Android tablets, Chromebooks and convertibles: Which setup makes sense for you?

Android tablets and Chromebooks are taking on all sorts of overlapping forms. Here's a practical guide to help you navigate the ever-expanding maze of options.

Android Tablets, Chromebooks, Convertibles

The lines, they are a-blurrin'. That's what Bob Dylan said in his classic 1964 song, right?

Okay -- maybe I'm blurring ol' Bobby's words with the title of that Weird Al-parodied monstrosity (The Song That Must Not Be Named -- yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Thicke). But questionable pop music references aside, there's no question mobile technology as we know it is evolving in some crazy ways.

Think about it: It wasn't long ago that we had clear-cut divisions between different types of Googley devices. You wanted a typing-centric, productivity-oriented experience -- you got a Chromebook. You wanted to watch movies and kick back while consuming content -- you got an Android tablet. Easy peasy.

Nowadays, things aren't so cut and dried. We've got Chromebooks that act like tablets, Android tablets that act like laptops, and keyboard-free Android slates ranging from seven inches to a whopping two feet in size (yes, seriously!). So how the hell are you supposed to figure out which type of device is right for you?

I've spent a good amount of time using the various Chromebook and Android forms (except for that 24-in. giant -- sorry, pal, but if you really want that thing, you're on your own). Here's an easy-to-follow breakdown of what each configuration is like to use in the real world and for whom it might make sense.

The regular Android tablet

Google HTC Nexus 9

Ah, the classic: a simple slate that's essentially just a screen in your hands.

You probably already know this, but an Android tablet is basically a bigger version of the same experience you have on your smartphone. So with phones themselves getting larger and larger, not everyone feels the need to keep a tablet around anymore. (And to be fair, there was never really much of a need for a tablet in the first place; for most of us, it's always been a want-oriented, nice-to-have type of device.)

But you know what? There are still plenty of times when tablets can be useful. Whether your phone is four inches or six, there's something nice about switching over to a larger screen for comfy around-the-house browsing or spacious mid-travel movie-watching. And tablets -- older ones in particular -- can also be great for things like keeping your kitchen connected (we have an old Motorola Xoom that sits on a dock by our stove) or keeping your kids entertained.

A tablet in and of itself is more of a passive consumption device -- something you use for browsing, reading, and watching more than working and actively inputting. It also lends itself well to graphic-intensive game play, given Android's wide selection of that sort of native and hardware-dependent content.

If you like the idea of having a secondary and more spacious screen for those types of tasks, an Android tablet might be the answer for you.

The regular Chromebook

Toshiba Chromebook 2

Google's Chrome OS takes a lot of flak from people who don't understand it, but the cloud-centric platform has come a long way since its modest debut in 2010. These days, Chrome OS offers an appealing and well-rounded package for computer users who spend most of their time on the Web.

(Not sure what Chrome OS is all about or whether it's right for you? Check out my three-question quiz for a quick primer and some fast answers.)

Assuming the cloud-centric work flow works for your needs, a traditional Chromebook is especially well-suited for productivity -- stuff that requires active keyboard input or lots of multitasking. Whether you're working on documents, sending emails, or browsing the Web with numerous tabs open, a properly equipped Chromebook is going to make it easy to get the job done.

Anything else you can do on the Web is fair game, too, of course -- watching videos, reading content, browsing social media, and so forth -- but the more passive consumption tasks are arguably more ideal on a slate, where you can hold just the screen and enjoy a top-notch, high-res viewing experience. Active input and productivity are where a Chromebook really shines and stands apart from the other categories.

The convertible Android tablet

Dell Venue 10 7000

Convertible Android tablets are nothing new, but they're making a sudden comeback with devices like the Dell Venue 10 7000 -- a 10.5-in. tablet that intelligently attaches to a laptop-caliber keyboard dock and transforms into a notebook.

What's interesting about that setup is the fact that the system runs Android -- so you're getting all the passive consumption benefits we talked about above, along with some enhanced options for more active input.

The Venue 10 has a great keyboard, despite its small size, so typing on it is a perfectly tolerable experience. And Android has enough advanced productivity tools that you can certainly get by when you put the device into its laptop mode -- at least, up to a point.

Here's what it boils down to: Using a device like Dell's feels like using a nice tablet that you can also type on. It works well if you're looking for something that's awesome for browsing, reading, watching, and playing -- and also decent for lightweight input like pounding out a simple document or responding to a lengthy email.

But it's still a tablet first and foremost -- just one with a little bit of laptop-like functionality added in. In general, the desktop browser environment of a Chromebook is going to be better suited for a more intensive work flow.

Why? Part of it is multitasking: A setup like Chrome OS is more explicitly designed for quick back-and-forth snapping between apps and windows, which is something many of us tend to do pretty frequently when we work. You can certainly do that kind of thing on Android, but it takes more effort and isn't as natural-feeling or speedy of a process.

Lollipop's memory management issues don't make for the most ideal browsing experience when you have numerous tabs or windows open, either. With Android 5.0 in particular, there's just too much annoying auto-refreshing when you move back and forth between multiple processes.

Beyond that, some websites still don't play nicely with a mobile browser -- usually not a big deal for casual browsing but something that can come up and cause issues when you're getting into more heavy-duty productivity-oriented tasks (CMS interfaces, for instance). You'd think all things would be equal nowadays, but for whatever reason, that's not always the case.

So the convertible Android tablet has its strengths, to be sure, but it also has its limits. That's why I could see it being a fantastic supplementary device for a lot of people -- a super-tablet, if you will, for around-the-house use or days when you want to leave your laptop at home. I could see it working really well as a travel device, too, for watching movies on the plane and also doing a bit of light work as needed. As a secondary device in that context, it's actually quite compelling.

For some folks -- those with very light productivity needs -- it could conceivably serve as a full-fledged laptop replacement. But it's definitely not going to be up to that for everyone.

The convertible Chromebook

Asus Chromebook Flip

Our final category is the newest -- and the toughest to wrap your head around. As Google is little by little expanding Chrome OS to make it more touch-friendly, manufacturers are starting to explore more versatile forms that take advantage of the platform's possibilities.

Enter the convertible Chromebook. We first saw the concept last year with Lenovo's impressive ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook -- but at $455, that rugged system was never destined for mainstream appeal. This summer's new Asus Chromebook Flip, on the other hand, runs $249 to $299 and is very much aimed at the average consumer.

Both devices give you a fully functioning Chrome OS laptop along with the ability to flip the screen around -- all the way back past the 180-degree mark -- and use it as a stand-supported slate or fully-flattened tablet.

Chromebook Flip - Laptop, Tablet

Kinda cool, right? It absolutely is. Here's the thing, though: Whereas the convertible Android tablet feels like a tablet first, with a little bit of laptop-like functionality mixed in, the convertible Chromebook feels very much like a laptop first -- with an occasional tablet costume.

And that arrangement has its pros and cons: On the laptop side of things, you're still getting the productivity-friendly Chromebook experience (to a degree, at least -- with the Flip specifically, its exceptionally small size doesn't make for the most ideal work environment). But while having the ability to switch to a touch-centric tablet-like setup can be useful for more immersive content consumption, it's quite different from what you'd get in that same configuration with Android.

The reason: Despite Google's ongoing efforts, the Web and even Chrome OS itself aren't entirely optimized for touch-centric experiences. Going into a tablet mode on a convertible Chromebook is enjoyable for things like reading content, watching videos, or scrolling through social media streams -- as you can push the keyboard out of your way and focus solely on the screen -- but the experience is far more limited and less natural-feeling than doing the same on an Android device.

By and large, native Android apps just provide a superior touch experience to their website counterparts. It's something that's hard to quantify, but they're designed explicitly for that type of interaction and tend to be more pleasant to use. Whether it's Gmail, Google+, Twitter, or even Chrome itself, using a Web interface in a touch environment is always a little awkward compared to using a native Android app equivalent.

And though Google is slowly but surely working to make Android apps run on Chrome OS, the selection of compatible titles is still extremely small -- and using the apps still feels like a somewhat forced and non-native experience. Here's how a couple of Android apps look running on the Chromebook Flip, for instance:

Chrome OS Android Apps: Vine
Chrome OS Android Apps: Evernote

While the selection of Android apps available to run on Chrome OS is bound to expand over time -- and the presentation and experience may eventually improve -- we're not there yet. And you likely won't ever be able to install things like resource-intensive games, customizable on-screen keyboards, or other hardware-dependent and OS-connected types of programs.

So the convertible Chromebook doesn't exactly give you the best of both worlds; instead, it gives you the productivity-friendly Chromebook experience with a limited taste of touch. Just like the convertible Android tablet is best viewed as a "tablet-plus," the convertible Chromebook is really more of a "laptop-plus" than a true dual-environment device.

The bottom line

We've got more nuanced choices in mobile computing now than ever. There's no longer a singular one-size-fits-all answer for everyone -- and trust me: That's an incredible thing.

Just within the realm of Google-connected devices, you can get the productivity-friendly setup of a regular Chromebook or the kickback-and-relax configuration of a regular Android tablet. Or, you can branch out to a convertible that keeps its respective platform's core strengths but adds in a little something extra from the other side. The key is figuring out which use-case is the most important to you and then picking a device that excels at that primarily, while also providing any extras you desire.

The most exciting part? What we're seeing now is only the beginning. Get ready for more line-blurring devices in the months to come -- and even more delightfully difficult decisions along with them.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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