It’s time to talk about 2-in-1 devices (My Samsung Tab S4 review)

The Samsung Tab S4 checks off an impressive number of boxes.

Mostly, I try to avoid the fray around 2-in-1 devices. We all have our preferences, so let’s just pick our favorites and be done with it. However, there are so many opinions out there that it’s hard to sit on the sidelines; plus Samsung sent me a Galaxy Tab S4 to review. I seem to write device reviews about once a year, so now it’s time.

The setup

Every time someone makes a new device that tries to be more than just a pure tablet or a laptop, we hear the same arguments:

Mobile operating systems can’t do real work—You need a keyboard/mouse/desktop UI to do real work.

Multitasking workflows on mobile are better than ever before—look at iOS Shortcuts, based on Workflow.

People made fun of PCs and mice when they were new too.

Tablets still aren’t PCs.

Billions of people use phones as their primary devices, and kids born after about 2003 can’t remember a time without smartphones.

Seriously, these arguments are irresistible. Also see: If journalists reviewed Macs like iPads by Fraser Speirs; “2 in 1” PCs: A Confusing Marketing Moniker by Steve Sinofsky, inspired by The quest to build the impossible laptop at Gizmodo; and  The Pen(cil) is Mightier Than the Mouse by Ben Bajarin.

Do you want a tablet or a laptop?

We all have our own idea of want we think we want in a device, but if we boil it down, the ultimate 2-in-1 tablet/laptop hybrid would simply be a single device that could both be a perfect tablet (with our preferred mobile OS, and traditional tablet hardware) and a perfect laptop (again, with our preferred OS and all the hardware features we want).

Of course, there’s no way we’re getting a perfect 2-in-1. Practically speaking, the engineering, physics, and geometry challenges are significant. And logically, a hybrid device is never going to be as good as a single-purpose device. There have to be compromises.

My favorite thing to do is take big arguments and break them down into smaller chunks, so let’s take a closer look at how the compromises in a 2-in-1 manifest themselves.

For the hardware, most devices are either closer to a tablet or closer to a laptop.

Devices that are closer to tablets don’t have solidly attached keyboards, making them harder to use in your lap. Some don’t even have real moving keys, or have keys that are smaller than normal. Thanks to geometry, some keyboard covers are more stable, but don’t have space for a mouse (like the Tab S4 or new iPad Pro Folio). Some keyboard covers do have space for a mouse, but then they have a flexible hinge and a kickstand, and you pretty much need a table to work (like the Microsoft Surface Pro). (The solid Brydge keyboards look like a cool solution, though.)

If your hybrid device is closer to the laptop side, often with a keyboard hinge that bends around 360 degrees, then you have a good, stable typing platform and room for a trackpad. However, these things don’t make a good tablet, since they’re so heavy and thick. And, with the keyboard folded around 360 degrees, the keys are susceptible to dirt and damage and they feel weird to hold. Some hybrid laptops have detachable keyboards, but it seems like good mechanisms are hard to find.

On the software side, some mobile operating systems (i.e., iOS, most Android tablets) still don’t provide a desktop-level multitasking UI; and some desktop OSes (i.e., Windows 10) still don’t have a large array of touch-based apps. And it goes without saying, but if you’re a macOS and iOS user, you’re stuck with Apple’s very conservative approach, which is barely tipping its toe into hybrid devices, compared to the rest of the industry.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4

This brings us to the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4. I’ve had a review unit—including the S Pen, which comes with the $650 tablet, and the keyboard cover, which is an additional $150—for a few weeks now. Considering all the compromises a hybrid device has to make, it comes out very well.

As a tablet, you get a real mobile operating system and good hardware. It has a 10.5” screen that looks great, and the thickness, weight, and bezels are all in line with what you would expect from a flagship tablet these days. I like the way the S Pen feels on the screen, though I think there are better drawing systems out there. There’s no home button, but it can use the camera to unlock the screen by scanning your iris, which works okay, but not as well as Face ID on an iPhone.

I’m not doing tablet reviews every day, so I haven’t compared it to everything on the market, but my overall impression is that it seems fine and passes the straight face test. Here are the full specifications.

tablet or a laptop samsung tab s4 front view
The Samsung Galaxy Tab S4, here shown with a Linux desktop

For something that’s such a pure tablet, the Tab S4 does a great job at being a laptop. Using DeX, the Android UI can go into a desktop mode: There are free floating windows; desktop-style icons and menus; support for an external mouse, right clicking, and ALT+TAB to switch apps; and much more.

tablet or a labtop linux desktop
The desktop in DeX mode

I think DeX is way more useful on a tablet than on a phone, which I tested last year. DeX can support an external display—the DeX desktop runs on the monitor, while the tablet stays in the conventional mobile UI. (It will be cool if and when they can update this to function like an extended desktop, instead.) Samsung’s email and browser apps have been written to take advantage of the desktop mode, so I’d recommend just starting out with those—the browser even works with the the CMS that runs BrianMadden.com.

You can also run Linux if you want to; beta support for Linux on DeX is available now for the Tab S4 and Note9.

When you’re working on the go, the geometry of the keyboard cover makes it fairly stable, and it has real keys, though they are on the small side and take some getting used to. There’s no trackpad, but the S Pen can substitute in a lot of cases.

tablet or a laptop side view
The geometry of the Tab S4 makes it actually possible to type in your lap, without a desk or table

There are a few caveats, besides the no-trackpad compromise. Most important, your appreciation of the Tab S4 will depend on what you think of the operating systems. While Android in DeX mode and Linux give you a lot of options, neither are a mainstream desktop OS. You might find yourself wanting for certain apps, or having to re-tool some of your workflows.

There are just a few other minor quibbles: The S Pen holder falls off easily; the outside of the keyboard cover feels like cheap vinyl; and the cover is hard to remove when you just want to use it as a tablet.

But again, my overall assessment is positive: It checks off a lot of the desired features for both tablets and laptops. I’m impressed with the work that Samsung is putting in DeX, and if I had to make this my only device, I could live with it.

The challengers

Writing about the Tab S4 got me thinking of some other devices out there, and how many boxes they check off in the tablet and laptop columns.

Microsoft Surface Pro

Let’s start with the Microsoft Surface Pro. Personally, it just never checked off enough boxes for me.

On the one hand, it has a real desktop operating system, nice hardware, and a trackpad. But on the other hand, it’s neither a pure tablet or a laptop. As a laptop, it’s lacking a real solid keyboard, and as a tablet, it’s simply big and heavy, and there aren’t many real tablet apps for it. It’s just a compromise through and through.

People seem to like Surface Pros because they’re lighter and higher quality than a lot of laptops, but at the same time, they complain that they’re not usable in your lap, and I almost never see anyone holding one like a tablet. I just can’t help but think these users would be better off just buying a high-quality laptop. (I know there are a lot of Surface Pro users in our audience, so I’m bracing myself for the comments about this!)

iPad Pro

Next, the iPad Pro. iPads are the most popular tablets in the world for good reason, but the iPad Pro is just too far on the tablet end of the spectrum to provide anything close to a laptop experience. Granted, there are probably millions of consumers out there that could get by with one of these, but not me. (Many reviewers have said the same thing, and somewhere I saw a tweet calling this the “Schrödinger’s laptop” effect.)

Google Pixel

There’s a lot to like about Google’s Chrome OS devices: They’re well-built, and they do a decent job of striking the balance by having both a real desktop OS and a real mobile OS (via support for Android apps). Again, whether or not you agree with this will assessment depend on your opinions of Chrome OS and Android on Chrome OS. With Google’s Chrome OS devices, you get to choose between hardware that’s more like a tablet or a laptop.

On the tablet side, you have the Pixel Slate, which is coming soon. It seems like it has good specifications for a large tablet, but I haven’t had my hands on one. It also has a trackpad, but at the expense of having a floppy keyboard that pivots where it connects to the tablet.

On the laptop side, you have the Pixelbook, which has some seriously awesome hardware. Every other laptop maker needs to look at this for an example of how to make a good fold-around 2-in-1 laptop. Having said that, it’s a bit awkward as a tablet, but usable.

Conclusion

Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised by how well the Tab S4 comes off when logically thinking through the challenges of hybrid devices. But also, it’s clear that the direction of Chrome OS devices give pure Android tablets—even with DeX and Linux—some competition.

If you’re willing to make a few compromises, there are plenty of good options out there. There’s a lot of diversity, too; though really, most of us already have our own preferences that rule out certain options.

Personally, I’m not ready to make the compromises for any 2-in-1 on the market. I have a pure laptop, and I have a pure tablet, and they’re both excellent devices

Postscript: The other thing that’s important for those of us in the enterprise EUC space is that by using web, mobile, and SaaS apps, combined with EMM, identity management, and the “workspace” concepts, it’s easier than ever before to accommodate all these devices.

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