30th Jun 2013 | 15:53
Bi-polar portable proposition attempts to fuse Ultrabook and tablet functionality
An Ultrabook and a tablet. Two devices for the price of one. That's the Gigabyte U2142's primary sales pitch. But does it add up?
Not all that long ago, it wouldn't have had a hope. There simply wasn't an operating system fit for dual-role duties. But now there's Windows 8, built from the ground up for precisely this bi-polar portable proposition.
OK, Windows 8 is far from perfect. In fact, it's shot through with niggles and annoyances. But it's still the best full-power, dual-mode OS for laptops and tablets yet. And it is usable.
Whatever, it would be unfair to hold Gigabyte to account for Windows 8 deficiencies. But what we can do is assess it as both a laptop and a tablet machine. Does it truly deliver, or is it a bit pants at both?
We can also size it up against the competition. That's probably the trickiest task, both in terms of picking the Gigabyte U2142's adversaries and for the Gigabyte itself. The competition is getting tougher by the moment.
First up, the tablet-convertible market is a bit of a minefield of form factors, shapes, sizes and swivelling screens. There are systems where the screen and keyboard segments entirely separate, like the HP Envy x2.
Then there's the solution Gigabyte has gone for, which involves a central swivelling hinge that allows the screen to rotate through a 180 degress and then fold back flat on top of the keyboard. Lenovo's Thinkpad Twist uses a similar swivel solution.
You'd probably have to the likes of Dell's XPS 12 that achieves essentially the same result courtesy of a screen that rotates around hinges half way up the bezel.
You could also argue that more straightfowardly pure tablet devices like Microsoft's Surface Pro should also be on your shortlist. Yup, it's pretty complicated.
The next problem involves changing technology. The Gigabyte U2142's Intel Core i5 processor is based on the Ivy Bridge CPU architecture. And that's just been replaced by a whole new family of Haswell chips.
This isn't an absolute deal breaker. Ivy Bridge CPUs still have plenty to offer. Until a few weeks ago, it was the prevailing latest and greatest mobile PC technology available to mankind. But it certainly needs to be factored into your buying decision.
No, if the Gigabyte U2142 does have weaknesses, they're elsewhere, including the modest 1,366 by 768 resolution of its 11.6-inch LCD display. With 1,080p panels becoming the norm on smartphones much less laptops and tablet convertibles, is that good enough? Time to find out.
The Gigabyte U2142 qualifies for Intel's Ivy Bridge Ultrabook spec and that guarantees rude health for the core component specifications.
That starts with an Intel Core i5-3337U processor. Nominally, it's clocked at 1.8GHz. But it can Turbo up to 2.7GHz. Factor in two hefty third-gen Core, er, cores along Hyper-threading and thus support for four software threads in parallel and you have a very solid base for attacked proper desktop class applications.
All of that is very much competitive with anything you're likely to find at this price point. The only slight snag is the aforementioned arrival of new Haswell chips from Intel.
They don't exactly blow away the Ivy Bridge, but the mere knowledge that there's something newer and potentially superior now available is certainly a distraction. However, Haswell remains so new that it will be several months before portables sporting it are widespread. If you're buying a lappie today, it's most likely going to be Ivy Bridge.
What's more, the 128GB mSATA solid-state drive is unambiguously a good thing. OK, it's not massively capacious. And it's the only drive you get. There's no magnetic drive providing mass storgae.
But it's Crucial's M4 model and thus very much a modern SSD with performance that even the fastest conventional magnetic drives for desktop can only dream about.
Rounding out the core spec is a decent 4GB of system memory and b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless comms. Intriguingly, it's also available with an optional 3G cellular adapter for maximising you mobile internet access.
There's decent wired connectivity, too, with a pair of USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, VGA and more.
Then there's the screen. It's an 11.6-inch panel with 1,366 by 768 pixels and thus not full-HD 1080P. Quite a few competing convertibles and PC tablets, including the Dell XPS 12, the Ativ Smart PC Pro and Microsoft's Surface Pro do offer 1080P, so that's a problem.
Arguably even more of an issue is th screen technology. Gigabyte has gone with a cheap TN panel just when almost everybody else is going with high-end IPS. Still, at least the touch technlogy is capacitive for optimal response and accuracy.
As for the chassis itself, we're talking a mix of plastics for the keyboard segment and plastic with a brushed metal backpanel for the screen enclosure. For the record it weighs in at 1.39kg.
Cinebench 11.5 1.2pts
3DMark FireStorm 376
Battery Eater 205 minutes
It's not often that a laptop with Intel's familiar third-generation Core processor fails to perform up to expectations. Unfortunately, Gigabyte U2142 does just that.
It scores a meagre 1.2pts in Cinebench 11.5. That's less than half the score you'd normally expect from an Intel Core i5-3337U. Whoops. There's likely something amiss with the power management in Gigabyte's BIOS as the Core i5 is set to run at just 1.3GHz.
That's a pity because there's plenty to like about the rest of the system's performance. The mSATA Crucial SSD puts in some pretty decent scores. 465MB/s reads and 191MB/s writes would have been unthinkable in any PC just a few years ago, much less a tablet convertible portable.
Random access 4K performance of 19MB/s and 34MB/s for reads and writes is again very good for such a puny system, even if Apple is about to raise the bar for storag performance with its PCI Express technology in the latest Mac portables.
As for graphics performance, well, the Intel HD Graphics 4000s core is very much a known quantity. It's not a serious gaming proposition. But it's just about capable of a few gaming larks if you knock the settings right down.
While we're talking visuals, let's have a look at the screen. If the CPU's performance is a disappointment, the screen might just be a deal breaker.
High quality LCD panels are increasingly the norm. In that context, the Gigabyte U2142's TN panel is unacceptable. The viewing angles and contrast are frankly very poor.
In a normal laptop, that might just be tolerable. In an Ultrabook it would be disappointing. But in a system that doubles as a tablet and is therefore more likely to viewing from funky angles, it's just not good enough.
At least the capacitive multitouch input works well. It's responsive, accurate and pleasant to use.
Another problem is weight. In tablet mode, it's simly too heavy to be held comfortably in one hand for any length of time. It's a problem that's not unique to the Gigabyte U2142. Convertible tend to be a bit portly.
Of course, the upside of the heft is a system that feels very solid and robust. That includes the screen pivot hinge which is always a worry on any convertible with a swivelling display.
But that's by the by. Either a system is comfortable in the hand or it isn't. This one isn't.
Having said all that, the battery life of over four hours in our brutal Battery Eater benchmark is none too shabby.
Two-in-one devices that combine laptop and tablet functionality with proper PC performance are almost definitely the future. We certainly like the idea of a single device that does all of that well.
But has technology caught up with the concept? That's the tough question the Gigabyte U2142 must answer.
The two-in-one proposition is seriously seductive and the Gigabyte U2142 delivers up to a point. It's a full function Windows 8 Ultrabook that runs all your legacy applications and offers decent battery life, on the one hand.
Then you have the option of twiddling the screen around and jumping into tablet mode, complete with a responsive touch screen and the Windows 8 Modern UI touch interface and apps.
The 128GB mSATA SSD is another strong point. OK, it's not exactly massive. But it is quick, which is arguably more critical. You can always sort the capacity problem with an external USB drive.
The Gigabyte U2142 also feels nicely put together and likely to survive the course. The all-important swivel hinge feels robust, which is reassuring.
Plenty, unfortunately. Firstly, Gigabyte needs to look into the BIOS issues that are currently causing the Intel Core i5 CPU to perform under par.
That's likely an easy fix. Much more serious is the screen quality. TN panel not only offers a mediocre 1,366 by 768 native resolution. It also sports poor contrast and viewing angles. It's simply not good enough in an age where quality IPS screens are becoming commonplace.
The sheer heft of the Gigabyte U2142 is a problem, too. As an Ultrabook, it's fine. But in tablet mode, it's much too heavy to be held in one hand with anything approaching comfort.
Performance issues aside, the Gigabyte U2142 is ultimately a flawed device. Both the screen quality and the weight of the thing seriously compromise it as a tablet proposition.
Admittedly, it works well enough as a straight Ultrabook. But if that's what you want, why pay a premium for sub-par tablet functionality? Because the harsh truth is that it's not a pleasant device to use as a tablet.
It's all a bit of a shame as the initial impression is of a high quality device that's been well engineered. Unfortunately, the more familiar you are with the Gigabyte U2142, the more obvious its shortcomings become.
That's only going to become more obvious in the coming months. We're expecting rapid progress in the tablet convertible market, partly driven by Intel's new Haswell processors. If the Gigabyte U2142 feels off the pace today, six months from now it's going to look positively antediluvian.