It’s a very good time to be looking at getting yourself a new portable computer. Even with the rand in the toilet, it’s possible to spend a relatively small amount of cash but still get yourself a PC that does everything you need for work, and even handle your entertainment needs by way of HD movies and the occasional game.

Most impressive is the fact that you can now also get PCs with touchscreens for less than six grand, a feat that just two short years ago was nothing but a pipe dream.

Thanks to the need for companies to punt Windows 8’s touch functionality, the proliferation of touch-enabled tablets, the emergence of low-cost Chromebooks and the need for the big-name PC-makers to differentiate themselves with new and interesting form factors, touchscreens have become the norm rather than the exception. Hurrah for progress!

So we rounded up three portable computers with touchscreens, none of which cost more than R6 000, and spent some time with them to see what they’re like to use as work machines.

Here’s what we found:

Acer Switch 10
Windows 8.1 Convertible
R5 500

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The Switch 10 is Acer’s attempt to create a competent Windows 8.1 PC that’s both a tablet and a full-on laptop, and they’ve done a pretty good job. For the most part, that is.

It’s nicely-specced for a convertible and as such boots up quickly (less than 15 seconds from cold), and more importantly, Windows responds well to touches as well as keyboard and touchpad input, with smooth browser scrolling no matter the site. You also get Office Home & Student 2013 with it, a really nice extra.

I didn’t feel like I waited too long for things to load, surfing the ‘net over WiFi was a pleasure, and while the 11-inch screen is only rated at 1 280×800, everything looked crisp and sharp. Colours, too, look pretty good on the Switch 10’s screen. It proved particularly well-suited to watching YouTube videos; I took to watching them in the kitchen while I prepared food, and it worked very well.

If you’d like, you can hook up an external screen but you’ll need a micro HDMI cable, as that’s the only video output the Switch 10 has to save space.

Since it’s a convertible, the Switch 10 can be detached from the dock when you need a tablet, and this mechanism is very solid. The magnets that keep everything in place are powerful and it snaps together with a satisfying click. The only downside here is that the hinge doesn’t keep the screen exactly where you leave it every time; there’s a bit too much give in it.

Now for the bad. The keyboard dock Acer has included feels incredibly cheap; I’d go so far as to throw in an “and nasty” as well. The plastic just feels rubbish, like it’s a low-cost toy made by the lowest bidder. This is mitigated somewhat by fairly nice keys and a lovely typing experience, but it’s hard to get past the awful-feeling plastic when you open and close the unit.

Specs

  • Quad-Core Intel Atom Z3735F @ 1.33GHz
  • 2GB RAM
  • 64GB Internal Storage (microSD expansion possible)
  • WiFi
  • Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013
  • 10.1-inch IPS touchscreen @ 1 200×800 with 5 touchpoints
  • 8-hour battery life
  • MicroHDMI output

Acer Switch 10 Score

Nextbook
Windows 8.1 Convertible
R2 999

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The Nextbook is the cheapest Windows 8.1 PC you can buy, but it’s surprisingly robust at the same time. You won’t use it to do any heavy lifting as the Nextbook people skimped a bit on the system RAM (1GB as opposed to the 2GB of the Switch 10), but as a basic Windows convertible that’s great for everyday use for things like email, looking stuff up online and watching videos it’s ideal.

On top of that it has a one-year subscription to Office 365 included in the price, which would cost you R750 otherwise, plus it’s a buck short of three grand (even less if you shop around), which is nothing short of spectacular value.

And it’s even competent on the physical side. The Nextbook’s build quality is surprisingly good thanks to a very sturdy 1 200×800 touchscreen, a soft-touch finish and a keyboard dock that feels both sturdy and pleasant to touch. The keyboard itself is a bit cramped however, because the unit itself is so small; I highly recommend looking into hooking up a full-sized one.

There is only one USB port, though, and it’s a MicroUSB but there’s an adapter in the box that will let you connect a full-sized USB cable to it.

The single gigabyte of RAM doesn’t hurt the Nextbook’s performance too badly, as to my surprise Office apps load quickly and I found that using them is almost smooth and responsive as it is on faster, more powerful machines.

Creating documents, sending emails on Outlook and doing general office stuff is more than fast enough on the Nextbook; you could even hook it up to an external monitor (via micro HDMI) with a keyboard and mouse set, turning it into a low-level workstation that’s cheaper than a full-blown desktop.

There isn’t much to say about the Nextbook that’s bad apart from a slightly weak hinge that also has a bit too much give in it, but for three grand you’re easily getting more than what you’re paying for so you probably won’t mind too much.

Specs

  • Quad-Core Intel Atom Z3735F @ 1.33GHz
  • 1GB RAM
  • 16GB Internal Storage (microSD expansion possible)
  • WiFi
  • Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013
  • 10.1-inch IPS touchscreen @ 1 200×800 with 10 touchpoints
  • 8-hour battery life
  • MicroHDMI output

NextBook D

Acer Chromebook C720
Chrome OS
R4 500

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Acer’s Chromebook C720 is the most traditional-looking laptop of the three, but don’t let that fool you – there is nothing traditional about it. It may look like something you’re used to, but open it up and you’ll find no Windows interface staring back at you – instead the Chromebook runs Google’s Chrome operating system, an OS that has all of Google’s amazing services integrated directly into everything.

That means you won’t even need other applications in order to run an office with it as it gives you everything you need for one price.

The Chromebook is, essentially, a window into Everything Google – it gives you access to your files via Google Drive, email is handled by Google Mail (also known as Gmail), document creation is done using Google Docs (including spreadsheets and presentations), communication is handled by Hangouts, social media is done with Hootsuite and any additional functionality you may need can be downloaded from the Chrome Web Store. It really is genius.

The only downside is you will feel like you’re doing everything with your browser, because, well, that’s pretty much what you’ll be doing as the Chromebook relies heavily on Google’s Chrome browser for its functionality. You’ll seldom be doing things in dedicated, standalone apps and instead manage everything from within the browser; you also won’t be downloading and installing traditional Windows applications on it, as the underlying software architecture is completely different.

An adjustment period may be required as you familiarise yourself with Google’s ways if you’ve been using Windows for the last 20 years, but the upside is a reduced reliance on expensive, licensed software with which to run the basic functions of your business.

And boy does it fly – it boots to the desktop in less than 6 seconds, and opens Gmail/YouTube/Docs etc. as fast as your internet connection allows.

The Chromebook is a very clever concept, and the fact that you get such a good-looking, fast and versatile machine for such a great price is a powerful argument for its adoption.

Specs

  • Dual-Core Intel Celeron 2955U @ 1.4GHz
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB Internal Storage (expandable via microSD)
  • WiFi
  • All of Google’s Cloud-based Services
  • 11.6-inch IPS touchscreen @ 1 366×768
  • 8.5-hour battery life
  • Full-sized HDMI output

Acer Chromebook Scores

Conclusion

As much as I’m impressed with the fact that you can get a full-blown Windows 8.1 laptop/convertible for less than R6k these days, even that can’t compare to the Chromebook. It’s just so fast, so good-looking and so packed with value that I can’t but award it top honours in this particular roundup.

If it’s an inexpensive PC you’re looking for to do the basic things your business demands on a daily basis, you can’t go wrong with the Chromebook. And should you absolutely have to stick with Windows, the Nextbook is a pretty good – and very cheap – alternative.

The Switch 10, while I liked how it performed, is pricy compared to the other two and has an awful keyboard dock, which takes it out of the running for anything but third place.

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.