Should you get a hybrid laptop? A user report card

Hybrids -- laptops whose displays detach to become tablets -- may be expensive and bulky, but they seem to be working for some users.

The hybrid PC is all about promise. It's a laptop and it's a tablet. It meets your business needs and it meets your media-consumption needs. It supplies a keyboard when you want it and leaves behind that added bulk when you don't. It's two, two, two devices in one.

But what's the reality? Does this kind of configuration really hold up in everyday use? Is this jack-of-all-trades design a master of only some?

To find out, I spoke with former laptop users who decided to try a hybrid and then asked them to assess their new machines' features. The responses were both surprising and enlightening, and may just change your mind about what kind of computer to buy next.

For purposes of this story, I focused specifically on Windows-powered hybrids that offer a display with a removable keyboard dock (or, if you prefer, a keyboard with a removable display). Keep in mind that I'm not talking about convertibles, which are basically laptops with hinged touch displays that can fold back onto the keyboards. These tend to be heavier and harder to wield when used in tablet mode.

The idea here is to see if a fully separable design affords greater benefits.

Why a hybrid?

With so many hardware options to choose from -- convertibles, tablets, traditional laptops, etc. -- what drove these folks to a hybrid? Among the top motivators: Convenience and flexibility.

"I liked the idea of the flexibility of using the screen separate from the keyboard, which could theoretically address iPad envy and the need for a new laptop at the same time," says Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Chicago. He adopted an Asus VivoTab to replace both an office desktop and an aging HP laptop.

Asus VivoTab RT
Hybrids such as the Asus VivoTab RT allow users to work with the device as either a tablet or a laptop.

Network engineer Harold Gale, owner of Quakertown Computers in Quakertown, Pa., wasn't necessarily looking to replace his laptop, but did want "something more convenient and portable" to read e-books, watch streaming TV, browse the Web and check email. He chose an Acer Iconia W510 with the optional keyboard dock, and ultimately found he was using it instead of his laptop for a lot of day-to-day business.

For Detroit-based WJR 760AM radio host Foster Braun, who opted for a Microsoft Surface Pro and Type Cover keyboard, the allure was an "in-between" device that wouldn't necessarily tie him to his desk, but that offered a much larger screen than his phone. Braun suffers from various health issues that restrict him to a recliner for much of his day and the Surface "allows me to transfer a lot of middle-level work there," he says -- tasks like email, blogging, Web browsing and light image editing.

"The hybrid seems to be the answer to that equation," echoes programmer/analyst Michael Nagele, who works for the University of Illinois Foundation in Champaign, Ill. "Small enough to be portable, but big enough to enjoy media consumption or be able to get work done if the need arises." Nagele chose an Asus VivoTab RT because he "wanted to try Windows 8 for myself and see what all the fuss, pro and con, was about."

How they're used

In theory, a hybrid would be split pretty evenly between work and leisure tasks, the keyboard enabling office suite and other software-driven operations, the screen pulling free for book reading, movie watching and Web browsing. But did the scales tip in one direction or another once buyers actually started using the machines?

They did for Rabbi Chalom. "It turns out I use the system almost exclusively as a laptop," he reports. "I prefer to read on a Kindle with e-ink, [and] I can flip through email or play music while doing dishes faster on my phone, so [the hybrid] tends to live in my daily office bag as a laptop." Likewise, Chalom said his VivoTab serves laptop duty almost exclusively while he's traveling.

Nagele initially used his hybrid for media consumption -- "Netflix, Hulu Plus, games and Web surfing," he says. But because it came pre-loaded with Office and offered deep integration with Microsoft's OneDrive, "I find myself using it more and more since I can do everything on one machine. [I can] multitask and not worry about the battery running out."

"If I attend meetings, conferences, or generally leave the office, I grab my hybrid," says Harold Gale. "I also use [it as a] tablet when I need to work in wiring closets, as it fits nicely in the tightest of spaces." Gale adds that although he still bounces back to his laptop at times, he relies on the Acer W510 for everything from "general office tasks" to reading to watching training videos.

Overall, most of the users surveyed seem to end up using their hybrids as laptops first and tablets second.

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