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Powerful Tablets Can Replace Laptops—Sort Of


I hear this more and more:  Can a tablet ever replace a laptop? The answer is sort of, and the time is now. If you break out what most in our profession need in a laptop the list is reasonably short:


1. A fast processor: Almost anything in the new Intel i3 or i5 family will do the trick. An i7 is a plus.

2. 4GB RAM. 2GB will run CAT software on Windows 8 tablets but 4GB is better and 8GB is a plus.

3. 320+GB HDD. Or a 128+GB SSD. Solid state drives are much faster but more expensive.

4. An Operating System (OS) that will run CAT software.

5. A screen large enough to render CAT software at a readable size.

6. A serviceable keyboard and pointing device.


Even though the list is short, most tablets don’t fit the bill. Until recently, none would. But the release of Windows 8 and the generation of tablets that followed it include some high-powered choices that check every item on the list above.


Windows 8? Sorry, iPad lovers; that tablet, cool and sleek as it is, won’t run CAT software. That’s also the problem with Android-based tablets. Taking those two off the table shortens the list of candidates considerably. So Item 4, the OS, is easy. You’ll need to look at W8 tablets only.


Looking within that subset at the tablets that have the processor strength, RAM, and drive space needed, the field narrows further. Only a handful will meet Items 1-4, but there are a few out there, and the new ThinkPad Helix from Lenovo and the Surface Pro 2 from Microsoft are leading the way.


Item 5 requires a 10.1” screen or better. One any smaller will make it hard to work with on a full-time basis (remember this is a tablet that replaces your laptop). The bigger the screen the more the device will weigh, so 12.5” is probably the largest you’ll want to consider.


Item 6 is where the rubber meets the road. A true tablet has no built-in keyboard and purists insist on it, else it’s not a tablet. This means you’d use your fingers or a stylus to handle the job of pointing, and use the onscreen keyboard to type. That won’t work at all well for reporters who must do a lot of editing.


The solution is either a dockable keyboard or one that’s cleverly built in. “Cleverly built in?” How can that be a tablet?  And if I carry around a dockable keyboard and mouse, don’t the added weight and bulk add up to about the same as a laptop?


This is where we either stretch the limitations of the category, or forego the concept of a “replacement tablet” entirely. Tablets are desirable because they’re small, portable, light, and kinda fun. If we carry around a dockable keyboard and mouse or guilefully build them in, what we end up with, arguably, is a lightweight laptop.


While true, there is another aspect to be considered:  Tablets with dockable components allow you to use them as tablets; a laptop cannot. And that’s where the elements of fun and freedom gain traction: You can leave the keyboard on your desk if you just want to take the tablet out for a ride.


If that seems like hair-splitting, it is. But from a weight perspective these replacement tablets are a boon; even allowing for the keyboard, they come in at 3.5 lbs. or less. True, there are laptops—like the X series ThinkPad—that are in the same weight class, and I wouldn’t contend that they aren’t excellent choices as well. Perhaps just not as much fun!


So what are the options and what do they cost? There are others available that aren’t cited here, but I’ll mention three I like, two of which I mentioned earlier. With an available i7 processor, the ThinkPad Helix is the fastest in the field. It also can be configured with 8GB RAM and a 128GB – 256GB SSD, and even with an 11.6” screen it weighs only 1.84 lbs. It comes with a built-in USB port and the clamshell keyboard adds two more, for a total of three USBs. Cost: $1,500-$2,500. Click HERE to see a video about the Helix.


I also mentioned the Surface Pro 2 and there’s a lot to like on the new high-end models. The processor is an i5, so not as fast, but still very nimble and considerably faster than anything you’ll find in the low-cost tablets. RAM goes up to 8GB, another plus, and the storage drives are all SSDs, from 64GB up to a whopping 512GB.


The keyboard doesn’t include any extra USB or display ports and it doesn’t include any type of pointing device, either. You must use the display for all pointer-related actions, a problem because some screen elements are finer than the human finger, especially when editing transcript, and a stylus adds an extra step. On the plus side, it’s light: the total weight for the tablet and keyboard is just over 2 lbs.—unless you want those extra ports. If so, you’re compelled to use a docking station and, aside from the cost, it adds another 1.5 lbs., taking the total weight up to just over 3.5 lbs. Cost: $1,500-$2,000, more if you need a docking station. Click HERE to see a video about the Surface Pro 2.


Once you realize you need a keyboard and mouse most of the time, then the desire for a pure tablet may subside enough to consider a new class in portable computing, the “convertible.” No, it’s not a beach-cruising ragtop, it’s a laptop that converts to a tablet or, if you prefer, a tablet that converts to laptop. Just to mix in a little confusion, the term also applies to tablets that have dockable keyboards, especially those that connect as a “clamshell.” But that’s a bit too purist, in my view.


So my third submission is a true convertible (meaning the keyboard is attached but cleverly concealable), the ThinkPad Twist from Lenovo. It’s got an i3 or i5 processor, 4GB RAM, and either a 500GB HDD or a 128GB SSD. At 3.5 lbs. it’s light and its screen is an expansive 12.5”.  And it’s at a better price point than either of my other two candidates. While the high-end models of the Helix and the Surface Pro 2 flirt with a $2K price tag, the Twist is down around a thousand. Click HERE to see a video about the Twist.


So if you’re looking to lose both some weight and some bulk from your carry-arounds, consider these replacement tablets. They’re fast, light, powerful, and really a delight to use.