I need to replace my old Acer Aspire netbook running Windows 7. I am on a pretty tight budget: ideally, no more than £350. I am frequently backpacking, so it needs to be light enough to travel but reasonably solid. Also, I have a 30GB music collection and want to run iTunes on my new device, as well as browse the web, watch films etc.
I’m open to considering a laptop, netbook, hybrid or tablet. Microsoft Surface tablets are too expensive, and Android devices don’t run iTunes. I have considered an Apple iPad, but I write a blog and need a keyboard. Please could you suggest something? Stephen
The Acer Aspire One was launched in 2008, and many different models appeared over the next five years or so. Even if you have one of the later versions, any current Windows netbook or laptop should outperform it. However, you should buy something that’s a step up from a netbook, both to handle your large iTunes library and to provide headroom for future uses.
Today’s entry-level netbooks have 2GB of memory and 32GB of eMMC chip storage, and cost around £150 to £250. More powerful systems cost roughly £250 to £400. I’m expecting prices to rise because the value of the pound has fallen following the Brexit vote. Also, some memory chips and solid-state drives (SSD) seem to be in short supply, which is increasing prices.
Cheap Windows 10 devices usually store data on 32GB or 64GB eMMC flash memory chips, which are much like SD cards. They are cheaper and faster than the traditional hard drives used in netbooks and laptops, but not as fast as actual SSDs, which are commonly 128GB to 512GB or more.
You would need a 128GB SSD to provide enough space for Windows 10 upgrades, assorted applications and your 30GB of iTunes music, but this will push up the cost. It would be cheaper to buy a system with 64GB of eMMC and put your music on a large SD card. In fact, a £20 64GB SD card would hold all your music and several movies.
As mentioned here previously, Windows 10 will run on low-spec machines, but upgrades can be tricky if you have only 32GB of storage. Some Windows 10 upgrades – like the new creators edition due next week – are installed as new operating systems. You therefore need room for the OS, the new OS download, and a backup copy of the old OS, which Windows 10 keeps in case it needs to roll back the upgrade. You can usually do the upgrade by plugging in a spare SD card or USB hard drive, but it’s a complication I’d prefer to do without.
You may need to use the same SD card solution if you buy an Android tablet, because most have only 16GB or 32GB of storage.
Windows tablets and convertibles
There are dozens of types of Windows machine in formats that range from USB sticks to server farms, but the 2-in-1s that concern us here are detachables and convertibles. Detachables put the electronics behind the screen so they still work as tablets after you detach the keyboard. Convertibles put the electronics under the keyboard, and have 360-degree hinges so that you can fold the keyboard behind the screen. Both types look like – and work like – traditional laptops, but convertibles are thicker and heavier when in tablet mode.
You can also, of course, add an external keyboard to any Apple or Android tablet, bearing in mind that this is an extra cost. However, they are usually less well integrated, and the keyboards are often quite poor. I eventually solved this problem by buying a Microsoft Universal Mobile keyboard, which works with Windows, Android and Apple smartphones and tablets. There’s also a newer foldable version, which I have not tried.
Possible Windows options
You should be aiming for a 2-in-1 with the fastest possible processor, 4GB or 8GB of memory, and 64GB or 128GB of storage. In your price range, the fastest processor will probably be an Intel Atom, though you can sometimes get a Core m3 or m5. However, a Cherry Trail x5 or x7 Atom would be fast enough for your purposes.
In a recent answer, I suggested last year’s Lenovo Miix 310, which has an Atom x5-Z8350 processor, 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage for a current web price of £279.99. This has a 10.1in screen, which is a bit small for my eyes, but it’s a solid machine and quite light: the tablet weighs 580g and the keyboard dock 520g. This year’s improved Lenovo Miix 320 with 128GB is still not available.
However, in your case, I’d recommend the similar 10.1in HP x2 10-p005na detachable, which has the same x5-Z8350 and 4GB of memory for £329. However, it has both 64GB of eMMC storage and a 500GB hard drive with no gain in weight (it’s 1.09kg against the Lenovo’s 1.10kg). You could carry a lot of music and movies on a 500GB HD.
There are several other versions of this machine around. HP offers the Pavilion x2 12-b100na, which has a higher-resolution 12in screen, a Core m3-6Y30 processor, 128GB SSD and an Active Stylus for £449. I find this a more practical screen size, but it increases the weight (760g tablet, 1.47kg total). The BT shop has a 10.1in x2 210 G2 with a 128GB SSD for £384.10 (590g tablet, 1.2kg total). Both of these are over your budget, but 128GB SSDs are not cheap.
If you buy from HP, pay the extra £29 for three years of pickup and return service.
Otherwise, you could get a much better specification for your money by buying a second hand or (preferably) refurbished Microsoft Surface Pro on eBay. The Surface Pro 2 is particularly cheap and is great for watching movies, but not so good for sound (you need headphones). The drawback is that you might soon have to pay for a replacement battery, cost unknown.
How about China?
Long-time reader Brian Robertson has complained that we’re all buying Chinese-made laptops and smartphones, but I never recommend Chinese brands in Ask Jack. The problem is that I have no way to try them without buying them. I have mentioned Teclast, which sells some dual-boot tablets that run both Windows 10 and Android, and other readers have pointed out that Linx now offers 10in (£219.99) and 12in (£279.99) detachables with 4GB of memory and 64GB of eMMC storage.
iTunes to Android
As you say, Android smartphones and tablets can’t run iTunes. However, you can copy your music library to an Android device using DoubleTwist software on your Windows PC or Mac, and play it with the DoubleTwist Music Player. Yes, it can handle playlists. There are several alternatives, including Sync iTunes to Android Pro, but DoubleTwist is bidirectional and works well. The basic version is free, but there’s a Pro version with extra features such as AirSync.
Unfortunately, I have the same problem with Android tablets: I only see the major brands, such as Apple, Amazon, Samsung and Lenovo. And since I always have my 6in Android smartphone and/or a Windows 10 tablet/convertible handy, I also don’t have any practical use for them. I can understand why tablet sales are in decline.
If you really want to travel light, just take a smartphone or phablet and a good portable mini-keyboard. If you want more functionality, more storage and a bigger screen, add a Windows 10 hybrid. You don’t need a separate tablet.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com