What to consider when choosing between a 2-in-1 or traditional laptop

Surface Laptop and Surface Pro

2-in-1 Windows PCs, that is those that can be both laptop and tablet, continue to rise in popularity. Spearheaded by Microsoft's own Surface Pro, the category is fielding some of the best-designed machines around.

The laptop is a tried and true form factor that continues to be refined, with modern advancements in the internal technology making for thinner, lighter, more powerful portable computers than ever before.

But which should you go for? There's no right or wrong answer, but there are a few points to consider when making your decision.

Portability vs performance

Even though a lot of modern laptops and ultrabooks are super thin, light and compact, for ultimate portability the 2-in-1 still wins out. That's because the keyboard is usually pretty thin, like Microsoft's Type Cover, adding almost no bulk to the tablet portion of the device.

And you don't have to take the keyboard at all if you don't want.

If you're more interested in performance and can spare a little extra room in your bag, maybe a laptop is the better choice. If you're a photographer or videographer, for example, you'd probably benefit from having something with more grunt over saving a couple of inches in the bag and a few ounces on your shoulder.

Gamers should still get a laptop

HP Omen

If you are or you intend to be a PC gamer on the go then you should walk away from the idea of a 2-in-1 completely. Even though many can hook up to an eGPU like the Razer Core over Thunderbolt 3, that only works when you're at your desk.

No-one should ever pack a Razer Core in a bag and take it on the road with them.

Instead, look to the many excellent gaming laptops out there right now. The Windows Central top pick is the Razer Blade, a 14-inch metal clad notebook that's immensely powerful and also very thin and light all things considered.

Windows Ink and digital pen

Even though some laptops and convertibles have touch screens and support Windows Ink through use of a digital pen, there's no better experience than that on a 2-in-1.

When you're using a pen, you don't need the keyboard to be around at all. Handwriting, drawing, marking up documents, it's all an incredibly natural experience and there's no need for a bulky keyboard, even if you can fold it right around.

The Surface Pro is the gold standard, but it's not the only one. The pen is back, and 2-in-1s are where it's at its best.


Surface Laptop vs Surface Pro

By its very nature, the 2-in-1 is a flexible device. It can be a tablet, it can be a laptop, it can be both. Whether you're traveling or at home on the sofa, you don't necessarily always want a laptop and its associated keyboard.

Feet up, beverage in hand, a 2-in-1 will be much more comfortable to use for that Stranger Things binge on Netflix than a laptop. But when you need to go to the office the next day and hit some boring spreadsheets, throw on the keyboard and you're in business.

You need ports, you need a laptop

Unless you're prepared to live the dongle lifestyle, if its ports you'll need on your portable PC, you'll still be better with a laptop. By virtue of its design, there's just more room for more ports, even if they're all USB-C as may soon become the case.

On a lot of 2-in-1s you'll get a USB port, but not a lot else, be it USB-A or USB-C. And that'll mean dongles and docks to hook things up to it, even just an external display.

Those are some points to consider when deciding between the two, it ultimately comes down to what you intend to do with the device. If you've got any other tips to share on helping folks choose, be sure to drop them into the comments below.

More: Best Windows Laptops

Richard Devine
Managing Editor - Tech, Reviews

Richard Devine is a Managing Editor at Windows Central with over a decade of experience. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently, you'll find him steering the site's coverage of all manner of PC hardware and reviews. Find him on Mastodon at mstdn.social/@richdevine

  • I think that it's disappointing that Dell went "all in" on USB-C with their new XPS lineup. Talk about living the "dongle lifestyle."
  • Same here. It's a case of you want USB-A, there's a dongle for that. A dongle to convert from USB to USB.
  • Then get a Spectre x360 instead. USB-C is the future and dell have embraced it. But it is an unfortunate truth that most devices will need a dongle. I've been using USB-C phones for almost four years though, and if I could get rid of almost every other port and connector I'd be happy.
  • How many devices use USB-C? It's a boneheaded decision to ONLY have USB-C as you're forced to use a dongle to connect EVERY USB-A device, which just happens to be EVERY USB device on the market with the exception of a few phones. Getting rid of ALL other ports is stupid as well, what would happen on a Surface 2 in 1 with just a USB-C port and you need to charge the tablet AND connect peripherals. You guessed it, another dongle. I have no problem with USB-C but to eliminate all other ports NOW is the dumbest idea ever, did USB replace parallel ports on printers the minute it came out, no it didn't as printers had both ports and then parallel was phased out.
  • At the moment? I dunno...300, a million... 7? Sounds like we pretty much agree... Personally I'd have found space for 2 USB-A 3.0 ports and maybe a HDMI port instead of the 2 non thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports. I said USB-C was the future, not the present... But dell is looking to the future with this machine, not to legacy devices. My point was there is a device coming in the spectre x360 which has the legacy ports you crave. I'm all in on USB-C, and even I might go for the spectre because of both those ports and numpad. The part of your comment about "ALL the ports" is ridiculous, I never suggested that ONE USB-C port is enough, and never would. The device we're talking about has FOUR. If it's a choice between a USB-C port and a barrel charging port, or 2 USB-C ports I'd take the latter option. I don't know what the surface you mention has, I'm not that interested in surface devices. As is the last part. It's a false equivalence. You could just use a USB-C to USB-A or B cable with a current printer, and with a laptop you'd probably have it connected to a dock or your router to print wirelessly anyway. USB-A to USB-C cables aren't expensive.
  • Easy. Both.
  • If Tablet use ,Versatility of using it in portrait orientation matters then choose 2 in 1.
  • A lot of the points in this article are what have been holding up my decision to get a new laptop/2-in-1. Luckily most of them will be mostly moot in a couple of months when the new 2-in-1s powered by the Intel/AMD SoC are released and we no longer have to compromise power for a convertible.
  • I went from my surface pro 3 to an HP spectre x360 13 inch, I really like the change to a more sturdy machine  (I use my machine for web development and Photoshop). Although I would love to buy the surface book 2 (if only I could afford it)
  • My personal preferance has been the detactable 2-in-1, specifically the Surface Pro (2017). I got rid of my tablet and my laptop and now have one device for everything. With it's i5, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD, it has everything I need to be my daily driver and travel companion. I no long er have to decide, bring both or just one. I just grab it and go.    Not everyone's use case is like mine but this works for me.  
  • This too is my preference and a longing of mine for a good couple of years. One device that is powerful yet portable and flexible enough to satisfy ALL of my personal use cases and the Surface Pro is the gold standard for this and my current workload. Up until recently, I could never pull the trigger due to budget constraints.....and now that we're in 2018 and gen 8 intel/amd processors are out, or coming soon....I find myself still tempted to wait. The Surface Pro is currently powerful enough to handle what I do now but it's practically a year old & on last year's internals. I'm concerned about a good 3-5 yrs down the road, so I'd like to get something that probably is more than I need right now but may keep me from swearing on it 3 yrs from now.
  • In the market for something new and fresh again, just because:), so actively considering this question. I already own a surface pro and a laptop with a 360 hinge. Both are great, both suck. What i would like is a pro with all the hardware in the keyboard, and then a bit like chromecast, when you detach the screen because you just want to hold that nice big ultra hd and ultra thin tablet screen, that the keyboard wirelessly streams all the content to the screen. I believe that's called an applet in chromespeak. Because with all the hardware in the keyboard we could get rid of that horrible kick stand thing, which imo is an extremely flawed solution for gravity. Needless to say, with this playing in my head, i can't make a decision either way:)
  • I actually like the idea of the kickstand on the Pro versus, say, the Surface Book. I'd love to see a hybrid solution of the SP and the SB, where you can have the chance of some serious GPU meat and battery in the base but when in tablet mode still have the battery life and standability of the SP
  • For me the switch from a bulky 17'' Asus ROG to a Lenovo Yoga 720 was natural, I feel as if I got enough power to do everything I need to gaming/sw dev/design in a much more mobile platform with still a large screen (15'') with new options like thunderbolt and 4,096 pp pen and new tablet mode.
  • Pro tip: It's hard to balance a surface with it's attached keyboard on your knee.