Windows 8 touchscreen laptops: buying advice

Windows 8 touch-screen devices come in all shapes and sizes. Here we round up some of the best laptops and hybrids currently on offer.

As soon as you see the tiled Start screen, you realise that this is a giant step for Windows. That brightly coloured screen represents Microsoft's first real attempt to bring Windows in to the brave new world of touchscreen mobile computing.

But, of course, Windows 8 isn’t only designed for tablets. It also has to run on conventional PCs as well, which is why the traditional Windows desktop can still be found lurking just beneath the surface of the candy-coloured Start screen.

This split-personality approach is either a stroke of genius or a clumsy compromise, depending on your point of view. What is clear is that Windows 8 represents a real challenge for PC manufacturers as they attempt to develop new hardware designs that will tempt you into upgrading your existing ‘untouchable’ PC.

With that in mind we decided to take a look at some of the latest touch-screen devices that are designed to work best with Windows 8.

Some of the products take a cautious toe-in-the-water approach, simply bolting a touchscreen onto their existing laptop designs from last year. That’s hardly innovative, but it does provide a gentle introduction to the touch-controls of Windows 8 while still providing you with a good old-fashioned keyboard and touchpad for when you need to get down to some office work.

Inevitably, such devices suffer from varying degrees of 'screen wobble' when you prod their touchscreens. Most manufacturers fit extra-stiff hinges, but none eliminate the problem. It also mean you need two hands to open these laptops: one to hold the base down, and one to raise the lip.

Other products embrace Windows 8 more enthusiastically, using entirely new hardware designs that attempt to provide the best of both worlds: combining the performance and flexibility of a traditional laptop with the greater mobility and touchscreen of a modern tablet.

The result is a new breed of convertible (or hybrid) devices that can function as both a laptop and as a tablet. In tablet mode, most models let you rotate the screen and use it in either landscape or portrait mode - something you can't do with a traditional laptop design.

Some of these devices tend to lean more in one direction than the other, though. Dell’s XPS 12, for example, initially looks like a fairly conventional laptop, with a 12in screen and a powerful Intel Core i7 processor that provides near desktop PC levels of performance. But its rotating screen allows you to quickly flip the display and turn the entire unit into a tablet – albeit a rather large and heavy one.

Other companies, including Asus and HP, put the emphasis more on mobility. They start with a lightweight tablet design that can easily be used for web browsing or composing a quick email, but then provide the ability to connect a keyboard so that you can also fire up Microsoft Word or Excel when you need to.

There’s no right or wrong approach here, and we've included the various designs because everyone has their own list of priorities. A device that's ideal for one person may be inappropriate for someone else.

Business users may prefer a more conventional laptop design, while undemanding home users may find a lighter tablet device more suitable for casual web browsing or watching streaming video.

Alternatively, if you need a touchscreen laptop that has enough power for editing video or playing some games, you'll want to check out our benchmark results on page xxx. You'll also find the specifications of each machine there too.

Optical drives are making a decisive exit from the ultraportable scene, so bear this in mind if you know you'll need to read or write CDs or DVDs with your computer. USB DVD writers are inexpensive - you can pick one up for £25 - but they're not nearly as convenient as built-in drives for regular use.

Windows 8 touchscreen laptops: Conclusion

With such a range of features and designs, it’s hard to pick a clear winner from this group. If you just want a conventional laptop with a good size screen and keyboard for running Microsoft Office and other productivity apps then the touch-screen laptops from Sony and Toshiba are both good choices. But if you can afford it, the strong performance and ultra-lightweight design of the Acer Aspire S7 make it an outstanding ultrabook.

Even so, we’re still not convinced that touchscreens add much value to standard laptops. Most people will get more out of the more innovative designs offered by Dell, HP and Asus here.

The Atom-based HP Envy X2 and Asus VivoTab Smart offer rather modest performance but – like a more modern version of the netbook – are still capable of handling routine computing tasks perfectly well.

If you’re on a tight budget then the VivoTab Smart is the obvious choice. However, the brilliantly designed Envy X2 justifies its higher cost, not simply because of the excellent battery life but also because of its vastly superior keyboard. It's the better option if you’re looking for an ultra-portable convertible device that will really earn its keep when you’re on the move.

But if you want true laptop power combined with the convenience of a tablet, then it’s Dell’s XPS 12 that comes closest to providing the best of both worlds. It’s not cheap, but its price isn’t outrageous when compared to more conventional ultrabooks such as the Aspire S7. And don't forget you can opt for a less-powerful model to save a few hundred pounds.

Bear in mind that the XPS 12 is considerably larger and heavier than a conventional tablet and isn't meant to replace one (battery life isn't the best, either), but that ability to use the touchscreen as you would a tablet points the way forwards to the real future of Windows 8 devices.