For years, when you needed a real portable computer, the only way to get it was to turn to a laptop. Then, as mobile processors became more powerful and operating systems more flexible, you had a choice: You could either stay with the traditional clamshell design or go with a tablet, which offered you less functionality and power but greater convenience by subtracting the keyboard from the equation altogether. So it was just a matter of time until enterprising manufacturers realized that adding or removing the keyboard was all that was needed to turn one into another. Now, the resulting product, a 2-in-1, isn’t just its own product category—it’s one of the most popular in the PC industry.
First Off: What Is a 2-in-1?
Simply put, a 2-in-1 is a touch-optimized convertible laptop or detachable tablet with a both a touch screen and a physical keyboard of some type. When you need full-stroke keys and a touchpad, you can use the 2-in-1 just the way you would a regular laptop. But if you need or want full access to just the screen for an extended period of time, that’s an option as well. And you can flip back and forth between the modes whenever you wish, usually expending just a second’s effort.
That said, you’re still buying a PC with a full operating system, whether that’s Chrome OS or Windows 10. In the future, macOS could be a player, but thus far Apple has pointed folks who need a touch screen and tablet/laptop convertibility toward its iOS-equipped iPad and iPad Pro lines, paired with an optional keyboard. A 2-in-1 running macOS just isn’t on the Apple menu yet.
The Best 2-in-1 Convertible and Hybrid Laptop Deals This Week*
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For our purposes, we break down 2-in-1 devices into two kinds: the convertible laptop (a one-piece machine) and the detachable tablet (which splits in two).
Convertible Laptops: Twisting Into Multiple Modes
The convertible laptop can transform from laptop to tablet and back again, with most systems featuring a hinge design that allows for rotating the keyboard portion through 360 degrees, out of the way back behind the screen. This type of 2-in-1 is the best choice if you’re planning on using the keyboard a lot, as you’re guaranteed to always have it with you. (Typing the Great American Novel or even an ordinary business report on the hard, flat surface of a virtual onscreen keyboard is an experience you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.)
Because of the motion that a convertible laptop’s hinge enables, you are often able to use these systems in a variety of modes. If you want to be able to share the display with everyone in a meeting, you can place the keyboard portion face down on the desk (called “stand” or “display” mode) and have the screen showing up front, kiosk-style. Or, you can prop it up on its leading edges (in so-called “tent” or “A-frame” mode), which takes up less space than the other modes. For flexibility, it’s difficult to beat this kind of 2-in-1.
In a convertible machine, the battery and motherboard are usually located in the base (as in a traditional laptop), so it’s balanced for use on a lap or a tabletop. The stable bottom lid of the clamshell is also a better typing platform than the sometimes-flimsy panel of a detachable keyboard case. There’s also more room for batteries in a laptop form factor (the bottom half never goes away), which results in improved battery life.
Downsides to this style of machine include a little extra weight from those batteries, as well as some extra thickness, as the hinge mechanisms are a little more complex than a laptop’s. Also, because the lower half is permanently attached, a convertible means that you’re always carrying the extra weight and bulk of the keyboard wherever you go.
Detachable Tablets: Two Devices in One
A detachable-tablet 2-in-1 is essentially a slate with a keyboard case or a keyboard dock. The dock option is a bit more stable than the keyboard case, but the general idea is the same: You can remove the keyboard portion of the tablet and leave it behind when you desire maximum portability. Microsoft’s various Surface detachables (the Surface Book, Pro, and Go families) are the vanguard models of this kind.
Windows 10 slate tablets (and their detachable counterparts) tend to weigh less than 2 pounds on their own, and adding the keyboard case or dock can double the system’s total weight. A tablet with a well-designed keyboard dock attached is functionally indistinguishable from a clamshell laptop, and some detachable docks contain extra battery cells that can greatly extend the amount of time you’re able to work off-plug. Simpler keyboard cases usually lack niceties 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 won’t mind that much.
The benefit of the keyboard case is that it is thinner and lighter overall than the usual lower half of a laptop or convertible. Detachable-hybrid tablets, however, tend to be top-heavy, because all of the system’s components and batteries, and hence their weight, are necessarily localized in the screen. You’ll want to examine your usage patterns to determine whether holding the PC in your hands and interacting with the touch screen is really right for you.
Detaching the tablet and leaving the heft of the keyboard behind is optimal when, say, you’re actively presenting a slideshow on a big screen and using the tablet to draw notes on the slides in real time. Reattaching the keyboard takes mere seconds, so you will be able to easily (and comfortably) change the slideshow’s content during your lunch hour if you need to change your talk’s focus for your afternoon session.
Tech Specs: What to Look for in a 2-in-1
The rest of the specs (screen size, storage space, the processor used, and so on) for convertibles and detachable hybrids generally follow the same lines as more standard laptops and Windows 10 tablets, which means you’ll have to pay more if you want additional speed, fancier features, or a thinner, flashier 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 detachables. That said, in general, you should expect that these systems will be somewhat less powerful than comparably sized laptops or convertible 2-in-1s, as these low-power mobile processors are designed for cool, quiet operation (which you’ll want for a system you’re using on your lap or holding in your hand) more so than for blazing speed.
In contrast, a non-detachable 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 likely be a thicker device, but you’ll have more power to do more-demanding media-creation work or heavy multitasking in the field. As with anything else when computer shopping, it’s all a game of trade-offs 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 top 10 convertibles and detachable hybrids we’ve tested. We refresh the list often to include the newest products, so check back frequently. Don’t need the unique transformational capabilities you get from a 2-in-1? Check out our reviews of the best overall laptops, the top business notebooks, and our favorite ultraportables.