Laptops

3 Convertible Tablets That Mean Business

Apple's iPad has gotten off to one of the fastest starts ever for a computer platform, selling a million units in its first month and still going strong. Sure, it's thin, sexy and -- starting at $500 -- relatively affordable, but it's less useful for business users who need to create and/or extensively edit professional documents such as reports, spreadsheets or presentations using a regular keyboard and familiar applications.

"The iPad has made a big splash," says Angela McIntyre, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "But it's not the only game in town. Convertible tablets make more sense for businesses wanting to take advantage of both the pen and keyboard."

Convertible tablets have two personalities. As with a traditional notebook, a convertible has a mechanical keyboard and hinged screen. The difference lies in the convertible's special hinge, which sits in the center of the system's back and allows the touch screen to be rotated and folded down onto the keyboard to create a tablet. Hardware buttons around the screen provide shortcuts or mimic the action of some of the more popular keys.

In other words, a convertible tablet provides both the best of both worlds: a powerful laptop that turns into a responsive touch-screen tablet.

There are trade-offs to choosing a convertible tablet over an iPad. Convertibles are thicker, heavier and cost about three times as much as an iPad. But when you have to type a report or create a complex spreadsheet, there's no substitute for a mechanical keyboard. In my experience, a screen-based virtual keyboard, which lacks the feedback of mechanical keys, just doesn't cut it.

Sure, you could carry around a separate Bluetooth keyboard to use with the iPad, but convertibles provide everything you need in one device. And there are other features that distinguish convertible tablets from dedicated tablets such as the iPad.

To begin with, just about every convertible these days can be used with a finger or a pen, while the iPad responds only to finger action. While it's cool to draw with your fingers, there's nothing like having a precise stylus when sketching a map or roughing out an electronic diagram.

In addition, most convertibles are equipped with webcams for videoconferences, and they can play Flash video and let you swap batteries without mailing the system back to the manufacturer. (See chart below for Convertible Tablet - Specs )

Plus, the iPad's operating system is based on Apple's iPhone operating system, and that's a double-edged sword. It provides access to an ever-widening library of apps, many of which are free -- but the unit currently can't multitask and doesn't offer some of the business software that many companies require, such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop.

So, thinking of companies that need tablets that do more than the iPad, I looked at three of the newest convertible tablet PCs: the Fujitsu LifeBook T900, the Hewlett-Packard EliteBook 2740p and the Toshiba Portege M780 -- to see how they stack up against one another.

Fujitsu LifeBook T900

Big and bold, the Fujitsu LifeBook T900 is built around a screen that's more than twice as big as the iPad's and is clearly designed for people who have to use both graphics and type.

The LifeBook T900 has a plastic case and a magnesium lid, which is more stable than the Portege M780's case, particularly around the screen bezel. The T900 is the largest of the three units reviewed here, at 1.5 by 9.5 by 12.5 in. It weighs 5.1 lbs. and hits the road with its AC adapter at 5.8 lbs., making it the heaviest of all the three models, too.

Like the others, the LifeBook T900 uses Intel's GMA HD graphics technology and offers 1280 x 800 maximum resolution. Its 13.3-in. display offers 35% more viewable space than the 12.1-in. screens found on the other models I reviewed.

The LifeBook doesn't offer niceties like the EliteBook's keyboard light, but of the three notebooks reviewed here, its 19.5mm keys are the largest and most comfortable to type on. Above the screen is a 2-megapixel camera, but its ability to take pictures is compromised a bit because the display lid wobbles if you bump it when the unit's in laptop mode. The Portege M780 has a similar problem.

Inside, the LifeBook includes Intel's 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5-520M vPro processor, which can run as high as 2.93 GHz when needed. The review model came with a 160GB hard drive and just 2GB of RAM; upgrading to a 320GB drive and 4GB of RAM adds $220 to the $1,889 base price. A DVD read/write multidrive is standard equipment.

While the screen can be smoothly rotated and opened when it's time to type, the LifeBook has an awkward clip at the top of the screen that needs to be flipped over to fully close the system or to lock the display in tablet mode.

With the screen sunk about 0.05-in. below the tablet's bezel, the LifeBook T900 is a little more awkward to write and draw on than the EliteBook's flush screen. The display is quick to respond and reliably translated pen or finger motions. It works well with two-finger moves like spinning the forefinger around the thumb to rotate an image.

There's a place to stash the pen on the side of the system, and the pen can be tethered to the machine. The stylus itself is larger than the EliteBook's but smaller than the Portege's. The LifeBook T900 was able to get me to all 10 of the Web addresses that I wrote on the handwriting interface.

Along one side of the bezel is a control panel with five buttons that emulate the Tab, Shift and Enter keys, plus others (using a separate function button). In addition, you can press a button to rotate between landscape and portrait orientations. Like the other tablets in this group, it doesn't automatically rotate the screen's orientation as you move it.

For security purposes, you can set the control panel so that it requires anyone who wants to use the system to enter a sequence of numbers (each button is also numbered). The LifeBook T900 also has a smart card reader and a fingerprint scanner.

On the other side of the bezel is what Fujitsu calls a Scroll Sensor, which is like a touchpad but only works up and down. It offers more precise control than using the touchscreen alone, and it can help users quickly fly through Web pages and long documents. I prefer the Cross-Function button that's on the Portege M780, however, which can work horizontally and vertically.

The LifeBook's 5200mAh (milliampere-hour) battery was able to run for three hours and 11 minutes, twice as long as that of the EliteBook 2740p.

The LifeBook T900 comes with a dial-up modem as well as Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth and 80211a/b/g/n Wi-Fi; the wireless had a disappointing range of only 90 feet, the shortest of the three. An optional AT&T 3G module costs $125.

Around the edge of the system are a reasonable assortment of ports, including three USB ports, a connection for an external monitor, headphone and microphone jacks, FireWire and ExpressCard ports and a flash card reader.

Like the others in this roundup, the LifeBook T900 comes with Windows 7 Professional. The LifeBook's standard warranty covers the machine for just one year, whereas the EliteBook and Portege models I reviewed have three-year warranties.

The LifeBook T900 starts at $1,889; the unit I reviewed sells for $1,989. While it's the biggest and heaviest of the three machines reviewed here, the LifeBook is a fully equipped business travel computer that is just as good for typing as it is for drawing or scribbling.

HP EliteBook 2740p

The smallest convertible tablet of the three, HP's EliteBook 2740p squeezes a lot of computer into a small, rugged case.

The EliteBook 2740p's matte silver case is a step up from the other two tablets. It's constructed of magnesium and aluminum, and HP put it through some of the Mil Std 810G tests used for military computers (although that doesn't include the all-important drop tests). At 1.3 by 8.9 by 11.4 in. and weighing 3.9 lbs. (4.8 lbs. with the AC adapter), the EliteBook convertible is the thinnest and lightest of the three convertibles reviewed here -- but it's still more than twice as heavy as the 1.5-lb. iPad.

One reason the EliteBook is so light is because it doesn't come with an optical drive. Otherwise, it's as well equipped as the other tablets, featuring three USB ports, an external monitor connection, headphone, microphone, FireWire and ExpressCard ports, and a flash card reader. For security, it has a smart card reader and a fingerprint scanner, like the LifeBook T900, but unlike the Portege M780, it doesn't have an e-SATA port.

Other features include a 2-megapixel camera, a modem and Gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth. Its 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi had a range of 100 feet. The EliteBook 2740p also offers something that the iPad can't: An optional Gobi mobile broadband card that can use AT&T, Sprint or Verizon Wireless networks and includes GPS mapping; it costs $125.

Like the other models, the EliteBook 2740p uses Intel's GMA HD graphics technology. Its 12.1-in. display offers maximum resolution of 1280 x 800.

The EliteBook 2740p has the best latch of the three convertibles, and when it's time to move from tablet to notebook, the screen rotates smoothly and opens to reveal a responsive keyboard with 19.2mm keys. It's the only one of the three that has a keyboard equipped with both a touchpad and a pointing stick. It also has an unusual but very effective pop-out LED lamp for those who work late.

The display on the EliteBook 2740p is flush with the surface of the case, whereas the other two have awkwardly recessed screens. This makes it more comfortable for writing, drawing or doodling through a long meeting. The EliteBook has a convenient pop-out place to store its pen, which can be tethered to the case, but its pen is the smallest of the three and is less comfortable to use.

Whether I was writing a Web URL or sketching a geometric figure, the touch display was responsive and kept up with fast finger or stylus movements.

The EliteBook is able to handle multitouch gestures, like spreading your thumb and forefinger on a Web page to zoom out. It also handles precise movements well -- when I used the pen, the EliteBook 2740p was able to correctly take me to nine out of the 10 Web addresses I hand-wrote on the entry window. It was tripped up only by the National Weather Service's forecast site; it took me three tries to get to that site.

On the downside, the EliteBook 2740p lacks the variety of controls and buttons that the Portege M780 and LifeBook T900 have when they're in tablet mode, although it does have buttons on the side for opening up a Web browser and an e-mail client, and one that mimics the Escape key.

The EliteBook also includes a lever called the jog dial that you press up or down to scroll through a document or Web page. A button on the edge of the display lets you rotate the screen's orientation; like the other convertibles in this roundup, the EliteBook lacks the iPad's ability to automatically rotate the screen as it's turned between portrait and landscape modes.

The EliteBook 2740p's Intel Core i5-540M processor runs at 2.53 GHz, but can sprint to 3.06 GHz if necessary. The review unit came with 4GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive.

Its six-cell 3960mAh battery pack ran for a disappointing 1 hour and 33 minutes in my battery tests.

Equipped with Windows 7 Professional, a basic EliteBook 2740p with 2GB RAM and a 160GB hard drive can be had for $1,599, making it a bargain-basement convertible. Even at $100 more, the unit I looked at is a good deal. It comes with a three-year warranty.

The EliteBook 2740p functions just as well as a traditional notebook as it does as a tablet; it's the one to get if size, weight and performance matter more than battery life (and if you don't need an optical drive) .

Toshiba Portege M780

Toshiba's Portege M780 sits comfortably in the middle of the other two tablets when it comes to performance, battery life, size and what it offers to business users.

At 1.6 by 9.4 by 12.0 in., the Portege M780 is the thickest of the three convertibles. It's bigger than the EliteBook 2740p (which doesn't have a DVD drive) and smaller than the LifeBook T900 (which has a larger screen). It weighs 4.4 lbs. and with its AC adapter travels at 5.1 lbs., which is 10 oz. lighter than the LifeBook T900

As a traditional keyboard-centric notebook, the Portege M780 has 19mm keys that are smaller than the keys on the other two models. It doesn't have a pop-out night light, but it does have a handy volume thumbwheel. Above the screen is a 1.3-megapixel webcam. Like the LifeBook, the Portege's screen lid wobbles when it's set up as a notebook, and the bezel around the display flexes too much for my taste.

The 12.1-in. display matches the EliteBook 2740p's screen in terms of size and resolution; both notebooks use the same Intel GMA HD graphics engine.

The screen rotates freely and folds flat in a matter of seconds to transform the unit from a notebook to a tablet. The Portege M780 doesn't have a latch, so it's easier to open and close than the others, but its screen lid can't be locked in place as securely. I prefer the positive action of the latch on the EliteBook 2740p, which locks the lid firmly in place.

With the screen 0.07 in. below the surface of the bezel, I found it a bit more awkward to draw and write on the Portege M780's screen than on the EliteBook 2740p's flush display. Regardless of whether you're using your finger or the included stylus, the Portege M780's Wacom digitizer reacts quickly and smoothly to input, but the system doesn't support multitouch gestures.

Like the LifeBook T900, the Portege M780 has a row of buttons next to the screen to help when it's in tablet mode. It has switches for getting to the Task Manager screen, bringing up Toshiba's Assist menu, setting it up for an external monitor or projector and rotating the screen. Like the others, it doesn't automatically re-orient its screen if it's moved from portrait to landscape mode or vice versa.

Toshiba offers another button as well -- the oddly named Cross-Function button is a gem that can help make interacting with the Portege M780's touchscreen more intuitive and natural. It's a pressure-sensitive nub that can control the pointer and activate a selection with a press. It's more useful than Fujitsu's Scroll Sensor or the EliteBook 2740p's jog dial lever because it isn't restricted to just up and down. And you can lock the buttons so you don't accidentally hit the wrong one while you're working.

The $1,699 Portege M780 review unit included 3GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, a DVD Multi optical drive and a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5-520 processor that can speed up to 2.93 GHz when needed. There's also a $1,399 model with a Core i3 processor and a $1,799 model with a Core i7 processor along with 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. A base configurable unit starts at $1,329.

The system did well, if not spectacularly, as far as battery life was concerned: at 2 hours and 35 minutes, it fell between the other two models I tested.

For security-conscious users, the Portege M780 has a fingerprint scanner. There's a good assortment of ports around the edge, including three USB ports (one of which doubles as an e-SATA connector), a connection for an external monitor, headphone and microphone jacks, FireWire and ExpressCard ports, and a flash card reader. (However, unlike that the EliteBook 2740p and LifeBook T900, it lacks a SmartCard reader.) It has a dial-up modem, Ethernet and 802.11a/g/n wireless networking. In my tests, the Wi-Fi had a range of 95 feet. Unlike the other two, this system doesn't have an optional 3G modem.

The Portege M780 includes Windows 7 Professional and comes with a three-year warranty.

In terms of size, weight, performance and battery life, the Portege M780 is middle of the road between the minimalist EliteBook 2740p and the larger LifeBook T900. If you want a good, all-round tablet PC, the Portege M780 does the trick.

Conclusions

Because of its small size and low price, the HP EliteBook 2740p is the tablet that I'd get for myself. When it comes down to it, I really don't use a DVD drive all that often on the road. I really like its flush screen, its performance and, especially, its three-year warranty. My only qualm is its disappointing battery life, but you can address that by using some aggressive power management settings and by packing a second battery.

The LifeBook T900 and Portege M780 are both fine systems, but they are much bigger and heavier. If you absolutely have to have an optical drive, either of these two would be a great addition to your mobile fleet.

How we tested

I used each system for two to three weeks, evaluated them side by side and used both their keyboards and pens in a work environment. I took each one with me on a short business trip, using it as my primary computer on the road.

After weighing and measuring each in tablet mode, I loaded the PassMark PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark test suite, ran it three times and averaged the results. The software tests the major components of the system -- including processor, hard drive, 2D and 3D graphics and memory -- and compiles the results into a single score that represents each tablet's performance potential. (See chart below for Convertible Tablet: Performances )

To see how precise and responsive the pens and digitizers are, I drew a simple map on the screen of each using the Paint program. Then, I tried out several two-finger gestures and handwrote 10 Web addresses into the input window and recorded how many worked.

I tested each machine's battery life by setting the system up on my Wi-Fi network, tuning in an Internet radio station and adjusting the volume and screen brightness to three quarters. With PassMark's Battery Monitor software running, I then unplugged the system and let it run down.

Finally, I rated the Wi-Fi range of each by walking away from the router with an Internet radio station playing. I marked the distance at which the system lost its connection with the server and recorded that as the unit's Wi-Fi range.

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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