Android Hybrids: An Experiment in Productivity

It's time to put HP's SlateBook X2 to the test.

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Jared Newman for TIME

Yesterday morning, a package arrived from HP containing a pre-release version of its SlateBook X2 hybrid for review.

I’ve been interested in this tablet for a while, partly because I have a soft spot for hybrids, but also because I’m interested to see if Android is up to the task. A good hybrid–which I’ll define very loosely as a tablet with an attachable keyboard base–has to be sufficient for both work and play, and while my colleague Harry McCracken has no trouble pulling it off with an iPad, the fact that there’s no cursor support in iOS has always held me back. I’m not keen on the idea of constantly reaching up to touch the screen. The keyboard dock on the SlateBook X2 includes a trackpad, which should help.

Granted, the SlateBook X2 isn’t the first Android hybrid with an attachable keyboard and trackpad. Asus has been doing it for years with its Transformer tablets, but HP’s hybrid is newer, and has a faster processor with more memory. Android has also made some big leaps in the last year or so. While I’m still waiting for a great Windows hybrid, I figure it’s time to give Android a shot. That’s what I intend to do over the next several weeks.

Going in, I have some hesitations:

Cursor input: Android isn’t really designed for it. It’s only supported on the most basic level, showing a little cursor on the screen when you connect a mouse or trackpad. Things that you’d expect from a mouse-friendly operating system, such as context menus when you right-click on something, aren’t there. Right-clicking with a mouse in Android merely simulates the Back button. (The SlateBook X2’s trackpad, for that matter, doesn’t even include a secondary button.)

Multitasking: It’s not exactly hard to switch between applications–there’s a button on the bottom bar that brings up all your recent apps–but there’s no persistent taskbar or dock like you find on a Windows PC or Mac. There’s also no real windowing system in Android. Everything runs in full screen, with the exception of a few third-party apps like AirCalc and Floating Browser. But even then, with the exception of Samsung‘s phone and tablets, Android doesn’t have a quick and easy way to set up two apps side-by-side like you can in Windows 8. On a related note, Chrome for Android doesn’t let you open groups of tabs across multiple windows.

Raw power: The SlateBook X2 is has better specs than any other Android hybrid, with an Nvidia Tegra 4 processor and 2 GB of RAM, but will that be enough to handle my daily work regimen, which involves juggling lots of browser tabs, e-mail, group chat and word processing? We’ll have to see.

Clearly, I’m not expecting a “no compromise” experience. That doesn’t really exist yet. Even with Windows 8, which is better-suited for productivity than Android, the selection of tablet apps isn’t nearly as strong as Android, which itself isn’t as strong as the iPad. The question is whether an Android hybrid is “good enough” to serve both needs in a single, lightweight device, and whether the benefits of using a mobile OS outweigh the drawbacks.

That’s what I’ll be looking into over the next few weeks. I’ll make my best effort to use this device for work and play–tweaking it with apps and other customizations as needed–and will report how it goes. Even if it doesn’t work, it’ll be a fun little experiment.