Lenovo Thinkpad Helix: Is this the future of business laptops?

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Lenovo Thinkpad Helix: Is this the future of business laptops?

Thanks to tablet computers we no longer have to drag around laptops to show a presentation or flip through some documents in a meeting.

But an iPad is not exactly our first choice when we need to sit down at a computer for hours at a time. If we're typing up lengthy business proposal, or maybe working on a complicated spreadsheet, we want a laptop.

So what if you could combine the best of both worlds, with a laptop-and-tablet-in-one?

The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is an attempt to do that. It's a fully-fledged business laptop running Windows 8 Pro, but detach the screen and you can tuck your spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation under your arm. Bill Gates recently commented in this CNBC interview "It's going to be harder and harder to distinguish products, whether they're tablets or PCs." The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is an example of the trend he's referring to.

So would we buy one? We'll reserve our final judgement on the Helix for a full review, but in the meantime, this article gives our first impressions. We're going to be picky, but at $2,199 for the entry level model, we feel we should be.

Before we begin, we think it is worth mentioning that this writer was a long-time Windows user up until six months ago, when we bought an Apple computer, a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. We are very happy with that machine and in our opinion it has set the bar high for other laptops we look at.

And a note: we were told the unit loaned to us was a "production model", meaning this particular machine is not one that was intended to go on sale to the general public. We can't be sure whether that means some of the quirks we found won't show up in a model you can buy, but keep it in mind. In terms of the performance of the computer, a Lenovo spokesperson told us that the machine we used should be the same as the final model you can buy.

The good

This is a premium-quality computer. From the slightly soft, rubbery feel of the computer's shell, to the stiffness of some of the key components, the Helix gives the impression it won't fall apart easily.

The lid (the other side of the screen) picked up dirt and the odd greasy finger mark, but the dirt wiped off easily with a swipe of the hand, leaving the surface fairly clean. It's definitely better than having a shiny finish.

There’s a red light on the top of the lid, in the dot of the “i” in the ThinkPad logo, which is on when the laptop is closed - it indicates whether the laptop is in sleep mode, hibernation mode, or is off.

The ThinkPad brand has a good reputation when it comes to keyboards and the Helix didn’t disappoint us. The keys don't have that slight looseness common in some cheap laptops. They didn’t feel flimsy or "plasticky" under our machine-gun typing style.

The keyboard is just big enough for what we would call "serious" typing (more than a short email). We’d feel comfortable enough to type up long documents on this keyboard, make notes in meetings and even type up long interviews on it. Full marks here.

We are used to a 13 inch screen, but we found this 11.6 inch screen just large enough.

Touchpads are one of those features that can mean the difference between a good or bad laptop. This one we like, even though as we'll explain later, we weren't always happy when we were using it. In our opinion it's not as good as the one on our MacBook Pro, but we're yet to see a touchpad on a Windows laptop that is. Still, this one is very smooth. The touchpad has a slightly rubbery feel like the rest of the computer. We found ourselves swiping with two fingers to scroll up and down web pages, just like you might do on a MacBook.

So what about the tablet?

Having a screen that pops-off at the press of a button could be a recipe for broken parts - but on first impressions, it seems Lenovo's attention to build-quality extends to this all-important mechanism.

To detach the screen, you press a button on the left hand side of the keyboard, near the bottom of the screen. You then lift out the screen. To place it back on the keyboard again, you align the screen so that it is sitting over two prongs, or "docking posts", pointing up out of the keyboard hinge. Press down until your hear a click.

We were pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the screen detaches and reattaches.

Lenovo representatives referred to "mil-spec" - we couldn't seem to find any mention of this in the marketing material for the laptop. We've only been using the Helix for a short time, so it's hard to know how well it will stand up to long-term use, but still, the mechanism feels quite solid. The two docking posts don’t seem as though they'll snap off easily (though we'll admit we were a bit nervous about pressing them too hard).

You can also flip the screen around, so it's facing away from you, reattach it to the keyboard, and close the lid to use the Helix as a tablet with the keyboard hidden underneath - handy if you need to bring the keyboard with you.

Detaching the screen is easy and once you’ve done it, you have got something iPad users don't - a tablet capable of running a full version of Microsoft Office, as well as other programs designed for fully-fledged laptops and desktop computers.

Also excellent - starting Windows is fast. It took less than 10 seconds to get to the Windows 8 login screen on our test unit. Shutdown is quick - there's no waiting around.

Overall, the unit responds smoothly, at least in high performance mode (more on this later). We were particularly pleased with how smooth Windows 8 is to use in tablet mode. The Start Screen scrolled by nice and smoothly as we swiped the screen. Even when we were using the Helix as a laptop, we started touching the screen with our finger to close applications or makes basic choices like choosing "Yes" in pop-up windows and menus. It's sometimes faster than using a mouse or touchpad.

Along with having the sort of chip capable of running complex Windows applications (the Helix has either a variety of  Core i5 or Core i7), Windows tablets like this have the handy benefit of a USB connection, so you can plug in an external USB drive with a large store of data, or another type of USB accessory.

The tablet is heavier than an iPad, but we didn't notice it when carrying it around on its own.

The screen is noticeably bigger than the iPad, but whether that is a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion. Personally we didn't mind the large screen size. It's a bit odd at first, especially when you hold it in portrait mode - but it's handy if you're scrolling through a long document. It has IPS technology so you can see what's on the screen even if you're looking from an angle. It's also HD and doubles as a handy screen for watching movies on long business trips.

Like other Ultrabooks (the term used by various brands for their premium thin-and-light laptops) the Helix has an SSD instead of a hard disk, which means space is limited (you get a choice of 128GB, 180GB or 256GB according to the web site). But this helps save space and helps the Helix wake up quickly from sleep mode.

Lenovo categorises this as a business computer which means it also comes with some advanced features - one is the option of NFC (Near Field Communication), which is the technology that lets you pay at Coles by waving a compatible credit card or phone. It's been trialled in various ways by various companies, including various banks.

Other business-class features include a TPM chip, allowing special security features. The Helix also has Intel vPro and AMT technology, useful in a company situation where you have an IT manager dealing with a fleet of laptops. If you don't have an IT person and won't be using the computer in a corporate workplace, we'd question whether you'll ever make use of these features.

The Helix can also be bought with an extended warranty.

The not-so-good

The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix isn't a particularly heavy laptop, but it is not particularly light for its size either. In fact it actually weighs more than some laptops that have bigger screens - including our 13-inch MacBook Air Pro with Retina and Dell's XPS 13 Ultrabook.

Sure, those two don't convert into tablets, but if you're looking for something super-light, the Helix isn't the lightest thing on the market.

We have a couple of minor quibbles: we managed to confuse Windows a few times when lifting the screen open to wake the Helix up from sleep mode. We're not sure what we did to confuse it, but on one occasion it happened when we shut the lid, then changed our mind and opened it again - that seemed to be too much for Windows and the screen stayed blank and the Helix didn't wake.

This is all too common with Windows laptops in our experience and it's a pet peeve of ours. Most of the time the Helix responded quickly when we opened the lid, but it's the few times it didn't that count. When you're in a hurry, particularly in a meeting or in an airport lounge, the last thing you want is to be mashing the keyboard and randomly pressing buttons trying to get the thing to wake up.

Another minor point: the screen had a habit of dimming slightly, for no apparent reason. We're fairly sure we noticed this happen once while we were actually using the touchpad, so we assume it couldn't be a power-saving feature that kicks in when the machine is idle.

Also a minor point: there is a limit to how far you can push the screen back so that it is angled upwards towards your face. Many laptops have this restriction, but the Helix is particularly restricted in this regard. We are quite tall and the screen angle was ok while we were sitting on a desk, but we sometimes found ourselves using it in our lap and having to awkwardly tip the laptop against our stomach so that the screen was angled high enough.

As we said earlier, the keyboard is excellent. But we observed some things about the touchpad itself that we feel worth mentioning.

It’s great that you can scroll through documents by swiping up and down on the touchpad with two fingers like on a MacBook, but something was a little “off” - in some programs there was a very slight, miniscule,  lag before the page began to scroll (in Microsoft Word, in particular). It resulted in a slightly awkward feeling when moving around inside documents, because what was happening on screen wasn’t in complete sync with what we were doing with our fingers. Sometimes we very slightly overshot or undershot when scrolling through documents.

We discovered an explanation for some of the odd behaviour we were noticing. Sometimes when scrolling up inside a document, even if our intention was only to scroll a few lines, the page would suddenly start running by, pages past the point at which we were reading. From what we can tell, this seems to be a feature - run your fingers past a certain point on the touchpad, near the top of the touchpad, and the page will start scrolling on its own, even though your fingers are sitting stationary on the touchpad. It’s the same if you move your two fingers down to the bottom of the touchpad.

Another time, Windows kept inexplicably switching between apps when we were using the touchpad. Very annoying. We discovered the reason this was happening - swiping in from the left edge of the touchpad triggers a command to switch apps. It is possible to turn this off.

Overall, the touchpad wasn’t bad - in fact it’s a lot smoother, and more responsive than many others we’ve used on Windows computers. But at times there was the frustrating feeling of things not being in complete sync with what we were doing.

Performance: As we mentioned earlier, the Helix was nice and responsive for the most part, when in high performance mode. But when we dropped the Helix into “Power Saver” mode, and things weren't so smooth.

Zooming in and out of web pages got quite jerky using the touchpad in power saver mode. This was especially noticeable using the Chrome browser. We didn’t have a lot of complex applications open: the Windows 8 Twitter app, Paint, a small document open in Word, Chrome with nine tabs, and the user guide that came with this laptop (a PDF). We switched to “High Performance” mode and the zoom function using the touchpad was usable, but not what we’d call smooth.

In some apps, scrolling was a lot jerkier (scrolling through the Twitter app for Windows 8 was very jerky in “Power Saver” mode).

We spoke to Lenovo about this and they pointed out that power saver mode is a tradeoff - the upshot is you get longer battery life. This is true, and the same tradeoff applies to any Windows laptop with a "power saver" mode. That said, the level of performance you get in "power saver" mode still matters, in our opinion, especially if it starts to make certain tasks more fiddly. Fortunately the Helix comes with a Core i7 model.

A final point about Windows 8: for tablets, Windows is miles better than it used to be. But it will take a bit of getting used to if you haven’t used it before. The split-personality of Windows 8, where you switch between the classic "desktop" mode and the more modern tiled interface for your apps takes getting used to. As will getting around in Windows in general.

We found ourselves in “desktop mode” a fair bit while using the Helix as a tablet, and while we could get around ok, some menus and buttons are still quite small to press with a finger, and we still found ourselves occasionally clicking the wrong item.

There were other quirks: when switching to Windows 8 apps, we sometimes found it wasn’t possible to scroll up and down using the touchpad without first clicking somewhere in the program (though we tried replicating this behaviour at a later time and couldn't).

You can "right-click" using the touchpad, but when right-clicking a mis-spelled word in Microsoft Word, for example, we sometimes found it took a few clicks before the cursor was aligned in just the right spot for something to happen.

Note that these last few points relate to Windows 8, not the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix itself - but the operating system is part and parcel of the experience when you buy a laptop.

We admit to being picky here - we can’t stress this enough. Not everyone will encounter or notice these things. But for what it's worth, we have spent more than a decade writing about and sometimes testing computing products, and in our opinion these little idiosyncrasies are the very things that make all the difference when using a computer day-in and day-out.

They're also not generally something you can find out about from the sales person in the shop, nor will you find them in the advertising or by reading the features list.

Overall, this is a quality machine - the fact that we’re picking on things like this shows just how high the bar has been set for laptops in recent years.

Would we buy one?

The big question to ask, in our opinion, is whether you want a tablet. And if you do, do you need Windows on it?

Do you need a tablet? In our opinion (some may disagree), tablets are no good for spending lengthy amounts of time typing - not without a proper keyboard, anyway.

Which leads us to this point: if you're not going to be bashing out long documents in Microsoft Word or working on spreadsheets on the Helix in tablet mode - if you're going to be using it as an email/web surfing/apps device - would you be better off with a smaller, lighter iPad or Android tablet?

If this is you, we'd recommend buying a lighter, 13 inch Windows laptop and a separate iPad or Android tablet.

If, on the other hand, it's not word processing you need, but PowerPoint presentations or certain Windows programs you need to access during work meetings or while you're on business trips - and you want the convenience of being able to sometimes do that on a smaller, lighter tablet, rather than a laptop - that is a reason to go for a Windows tablet.

Not only that, if you have an IT department, some might be willing to let you bring in and connect a Windows computer like this to the network, whereas they might not provide technical support for an iPad or Android tablet.

If this is you, then the question is whether you're better off buying a two-in-one device like this, or buying a Windows tablet separately.

Buying two separate devices wouldn't be cheap - the Microsoft Surface Pro tablet will probably cost around $1,000 or more when it goes on sale this month, and a quality laptop will set you back at least another $1,000. But the Helix isn't cheap either, starting at $2,199.

On the upside, with a two-in-one like the Helix, you'll always have a tablet and a laptop with you, wherever you go.

Want more? Click here for our guide to buying a laptop or tablet in 2013: handy 60-second breakdown of all the options

Now on sale in Australia, the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is unlike many laptops we've used before. Here are our first impressions.
$2199 AUD
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