March 21 (Bloomberg) -- The one-two punch of Apple’s iPad and Microsoft’s Windows 8 has led to a new class of personal-computer hybrids that look and work like regular laptops, but whose screens pop off to become fully functional tablets.
I’ve recently been using two that share this convertible form but represent opposite ends of the pricing spectrum.
The $1,200 Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro is a powerful, premium model competitive with the likes of Microsoft’s own Surface Pro. Hewlett-Packard’s Envy x2 is budget-priced at $699 and less potent -- yet more successful in achieving its modest aims.
There is nothing really bad about the ATIV Smart PC Pro. (Except maybe for the name.) It just feels compromised as both a tablet and a laptop.
The ATIV’s technical specs are fine: It’s powered by an Intel Core i5 processor and includes four gigabytes of memory and 128 gigabytes of speedy solid-state storage. The 11.6-inch screen is capable of delivering full 1080p high-definition video.
The ATIV also comes with Samsung’s S Pen and the software to use it, so you can take notes or otherwise scribble onscreen in tablet mode. But you aren’t likely to want to do that too often, or for too long.
The ATIV is simply too heavy and ungainly -- at 1.9 pounds undocked, it’s almost 50 percent heftier than Samsung’s similarly stylus-equipped Galaxy Note 10.1, which runs Google’s Android operating system.
The battery life, about five hours give or take, is poor for a tablet. It’s a little more acceptable in a laptop, but the ATIV suffers in that mode from ho-hum looks and design. With the keyboard attached, it weighs more than three and a half pounds and feels top-heavy with the lid open.
I also ran into a problem with one unit, a periodic chiming sound that seemed to indicate the screen wasn’t completely seated in the keyboard dock, even though it appeared to be. A second unit provided by the company didn’t have that problem.
Samsung has made some truly gorgeous and capable Windows PCs, like the Series 9, a traditional clamshell laptop. The ATIV suffers by comparison.
On looks alone, Hewlett-Packard’s Envy x2 has Samsung beat. The brushed aluminum and wedge shape evokes Apple’s MacBook Air, and the HP costs hundreds of dollars less than either of them.
There’s a reason it’s so much cheaper: It’s built around an Intel Atom dual-core chip that has considerably less processing oomph than the Core i5 used in those other machines. It also comes with only two gigabytes of memory and 64 gigabytes of storage, about the absolute minimum you can get away with these days in a computer running Windows 8.
If you don’t need much computing power, though, the Envy has some real attractions.
It’s more usable as a tablet than many competitors. Most hybrids should probably just be thought of as laptops with detachable screens; you wouldn’t really want to use them as tablets for any length of time.
The Envy is an exception to that rule. The 11.6-inch screen is thin and light enough -- a third of an inch and 25 ounces -- so you can use it about as comfortably as a full-size iPad. (The Samsung used as a tablet weighs about two pounds.)
It accomplishes this by using two batteries, one in the screen and the other in the keyboard, thus reducing the weight when the screen is used alone as a tablet. And while the Envy’s screen isn’t a nice as the ATIV’s, it does have Beats Audio to add to the enjoyment of it as an entertainment device.
The seven-hour battery life for the tablet alone is better than the ATIV’s, but falls short not only of the iPad’s nine to 10 hours, but also the eight hours I coaxed from Microsoft’s Surface RT. In laptop mode, on the other hand, the Envy exceeds 10 hours, as its lack of processing power becomes a virtue.
The other big virtue is the cost: Hunt around a bit, and you’ll find deals that push it below $600. Prices like those make it easy to appreciate the Envy x2’s merits, and to forgive its shortcomings.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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