When you think of cheap Windows tablets, the Microsoft Surface 2 (Est. $450 and up) might come to mind. However, that tablet uses a less capable version of Windows, called Windows RT, which runs Microsoft products like Windows Office, apps available through the undersized Microsoft Apps store and not much else. We cover the Surface 2 more fully in our report on tablet computers.
Until recently, Windows tablets and convertible laptops -- devices that can be used as either a tablet or a conventional laptop -- that instead ran the full version of that operating system were pricey affairs. Some examples can be found in our report on laptops. Now, however, there are a handful of convertible laptops and pure slates that cost less than $850 and run a full version of Windows, and some offer the full Windows experience yet cost less than the relatively limited Surface 2.
The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11S (Est. $750 and up) debuted to fairly strong reviews, even though it ran already outdated third-generation Core processors. It features the same 360-degree hinge used in other Yoga convertibles. It is equally at home as a touch-screen Ultrabook laptop or folded back in three additional positions, including one that lets it serve as a Windows 8 tablet.
The reliance on an older-technology processor is an issue in many reviews, as battery life is short and the Ultrabook runs hot. "The underside of the Yoga 11S becomes noticeably warm when you're doing anything but basic Web browsing -- not enough to make you scream in pain, but enough to make you notice and to ponder the wisdom of leaving it on your lap," says Brad Chacos at PC World. Performance is mediocre, he adds, although it's still plenty powerful enough for everyday computing. CNET largely agrees, but can't help complaining throughout its review about the outdated technology; Dan Ackerman says it's the only thing keeping him from giving the Yoga 11S an "unreserved recommendation."
If you buy the IdeaPad Yoga 11S from Lenovo or via most retail channels, the reviewed version with the older Intel CPU is what you will get. However, Lenovo has also released an updated version of the convertible laptop with an upgrade to a fourth-generation Haswell Intel Core i5-4210Y processor, plus the improved graphics and battery performance that comes with it. It is only available at Best Buy, and in only one configuration, although you can upgrade and modify the older Yoga 11S almost to your heart's content at Lenovo's site. The Lenovo Yoga IdeaPad 11S - 59385438 (Est. $800) has an 11.6-inch multitouch display with a 1,366 by 768 resolution, 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. We didn't spot any professional reviews for it, but it gets solid feedback from BestBuy.com users.
Among cheaper hybrid laptop/tablets, there are some strong expert recommendations for the Asus Transformer Book T100 (Est. $340 and up), including Editors' Choice awards at PCMag.com and ComputerShopper.com. It's available in two configurations -- the T100TA-B1-GR (Est. $340) with 32 GB of flash storage and the more widely praised AsusTransformer Book T100TA-C1-GR (Est. $400) , which has 64 GB. User reviews also tilt positive but are a little more mixed, and some build quality/durability issues are raised. Still, the T100 has sold so well that availability at retail was extremely limited at the time of this report, although it is creeping back in stock via some vendors.
The Asus T100 might look like a rehash of yesterday's netbook with its small form factor and Intel Atom CPU, but a closer examination reveals so much more. First, this isn't yesterday's Atom processor. Instead, it's a quad core 1.33 GHz Intel Atom Z3740 that's built using Intel's new Bay Trail technology. Can that deliver the processing power of the latest Intel Haswell Core processors? No, but it doesn't fall that far short, at least for everyday computing, according to reports and testing. It also "obliterates" the performance marks set by the previous-generation Atom processors, PCMag.com says. Battery life is top shelf: an "epic" 12 hours and 28 minutes in tests by Laptop Magazine.
The T100 is a convertible device that fills two useful roles. First, it's an ultra-cheap laptop that's more than capable enough for everyday productivity, as long as the netbook-small keyboard works for you, and that's the T100's biggest downside in many reviews. To sweeten the productivity pot, Asus throws in a free copy of Microsoft Office Student Edition. That's one reason most say to opt for the T100TA-C1-GR configuration with 64 GB of memory; once Office is installed, there's not much storage left for other apps and data with the 32 GB version.
Undock the display from the keyboard -- the mechanical docking mechanism works well, most say -- and the Transformer Book T100 is a fully independent, fully functional Windows 8 tablet. It's one of the lighter 10-inch slates around, says Laptop Magazine, although most add that the 10-inch form factor is a little hard to hold for extended periods. The display supports only five-point touch rather than 10-point, but most reviewers don't ding the T100 too much for that. All say response is smooth, which makes up a bit for a touchpad in laptop mode that all agree is unresponsive and annoying to use. There's decent connectivity: You'll find micro USB and micro HDMI on the slate, as well as a headphone jack and a microSD card reader. The dock/keyboard has a full-sized USB 3.0 port.
While the T100 gets a lot of reviewer kudos, it's not the only Bay Trail device out there, and you can expect to see many more over the coming year. For example, the Dell Venue 8 Pro (Est. $300 and up) doesn't quite get the praise that the T100 receives, especially when value is discussed, but it does hold its own in terms of respect and recommendations. The Venue 8 Pro is an 8-inch Windows tablet that runs the full version of Windows 8.1. There's no dock, but it plays well with Bluetooth keyboards available from other vendors, and Dell offers a $100 case and wireless keyboard combo that, in practical terms, fills the same functions.
This Dell tablet is also powered by a Bay Trail Intel Atom Z3740, this time clocked at 1.8 GHz. That costs it a bit of battery life compared to the T100 -- although you'll still have enough juice to run all day -- but provides slightly faster performance in most real-world tasks. The base version is equipped with 32 GB of flash storage. If you plan to keep the included copy of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 on the tablet, opt for the $50 upgrade to get the 64 GB version instead. The memory complement is 2 GB.
Connectivity is more basic than with the T100, with just a micro USB port and a microSD card slot, and the lack of an HDMI output is disappointing to more than one reviewer. Its display is in the same resolution class as the T100 at 1,200 by 800 pixels, but the Venue 8 Pro looks a little crisper thanks to a smaller screen size. It also supports 10-point touch. One frequently noted negative is an over-aggressive auto-brightness function, which reports say has been fixed in a patch that was pushed out after most reviews were written. Otherwise, the simple fix is to just disable auto brightness. The only other significant downside is a poorly placed Windows button.