4 Windows tablet/keyboard combos take on the Surface Pro

4 Windows tablet/keyboard combos take on the Surface Pro

Microsoft's Surface Pro can be used as both a tablet and a laptop. We test four devices from Acer, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba that make the same claim.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 has gotten a lot of attention as a way to bridge the gap between tablets and traditional notebooks. Its snap-on keyboard and pull-out rear stand tries to offer the best of both worlds, but with a 12-in. screen and weighing 1.8 lbs. (without its keyboard cover), the Surface Pro is not as light as it could be, particularly for nomadic workers. And starting at $800 for a system equipped with an Intel i3 with 64GB plus $130 for the Type Cover, it is not an inexpensive system.

If you're looking for a Windows-based tablet that can also be used as a laptop -- especially if you don't need a powerhouse -- there are cheaper and lighter alternatives. The latest 10.1-inch Windows tablets have smaller screens and less impressive performance, but they weigh roughly half a pound less and just might offer the best balance today between power and portability.

Plus, with an add-on keyboard case, a small tablet has the ability to transform from an entertainment medium into something approximating a traditional notebook.

To see what the state-of-the-art in this area entails, I gathered four of the latest 10.1-inch Windows tablets from Acer, HP, Lenovo and Toshiba. They offer a variety of techniques for transforming a tablet into a keyboard-centric system.

Acer's Aspire Switch 10 has a hinged keyboard that snaps onto the tablet, allowing the screen to be set at just about any angle. It can work in any of four computing profiles, from notebook and tablet to tent and presentation orientation. The HP ElitePad 1000 G2 and the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 have more traditional attachable keyboards, while the Toshiba Encore 2 has a case that's practically an exercise in the art of origami, folding into an easel stand that holds the tablet in place above its keyboard.

Each the four is a full Windows 8.1 tablet. Each has a 10.1-in. screen, an Intel Atom processor and SSD storage; each also provides the minimum gear for business use, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a security-conscious Trusted Platform Module.

Acer Aspire Switch 10

Versatility is the watchword for Acer's Aspire Switch 10, a tablet that has four distinct personalities.

The tablet comes with a snap-on keyboard that transforms it into a traditional mini-notebook. Just place the tablet about an inch over the keyboard's connector and the two are drawn together by magnets, creating a single unit.

If you want to show something on-screen to colleagues, you can pull the screen free, flip it around and reattach it, creating a presentation machine for a small group while still keeping the keyboard available. The whole system can also be turned over and set up in tent orientation to watch a video hands-free. None of the others reviewed here matches this variety of computing personalities.

On its own, the tablet weighs 1.3 lb. and is well balanced. At 0.4 x 10.3 x 7.0 in., it falls between the thicker and heavier HP ElitePad 1000 and the svelte Toshiba Encore 2. The gray and silver device is made of sturdy aluminum and has rounded corners.

With the keyboard attached, it feels a little chunkier at 0.8 x 10.3 x 7.6 in. and 2.4 lb. It has 17.5-millimeter keys that are a little too close together; they include brightness and volume keys as well as a large touchpad.

Unlike the others covered here, when the keyboard is attached to the Switch 10, the screen's angle is adjustable, just like, well, a notebook. I did find that, once I went beyond 135 degrees, it tipped over. Still, it is the only system of the four to work equally well on a desk and a lap.

The 10.1-in. screen has 1366 x 768 resolution, putting it on a par with the less expensive Encore 2, but with about half as many pixels as the WUXGA screens on the Lenovo ThinkPad 10 and Toshibai ElitePad 2. At 300 candelas per square meter, it wasn't the brightest of the four, but displayed the richest colors.

With speakers at the base of the tablet's front, the Switch 10's audio sounded much sharper, fuller and louder than the others, regardless of whether it was on its own or connected to its keyboard.

Rather than the expected pair of cameras, the system has a single front-facing HD webcam that can capture 2-megapixel images. That's fine for Skype and other video communications apps, but some users may miss the ability to take other types of photos or videos.

In addition to a Windows Key button at the bottom of the screen, the Switch 10 has an on/off button and a control for raising and lowering the volume on the side. Unlike some of its peers, it doesn't have a physical screen-lock to keep the display from automatically rotating its orientation when turned.

The Switch 10 has a micro-HDMI port for use with a monitor or projector, a micro-USB port and an audio jack, but it uses a proprietary plug for actually powering the system. The keyboard adds a full-sized USB 2.0 port.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are, of course built in. On the down side, Acer doesn't offer any mobile cellular network data options.

The Switch 10 has an Intel Atom Z3745 processor that runs at between 1.3GHz and 1.9GHz, slower than the CPUs used in the HP ElitePad 1000 and Lenovo ThinkPad 10 systems. The $430 model I tested includes the keyboard as well as 2GB of RAM and 64GB of SSD storage. Acer also sells a $380 version with 32GB of storage and .

Like the other tablets reviewed here, the Switch 10 includes Windows 8.1 and a one-year warranty, but adds a copy of Microsoft's Office Home & Student 2013.

Overall, the Switch 10 was a reliable system, with a PerformanceTest score of 518.4, putting it in the middle of the pack compared to the faster HP ElitePad 1000 and slower Toshiba Encore 2. The system's battery ran for 5 hours and 2 minutes on a charge with nonstop playing videos from a USB drive. That's the shortest of the crew, but should translate into at least a full day of work.

For the price, the Acer Switch 10 offers a solid and versatile tablet/keyboard combination that can assume a wide variety of different computing personalities at work, on the road or at home.

HP ElitePad 1000 G2

HP's ElitePad 1000 G2 is the rare computer that excels at both performance and battery life.

However, you do pay a price: At 1.4 lb., the aluminum ElitePad is the heaviest of this group; using the tablet in your hand can feel cumbersome after just a few minutes. Its 0.4 x 10.2 x 6.8-in. dimensions mean that it's larger and thicker than the Toshiba Encore 2, but its gently rounded corners and the strip of soft plastic along the top make it easier to carry and pack.

The black and silver ElitePad tablet can be turned into a mini-notebook using the optional Productivity Jacket ($199) that provides a protective cover along with a keyboard.

Unfortunately, when you attach the tablet to the Jacket's keyboard, it is held in place by a rigid plastic trough slightly above the keyboard and a flexible lip that runs around the edge of the keyboard's lid. It felt like I needed three hands to get the tablet in and out of the Jacket. After some effort and practice, however, I got used to it. While the keyboard/tablet combination was rock solid on a desk, the set-up was a bit unwieldy on my lap.

With its Productivity Jacket, the ElitePad takes up 0.9 x 10.5 x 8.4 in. and weighs a relatively hefty 3 lb. -- around twice the weight of the ElitePad without the Jacket. The 17.5-millimeter keys felt a little cramped when I was typing, but the strangest thing about the keyboard is that lacks a touchpad. It does have keys for multimedia control and volume.

While the keyboard case doesn't allow you to set the display at any angle, as is possible with the Acer Aspire Switch 10, it can sit at 95 degrees, 110 degrees or 120 degrees.

The display offers 1920 x 1200 resolution, the same as the Lenovo ThinkPad 10's screen. It delivers 305 lumens of light, slightly brighter than the Acer Aspire Switch 10, but duller than the ThinkPad's display. I felt that the ElitePad's colors weren't as rich and vivid as the Switch 10's lower-resolution display.

If you want to do more exacting work than you can with your fingers, HP sells the $49 Executive Tablet Pen G2, a stylus that is sensitive to 256 levels of pressure. While there's no place on the tablet itself to stow the pen, the case has a fabric loop that a lanyard can be tied to.

Holding the slate horizontally, the speakers are located at edge of the two lower corners and aim the audio straight down. The sound sounded hollow and, when the tablet was in the keyboard case, muffled.

The ElitePad comes with both back and front cameras that can take 8-megapixel and 2.1-megapixel images, respectively.

There's a Windows Key button on the front of the tablet below the screen; an on/off button and a screen-lock switch are located on the edges. The volume rocker is on the back of the tablet, close to one edge, so you can use it while holding the tablet.

If you use a lot of external gadgets, be aware that the ElitePad skimps on ports. It has only an audio port and a proprietary power port; it comes with an adapter that converts the proprietary port into a USB port. There is also a $49 HDMI/VGA adapter available for an external display. The keyboard case itself adds a pair of USB 2.0 ports and an SD card slot.

The ElitePad is one of the best-equipped tablets I've seen. Like the Lenovo ThinkPad 10, its Atom Z3795 processor runs at 1.6GHz, but can sprint to 2.4GHz. The model I looked at came with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. It includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

HP sells an entry-level ElitePad 1000 G2 for $739 with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The review unit was a top-of-the-line model with 128GB of storage and a module for connecting to an HSDPA+-based network and GPS; it costs $1,469. (HP also sells an LTE-based version.) Without the GPS and with LTE broadband, the same tablet is priced at $1,009.

Not unexpectedly, the higher-end ElitePad was the screamer of the group with a PerformanceTest 8 score of 645.0, 28% faster than the Toshiba Encore 2. While that alone might be enough to set the ElitePad apart from the crowd, it was able to continuously play HD videos from a USB drive on battery power for 6 hours and 20 minutes, the longest of the bunch. That should be more than enough for a full day of work and a few hours left over to watch a movie online.

The system comes with a one-year warranty, Windows 8.1 and HP's Trust Circles, software that balances collaboration with security.

In other words, if what you care about is having the utmost in Windows tablet performance and battery life (and can afford it), look no further than the ElitePad 1000 G2.

Lenovo ThinkPad 10

For those who use ThinkPad notebooks every day at work, the ThinkPad 10 tablet will seem like a long-lost friend. The styling -- corporate black with a couple of red touches -- is immediately recognizable as a ThinkPad. It has a good mix of performance and battery life, and offers an excellent array of accessories.

The ThinkPad 10 tablet snaps into a groove in the tablet's optional $120 keyboard tray; magnets hold it in place. When your work is done, you can pull the tablet out of the trough and place it flat (facing up) against the keyboard base where again, magnets hold the two together.

I found this arrangement a lot more awkward than being able to just close it like a notebook with a hinge.

As a tablet, the ThinkPad 10 weighs 1.3 lbs. and measures 0.4 x 10.1 x 6.0-in., putting it right between the smaller and lighter Toshiba Encore 2, and the heavier and bigger HP ElitePad 1000. Its basic black skin is made of aluminum, but the tablet's asymmetric design has two rounded corners and two sharp corners.

With the keyboard connected, the ThinkPad 10 weighs a hefty 2.4 lbs. but is only 1.1-in. thick. The screen is held at a single 125-degree angle; it lacks the Acer Aspire Switch 10's ability to adjust its angle. I also found that, with the keyboard connected, the ThinkPad works better on a desk than a lap because the tablet comes free too easily; I nearly dropped it on the floor on two occasions.

I found the 18.2-millimeter keys to be the most comfortable of the four to type with, and also appreciated the function keys for volume control and brightness.

The 10.1-in. display has a 1920 x 1200 resolution and was the brightest of the bunch, with the ability to deliver 353 candelas per square meter. However, to my eyes, its colors looked relatively washed out.

With the tablet held horizontally, the system's speakers are at the corners of the bottom edge; they deliver clear audio but never got loud enough. Unfortunately, the keyboard case covers the speakers and the sound gets muffled when the tablet is mated with its keyboard.

It has front-facing and back-facing cameras that can capture stills or video at 0.9 megapixels and 2 megapixels, respectively.

There's a prominent Windows Key button under the screen; controls around the edge let you turn the tablet on and off, adjust the volume and turn the auto-rotate function on and off.

All of the ThinkPad 10's ports are behind snap-on covers, which do protect them but can make them a bit inconvenient to use. The device also has something the other three tablets lack: the convenience of a full-size USB connector. There's an audio jack and micro-HDMI port for use with a TV or projector (the keyboard doesn't add any ports). The tablet has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The ThinkPad, as might be expected, offers the best assortment of accessories of the four tablets reviewed here. In addition to a $120 Ultrabook Keyboard case, Lenovo sells a $45 Quickshot Cover, which has a well-thought-out flap that exposes the tablet's rear camera. There's also a $130 docking station that offers two USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet connector and a full-sized HDMI port. It also charges the tablet; unfortunately, the tablet and dock use different AC adapters and power plugs.

The ThinkPad 10 comes with a nicely balanced stylus. It is sensitive to 1,024 levels of pressure and the keyboard case has a place to stash it when it's not being used.

The system runs on a 1.6GHz Atom Z3795 processor that can operate as fast as 2.4GHz, matching the HP ElitePad 1000's CPU. It comes with 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD.

The ThinkPad 10's performance was second best among the four tablets (the HP ElitePad 1000 came first) with a PerformanceTest score of 566.0. It was able to run for 5 hours and 52 minutes on a charge while continuously playing back HD videos -- again, just behind the ElitePad. That should be more than enough battery power for a full day of work with a little left over for play.

On its own, the ThinkPad 10 tablet costs $569 ($689 with the keyboard case) comes with Windows 8.1 Pro, a one-year warranty and software for transferring items to and from iPads, PCs and Android systems. The tablet's bright screen and inclusion of a full-size USB port make this a winner for businesses that want the freedom to mix and match accessories.

Toshiba Encore 2

If price is your main concern, the $270 Toshiba Encore 2 is a genuine bargain and a fraction the cost of some of its competitors -- even when you include the innovative, optional $110 fold-together stand. However, the system cuts too many corners for my taste.

Rather than trying to imitate a notebook, the Encore 2 goes its own way. Thanks to some tricky design work, you can open the padded vinyl case and fold it into a triangular stand that uses magnetic latches to hold it together; the keyboard is attached to the case. It yields a sturdy easel that is set at a 130-degree angle. Don't try to use it on your lap, though -- it will easily fall off.

At 0.3 x 10.2 x 6.9 in. and weighing 1.2 lb., the Encore 2 tablet is the smallest and lightest of the four reviewed here. Its gray skin resembles the Acer Aspire Switch 10's, but Toshiba uses plastic while the Switch 10 has a stronger aluminum covering.

Like the others, the Encore 2 has a 10.1-in. screen, but it offers only a 1280 x 800 resolution. The display delivered only 282 candelas per square meter, and was visibly duller than the other three slates. In day-to-day use, it handled documents well, but I wasn't impressed with its rendering of images and video with dark scenes.

The tablet and case together offer the thinnest and lightest package of the four at 0.7 in. width and 2.2 lb. weight. Rather than a physically connected keyboard, the Encore 2 tablet uses a Bluetooth keyboard, which is attached to the inside of the case. It includes keys for multimedia control, adjusting volume and brightness, but the 17.4-millimeter keys are a little small for my taste. Because it's separate from the tablet, the keyboard's battery needs to be charged on its own.

The Encore 2 locates its two speakers on its side edges; to my ears, it sounded hollow, particularly at high volume.

The tablet has both front- and back-facing cameras that can capture 1.2- and 5-megapixel images.

Unusually, the system's Windows Key button is not next to the screen but on the system's edge, where it can be easily confused with the nearby volume control and on/off button; there is no screen lock button. The system comes with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but has no cellular network data options.

Around the Encore 2's edge is a good assortment of ports, including a micro-USB port, micro-HDMI port and an audio jack. It is charged with a micro-USB power cord, a big step up from the proprietary connectors that the others use.

Powered by an Atom Z3735G processor, the Encore 2 runs at 1.3GHz, but can go as fast as 1.8GHz. Still, it's the slowest of the four. It comes with only 1GB of RAM -- for many situations, this is barely enough and the system can bog down and become unresponsive for several seconds. It also comes with 32GB of SSD storage.

As a result, in the PerformanceTest the Encore 2 was the slowest of the four, with a PassMark score of 461.5. On the other hand, it ran for 5 hours and 50 minutes of continuous video play, just two minutes less than the Lenovo ThinkPad 10.

With Windows 8.1 and a one-year warranty, the Encore 2 includes a one-year subscription to Microsoft's Office 365 service.

With the keyboard case, the Encore 2 sells for an economical $380, making it the bargain tablet of the group -- but be ready for compromises.


If you're looking for a tablet that can double as a laptop, and aren't taken with the Surface Pro 3 (or its $930 price with keyboard), any of these four might do. They are all very different and so can serve different needs.

The $270 Toshiba Encore 2 ($380 if you include the case) is the bargain of the group. While I like the idea of its fold-open stand and cover, in this age of demanding software, the tablet's 1GB of RAM is just not enough room to comfortably compute. However, it could be a good travel alternative, especially if you work mostly online -- and don't open up too many apps.

At the other end of the price spectrum, the HP ElitePad 1000 G2 has a base system that sells for $739, while the loaded test system cost $1,469 -- without the $199 keyboard cover. This means that the complete high-end version comes in at a price tag of $1,668. Admittedly, it provides the highest performance, best battery life and best configuration of the group. However, there are small but irritating problems -- for example, the tablet lacks an HDMI port, which means that to do something like drive a monitor, you need to have an adapter with you. In addition, the keyboard doesn't have a touchpad.

Lenovo's ThinkPad 10 carries the brand's classic black attire into the tablet arena and sells for $689 with a keyboard case. It has a good assortment of add-on accessories, but when you're using the keyboard case you can't adjust the screen's angle and the system works better on a desk than a lap.

But as far as I'm concerned, the standout here is Acer's $430 Switch 10 tablet. With its ability to easily transform into a mini-notebook, tent orientation or presentation mode, the Switch 10 puts the emphasis on flexibility. It can perform so many different roles at work and home that, after three weeks of use, I think of it as nearly magical.

If I could suggest any improvement, I'd add an additional battery to the keyboard base to lengthen the time between visits to an AC outlet. Still, the Switch 10 is clearly a very versatile tablet and is what I'd want to use at the office or on the road.

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