Here's a riddle: When is a laptop not a laptop?
The answer: When it's a convertible system that can be twisted or folded to create several different computing personas, each aimed at enabling a different kind of computer interaction.
Rather than being a single-purpose laptop where the keyboard and screen are front and center, convertibles can morph into as many as five different computing configurations, each with a distinct personality. These "personalities" can include a traditional laptop, a tablet, a system that folds flat on a table, one with a tent-like inverted "V" profile and a presentation machine with the screen facing away from the keyboard.
Using a convertible can be a liberating experience. Instead of locking you into a particular way of using the computer, a convertible offers the flexibility to let the system fit the task at hand. Convertibles have specially-designed hinges that allow the systems to change into different configurations as if they were Transformers.
For example, after you've finished creating that career-boosting presentation using a traditional laptop orientation, flip the screen over to show it to your coworkers. Later, fold the system flat on your desk to sketch a map while having the keyboard handy to type directions. When the work is done, fold the keyboard out of the way so you have a tablet for Web work, ebook reading or just playing games.
To see just how flexible this genre of mobility really is, I've tried out three of the newest convertibles on the market: the Dell XPS 11, the HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G2 and the Sony Vaio Fit 11A | Flip PC. I've also included videos showing exactly how each configuration works.
Different systems, different configurations
Each of these machines approaches convertibility in a different way.
The HP EliteBook Revolve has a central hinge that rotates and swivels to allow the screen lid to -- as the name implies -- revolve 180 degrees and then fold flat. This allows it to convert from a laptop into a presentation machine, fold flat on a desk or work as a handheld tablet.
The Dell XPS 11 has a pair of hinges that can rotate the display around 360 degrees. This way, the device can assume the guise of a laptop or a presentation machine, fold flat or become a tablet.
The Sony Flip PC has a long hinge that lets the screen open to 140 degrees, while a second hinge in the middle of the display's frame lets you pivot the screen forward or backward so that the system can transform from a laptop into a presentation system or a tablet.
Otherwise, these three convertibles have a lot in common. They all include an 11.6-in. touchscreen, SSD storage and Windows 8.1 software. At between 2.5 lb. and 3.1 lb., they are reasonably average size for laptops. They are, however, far heavier than most standalone tablets, such as Samsung's 12.2-in. Galaxy Note Pro, which weighs 1.7 lb. As a result, some convertibles can be tedious to hold for long periods.
None of them is low-cost -- the extra design, engineering and manufacturing for the specialty hinges make these systems expensive compared to conventional laptops, with costs running between $800 and $1,829.
Still, if you like the idea of your laptop being a Swiss army knife that can change into a tablet, fold flat on a table or have its screen point away from the keyboard, a convertible is the best game in town.