When to buy a 2-in-1 laptop vs. a PC

The recent spate of 2-in-1 laptops, such as the Surface Pro 3, has sparked interest among IT pros who wonder whether the devices can replace PCs.

New 2-in-1 laptops recently unveiled by Dell, Microsoft, Asus and others have piqued IT pros' interest, but whether they deploy these hybrid tablet/PCs or stick with traditional computers comes down to the end user.

There's no denying the convenience of a full-blown notebook computer that converts into a tablet to reduce the number of devices workers carry. Some industry observers call the 2-in-1 device the next evolution of the notebook computer.

"It's a PC for some and a tablet for others," said Jack Gold, principal analyst and founder of J.Gold Associates LLC, an IT consulting organization in Northborough, Massachusetts. He added that 2-in-1s are generally viewed as full Intel-based systems that run Windows applications and can replace a PC.

The root question is the definition of mobility for the organization.
Kevin SchwartzCTO, Clear Creek Independent School District

These 2-in-1 devices have come a long way as new and improved hardware, software, networking and the emergence of the cloud converged to influence this next generation of notebook computers.

While the lines between notebook computers and tablets blur, IT professionals have the difficult decision of which form factor to deploy.

Los Angeles County recently adopted Office 365 Government for 100,000 end users. County workers currently use a combination of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo computers.

"What we're seeing is [2-in-1s] are still shaking out in the field," said Richard Sanchez, CIO for the county. "We don't want to be dictatorial in terms of what kind of equipment [workers] get." But, he added, 2-in-1 devices could be a powerful tool for mobile workers.

Notebooks vs. 2-in-1 laptops

Two-in-one laptops can weigh slightly more than an ultra-thin notebook like a MacBook Air, or under a mere 2 lbs. as in the new Surface Pro 3. Despite the portability, costs are a trade-off, and many organizations are still concerned about the cost comparison between a 2-in-1 device and traditional notebooks.

For example, a Dell XPS 12 Ultrabook Touch 2-in-1 laptop is listed online for $1,318.99 for a Core i5 128GB unit, compared with $999 for a Lenovo ThinkPad X240, Core i5 with 500 GB hard disk drive ultrathin notebook -- a price difference of 24%.

Traditional notebook computers can be configured to offer very large hard disk drive space such as 1 TB, an optical drive, more memory, high-end CPUs and graphics processors, for instance. A 2-in-1 may come in fewer stock configurations because the devices are meant to be very lightweight with a long battery life.

When is a 2-in-1 laptop worth the price?

Whether to deploy a 2-in-1 laptop throughout the enterprise simply comes down to job requirements.

Beacon Partners Inc., a healthcare consulting organization in Weymouth, Massachusetts, is considering how to incorporate 2-in-1 laptops into its environment.

The goal is for sales reps to swap out their laptops with 2-in-1 machines, said Gary Gates, senior manager of IT at Beacon Partners. Gates' consultants will continue to use traditional notebooks because of specific applications and computing power requirements. For example, some consultants need greater horsepower and a very large hard drive for their jobs.

Beacon Partners is eyeing the Surface Pro 3, but Gates said he needs to conduct more testing to determine how well 2-in-1s work with multiple virtual private networks.

Other organizations have said they intend to deploy Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 as well, generating more interest for this device class.

Lately there has been more traction in the healthcare and construction industries, according to Andrew Huynh, brand development manager at En Pointe Technologies, an IT solutions provider in Gardena, California. Applications that typically required a PC now allow end users to fold the device into a tablet and walk around the floor, he said.

2-in-1 laptop limitations

While the idea of turning a laptop into a tablet is appealing, not all PC applications will translate well into tablet mode, and end users may need to adjust to some quirks.

"If you fold a device, the software used in the computer mode doesn't [always] act the way it should in tablet mode," Huynh said.

For some public transportation riders, a 2-in-1 can make sense because it has flexibility to be used as a notebook or a tablet. For those in the office who don't travel much, a laptop makes more sense, Huynh said.

The type of applications workers use on the job is another factor to consider when deciding whether a 2-in-1 device is appropriate.

If workers are using "light" apps without the computing power of a PC, they should stick to a tablet rather than spending money on a 2-in-1 laptop, according to Huynh.

In the end, the final decision ultimately rests on end users' needs.

"The root question is the definition of mobility for the organization," said Kevin Schwartz, CTO of Clear Creek Independent School District in League City, Texas.

His district investigated different options before settling on tablets because students need to use them for photos, art and video. This model did not work as well with big, bulky keyboards normally attached to a notebook.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to what the end user is using it for," Huynh said. He added that 2-in-1s present more options and convenience for end users, but the cost difference has to be justified.

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