A convertible 2-in-1 laptop in tablet mode.
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A “2-in-1 PC” usually refers to PC form factors that can act as both a tablet and a traditional computer. Windows 10, Windows 11, and Chrome OS all have tablet-optimized touch features, so it’s a great time to have it both ways.

2-in-1 Computers Can Be Laptops or Tablets

By definition, a 2-in-1 computer can be used as both a laptop or a tablet, but that’s not exactly what we mean.

There are two major types of 2-in-1 laptops: Convertibles that transform from laptop to tablet and back, and devices with a detachable screen that turns into a tablet when pulled from the keyboard base.

Convertible 2-in-1 Systems

Convertible laptop positions.
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Convertible 2-in-1 computers are, first and foremost, laptops. They convert from the laptop form factor to tablet mode by using a mechanical method. For example, some laptops have hinges that allow the user to bend the laptop backward so that that the back of the screen and the bottom of the laptop touch.

A good example of this is the Lenovo Yoga C740, and indeed the entire Yoga range. Presumably so named thanks to their back-bending flexibility. These laptops know what position the hinge is in and the computer’s software can therefore trigger different interface modes. The keyboard and trackpad are generally disabled in tablet mode as well. After all, when holding the device in tablet mode you’ll have to touch the keys and trackpad on the back!

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There are several advantages to convertible systems. First, they have much more room for components. Just like a regular laptop, internal components are within the lower half of the device while the screen has its own separate section of the device.

In general, the hinge mechanism on convertibles is more versatile as well. They allow not just for laptop or tablet modes, but for “tent” modes that many users prefer when simply consuming media hands-free.

There are also quite a few downsides to this design. Size and weight are the main concerns. Using a convertible system as a tablet isn’t optimal. Although these are thin and lite devices, it still isn’t quite a match for a unibody tablet.

As with any traditional laptop, there’s always a concern about mechanical failure at the hinge. This might be a bigger worry for convertible systems that use more innovative mechanisms. Some convertibles don’t just fold back but twist around so that the keyboard is hidden in tablet mode. Sliding mechanisms have been used in the past, but they haven’t really caught on.

Detachable 2-in-1 Systems

Detaching the screen from a detachable 2-in-1 laptop.
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Detachable 2-in-1 computers can be separated into two parts; the screen and keyboard. When you want to use it as a laptop you attach the top and bottom parts of the device. If you want to switch to tablet mode, you simply pull the screen section off and use that as your tablet.

A prominent example is the Microsoft Surface Book. Despite having a completely detachable tablet section, the Surface Book offers a fast Intel quad-core CPU and discrete NVidia GPU.

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This design aims to address some of the key criticisms of convertible computers. You don’t have to bear the weight of the whole device in tablet mode. You also don’t have to worry about mechanical hinge failure, since there isn’t one.

You do give up the strength of a permanent hinge, however. So these devices may not support or be as reliable in tent mode. Since all the core components have to be in the tablet section of the device, that can lead to balance issues in laptop mode. Alternatively, the designers may opt to put weights in the keyboard section or add weight using an auxiliary battery.

Detachable systems may also have a harder time matching the performance of convertible systems because they don’t have as much room to deal with heat. In a convertible, heat-generating components can be spread between both halves of the device.

2-in-1 Computers Are PCs

When the term 2-in-1 computer is used, it generally refers to a laptop that can also function as a tablet. These are generally PC devices with x86 chips running Windows, but they may also have ARM chips—in fact, there’s a version of Windows that runs on ARM devices. There are also 2-in-1 Chromebooks, and you could even run Linux on a 2-in-1 PC.

Apple’s new ARM-based laptops use a software solution named Rosetta 2 to run software meant for x86 processors and do so with impressive performance, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that, eventually, it won’t matter what specific processor type is packed into your 2-in-1 computer.

This is one of their major advantages over Android tablets or iPads. It means that whatever desktop software you’re currently running will work on the tablet format or laptop format—assuming that the 2-in-1 computer meets the minimum requirements, of course.

What About Tablets With Keyboards?

An iPad with a stand and keyboard.
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Modern tablets such as the iPad Pro have native keyboard solutions that let you use them very much like detachable 2-in-1 computers. If your main reason for wanting a 2-in-1 computer is simply the form factor options, then a tablet with a detachable keyboard fills much the same niche. This is especially true of high-performance tablets that are marketed as laptop replacements.

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The main issue here comes down to the operating system and supported software.  Tablet operating systems such as iPadOS and Android are still somewhat limited compared to desktop operating systems. On the Apple side of things, the shift to a non-x86 CPU in laptop devices has muddied the waters, as the same software slowly begins to feature on both Macs and iPad.

Using the Rosetta 2 translation software mentioned above, a modern ARM-based macOS computer can run virtually any software meant for older Intel-based Macs. As traditional desktop software is ported for ARM-based Macs, we’re seeing them come to iOS devices as well. For example, the entire core of Adobe Photoshop has now been ported to the iPad.

Who Should Buy 2-in-1 PCs?

As you’ve probably deduced, the type of customer who’s best-suited to buying a 2-in-1 computer is one that needs the power and flexibility of a desktop computer in a tablet shape, but not all the time. If you’re happy with just using mobile apps to get your work or leisure done, it’s probably better to use a true mobile tablet along with peripherals. Tablets that use mobile technology have longer battery lives, are thinner, lighter, and are catching up in raw performance.

Don’t forget that you also have the option of running a remote virtual machine or accessing your home desktop remotely using an internet connection, from your tablet computer. So the need for tablet-shaped desktop computing on the go may not be as strong as it once was.

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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