half of a laptop or convertible. Removable hybrid tablets, however, tend to be top-heavy because all of the system’s components and batteries, and thus their weight, are necessarily located on the screen. You should examine your usage patterns to determine if it is really right for you to hold the PC in your hands and interact with the touch screen.
Removing the tablet and leaving the weight of the keyboard behind is optimal when you e.g. actively presents a slide show on a large screen and uses the tablet to draw notes on the slides in real time. Reconnecting the keyboard only takes a few seconds, so you will be able to easily (and comfortably) change the content of the slide show during your lunch hour if you need to change the focus of your lecture for your afternoon session.
Technical specifications: What to look for in a 2-in-1
The rest of the specifications (screen size, storage space, processor used, and so on) for convertibles and removable hybrids generally follow the same lines as more common laptops and Windows 10 tablets, which means you have to pay more if you want extra speed, more advanced features or a thinner, more flashy design.
For example, a system with a fanless Intel Core i3 or Core i5 processor is likely to have excellent battery life and a very thin body. These chips are generally what you will find in removable. That said, expect these systems to be somewhat less powerful than comparable-sized laptops or convertible 2-in-1s, as these low-power mobile processors are designed for cool, quiet operation (which you want for a system you use on your lap or hold in your hand) more than for blazing speed.
In contrast, a non-removable 2-in-1 system is more likely to use a more powerful Intel Core i5 or Core i7 with a cooling fan and perhaps even a discrete graphics processor. It will probably be a thicker device, but you will have more power to perform more demanding media-creating work or heavy multitasking in the field. As with everything else when you shop on the computer, it’s all a game of compromises and compromises, and we’re here to help you decide which one is for you.
So which 2-in-1 should I buy?
Below are the best convertible cars and detachable hybrids we’ve tested in recent months. We update the list frequently to include the latest products, so check back often. Don’t you need the unique transformation skills you get from a 2-in-1? See our reviews of the best overall laptops, the best business notebooks and our favorite ultra-laptops.