Laptop or hybrid: 6 questions you need to ask

Decision time: laptop or hybrid?

Before buying a device to help you work smarter when you’re away from the office, you'll need to answer six important questions.

Confused about which laptop to buy? That’s understandable, because the laptop market is now more diverse than it’s ever been.

At one end of the market are the likes of Apple, which is sticking steadfastly to the classic notebook design with its MacBook range.

At the other end are 2-in-1 hybrid devices, such as Microsoft’s Surface family, that aim to combine the benefits of a tablet and a notebook.

In between is a huge array of devices with different designs, sizes and prices.

Answering these six key questions will help you choose the best device for your needs.

What type of device do you prefer?

Beyond the classic notebook, 2-in-1 hybrids use a variety of mechanisms to transform from tablet to laptop, but basically they boil down to two types:
  • tablet-style hybrids with detachable or attachable keyboards and the main computer components housed behind the screen
  • laptop-style hybrids where the keyboard folds back 360 degrees and the components are under the keyboard

Being able to remove the keyboard means that the tablet-style hybrids are generally lighter than laptop-style models and more suitable for use as a tablet. However, they also tend to have compromises that can make them less usable as laptops. 

Microsoft Surface ProTheir thin keyboard attachments, for example, often mean they have shorter keystrokes and fewer usable trackpads than typical notebooks. Performance is another frequent compromise, due to the challenges of cramming components into a tablet-sized device.

Fold-back hybrids generally don’t have these compromises, but because the keyboard can’t be removed, they’re typically too heavy to hold like a tablet for any length of time. Really, these are best thought of as laptops whose flip-over screens allow them to be used in a few different ways. 

The caveat here is that there’s so much variation in each of these categories. Some tablet-style models, such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro, have done a very good job of minimising the compromises. While the Surface Book has a detachable keyboard, its 13.5-inch screen and high-end components make it a very good laptop but on the large side for a tablet.

How much will you really use a hybrid as a tablet?

It’s easy to get caught up with the cool factor of hybrids. However, if you’ll mostly be using it for work, a standard notebook or laptop-style hybrid might be the best option. Either way, it’s important to try a device in store before buying it, paying particular attention to the keyboard and trackpad.

If you intend to mostly use it as a tablet, however, then a tablet-style hybrid makes more sense. Don’t discount the option of adding a keyboard to a tablet, such as Apple’s Smart Keyboard for an iPad Pro. If you can’t find a keyboard designed for your particular tablet, the likes of Logitech’s Multi-Device keyboard (under A$70) can be a low-cost solution.

What size is best for you?

Clever design can reduce things such as overall thickness, but, ultimately, choosing the right size for you means finding the suitable compromise between screen size and portability.

Ultra-high-resolution screens – Quad HD (2560 x 1440 pixels) or 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels), for example – can be stunning, but they suck more power, and resolution isn’t the only indication of a good display to look at. Ultimately, you need to check out the screen yourself, paying attention to such things as the text size, to ensure it’s right for you.

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Which applications do you use?

Watch out for entry-level ultraportable laptops and hybrids, which often come with just 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and a low-power Intel Celeron processor. They’re fine for basics such as note-taking and cloud apps, but not much else. If you use more powerful applications or like to multi-task programs, you’ll need at least 4GB of RAM but ideally 8GB.

If performance is important to you, you won’t go wrong with Intel’s latest (sixth) generation of Core i3, i5 and i7 processors (in ascending order of performance). However, Intel’s Core m3, m5 and m7 range provides a good compromise between speed and power efficiency – they’re typically used in higher-end hybrids and ultraportable laptops.

The type of storage also makes a big difference, with solid state drives (SSDs) significantly faster and lighter than traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) – although they usually require a compromise in storage capacity.

On top all this, whether your preferred applications run on Windows or MacOS will also have a big bearing on the device you choose.

What’s your budget?

As always, spending more means fewer compromises – if you choose wisely. Even A$100 more can make a big difference. For example, for Dell’s Vostro 15 3000 range of small business laptops, increasing your budget from A$799 to A$899 doubles the HDD storage to 1TB and ups the processor to an Intel Core i5.

However, you’ll need to fork out considerably more for good hybrids. For example, Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Surface Book are priced from A$1349 and A$2299 respectively.

How much do you value portability?

If you have modest performance and storage needs, an entry-level hybrid or ultraportable such as HP’s sub-A$400 Stream 11 might do.

A Chromebook with Google’s Chrome operating system is another lightweight budget option for those who mostly work online. 

However, if you want decent performance and portability, you’ll have to pay a lot more. For example, pricing for Apple’s incredibly lightweight (sub-1kg) MacBook starts at A$1999, as does the slightly larger but better-performing Dell XPS 13 – and both offer all-day battery life. 

At a glance

Apple MacBook: a traditional, but incredibly light 12-inch notebook.
Dell XPS 13: packs a lot of power in an ultra-slim 13-inch notebook.
Apple Smart Keyboard: makes the iPad Pro more suitable for long-form writing.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4: a hybrid with few compromises.
Dell Vostro 15 3000: plenty of power and storage for under A$900.
Microsoft Surface Book: a high-end hybrid at a premium price.
HP Stream 11: a sub-A$400 laptop for those with modest needs.

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