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Microsoft was right all along

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

If you’ve been following the laptop space over the past two or so years, you’ve probably noticed that the detachable laptop is on the rise. Several high-profile models that were previously traditional 2-in-1s (that is, an old-school-looking laptop that can also bend backward) have slowly but surely been converted to detachable keyboard form factors.

This is in no way a new idea — the Surface Pro has been a thing for years on end. But as more and more companies add the form factor to their premium lines, it seems like 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 could buy, has become a folio-style detachable this year.
  • Lenovo has pulled back on 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 considered adding one early in the planning process but felt that convertibles were a much smaller market than clamshells. But there are detachable ThinkPads now (and the keyboards still have the TrackPoint).
  • Asus’ ExpertBook line just received its first Arm-powered detachable, the ExpertBook B3 Detachable.
  • Speaking of Dell — the Latitude line, known for having some of the best business convertibles out there, now has a few detachables as well.
The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 on a stone table in laptop mode with the stylus fixed to the top. The screen displays a Windows desktop background.
Image: Dell
This is the new XPS 13 2-in-1.

I’ve asked a couple 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 traditional 2-in-1s. And as someone who’s used a ton of them, it’s not hard to see why.

There are traits inherent to the laptop form factor — especially with the direction it’s going these days — that run contrary to what you’d want from a good tablet. One example: weight. In general, laptops that are over three pounds or so are just too heavy to comfortably hold and carry around as a tablet. (I suspect this is part of the reason that 15-inch convertibles, which some companies were pushing in the late 2010s, have largely petered out.) There’s also the fact that holding a convertible as a tablet often means holding the keyboard (which feels a bit weird) or pressing the keyboard into the ground (which can lead to scratches and dirty it in general).

Bezels are becoming more of an issue as well. Premium laptops have been moving toward higher screen-to-body ratios, and smaller bezels have long been a prominent element in what many reviewers are willing to credit as a “modern” look. But good tablets need to retain some degree of bezel because people need something to hold, and holding (and smudging up and potentially accidentally clicking on) a usable part of a tablet’s screen is suboptimal.

For a long time, the 2-in-1 was a compromise: it was hard to fit laptop-grade internals in a tablet, and a full-sized keyboard deck gave them a place to live. But as processors get more power-efficient and more companies embrace hybrid architecture, that’s becoming less and less true. (I mean, come on, the M1 now powers the iPad.) And it’s allowing companies to zero in on the reason that customers have liked convertible laptops all along. It’s not just a touchable screen, and it’s not just tent mode. It’s portability — and detachables offer that in a way convertibles couldn’t.

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