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My hunt for the perfect Windows 8 convertible laptop

What device offers the best blend between being a tablet and a full-fledged laptop? Common Sense Tech explores the possibilities.

One of the most exciting things about Windows 8 is the emergence of convertible laptops. They can be tablets! They can be laptops! I've wanted this type of device for ages, and I've been exploring the possibilities.

Ever since I got a MacBook Air about two years ago, it's left me disappointed in one key area. I wish there were times I could just use it like a tablet. Soon after getting it, I abandoned taking an iPad around on trips. There was no need. The MacBook Air gave me the same instant-on access to the Web that the iPad did. But that keyboard. I didn't always need it.

So when I first saw some of the Windows 8 convertibles recently, my eyes lit up. Could one of these be a replacement for my MacBook Air?

For me, it doesn't matter whether I use Mac OS or Windows. While I shifted to using the Mac full-time a few months ago, I'm perfectly happy working in a Windows environment. Instead, my chief purchasing criteria are display resolution and weight, followed by computing horsepower.

I want a device that shows me as much screen real estate (1440x900) as my current 13-inch MacBook Air does, that weighs just as little (2.96 pounds), and that has a fairly similar processor (Intel 1.8GHz i7), storage (256GB) and memory (4GB RAM). 

Suggestions from Microsoft

My first stop in exploration was the Microsoft Windows site. When I was there before Windows 8 launched, I found it disappointing in failing to give much guidance. Heck, I wrote an entire column bemoaning how bad it was. My, how things have changed for the better! Right in the middle of a home page is a big invitation to "Explore new PCs" along with a picture of exactly what I'm after, a convertible laptop:

Heading into the site, there's an entire area devoted to tablets and convertibles

There's a similar area, and one I felt was more useful, within the Microsoft Store. 

First elimination: Windows RT devices

Step one from here was to eliminate some of the candidates that look appealing, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11, because they are Windows RT.

I'm after a Windows 8 device. I already have a Microsoft Surface, which is Windows RT. That means I can't run the full range of Windows applications, as I ultimately want.

Round two: eliminate the "connectables"

Next, I had to eliminate what I call the "connectables." The Asus VivoTab is a good example of this (shown below is the Window RT version (review), similar to the Window 8 model).

Asus VivoTab

Sure, it converts into a laptop, if you slide-on a separate keyboard. I've used that type of keyboard with my Asus Transformer Prime. It's a pain to put on, and there's no easy flipping it away to shift into tablet mode.

Similarly, the HP Envy x2 (review) and the Samsung Ativ Smart PC (review) were both initially appealing to me until I realized they also had non-integrated keyboards.

Of the recommendations from the Windows site, only the Dell XPS 12 was left standing. However, I knew there were other options beyond this, thanks to having previously read CNET's own Windows 8: The complete new PC launch list. Here's my shortlist of convertibles I felt might do the job.

Dell XPS 12

Dell XPS 12

The Dell XPS 12 was the most appealing to me, at first. A screen that could rotate and close over the keyboard, in order to convert into a tablet, seemed to make a lot of sense. It offered more screen real estate (1920x1080) than my MacBook Air (though across a smaller screen, 12.5" vs 13.3"), and the base model's processor and solid-state hard drive both were upgradable to match. But at 3.35 pounds, it came in almost a half-pound heavier than my MacBook Air. The CNET review wasn't bad, but it wasn't that great, either. At a cost of $1,199 to $1,699, was there a better, lighter option?

Sony Vaio Duo

The Sony Vaio Duo was attractive as it's just a bit lighter than my MacBook Air, coming in, according to Sony, at 2.87 lbs. It only has an i5 processor, but it offered more screen real estate (1920x1080). As with the Duo, this is across a smaller physical screen of 11.6 inches than my Air has. Priced $1,099 to $1,499, it's slightly more affordable than the Dell. But the CNET review, I felt, was fairly disappointing, and I didn't like the idea that my screen would get locked to one angle.

Lenovo Yoga 13

Lenovo Yoga 13

The Lenovo Yoga 13 would probably be my top pick if it were available right now. There's lots to love with the specs. At 3.4 pounds, there's the same drawback with the Dell, in that it's about a half-pound heavier than the MacBook Air. But it has the same 13.3-inch screen as the Air and displays more on it (1600x900). It currently sells for $1,099 for the i5 processor version, going up to $1,299 if you want an i7 processor and $1,449 to increase storage from 128GB to 256GB. CNET's review was pretty positive. If you want a convertible laptop, this seems to be a standout. But you'll have to wait. Shipping is still more than 4 weeks off, according to the Lenovo web site.

Lenovo ThinkPad Twist

Lenovo ThinkPad Twist

Fortunately, if you can't wait, the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist gives its sibling convertible some serious competition. It's a tad heavier, at 3.5 pounds. The screen is smaller both physically (12.5") and in display resolution (1366x768). But currently selling for $1016 (through a Black Friday special), it comes with an i7 processor that you have to pay more for with the Yoga. Plus, it ships in about two weeks. I especially like the mini Display Port offered in addition to HDMI. CNET's initial hands-on review was also fairly positive. 

Microsoft Surface Pro

Microsoft Surface

I suspect I'm going to make the jump to the Twist now, so that I'm not waiting until after the new year to finally get to using a convertible Windows 8 laptop. But there remains one big unknown in making my final decision, the Microsoft Surface Pro. At only 2 pounds, it's much lighter than my MacBook Air or any of my candidates above.

Of course, it's also smaller, with a 10.6-inch screen. That's one issue that might put me off, despite the 1920x1080 display resolution. The cost remains unknown, but I'm guessing it will be below $1,000, which is a plus. Another plus is that the detachable keyboard technically makes it a connectable, but unlike those other connectables I mentioned above, there's nothing clunky involved. 

The detachable keyboard for my existing Microsoft Surface (the Windows RT version) is super light and folds back easily when I want to go into tablet mode. On the downside, there are times I wish the integrated kickstand would let the screen tilt back in more than one position.

Your needs may vary!

I'll leave off with one important caveat. I've spent a lot of time comparing convertibles to my MacBook Air because my desire is to have a laptop that's like my Air, with a 13-inch screen, that also could turn into a tablet.

Those happy with an 11-inch screen, or those who have no interest in a convertible laptop at all, have many more options to choose from among the many Windows 8 machines out there. But I hope this has been a useful guide to sizing up some of the convertibles available, as least as much as I can assess them from afar.

Postscript: See my follow-up story, A day with a Windows 8 laptop convertible: Keep the top up.