updated 10:35 pm EDT, Sat March 15, 2014
iPad Air, Surface 2, HP Chromebook 11 go head-to-head
The mobile space is probably the most hotly contested space in the tech industry at the moment. It used to be the case that when you wanted to get work done on the go, a full-powered notebook was the one and only way to go. While notebooks and ultrabooks still play a vital role in keeping people productive on the go, the rise of tablets has led to a revolution in how people are staying productive on the go -- at least for light Office-style productivity and creative tasks. Three devices staking a claim for this space include the Apple iPad Air, the Microsoft Surface 2 and the HP Chromebook 11, although each is distinctly different. If productivity is an important criteria when choosing a mobile device, which of these is the one to get?
Office-style productivity on the iPad Air
Since its launch in 2010, the Apple iPad has made believers out of the doubters who thought that it was only a content consumption device. As Apple has effectively illustrated in its marketing campaign for the iPad Air, it is used by people from all walks of life in a wide range of ways to facilitate work and play. For the lucky ones, where work and play collide in the arts, photography, movies and music creation, the iPad is great device. However, when it comes to Office-style productivity, the on screen software keyboard won't cut it for most people necessitating the separate purchase of a Bluetooth keyboard. This, of course, affects the overall value equation when purchasing an iPad Air over the competition.
Thankfully, there are numerous accessories for iPad users that add keyboard input over a Bluetooth connection. Logitech, Belkin and Kensington are among the best options, although these tend to start at around $80 and go well over $100 and can add bulk and weight to the device. Although battery life is usually good for several months, it is yet another accessory that requires charging, while the overall typing experience is not the best, usually due to smaller keys and inadequate key travel. They also lack a mouse input and require users to use the iPad touch screen to navigate the cursor when working in a word processor or spreadsheet -- a solution that Apple has thus far avoided in its own notebook line as it believes that a multi touch mouse is ergonomically preferable.
Apple offers its iWork productivity suite to iOS users for free and while useful, and compatible with Microsoft Office, it is not really a fully fledged Office replacement. You can, of course, opt to use Microsoft Office in the cloud or Google Docs if you prefer. The experience can be quite comfortable if you are using an Apple Bluetooth keyboard and a stand of some sort for for your iPad, but you will need a table or hard surface. If you are using one of the folio-style keyboard covers for the iPad or a cover with in-built keyboard combination, you also really need a table to type on as well. Move this type of set up to your lap on a train or bus, and the overall experience is a lot less than desirable. Let's face it, if Apple thought that this was the way to go, it would have offered a similar accessory itself. But as it is currently a sub-optimal experience, it is hasn't bothered pursuing this approach itself.
Office-style productivity on the Microsoft Surface 2
The Microsoft Surface 2 followed on the heels of a disappointing launch for the original Surface. Microsoft wrote off nearly $1 billion in inventory having failed to convince consumers that it was a better option than the iPad, forcing it into steep discounts on the original model. The fact that they are still selling that model shows that they still haven't cleared inventory, despite their best efforts. Still, the company has pushed forward with the Surface 2, that ships with Windows 8.1 out of the box, and the much more powerful Tegra 4 quad-core processor. While Windows 8.1 has plenty of critics, and justifiably so, it actually makes sense when running on the Surface, perhaps more so than using Windows 8.1 on a notebook or a desktop. Switching between the tile-based Modern UI for entertainment and the desktop for Office productivity is a surprisingly good fit (if hard to explain to the average consumer from a marketing perspective - especially the bit about the differences between Intel and ARM-based Windows 8 devices).
The Surface 2 is what Microsoft likes to call a "tablet PC", which is designed to allow users to enjoy the entertainment possibilities of a touch screen tablet, but still enjoy the productivity of a notebook when on the go. Whether that is the best strategy for a tablet device is debatable, but it does help position the Surface 2 as an excellent proposition from a productivity perspective. Coupled with its controversial operating system is an innovative approach to tablet design. Like the original Surface, the Surface 2 incorporates a kickstand, although this time it can be positioned at two angles, the second of which makes it much more comfortable to type with the Surface 2 on your lap. It has also been designed from the start to incorporate a detachable keyboard, which comes in the form of either a Touch Cover, Type Cover, or Power Cover. The first two are also available with keyboard backlighting, while the latter does not include keyboard lighting, but includes an embedded battery, good for giving the Surface 2 an additional seven hours of battery life.
Sweetening the productivity deal further, the Surface 2 also comes with Office at no additional charge. Although Microsoft will eventually release a touch optimized version of Office for the iPad, the fact that it currently ships for the Surface is definitely an edge for users looking for a tablet that puts Office-style productivity first. Although Office for the Surface is not currently touch optimized, it works well with the integrated keyboard touch pad, which is quite accurate and usable. Setting it up for work and closing it up is a breeze, as is carrying it around the office for meetings. While it is not as comfortable as using a regular notebook on your lap, partly because the keyboard covers flex somewhat, getting work done on it is eminently possible, although remains best on a flat surface. The fact that it is purpose made with Office-style productivity central to its purpose makes it a clear pick over the iPad Air for this purpose. Yet, although it lacks the amazing app selection that iPad Air users enjoy, it is still a good entertainer when the job is done.
Office-style productivity on the HP Chromebook 11
The HP Chromebook 11 is the result of a joint design effort between Google and HP. The result is probably the nicest looking budget notebook that you can buy. Although not a tablet, it a direct competitor for the Apple iPad in the competition for the education market. This also makes it worthwhile considering as an option for consumers users looking for an alternative to the iPad for getting work done on the go. It also uses an ARM-based mobile processor, which helps to qualify it for this direct comparison. While the Samsung Exynos 5 Dual chip is nothing to write home about from a performance perspective, the overall design of the notebook, its excellent 1366x768 IPS LED backlit LCD display and 100GB of free Google Drive storage makes it an attractive proposition for someone looking for a productivity-first mobile device on the go.
The HP Chromebook 11 uses Google's much improved Chrome OS, which is much less dependent on having access to an always on Internet connection. Applications that can now be used offline include Google Docs and Email, and with Office compatibility you will be able to get plenty done on the go. As an added bonus, Chrome Remote Desktop also allows you to access your PC or Mac desktop when on the go as well, helping to ensure that if you're Chromebook hasn't got something you need to get the job done, you have a solid back up option although performance isn't going be like running Mac OS X or Windows natively. Chrome OS, like on the Surface 2, allows you to work with two documents side-by-side, which can often come in handy from an Office-style productivity perspective.
The HP Chromebook weighs only 2.3 pounds (1.03kg), which makes it the heaviest option here although this makes it lighter than many ultrabooks. It has a similar level of instant-on capability to the iPad Air and Surface 2, so it makes it very easy to toss in a backpack and get up and running in a flash, while throwing it back in your backpack is just as easy. The keyboard is comfortable to use and the trackpad works quite well too. A clever tapered leading edge also makes typing a more comfortable experience. The classy 11.6-inch display is also the largest and makes reading and viewing documents easier on the eyes. Downsides include the relatively short battery life at around 5-6 hours and a relatively poor stand-by time when not in use. Entertainment options are sound, but trying to control touchscreen-first games with a mouse isn't particularly enjoyable, though watching movies and listening to music while you work is possible.
If you are looking for a lightweight, compact, productivity-first solution, it is hard go past the Microsoft Surface 2. Even if Windows 8.1 RT has not exactly set the world on fire, the Surface 2 is the best tablet you can buy if you need to get Office-style productivity done on the go. The way that it integrates a backlit keyboard with its dual position stand means that you can set it up just about anywhere from a coffee table, or on your lap, and get meaningful productive work done. We prefer it to a notebook for its lightweight, rugged finish that makes it a snap to set up and pop away in a flash. It also has excellent battery life, and is right up there with the all-day power of the latest Intel 'Haswell' based notebooks. Although it lacks many of the apps of the iPad Air, including the creative applications like Garageband, the fact that the latest version of Office is included for free makes it a compelling option. Watching video, while also being able to simultaneously get other things done is a bonus.
The Chromebook is also a better productivity-first proposition than the iPad Air. Even if it is somewhat underpowered and suffers from its limitations as a thin client, web-reliant OS, its compact notebook form factor, ability to use Google Docs offline, excellent display and attractive pricing push it past the iPad Air. It's below average battery life counts against it, and while there are offline games available and access to Google Play Movies and Music for entertainment, it is not as compelling as the iPad Air or the Surface 2 from an entertainment perspective.
Although people are able to get plenty of work done on the iPad Air, it is more suitable for creative professionals in this regard. For creative professionals, the iPad Air may prove to be the most compelling option for getting work done. However, when it comes to Office-style productivity, even though Apple offers its iWork suite for free, you are still going to have to find a third-party folio/keyboard combination to make it properly useful in this regard. Even then, the overall user experience is not great, which is perhaps why Apple has declined to support the iPad in this way even though there is a booming aftermarket keyboard accessory market that it could easily tap into if it wanted.
If this was an entertainment first analysis, the iPad Air would come out on top, followed by the Surface 2 and then the HP Chromebook 11. If you want to get a more all-round look at the capabilities of each device, read our full reviews of the Apple iPad Air, the Microsoft Surface 2 and the HP Chromebook 11.
By Sanjiv Sathiah