Microsoft was right all along

A user types on the Surface Pro 8.
Could this be the future? | Photo by Becca Farsace/MovieBeat

If you’ve been tracking the laptop space for the past couple years or so, you’ve probably noticed that the detachable laptop is on the rise. Several high-end models that were once traditional 2-in-1s (i.e., an old-school laptop that can also fold backwards) have slowly but surely been converted to form factors removable keyboards.

It’s by no means a new idea – the Surface Pro has been around for years. But as more companies add the form factor to their premium lines, it seems the space in general is warming up to the idea that Microsoft was right all along.

Recent examples include:

  • Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1, once one of the best traditional convertibles you can buy, has become a folio-style detachable this year.
  • Lenovo has retired the convertible option in some ThinkPad lines in recent years. The new Z Series, for example, doesn’t have a convertible option – the company told me it was considering adding one early in the planning process, but felt convertibles were a much smaller market than the shells. But now there are detachable ThinkPads (and the keyboards still have the TrackPoint).
  • Asus’ ExpertBook line just got its first arm-powered detachable, the Detachable ExpertBook B3.
  • Speaking of Dell, the Latitude line, known for having some of the best business convertibles, now has a few detachables as well.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 on a stone table in laptop mode with the stylus attached to the top.  The screen displays a Windows wallpaper.
Image: Dell
Introducing the new XPS 13 2-in-1.

I’ve asked a few companies about this decision over the past year, and the answers have all been variations of what you might expect: customers just aren’t really interested in 2-in-1s. traditional. And as someone who’s used a ton of it, it’s not hard to see why.

There are inherent characteristics of the laptop form factor – especially with the direction it’s headed these days – that run counter to what you’d expect from a good tablet. An example: weight. Typically, laptops over about three pounds are just too heavy to comfortably hold and carry like a tablet. (I suspect that’s part of the reason the 15-inch convertibles, which some companies were pushing in the late 2010s, have largely lost steam.) There’s also the fact that holding a convertible like a tablet often means holding the keyboard (which makes it feel a little weird) or pressing the keyboard into the ground (which can lead to scratches and general dirtying).

Glasses are also increasingly becoming a problem. High-end laptops are moving toward higher screen-to-body ratios, and smaller bezels have long been a big part of what many reviewers are willing to call a “modern” look. But good tablets should retain some degree of bezel because people need something to hold, and holding (and smudging and potentially accidentally clicking) a usable part of a tablet’s screen isn’t optimal.

For a long time, 2-in-1s were a compromise: it was difficult to fit laptop-grade internals into a tablet, and a full-size keyboard gave them a place to live. But as processors become more energy efficient and more companies adopt hybrid architecture, this is becoming less and less true. (I mean, come on, the M1 now powers the iPad.) And it frees up businesses to focus on why customers have always loved convertible laptops. It’s not just a touchscreen, and it’s not just a tent mode. It’s portability – and detachables offer what convertibles couldn’t.

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