Review: Windows tablets with keyboards

4 Windows tablet/keyboard combos take on the Surface Pro

We test four tablets -- from Acer, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba -- that offer their own keyboards.

Lenovo ThinkPad 10

Lenovo ThinkPad 10

Credit: Lenovo

Review

Windows tablets with keyboards

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Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 has gotten a lot of attention as a way to bridge the gap between tablets and traditional notebooks. Its snap-on keyboard and pull-out rear stand tries to offer the best of both worlds, but with a 12-in. screen and weighing 1.8 lbs. (without its keyboard cover), the Surface Pro is not as light as it could be, particularly for nomadic workers. And starting at $800 for a system equipped with an Intel i3 with 64GB plus $130 for the Type Cover, it is not an inexpensive system.

If you're looking for a Windows-based tablet that can also be used as a laptop -- especially if you don't need a powerhouse -- there are cheaper and lighter alternatives. The latest 10.1-inch Windows tablets have smaller screens and less impressive performance, but they weigh roughly half a pound less and just might offer the best balance today between power and portability.

Plus, with an add-on keyboard case, a small tablet has the ability to transform from an entertainment medium into something approximating a traditional notebook.

To see what the state-of-the-art in this area entails, I gathered four of the latest 10.1-inch Windows tablets from Acer, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba. They offer a variety of techniques for transforming a tablet into a keyboard-centric system.

Acer's Aspire Switch 10 has a hinged keyboard that snaps onto the tablet, allowing the screen to be set at just about any angle. It can work in any of four computing profiles, from notebook and tablet to tent and presentation orientation. The HP ElitePad 1000 G2 and the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 have more traditional attachable keyboards, while the Toshiba Encore 2 has a case that's practically an exercise in the art of origami, folding into an easel stand that holds the tablet in place above its keyboard.

Each the four is a full Windows 8.1 tablet. Each has a 10.1-in. screen, an Intel Atom processor and SSD storage; each also provides the minimum gear for business use, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a security-conscious Trusted Platform Module.

Acer Aspire Switch 10

Versatility is the watchword for Acer's Aspire Switch 10, a tablet that has four distinct personalities.

The tablet comes with a snap-on keyboard that transforms it into a traditional mini-notebook. Just place the tablet about an inch over the keyboard's connector and the two are drawn together by magnets, creating a single unit.

If you want to show something on-screen to colleagues, you can pull the screen free, flip it around and reattach it, creating a presentation machine for a small group while still keeping the keyboard available. The whole system can also be turned over and set up in tent orientation to watch a video hands-free. None of the others reviewed here matches this variety of computing personalities.

Acer Aspire Switch 10

Acer Aspire Switch 10

On its own, the tablet weighs 1.3 lb. and is well balanced. At 0.4 x 10.3 x 7.0 in., it falls between the thicker and heavier HP ElitePad 1000 and the svelte Toshiba Encore 2. The gray and silver device is made of sturdy aluminum and has rounded corners.

With the keyboard attached, it feels a little chunkier at 0.8 x 10.3 x 7.6 in. and 2.4 lb. It has 17.5-millimeter keys that are a little too close together; they include brightness and volume keys as well as a large touchpad.

Unlike the others covered here, when the keyboard is attached to the Switch 10, the screen's angle is adjustable, just like, well, a notebook. I did find that, once I went beyond 135 degrees, it tipped over. Still, it is the only system of the four to work equally well on a desk and a lap.

The 10.1-in. screen has 1366 x 768 resolution, putting it on a par with the less expensive Encore 2, but with about half as many pixels as the WUXGA screens on the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 and Toshibai ElitePad 2. At 300 candelas per square meter, it wasn't the brightest of the four, but displayed the richest colors.

With speakers at the base of the tablet's front, the Switch 10's audio sounded much sharper, fuller and louder than the others, regardless of whether it was on its own or connected to its keyboard.

Rather than the expected pair of cameras, the system has a single front-facing HD webcam that can capture 2-megapixel images. That's fine for Skype and other video communications apps, but some users may miss the ability to take other types of photos or videos.

In addition to a Windows Key button at the bottom of the screen, the Switch 10 has an on/off button and a control for raising and lowering the volume on the side. Unlike some of its peers, it doesn't have a physical screen-lock to keep the display from automatically rotating its orientation when turned.

The Switch 10 has a micro-HDMI port for use with a monitor or projector, a micro-USB port and an audio jack, but it uses a proprietary plug for actually powering the system. The keyboard adds a full-sized USB 2.0 port.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are, of course built in. On the down side, Acer doesn't offer any mobile cellular network data options.

The Switch 10 has an Intel Atom Z3745 processor that runs at between 1.3GHz and 1.9GHz, slower than the CPUs used in the HP ElitePad 1000 and Lenovo ThinkPad 10 systems. The $430 model I tested includes the keyboard as well as 2GB of RAM and 64GB of SSD storage. Acer also sells a $380 version with 32GB of storage and .

Like the other tablets reviewed here, the Switch 10 includes Windows 8.1 and a one-year warranty, but adds a copy of Microsoft's Office Home & Student 2013.

Overall, the Switch 10 was a reliable system, with a PerformanceTest score of 518.4, putting it in the middle of the pack compared to the faster HP ElitePad 1000 and slower Toshiba Encore 2. The system's battery ran for 5 hours and 2 minutes on a charge with nonstop playing videos from a USB drive. That's the shortest of the crew, but should translate into at least a full day of work.

For the price, the Acer Switch 10 offers a solid and versatile tablet/keyboard combination that can assume a wide variety of different computing personalities at work, on the road or at home.

HP ElitePad 1000 G2

HP's ElitePad 1000 G2 is the rare computer that excels at both performance and battery life.

However, you do pay a price: At 1.4 lb., the aluminum ElitePad is the heaviest of this group; using the tablet in your hand can feel cumbersome after just a few minutes. Its 0.4 x 10.2 x 6.8-in. dimensions mean that it's larger and thicker than the Toshiba Encore 2, but its gently rounded corners and the strip of soft plastic along the top make it easier to carry and pack.

The black and silver ElitePad tablet can be turned into a mini-notebook using the optional Productivity Jacket ($199) that provides a protective cover along with a keyboard.

HP ElitePad 1000 G2 HP

HP ElitePad 1000 G2

Unfortunately, when you attach the tablet to the Jacket's keyboard, it is held in place by a rigid plastic trough slightly above the keyboard and a flexible lip that runs around the edge of the keyboard's lid. It felt like I needed three hands to get the tablet in and out of the Jacket. After some effort and practice, however, I got used to it. While the keyboard/tablet combination was rock solid on a desk, the set-up was a bit unwieldy on my lap.

With its Productivity Jacket, the ElitePad takes up 0.9 x 10.5 x 8.4 in. and weighs a relatively hefty 3 lb. -- around twice the weight of the ElitePad without the Jacket. The 17.5-millimeter keys felt a little cramped when I was typing, but the strangest thing about the keyboard is that lacks a touchpad. It does have keys for multimedia control and volume.

While the keyboard case doesn't allow you to set the display at any angle, as is possible with the Acer Aspire Switch 10, it can sit at 95 degrees, 110 degrees or 120 degrees.

The display offers 1920 x 1200 resolution, the same as the Lenovo ThinkPad 10's screen. It delivers 305 lumens of light, slightly brighter than the Acer Aspire Switch 10, but duller than the ThinkPad's display. I felt that the ElitePad's colors weren't as rich and vivid as the Switch 10's lower-resolution display.

If you want to do more exacting work than you can with your fingers, HP sells the $49 Executive Tablet Pen G2, a stylus that is sensitive to 256 levels of pressure. While there's no place on the tablet itself to stow the pen, the case has a fabric loop that a lanyard can be tied to.

Holding the slate horizontally, the speakers are located at edge of the two lower corners and aim the audio straight down. The sound sounded hollow and, when the tablet was in the keyboard case, muffled.

The ElitePad comes with both back and front cameras that can take 8-megapixel and 2.1-megapixel images, respectively.

There's a Windows Key button on the front of the tablet below the screen; an on/off button and a screen-lock switch are located on the edges. The volume rocker is on the back of the tablet, close to one edge, so you can use it while holding the tablet.

If you use a lot of external gadgets, be aware that the ElitePad skimps on ports. It has only an audio port and a proprietary power port; it comes with an adapter that converts the proprietary port into a USB port. There is also a $49 HDMI/VGA adapter available for an external display. The keyboard case itself adds a pair of USB 2.0 ports and an SD card slot.

The ElitePad is one of the best-equipped tablets I've seen. Like the Lenovo ThinkPad 10, its Atom Z3795 processor runs at 1.6GHz, but can sprint to 2.4GHz. The model I looked at came with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. It includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

HP sells an entry-level ElitePad 1000 G2 for $739 with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The review unit was a top-of-the-line model with 128GB of storage and a module for connecting to an HSDPA+-based network and GPS; it costs $1,469. (HP also sells an LTE-based version.) Without the GPS and with LTE broadband, the same tablet is priced at $1,009.

Not unexpectedly, the higher-end ElitePad was the screamer of the group with a PerformanceTest 8 score of 645.0, 28% faster than the Toshiba Encore 2. While that alone might be enough to set the ElitePad apart from the crowd, it was able to continuously play HD videos from a USB drive on battery power for 6 hours and 20 minutes, the longest of the bunch. That should be more than enough for a full day of work and a few hours left over to watch a movie online.

The system comes with a one-year warranty, Windows 8.1 and HP's Trust Circles, software that balances collaboration with security.

In other words, if what you care about is having the utmost in Windows tablet performance and battery life (and can afford it), look no further than the ElitePad 1000 G2.

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