Windows 8 Ultimate Buyers Guide: Choosing The Right Form Factor

Tablet? Laptop? Convertible? Ultrabook? When you're researching online or looking on the store shelves, you could be forgiven for feeling intensely overwhelmed by the amount of choice available to you. Thankfully, we're here with the Ultimate Windows 8 Buyers Guide to help you make the right choice when it comes to your next laptop, tablet or portable.

Welcome to Gizmodo's Ultimate Windows 8 Buyers Guide! Every day we'll focus on a different aspect of buying a new Windows 8-powered laptop or tablet — from size, to specs to form factors and apps — to make sure you get the right device. We're helping you take the guess work out of tech buying.

Before we get started, let's quickly cover some common sense considerations.

The Basics

Before you start on your quest to buy a shiny, new Windows 8 device, it's worth considering the basics that should underpin all tech purchases:

Know Your Budget

Setting a budget and sticking to it is paramount when it comes to tech buying, and it's especially important when it comes to getting a laptop or tablet. Laptops are big ticket items, which means you'll be living with a device for a long time. If it's beyond your means or not the right device for you, you'll be stuck in a rut with something you don't need or can't afford. Do a bit of maths, find a figure you can comfortably afford to spend and stick to it. Don't let yourself be duped by slick talking tech salesfolk. At the end of the day, it's always you left holding the bag.

Decide What You Need Above What You Want

Make a list of features you know you can't live without in your laptop. Need an ace processor? Make sure there's a note of it. Desperate for gaming options? A performance laptop is the one for you. Need a certain amount of battery life? Write that down, too. Don't get sucked into a certain device because it's shiny and neglect everything you need day-to-day.

Research Your Device

Once you have one or two devices in mind, hit your nearest search engine to see what people who own that device think about it. You might just find that it goes bang after a month with the device or it doesn't do something you hoped it actually did. You can read reviews that we and other tech sites write until the laptop or tablet goes out of style, but we can't tell you what it's like to live with a device over an extended period of time in the way an owner can. Also, make sure you try before you buy. Even if it involves insisting that a salesperson powers up a laptop for you to try before you sign on the dotted line.

Armed with that knowledge, let's get started...


Choosing The Right Form Factor

Whether you're buying a device for work, play, portability, power or all of the above, these are the form factors you need to consider to get something that's right for you.

Tablets

Of course you all know what a tablet is, but what are seven to 11-inch, touchscreen-enabled, low-power processor packing device actually good for?

Pros: • The absolute best thing about a tablet is the portability it offers. You won't find another form factor on the market for love nor money that can fit into your life quite like a tablet can. Power it up and you have either Windows RT or Windows 8 at your disposal to help you get your work done — whether it be taking notes in class, presenting a meeting, watching a movie or playing a game — and when you're finished, sling it under your arm or into a bag and you'd never even know it was there. Tablets are awesome for those on the move.

• Despite the fact that you only have an on-screen keyboard, you needn't be without peripherals. Bluetooth-enabled tablets — which is most of them these days — allow you to pair accessories such as wireless mice and keyboards directly to the device, so you can bring your favourite devices with you and still get a whole mess of work done expediently. Even if you don't have Bluetooth, devices such as the Microsoft Surface RT pack USB ports for external devices.

• Battery life is often fantastic on small tablets thanks to low-power processors, so you'll get longer from your tablet device than you'd ever get from a laptop or even an ultrabook.

Cons: • You have to consider just how much you want to get done with your tablet before you sink up to $1000 on one. These things can have a habit of becoming an expensive secondary device to those with a laptop or ultrabook, so consider your needs. Do you really need a second screen to compliment your laptop, or is it just something you're going to watch movies on? If it's the latter, consider avoiding a tablet and investing the cash in a souped-up ultrabook.

• Consider the need for peripherals before investing: if you're going to be lugging about a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse all the damn time just for your tablet, it might be worth just getting a convertible or even an ultrabook.

• Low-power processors mean more than just lower battery drain. It also means you're not getting a huge amount of grunt for your money. That means playing games like Civilisation V and Dead Space is probably off the menu. Smaller games like Cut The Rope and Angry Birds will fare just fine, but think about just how much high-powered work you're going to be doing before buying.

Convertibles

A convertible can mean one of two things. It's either a tablet that converts into a laptop-like device with the aid of a clip-in keyboard — such as the HP Envy X2 or the Samsung ATIV — or it can be a tablet that flicks out to expose a keyboard — like the Lenovo Twist or the Sony Vaio Duo 11.

Pros:

• Devices that have clip-in keyboards like the Ativ or the Envy X2 usually benefit from greater battery life. Why? Because the keyboard attachments are often stashing extra batteries, that's why. Clip-in your keyboard and you can expect to double your life, depending on which device you buy. Make sure you check with the retailer before handing over your cash though, to make sure you're getting a keyboard dock with integrated batteries.

• You'll save space in your bag with a convertible, simply because the peripherals you need can be integrated straight into the one unit. Nothing clunking around is definitely a pro.

• Windows 8 convertibles straddle the tablet and laptop/ultrabook categories, meaning you get the benefits of both in one petite yet powerful package. Touchscreen, battery life and portability that you'd normally find on a tablet, paired with the practicality of a touchpad or mouse nib and — more often than not — a full-sized keyboard. Some devices like the Sony Vaio Duo 11 even come with their own Wacom digitisers for drawing and scribbling inputs.

Cons: • Some convertibles can cost as much as an ultrabook, so make sure you do a like for like comparison between the specs before handing over your cash and make sure you're getting the best bang-for-buck.

• Be mindful of which version of Windows your convertible comes pre-loaded with. Both Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro are great, but you'll get so much more done in the long run with the latter. You get a deeper experience when it comes to the desktop and you can install unsigned software without having to "jailbreak" the damn thing. Better bang for buck comes from being able to get more done, especially on a convertible. For that, you'll need Windows 8 Pro.

Ultrabooks

What's the difference between an ultrabook and an ordinary laptop? Well, ultrabook is a fancy marketing buzzword Intel made up that means your PC has to meet certain criteria that makes it an ultraportable version of a traditional laptop. Specifically, the criteria state that, to be called an ultrabook, a device must have between five and nine hours of battery life, a power-up time (from hibernation) of under 7 seconds and Sandy Bridge or Ivy Bridge processors, all the while fitting into a specific height, weight and processing speed threshold.

To carry the ultrabook name, the devices have to be the elite athletes of laptops: high-end, svelte, sexy and powerful devices.

Pros:

• Because ultrabooks are so thin and light, they're almost as portable and bag-friendly as convertibles.

• Ultrabooks are also surprisingly pocket-friendly, with a good one only likely to set you back between $1000 and $1800.

• Don't let that tiny footprint fool you, either. Intel has built ultrabooks as the perfect balance of power and portability to be just what you need in an everyday machine.

Cons:

• An ultrabook is good for an everyday work or study machine, and minces your productivity tasks, but it's still not very good at playing the higher-end games you might want to play. If you want something powerful, portable and gaming-ready, check out our laptops section.

• Only a handful of ultrabooks currently have touch-enabled panels, so shop carefully. Without touch, you miss out on a few features of the Windows 8 experience.

Laptops

Good, old-fashioned laptops still exist in the Windows 8 range, but these days they're reserved for either entry-level machines that are best avoided, and gaming powerhouses that are always encouraged. We're going to take a look at the latter.

Pros:

• Unmatched, unbeaten, unequivocal power. That's the promise of a high-end Windows 8 laptop. We're talking desktop replacement territory here, and you'll get it from two big names: Alienware and Razor. These two make precision gaming machines that will eat up your big name titles and beg for more punishment.

• Because these things are essentially desktop replacement machines — 17-inch weaponised machinery — you'll save money buying one because you don't have to buy both a hot laptop and a sexy tower.

• These things look incredible. Because they're built as machines you can roll to a LAN party with or stick in your geek-gear-laden den, they look awesome. Alienware loves a bright light or two in the fan ports, while Razor has an awesome touchpad to keep your mates raising their eyebrows as you micro them into the ground.

Cons: • That awesome performance and design comes at a cost. Be prepared to part with between $2000 and $4000 for a great gaming machine.

• We weren't kidding when we told you these things were good enough to be desktop replacements. Sadly, you're going to notice that when you try and cart it around. There's a lot of heft to deal with here.

• When you're running high-end hardware in a tiny space, two things happen: lots of heat, and not much in the way of battery. Get cosy with a power outlet if you're planning on a big raid with friends.


Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Windows 8 Super-Guide.


Comments

    as someone who has spent the last 6 months researching windows 8 devices (i needed to buy three, so for sure i was going to do my research), i can tell you that as much as it breaks my heart to say, windows 8 is not mature for the mass market yet

    firstly, STAY AWAY from windows RT devices. This was the dumbest move ms made which only dilutes their x86 platform userbase by creating a walled garden ecosystem. the primary alluring aspect of windows 8 is a touch friendly interface that allows you to run legacy apps THAT IS ALL.
    For this reason, why set a false expectation that people are going to get an ipad like experience with a restricted platform that has no apps.

    Then you get bad press for it because you annoyed hundreds of thousands of early surface RT adopoters.

    That being said, my opinion of windows 8 is that:

    1) If your purpose is gaming, STICK TO WINDOWS 7. There are just way too many compatibility issues right now

    2) If you are a power user, you can make your own decision, but ultimately if you want to tweak and change settings in your system conveniently, stick to Windows 7

    3) if you are after a laptop, buy an ultrabook with at least core i5 and decent battery. if you can afford it. The touchscreens are nice, but theyre only necessary FOR using windows 8 not the other way around when it comes to laptop formfactors. Notebooks absolutely do not need a touchscreen, especially since the new touchpads are compatible with gestures.

    If money is not a concern, then get one of course, but by buying a windows 7 or even windows 8 without touch screen, you can save a few hundred dollars. You will BARELY use it

    again, if money is a concern, get a regular laptop. These days alot of non ultrabooks are quite thin so you can save a few hundred bucks getting a regular ole notebook with amazing specs if you dont buy into the whole ultrabook thing

    4) Tablets, this goes two ways. If you need a stylus, the only decent ones on the market right now are the lenovo thinkpad 2 or the asus vivo tab tf810c. And it is reccommended that you get a hybrid with keyboard and battery otherwise you will be playing around with messy BT keyboards and thick cover style dock accessories.

    Unfortunately these both run shitty atom processors, that essentially limit you to the level power of a windows RT device, but you can at least run legacy applications. I personally have a tf810c and am very pleased with the build quality and useability of the device overal. My only gripe is that it cannot do anything high powered when i need it to. But that is just my personal needs. I have since passed it onto my sister who uses it for uni to websurf, take notes and watch videos etc.
    Unfortunately the price tag to do all this is close to $1000 so in my opionion, were these closer to $6-700 with dock, then they would be worth it because of the shitty atom processor.

    For all others who do not have needs for a stylus (just poke at stuff but not scribe) a $500 asus me400c is perfect for you (actually the thinkpad tablet 2 is still a good contender because i personally would buy it without the unfoldable dock anyway)

    generally speaking, in most cases, most people who are after just a tablet without docks or full core processors will only being doing basic things with it. If you intend to play games on it, buy an ipad or android tablet instead. Their markets are much more rich with content, whereas the windows market even with its legacy apps are not really suited for touch interfaces and you will end up more disappointed and frustrated than anything.

    In my personal opinion, this category is very wasted as anyone who buys a windows tablet ultimately will want to run legacy apps, which ultimately touches on power user requirements of a keyboard or dock

    5) All in one desktop pcs with touchscreen - again, this is actually a really nice device. Buy it if you intend to use the touchscreen the majority of the time (kitchens, bars etc). if you intend to use it like an imac, buy a desktop instead and save money

    6) convertables - if you ABOSLUTELY need to buy a notebook with a touchscreen, get a convertable. it is just much better to use
    my personal recommendations are the asus taichi (make sure you get the stylus), sony vaio duo or lenovo yoga with a full core processor.

    7) Hybrids, Personally this is the only category suited for windows 8 devices.
    However my personal experience has shown that you really need a wacom stylus to truly get the most of your experience.
    Currently however, nothing lives up to the expectations despite this category being the one that should represent windows 8

    reasons below:

    atom powered hybrids - too slow to fully be useful as a device, wasting the formfactor, but good for basic users. downside is the pricetag, in which case you might as well not get an atom powered device

    MS surface - that kickstand...forces you to use it at a specific angle and difficult to use it anywhere else besides a table. not as flexible as one with a dock - upside is the great price for what you get and is much better value for money than the atom hybrids. But value isnt everthing and if formfactor is more important and you are just a basic user, a atom is still worth considering

    Asus transformer book - so close yet so far. This has everything, ultrabook level slimness, dock with keyboard, hdd and battery, and a full core processor but can run for longer hrs due to the dock

    its well worth the pricetag
    only downside? NO FREAKING STYLUS???

    Lenovo Helix - this is the only decent contender i would throw my money at. Gives you all of the above plus a stylus.
    My only gripe is the screen size (insignificant) and the awkward dock, it looks really chunky but that fan could prove useful i guess.

    TL;DR
    If money is a concern and you dont NEED windows 8 - then stick with windows 7
    If you are a gamer, recommendation is stick to windows 7 (assuming desktop)
    If money is a concern and you MUST HAVE windows 8 - wait for the next generation if you can
    or buy a MS surface or atom hybrid like asus tf810c
    you can save more money by buying a regular notebook with windows 8
    if money is not a concern but you want something that does everything, wait for the Helix or second generation windows 8 devices with styluses (stylii?)
    if money is not a concern with no buts, this depends on whether you need a stylus or not but you can choose between, MS surface, Helix, Transformer book or Sony vaio duo or asus taichi

    For everyone else, you probably dont need a windows 8 device

      You comment helped me more than the article. Thanks!

      Question; I currently have a desktop that I use for photo editing (light-room/Photoshop), games and movies/Internet. I'm planning to do some travel overseas for a while and wanted to know if you thought, the Surface Pro could replace the desktop but still maintain a photo editing capability along with the occasional game or movie.

      I've also been following the Razer Edge, it's a beefed up version of the Surface Pro with games in mind. Any thoughts on it? I was leaning to getting one instead of the actual Surface Pro as it can still play games but has the processing power to do photo editing and maybe some light video editing.

      Thanks for any incite!

        the thing you need to concern here is portability and battery life

        the full core tablets get heavy to hold in one hand for prolonged periods
        even with 2 hands my personal experience (with an asus ep121) its highly unergonomic to do so.

        Also the razer edge will have atrocious battery life, it comes with docks etc but its ultimately designed to be tethered to a power source

        the surface only comes with integrated hd4000 graphics. MS has demonstrated that you can do basic editing in photoshop thanks to its full core processor

        However at the end of the day it will never truly replace your desktop

        Also, do you use a wacom device with your desktop at the moment? If you use your mouse primarily, then any windows 8 tablet or hyrid with a full core processor will work as you can just bring a mouse.

        You will need to imagine yourself using it and also factor in which scenarios you would be using it,
        Most people would still be sitting at their desk or on a couch when on holidays when using a tablet, in which case wouldnt a notebook (or hybrid) formfactor be better?

        IMHO tablets were created as a solution to a problem that doesnt exist. but i really like Hybrids and convertables because they give you that flexibilty for the rare chance you really just wanna sit on the loo and draw doodles

        Last edited 18/02/13 3:07 pm

      Nice article fureien, I agree with most of it but as far as usability is concerned I use a touch screen so I don't need to carry around a mouse. When using a laptop anywhere a mouse is bloody annoying if you don't have a surface to use it on. Otherwise thumbs up.

        i use my ep121 as my primary mobile device.

        I do not carry around a mouse or keyboard (it did not come with a dock, only a bt keyboard)

        i have not found a need for a dock, but i have found a need to orient the tablet at different angles, which is why i dont like the surface pro

        in regards to a mouse, i have survived perfectly fine without a mouse, but my experience with normal desktop windows is that you most certainly need a stylus to survive otherwise you will just get fed up sometimes.

        The only way around this is to increase the size of all the buttons and scroll bars or overall DPI of your windows interface. This would be acceptable on a 1080p display, but unfortunately the ep121 was only HD res at best so it wouldve been unusuable.

        alot of interfaces (like web browsers for instance) are simply just not optimised for touch and if you didnt have a stylus, there will be instances where you will essentially be stranded because its not detecting you inputs

        like i said above, it depends on your purpose for the device. what activities will constitute 90% of your usage, because you can always find workarounds for that other 10%. That is the beauty of windows

        Last edited 18/02/13 3:17 pm

          Heh, fortunately my VAIO DUO 11 comes with an excellent powered stylus because it would indeed be a pain without it at 1080p on an 11" screen. ;)

          Last edited 18/02/13 4:34 pm

            how is it anyway, cause i heard it was an Ntrig not a wacom?

              Yep Ntrig
              http://www.n-trig.com/
              I like it but I actually bought an "Adonit Jot Pro" which is passive but with a disk and is better for drawing and some web functions.

      Stick to Windows 7 for gaming?
      I Have windows 8 and I play BL2, BF3, Natural Selection 2, Dota 2, TERA, WoW, and they all play fine.

        i have windows 8 and i play all those games too,
        when it first came out, windows 8 was buggy as hell and alot of thing required compatibility troubleshooting to work

        The same applied to alot of my general applications. they dont launch properly, compatibility issues and issues relating to startup launch

        A few updates since then has greatly improved the experience, but some games such as Hotel Miami crash alot

        I also experiences crashes with BF3 alot and ive narrowed it down to the OS for the time being.

        YMMV, but im just saying its safer to be on W7, because really do you NEEED to be on windows 8? being on W7 just eliminates that probability of the OS being incompatible altogether

        and also, the point of my rant was to say that, its still early days, i can only imagine things would improve greatly with windows 8 from both hardware and software perspective over the next year or so (as with all technology) but we are talking about people who want to buy NOW

        Last edited 18/02/13 3:10 pm

          I can't agree with this, unfortunately. I had the release version of Windows 8 the day after it came out and had no compatibility problems at all. Considering the kernel is just an optimised version of the Windows 7 one (which itself was an optimised version of the Vista kernel) I'm sceptical about compatibility issues you may have had. I'm curious what troubleshooting you've done on BF3 that has led you to blame Win8, because that's a very difficult thing to isolate.

          As for why you'd be on Win8 instead of Win7, the performance increase alone is worth it for gaming. I'd certainly recommend 8 over 7 if you're a gamer.

            what kind of performance increases are we talking about?

            with the games that i dont have issues with, i havent noticed any change.

              Windows 8 is broadly more lightweight and less intensive than its predecessors, a boon of having been designed with portable device compatibility in mind. The OS has less CPU and memory use and less essential disk activity, and less intensive graphics which free up resources across the board to be used by games. The DirectX implementation in Win8 is also better interconnected with the OS which gives a slight performance boost.

              You've probably seen performance guides for games talking about disabling services, turning off Aero and other Windows-level tweaks. Win8 effectively implements many of those tweaks natively, and in a way that gets a bigger performance improvement over tweaking Win7 used to.

              Edited to add: obviously the magnitude of any performance improvement is directly related to your hardware and where its chokepoints are.

              Last edited 19/02/13 10:23 am

      As said before, helped me more that the article itself!! Thanks!

        lol i was like...why am i getting a reply to a comment i made 9 months ago?

        Devices have been updated/next gen arrived since i wrote that

        I recently ordered a Dell venue 11 pro

        Its fantastic and does everything

    As for Mac's forget it, this is Windows Territory :)

    For powerhouse Laptops such as Alienware, last i priced one i wanted fetched around $6000. A Laptop for a TOTAL Desktop replacement, you get by spending around $1500-$1600 and include I7 processor, 8-16GB RAM with a decent graphics card and thats all you really need. Whether the Laptop has SDD or standard drive it doesnt matter, users will buy a Portable Drive for their backup purposes to match the storage space of their laptop.

    Desktops?
    All in ones?
    Anyone?

    It's all very well to throw around catch-phrases like "portability", but it's a bit more complex than that. The discussion needs to be a bit more refined.

    For years, I lugged oversized laptops around the world (literally) because, with the work I was doing at the time, I needed the sort of specs you only get with a desktop or large, high-end laptop: grunt, screen real estate, massive disk storage, optical drive, plenty of ports. I had Windows laptops for some years, then switched to a 17" MacBook Pro. It was eventually replaced by an Intel 15" MBP, which ran both OSX and Windows (as a virtual machine). Those machines were all great. In fact, I liked the 15" MacBook Pro (with OSX/Win) so much, I bought one for personal use, cranked the RAM up, and am still happily using it two years later.

    I have also had periods in my life where I didn't need all that grunt, and thus preferred something smaller and lighter for business travel.

    Here's my take on it:

    "Portability" always involves some degree of compromise. The question is: what compromises can you live with?

    If portability isn't important at all, stick with a desktop. As a general statement, you'll get much, much more for your money.

    If you plan on doing regular travel, ask yourself: do I want/need to use my machine in difficult places, for example, in busy airports where seating may be short, on planes in economy class (where there is little room to open a lid, especially if the dude in front puts his seat right back)? If so, what sort of work do you want to do in those places? Are you simply browsing the net, or working with Office docs, or running something truly heavy-duty?

    Do you need to carry your device around the office a lot, from meeting to meeting, or around a factory or work floor? (There's computing on-the-go, and then there's computing on-the-go!) Do you expect to use your computer at a check-in counter or train station ticket machine when you need some detail of information you hadn't thought of, or can you make do with a smart phone in those situations?

    And most of all: what do you need to do on your machine? And be realistic when you evaluate this, because the smaller (more portable) the form factor, the more you will pay through the nose for performance.

    If you need an optical drive and serious performance, for example, then you'll probably need a full laptop. But, if you also need a computer you can use while standing in an airport or in the back of a cab (and a smart phone won't do it for you), then you probably need both a laptop and a tablet (plus your smart phone, so now you have three things to cart around, keep track of, keep charged etc).

    Do you like to sit on the couch and browse the net while watching TV? A tablet is better than anything that has a lid.

    In fact, if you mostly need just the internet and email, then a tablet may do you, period. But if you are going to work with even simple business documents more than a few times a day, a tablet won't cut it. In some cases, you may be able to get by with a BT keyboard and mouse. But if ultra-portability is an issue, then BT keyboards and mice are simple more things you have to cart around. They become a burden.

    And if you fall somewhere in between all that, a convertible might be the go. For example, now I have an office job and no longer travel for business. But if I did, I wouldn't have the same heavy-duty needs that I used to have. These days, I would need Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Project all get used extensively), but I would also want extreme portability, convenience and a minimum of devices to manage. I would need something I can carry around offices and use while standing up in hallways or at someone's desk. As soon as you need something that can be used while you are actually on your feet, then you are talking extreme portability. And when I'm stuck in endless hotel rooms, airports and taxi cabs, I would want a tablet for casual needs. A convertible would give me a decent keyboard when working, the convenience of the tablet form factor in mobility-challenged situations, and only one device to carry and manage. So right now, that would be my preference. But at other times, in other situations, it wouldn't be. It all depends!

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