I can pinpoint the moment I vowed never again to use my laptop on an airplane. It was last October, and I was somewhere between New York and Atlanta, drenched in my seatmate’s Diet Coke. My computer — an almost brand-new Macbook Air — was maybe dead, maybe just drying out. I hoped I had gotten to the soda before it had gotten to the keys. (I did.)
For lawyers, deciding not to take out the laptop isn’t an option. Clients and colleagues demand that they be equipped, connected and ready to go, no matter where they happen to be.
But is there a better way than lugging around a traditional laptop? That’s the promise of several types of alternative devices — a market segment that is more developed, competitive and compelling than ever. It includes tablets, which are increasingly handling sophisticated applications, from document annotation to e-discovery. There are also the so-called convertibles — laptops that can morph into tablets with simple flexing or folding. And a relatively new addition is Chromebooks — inexpensive, low-frills devices that look like laptops but are essentially web browsers with keyboards.
Could any of these truly replace a standard laptop for a mobile lawyer? Should law departments be considering these devices for their next hardware refresh? Here is a hands-on look at each.
The irony of my airborne misadventure was that I wasn’t using the keyboard, which is the weak point for spills, since liquid can so easily work its way to a computer’s inner workings. I was simply reviewing a document. If a device really could act as a tablet for content consumption and as a laptop for content creation, with the keyboard out of the way when you don’t need it, that would be tempting.
Of all PC manufacturers, Lenovo is probably the most enthusiastic about the convertible concept. Its Yoga series — available in 11- and 13-inch versions — uses a special hinge that lets you rotate the display 360 degrees. This means you can configure the Yoga in four different “modes.” In laptop mode, the device looks and works like a conventional laptop. In tablet mode, the keyboard is flipped completely behind the display, out of sight. In tent mode, the keyboard and display are positioned in an inverted V, which lets you put the display upright on a table without the keyboard getting in the way. Stand mode also gives you an upright display, but in a configuration that looks like an L instead of a V.
The flexibility provided by this approach is amazing. Tent mode is perfect for an airline tray table, or anyplace where space is tight. You can easily read documents without the keyboard getting in the way, but since the Yoga display is a touchscreen, you can also tap out emails and do light writing and editing. Tent mode also works well when you need a second display: You simply set the Yoga, keyboard flipped out of sight, next to another PC. When I needed a full-blown keyboard, all I had to do was bend the display back into laptop mode. The hinge on both models was sturdily built — once in the position you desire, the screen and keyboard stay in place.
As a standard laptop, the 13-inch Yoga is fast and capable (the $999 unit I tested had a Core i5 CPU, 4 gigabytes of RAM, and a 128-gigabyte solid state drive). But tablet mode was less successful. At 3.4 pounds, more than twice the weight of an iPad, and even a bit heavier than leading ultrabooks like the 3-pound Macbook Air and Lenovo’s own ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the device is just too big and heavy to become your everyday tablet.
The 11-inch Yoga worked better as a tablet, but is still a hefty 2.8 pounds. It also uses a less potent CPU than its bigger sibling — an NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor versus an Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 — and only runs Windows RT apps (the 13-inch version runs Windows 8). In the end, the 11-inch Yoga isn’t much different than a Microsoft Surface tablet paired with a keyboard — a combination that is lighter and even more portable than the Yoga 11. (At press time, Lenovo was readying a new version of the smaller Yoga that will run Windows 8.)
The idea of a lightweight, inexpensive, bare-bones laptop isn’t new. Just a few years ago, netbooks were all the rage. But using them meant too many sacrifices. The screen was too small — often just 8 or 9 inches; the keyboards too cramped. And most were painfully slow, hobbled by lightweight, inexpensive, base-model CPUs.
But Chromebooks — which run a Linux-based operating system from Google Inc. called Chrome instead of a Windows or Mac OS — offer a different set of compromises. Chromebooks have larger screens and keyboards than most netbooks, but they are designed for Web-based programs. You can’t load traditional software like Microsoft Office, iTunes or even Skype on them. Everything has to run through the Chromebook’s browser, or via Chrome-based apps you can download from Google’s Chrome Web Store.
That’s a significant limitation, though perhaps not as much as it seems. Google’s own web-based apps — like Google Docs for word processing — work fine, as will most anything that can be run via a web browser. That includes Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, which let you view Office documents and do some basic editing. You can surf the Internet, you can access Dropbox documents via that service’s website, and you can check email if you use Gmail or another web-based provider.
No professional is ever going to use a Chromebook as a primary computer. But for $249, is it good enough for a travel use? It’s true that the Chromebook is designed with an Internet connection in mind (the Samsung model that I tested, for example, ships with just 16 gigabytes of built-in storage, although you get 100 gigabytes of space on Google’s cloud-based Google Drive for free for two years). But some Chromebook apps, like Google Docs, can be configured for offline use.
Samsung’s 2.5-pound Chromebook was impressive for the price. The keyboard was full-size and responsive. The screen, while no star, was perfectly adequate. Web pages didn’t load with lightning speed, but it was acceptable.
But in the end, the Chromebook is too restrictive for a mobile lawyer. I didn’t like having to convert documents back and forth between Google Docs and Word. And I didn’t think the selection of offline-capable apps was big or interesting enough. Many legal departments might be put off, too, by the cloud-centric orientation of the device, which can raise issues about security and control of sensitive documents.
When it comes to surfing sites at Starbucks, the Chromebook is fine. But for roll-up-the-sleeves day-job stuff, requiring collaboration and some old software favorites, it’s a great idea that Google hasn’t quite pulled off — yet.
Every so often I’ll run into a lawyer who says he has replaced his laptop with an iPad. To me, this is the 21st-century version of “my commute is a half hour.” From the beginning, tablets have seemed like a supplement to a laptop, not a successor.
But is that perception still accurate? Apple Inc.’s current iPad, after all, is a lightweight (1.4-pound) speed demon with a ton of killer software. For lawyers, there are PDF annotation, note-taking, and even trial-related apps galore. But you can’t easily type on it. Sure, there are add-on keyboards, but they are all too clearly “add-on”: They fit awkwardly, work awkwardly or force you to carry two pieces of hardware.
Microsoft Corp.’s Surface tablet, meanwhile, manages to do the one thing that Apple hasn’t — create a tablet where the keyboard truly feels like an integrated part of the device, thanks to Microsoft’s innovative “Type Cover”. You can type long documents on the Surface, and that’s not just because the keyboard and tablet fit, and travel, so well together. It’s more because of one small touch: The Surface keyboard has a trackpad, while Apple’s iOS does not yet support trackpads. It seems like a little thing, but it really makes a difference. The Surface also scores points for the ability to use a full-featured version of Microsoft Office, instead of third-party apps that mimic many, but not all, Office functions.
But the Surface still has flaws that keeps it from replacing laptops altogether. It has a fairly steep learning curve, especially compared to the iPad. The Surface RT version only runs Windows Store apps, and there aren’t a whole lot of those yet that will interest most lawyers. The Pro version, meanwhile, will run any Windows 7 or 8 software, but at its weight (a full 2 pounds) and price (more than $1,000 for tablet and cover), a convertible looks appealing.
That leaves the iPad Mini. It is startlingly light and thin (about 11 ounces, and barely a quarter of an inch thick). It’s far easier to hold for long periods — like when standing before a jury, or on a train — than the full-size iPad. And it offers far more screen real estate than you would expect for a 7.9-inch tablet, about 80 percent the size of its bigger, nearly 10-inch, sibling. I could see a lot of lawyers taking this with them everywhere — but as a replacement for a full-size iPad, not for a laptop.
So where does this leave a lawyer looking for a new mobile workhorse? Right now, the best option is clearly a convertible. A few years down the road, a tablet might fit the bill, depending on how the market shakes out. But one thing is clear: For conventional laptops, those days on the road are numbered. •