Invasion of the tabtops: The new hybrid tablets reviewed

The Surface Pro, iPad Pro, Pixel-C and Galaxy TabPro S all seek to merge the tablet and the laptop, with mixed success

Invasion of the tabtops: The new hybrid tablets reviewed
Galen Gruman / IDG

Tablets were the big thing a few years ago, purportedly soon to displace PCs. It didn't happen, and tablet sales have been dropping for several years. Except for one kind of tablet: the kind with a detachable keyboard, epitomized by Microsoft's Surface Pro. They're the rising star, both for IT organizations and for computer makers. 

Recent IDC data shows that more companies have deployed these devices -- let's call them "tabtops," since "laplets" sounds like the return of the netbook and "detachable tablets" doesn't quite ring true -- than have deployed slate-style tablets like the iPad. In fact, per IDC, nearly as many companies have deployed these "tabtops" as have deployed regular laptops or touchscreen laptops. (To be clear, IDC's survey isn't about the number of actual devices deployed, but about the types of devices that businesses deploy. The actual number of individual tabtops deployed is tiny compared to the number of traditional laptops or even iPads.)

The Surface Pro has matured into a capable and attractive product, and you need look no further for proof than Apple's iPad Pro, a clear response to the Surface Pro.

Google is now in the act, too, with its Pixel-C Android tabtop. Plus, Google plans to bring Android apps to its Chrome devices this fall -- by which time Android N will support multiple application windows, as iOS 9 and Windows 10 already do. Chrome devices are already available with detachable keyboards and touchscreens, so the infusion of multiwindow Android to both Android tabtops and Chrome tabtops will complete Google's journey to where Microsoft first ventured and Apple followed.

But what's the point of these devices? iPads and Android tablets have long supported Bluetooth keyboards and keyboard covers, which function very much like the detachable keyboard that largely defines a tabtop. (Never mind that both Microsoft and Apple make you pay extra for the detachable keyboard they presume you will use with their tabtops.) And why not simply use a MacBook Air or lightweight PC laptop if a keyboard is so essential?

That's the question this comparison seeks to answer: What's the point? Can these devices usefully straddle the worlds of tablet and laptop? Can a tabtop truly serve as both agile handheld and productivity powerhouse? Let's start with the devices themselves: the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, Apple iPad Pro, Google Pixel-C, and Samsung Galaxy TabPro S for Business.

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