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A day with a Windows 8 laptop convertible: Keep the top up

CNET contributor Danny Sullivan's dream of a laptop that could turn into a tablet was spoiled by a glaring flaw: an inconsistent on-screen keyboard.

Lenovo Yoga 13

I'd done my research, having investigated major Windows 8 convertible laptops on the market. The one I'd settled on, the Lenovo Yoga 13, had arrived. So last week, I went cold turkey with it on a business trip, abandoning my MacBook Air to see if Windows 8 could deliver a product that was both tablet and laptop in one.

Short answer: no.

As I explained in my last column, I've long wished for a device with the "instant-on" ability of my MacBook Air but also one that could transform into a tablet, for those times when a keyboard is unnecessary. I'd been waiting for Windows 8 convertible laptops to arrive, to see if they could make my wish come true.

Last week, the Lenovo Yoga I ordered through Best Buy arrived just before a day-long business trip I had. I figured there would be no better way for me to get to know the device, and explore Windows 8 more, than to take it out for a spin.

The good news is how remarkably easy it has become to get moving on a new computer these days thanks to cloud-based services. Windows 8 pulled in my calendar and email with no trouble from my Google account. Data stored on both Microsoft's SkyDrive and Google Drive also synced in.

The only real heavy lifting was installing Office 2013 -- or Office 365 -- or whatever Microsoft is calling the version of Office after Office 2010. That wasn't too much trouble, other than the occasional scary warnings that the software couldn't be verified despite being downloaded directly from Microsoft. But in the end, it all worked.

Touchscreen laptops are nice!
Off I went for my day trip. The Lenovo Yoga is a nice little machine. It has a similar metal look to the MacBook Air, though that's let down by the actual material that feels plasticky or rubbery. Still, the most important thing was that in my backpack, it felt as light as my MacBook Air. That is, it felt like I was carrying nothing.

In the airport before my flight, the Yoga grabbed the wifi signal from my phone's hotspot and held it tight, something that my MacBook Air sometimes has trouble with. The 1600x900 screen resolution also let me see more than the 1440x900 on my MacBook Air. The text felt a bit uncomfortable to read at times, being smaller due to the higher resolution, but it's something I'd probably grow used to.

One thing in particular I found funny is that I'm a big pinch-to-zoom fan on my MacBook Air. Well, technically, stretch-to-zoom, using two fingers on the track pad to enlarge what I'm reading in a browser. I was happy to find this worked on the trackpad of the Lenovo; disappointed it didn't work as a gesture on the screen itself.

Postscript: As it turns out, stretch-to-zoom on the touchscreen works for IE 10; it doesn't work for Chrome; trackpad stretch-to-zoom works for both.

That leads to the biggest revelation of all, how much using a touchscreen laptop feels intuitive. I'd be reading something, want to scroll up, and it just felt more comfortable to touch the actual screen and push the story higher, rather that to use the trackpad to do it. But that's also why it felt so weird not to be able to use screen gestures to make the text bigger or smaller when browsing.

In other cases, touching the screen wasn't helpful, such as when I needed to close or resize a window. The elements were just to big for my fingers to hit them accurately -- but then, that's where the trackpad was useful.

As for Windows 8 itself, it still makes me miss Windows 7. But unlike with my Microsoft Surface, I was able to use desktop mode to run whatever I wanted, which made a big difference to my productivity. I also found taking advantage of menus like the Charms window to access search works so much better with a touchscreen display.

Taking the top down & not liking it
The big moment I'd been waiting for came when my flight was called to board. I was ready to amaze everyone around me. My keyboard easily flipped behind the screen, turning the Yoga into a big tablet. I got into line and kept reading a story in my browser. My new giant tablet didn't even feel heavy to hold. Look with envy, fellow travelers, at my amazing new device!

Disappointment soon followed. I wanted to read something else and needed to search for it. I tapped into to the browser's address window expecting the on-screen keyboard to appear, as would happen with a tablet. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I'd remembered something like this happening with my Surface, thinking at the time that maybe it was because I'd disconnected the keyboard, perhaps causing Surface to somehow think it was still on. Maybe the Lenovo was having the same issue? If so, that was odd, because when folded away, the keyboard automatically turns itself off, so you don't accidentally input when holding it in tablet mode.

The on-screen keyboard: Now you see it, now you don't
As it turns out, as I found exploring later after my trip, Windows 8 seems to be deeply flawed with how the on-screen keyboard operates when using the desktop in tablet mode. There seems to be no guessing when it will turn on.

Using Chrome, the only way to get the on-screen keyboard to work was to manually select it using a button in the task bar. That made it appear:

The illustration above gives you an idea of how this works, what the button looks like on the taskbar (a little keyboard) and how it makes a large keyboard appear.

I could also use this for other programs like Twhirl, my Twitter client. But it was fairly useless for that, given that the keyboard covered the actual text input area. I couldn't see what I was typing.

Outlook 2013 appears to be on-screen keyboard smart. For example, if I select an email to reply to and tap in the text area, the on-screen keyboard automatically appears, just as you'd expect and want.

Maybe that's because Outlook 2013 is also Windows 8-smart, unlike maybe Chrome? Not so. Take the case of Internet Explorer 10. When you run that within the "Metro" or "Modern" interface -- tile mode -- the on-screen keyboard appears when you need it.

But Internet Explorer doesn't support the on-screen keyboard when you're in desktop mode. Moreover, you might find the ability to use IE in tile mode won't work, if you use another browser like Chrome.

I discovered this after some digging. There's a way to set how IE runs, whether on the desktop or in tiles, as covered in this CNET story. But if IE isn't the default, you lose this option. The choice will be grayed out, and IE will only run as a desktop app:

That's stupid, and it's just one of many frustrations I have with IE and Windows 8, where it acts like two separate apps (desktop versus tile), yet at times, you have have to go into desktop mode to make tile mode operate as you'd like (such as the nightmare of dealing with favorites).

I tested this several times and don't see a way around it. I did hear from one person on Twitter who said it wasn't that case for them, so maybe others will have more luck. But even in desktop mode, IE ought to call on the on-screen keyword when necessary, not because you manually enabled it.

The rest of my day with the Yoga went well. It had fantastic battery life and was pretty responsive despite having less memory and a slower processor than my MacBook Air. I found the login screen sometimes caused delays, probably because Microsoft uses a network-based login tied to your Microsoft Account by default, rather than a local one (which is an option, if you want).

But at the end of the day, I can't say that the premium I paid for a convertible laptop was worth it. If you want a Windows 8 laptop, I think it's well worth getting one with a touchscreen. But I suspect others will find, like me, that trying to turn that laptop into a tablet may be a frustrating experience.

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