Battle of the small notebooks
REMEMBER netbooks, those relatively inexpensive, modestly powered and small notebooks designed for light computing tasks like document processing, Web browsing and watching videos?
Costing around $500, they were extremely popular after their introduction in 2007.
But they soon fell out of favour once the Apple iPad and other tablets came along, since those slates could do what netbooks did and often offered a better, smoother and more responsive experience.
Now, small low-powered notebooks are making a comeback, due to falling flash memory prices, which allows for better device performance. Another reason is the availability of Windows 8.1 with Bing, a royalty-free version of the Windows 8.1 operating system. Without the need to pay royalties, manufacturers can keep the price of devices even lower.
Adding another spin to the mix is how some of the new small low-powered notebooks are in fact two-in-one machines, in which the screen can be detached from the keyboard to give you a tablet.
We take a spin of three of these two-in-one devices - from Acer, Asus and HP - which all come in at under $600, much cheaper than a full-fledged notebook, which easily costs over $1,000.
ACER SWITCH 10 E ($499): 7.5/10
The Acer Switch 10 E has a 10.1-inch IPS display. The screen has a resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels. But despite the somewhat low resolution, images still look sharp.
The Switch 10 E has an all-plastic chassis and is also rather thick, coming in at around 25.7mm with the keyboard dock attached. The tablet display alone is around 8mm thick. It's not that light either. With the keyboard dock attached, it weighs 1.28kg - the tablet display alone is 630g.
We don't think the Switch 10E looks as attractive as the other two two-in-one devices.
The Switch 10 E is powered by an entry-level quad-core Bay Trail Intel Atom Z3735F (1.33GHz, 2MB L2 cache) processor with 2GB of RAM.
Graphics processing duties are handled by integrated Intel HD Graphics graphics processing unit (GPU). This is a stripped down version of the integrated GPUs found on Intel's Ivy Bridge processors.
The Switch 10 E has 32GB of eMMC flash storage. eMMC flash storage is no match for a proper, speedy solid state drive, but it is still faster than a traditional hard disk drive. Within the keyboard dock is a large 500GB mechanical hard disk drive.
There is also a microSD card reader for expanding storage on the tablet display.
In terms of general usability, the Switch 10 E has points deducted for its relative bulkiness.
ASUS TRANSFORMER BOOK T100 CHI ($599): 7.5/10
The T100 Chi feels like a premium tablet - it has an aluminium chassis that feels solidly put together. For visual flair, it also has chamfered diamond-cut polished edges.
It is remarkably thin too, measuring just 14.8mm with the keyboard dock attached. The tablet display alone is 7.2mm thick - slightly thinner than the first generation iPad Air. The tablet display weighs just 570g; and with the keyboard dock attached, the entire device weighs slightly more than 1kg.
The T100 Chi has a 10.1-inch display with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,200 pixels, which translates to text and images appearing very sharp and crisp, compared with the Acer and HP two-in-one devices.
The T100 Chi is powered by an Intel Bay Trail Atom processor, specifically the quad-core Atom Z3775 (1.46GHz, 2MB L2 cache). This is a fairly high-end Atom processor and it runs at slightly higher clock speeds than the processors found in the Acer and HP devices. It also features an Intel HD Graphics integrated GPU.
The device also has 2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage using eMMC flash memory.
Given the T100 Chi's lightweight and slim design, it fulfils the role of a tablet the best among the three devices.
Our biggest issue with the T100 Chi's keyboard dock is that it doesn't draw power from the main tablet unit itself - it needs to be charged separately to work. But Asus claims the keyboard dock will last around 84 hours between charges.
HP PAVILION X2 ($549): 8/10
An emphasis on design is evident in the Pavilion x2 - it is the funkiest looking of the trio. Thanks to the well applied paint, which has a matte finish, the Pavilion x2 does not come across as cheap-looking despite its all-plastic construction.
The Pavilion x2 is very compact and portable, at just 16.75mm thick - with the keyboard dock attached. At 9.65mm, the tablet is a little on the thick side compared with its rivals here.
But that is because it packs a full-sized USB 2.0 port the other two devices lack. This makes connecting external storage devices and peripherals a breeze.
The entire device weighs 1.13kg, while the tablet display alone is around 590g.
Like the other two-in-one devices, the Pavilion x2 has a 10.1-inch touchscreen display. A potential downer is that the screen only supports a resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels, which is a tad low.
The Pavilion x2 is powered by a quad-core Intel Bay Trail processor, specifically the Atom Z3736F (1.33GHz, 2MB L2 cache). This processor shares nearly identical specifications with the processor of the Acer Switch 10 E. The Atom Z3736F also features Intel HD Graphics integrated GPU. The Pavilion x2 comes with 2GB of RAM and 64GB of eMMC flash memory storage.
The three devices performed quite comparably in our benchmark tests. Though the T100 Chi had the lead on most of the benchmarks - thanks to its slightly faster processor - you will not notice the difference in real world usage.
But there is a pretty wide gulf in performance between the three devices and regular notebooks, like the Dell XPS 13, or even the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 or MacBook Air.
Many brands now have notebooks that have speedy solid state drives and such models are pretty affordable too, often with prices beginning at around the $1,000 mark. As a result, these "entry-level" notebooks, despite their less powerful Intel Core processors, still feel pretty fast to use.
The Switch 10 E's battery life lasted the longest in our test, coming in at 7 hours and 42 minutes. It's almost double that of the T100 Chi's 3 hours and 51 minutes, which didn't last as long due in part to its higher resolution screen that can also cause stuttering when scrolling quickly. The Pavilion x2 did well, lasting 6 hours and 35 minutes.
The three devices are relatively affordable and can do just about anything a regular desktop or notebook can - minus gaming. But they do have some of the drawbacks netbooks had.
Because of their compact size, typing on them needs getting used to - keys on their detachable keyboards are smaller than those on regular keyboards.
Still, the trio of devices are comparable to the tablets of today, in terms of usability, price and design.
We would even argue that they are more useful, since they run on a full Windows OS.
Furthermore, they are all relatively affordable, especially when you consider that the entry-level 16GB iPad Air 2 costs $688. The only quibble we have is that the three devices don't feel as fluid as iPads and Android tablets.
But that's a fair trade off since Windows has more functionality and, hence, requires more resources to run briskly.