If you’re looking for a new laptop, in particular something that’s super lightweight and portable, then you’ve probably seen those 2-in-1 (or hybrid) laptops that can transform into an extra large tablet.  You’ve probably thought how cool it would be to replace your old-school “clamshell” laptop, tablet and/or ebook reader with just a single device.  But do 2-in-1’s make good tablets, and are all of those other modes you’ve seen in the reviews actually useful, or just gimmicks that some guy in marketing invented?  Are 2 in 1 laptops worth it for the extra price you’ll pay?  This post will hopefully help you decide.

This article will focus on:

  • the different modes or positions, and what they’re good for
  • the simplest and most common 2-in-1 design – the foldable laptop with a special hinge that allows it to open a full 360 degrees to go into tablet mode.

There are a few other 2-in-1 designs, such as the detachable screen, but we’ll focus mainly on the foldable design in this article – this includes Windows options such as the Lenovo Yoga and HP Spectre series, and Dell XPS 2-in-1s; or Chrome OS options like the Google Pixelbook, Asus Chromebook Flip, or Samsung Chromebook Plus/Pro.

2-in-1’s always come with touchscreens, which for a lot of people is the most intuitive and convenient way of interacting with their device.  2-in-1’s are usually a bit pricier than traditional laptops with the same specs.  In general you should also expect mid-range specs that are comparable to other ultrabooks, where portability is more important than your ability to play Crysis 3 at maximum frame-rate.  However this article isn’t a specs/features vs price comparison.  The purpose of this post is to give you a better idea about how you might end up using a 2-in-1, so you can make up your own mind on whether it’s worth it to you.

Tablet mode… not as comfortable as you might think

The main reason you’re probably considering a 2-in-1 over a traditional laptop is so you can also use it as a tablet.  This is the second most popular mode after the standard laptop mode, and an Intel survey showed that people tend to use this mode up to about a quarter of the time (a bit more for 2-in-1’s with detachable screens).

If you’re drawing or taking a lot of notes with a stylus, then this mode is your best friend.  This is also the preferred mode if you want to do anything in portrait.  However if you’re planning to use your 2-in-1 as a media consumption device in tablet mode then you might be a bit disappointed, for the following reasons:

  • Most 2-in-1’s are still too heavy in tablet mode, so you can’t really hold it like a phone/tablet/ebook for long
  • The screen and keyboard aren’t often held together tightly or gap-free when in tablet mode, which makes them a bit awkward to hold
  • That power button on the side also often ends up on the bottom when in portrait mode, so it can sometimes get pressed when you least expect
  • If you’ve got a simple folding 2-in-1 laptop (where you fold the screen back 360 degrees to make it a tablet) then the keyboard ends up on the underside of the device, so you won’t have a nice smooth back to caress with your fingers (note: the keys are always disabled in this mode).  Folding 2-in-1’s with the rotating point in the middle of the screen don’t have this issue, however.

I find the best way to read in tablet mode is with the device completely flat on a table, so you don’t have to carry or balance it.  It’s kinda like reading a magazine while flat on a table.

2 in 1 laptop in tablet mode
Tablet mode – too heavy and kinda awkward to hold, so works best when flat on the table

The awesomeness of display mode

My personal favourite mode for a whole bunch of different use cases is display mode, a.k.a. presentation or reverse-laptop mode.  This is where you fold the keyboard back so it’s behind the screen, sitting flat on the table.  This mode is great because it:

  • lets you get closer to the screen
  • uses less real estate on your desktop
  • hides the keyboard when you don’t need it exposed.

Here’s a few examples of how this works in practice…

Watching a movie on a plane

If you’re stuck on a budget airline with limited leg room and no entertainment, then watching a movie on your laptop might be the only thing keeping you sane for the next 5 hours.  Trying to watch on a standard laptop will very likely end up with either (a) the screen tilted too far forward or (b) the keyboard pushed up against your body – see picture below.

2 in 1 laptop on plane - normal laptop mode
Watching a movie on a plane in standard laptop mode – and this is with the front seat in the fully upright position!

In display mode, the whole device sits comfortably on the tiny tray table, and you can change the screen angle to whatever makes you happy…

2 in 1 laptop on plane - display mode
Display mode is perfect for use on plane. Since the screen is further forward than in standard laptop mode, there’s also less risk of your screen getting crushed when the guy in front reclines his seat back.

The other mode that can sometimes work when you have limited desk space is tent mode, but this really doesn’t work on a plane.  The screen is much too vertical in tent mode, and flattening it for a better viewing angle means it will no longer fit on the tray table.

2 in 1 laptop on plane - tent mode
The mostly useless tent mode doesn’t work well on a plane either

And finally, the best-position-to-avoid-neck-strain winner goes to the almost-flat vertical mode, as shown in the image below.  This can actually be quite stable, though it may not look it from the picture (and will also depend on the tray table).  This mode has the advantage of being almost eye height, so you can at least pretend you’re on a fancier plane with seat-back screens, and it also leaves just enough room on your tray table for a tomato juice and over-priced ramen.  I guess laptop vendors don’t advertise this position as they don’t want to risk damaged laptops and spilled ramen… you’ll certainly want to avoid this position in high turbulence.

2 in 1 laptop on plane - flat vertical mode
Most normal laptops don’t have hinges that can open this far – but it’s not a problem for 2-in-1 laptops

Display recipes in the kitchen

Kitchen bench top space is limited and messy – which is why display mode works so well for displaying recipes in the kitchen.  It minimises use of bench top space and keeps the keyboard tucked away from the mess.

2 in 1 laptop kitchen recipe - normal laptop mode
In standard laptop mode, your keyboard is just waiting for a glass of red wine to test how waterproof it is
2 in 1 laptop kitchen recipe - display mode
Display mode consumes much less valuable bench top space in the kitchen

And if you don’t already have all your recipes on your computer, you might want to consider using Microsoft’s OneNote which I think does a pretty great job at collecting and managing recipes.  If your 2-in-1 supports stylus pen input, OneNote also lets you scribble all over your recipes – whether it’s half the salt or changing the ingredients because you just can’t get jicama in your part of the world (green apples are a good alternative 🙂 ).  I used to print out recipes and save them in a ring binder, but have now scanned all my recipes and saved them into OneNote – and future recipes I find online can just be printed directly to OneNote.  This saves paper and gives me access to my recipes even when I’m travelling.

OneNote recipes
All my previously-printed recipes are now scanned into OneNote – kitchen stains and all 🙂

Display and edit sheet music

OneNote is also fantastic for managing piano sheet music, guitar/ukulele tabs etc.  Whether you’re on the floor or the couch, display mode lets you get just that little bit closer to the screen which makes all the difference.  You don’t need to reach as far to scroll the page down, or make an edit with the pen – this might not seem like a big deal as the screen is only a bit further away for a normal laptop, but when you actually do it in practice (especially for long periods of time) you’ll definitely notice the difference.

2 in 1 laptop playing ukulele - display mode
Printing out sheet music on paper is so 1995. Go digital and take your ukulele tabs/chords everywhere you go.
2 in 1 laptop playing ukulele - display mode scrolling
Scrolling down the page is much easier with the 2-in-1 laptop’s touch screen
2 in 1 laptop playing ukulele - display mode stylus
A stylus allows you to make all those necessary changes like you would on a paper copy – fix those wrong chords, edit the lyrics, and draw out that strumming pattern
2 in 1 laptop playing ukulele - normal laptop mode out of reach
In standard laptop mode, the screen is just a bit too far away to comfortably interact with it

Media consumption and touch screen gaming

So you read Facebook, your favourite news sites, or get lost in YouTube videos all the time on your laptop, right?  You don’t need a fancy 2-in-1 laptop for that – you have a mouse or touch pad already.  Well that’s true, but I find that when I have a touchscreen, I use it.  It’s the most intuitive way to scroll or swipe your way to the next exciting post.  For some things like Google maps, once you’ve panned and zoomed in/out with your fingers on the screen, you’ll never want to go back.  The benefit of display mode is that you can use the desk space in front of the screen to rest your elbows, arms or palm.  No need to keep your hand floating above the keyboard anymore, which gets a bit tiring after a while.

2 in 1 laptop on table media consumption
Scrolling through all those buy-nothing posts on Facebook is more relaxing when you can lazily rest your palm on the table directly in front of the screen

Touch screen gaming is also better in display mode, and your whole device is more balanced/stable too.  I also prefer Skyping in display mode.  Display mode works better on the couch, in bed, or other places where you don’t have a flat table to put your laptop on.  It’s more stable and compact than the standard laptop mode, and less likely to tip backwards, especially if you’re constantly prodding at that touchscreen.  Finally, if you have downward facing speakers (under the keyboard) then display mode projects sound upwards, instead of down into your lap or table, where it can sound a bit more muffled (depending on the surface).

Tent or easel mode… mostly useless

I’m not sure the engineers who designed the 2-in-1 laptop really even intended this to be a mode.  Seems more like something the marketing people made up, as if having more modes makes the device even better than the competition.  I think the same also goes for 9D cinemas.

This mode could potentially be usable if you need a near vertical screen and take up very little desk space.  Another possible advantage is if you have downward facing speakers, like I do on my Lenovo Yoga 720.  In tent mode, those downward facing speakers (under the keyboard) now face forward, to project sound towards you from behind the screen.

However in practice, I’ve never found a reason to use this mode.

Summary

2-in-1 laptops give you a whole lot more flexibility compared to traditional clamshell laptops.  Here’s a few reasons why:

  • they always come with touchscreens, and if you have an iDevice or Android thing, then you’ll probably end up using that touchscreen more often than you think
  • 2-in-1’s make OK tablets, but most models will probably be too heavy and awkward to hold comfortably – unless you have a detachable
  • display mode is great when you don’t need that keyboard – it is more compact and stable, and tucks away that keyboard so you can get closer to the screen, or use that space in front of the screen to rest your weary limbs.  This is my preferred mode for use on a plane; for displaying recipes or sheet music; media consumption like reading the news or watching some kid yodeling in Walmart; casual touch screen gaming and Skyping.
  • tent mode is great for the sales staff at Best Buy to show you another feature that looks kinda cool, but you’re not quite sure if it’s actually useful (it’s not).

Hopefully this post has given you a better appreciation of how you can use a 2-in-1 laptop in ways that you may not have considered before.  So are 2 in 1 laptops worth it?  You’ll probably have to pay a bit extra when compared to a traditional laptop with the same specs, so it really does depend on how you plan to use it.  Please let me know in the comments below if there are any other scenarios where you’ve found your 2-in-1 has worked well.  It would also be great to hear from you if you found this post useful too.  Thanks!

Are 2 in 1 laptops worth it?
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