Lenovo ThinkPad Helix review: high-quality tablet/ultrabook

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix review: high-quality tablet/ultrabook

Summary: This excellent Windows 8 tablet/ultrabook hybrid has a well-designed keyboard docking mechanism, typically solid build quality and a specification well suited to mainstream business use. It has a hefty price tag, though, and the lack of SD-based storage expansion is perplexing.

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  • Editors' rating:
    8.0
  • User rating:
    5.7
  • RRP:
    £1,333.32

Pros

  • Long battery life when docked
  • Good keyboard
  • Solid construction
  • Clever two-piece tablet/keyboard mechanism

Cons

  • Moderate battery life on tablet
  • Short on connectors
  • Relatively heavy
  • Expensive
  • Ethernet via USB dongle
  • No SD card reader

Convertible Windows 8 devices come in a variety of designs: Dell's XPS 12 incorporates a revolving screen to offer a tablet-style working environment. Sony has its VAIO Duo 11 with a slide-down lid that puts the screen outermost. Lenovo has its own ThinkPad Twist — and of course, there's Microsoft's Surface Pro.

Lenovo's 11.6-inch convertible ThinkPad Helix is aimed squarely at the business market — and the high end business market at that. The price, starting at £1,339.99 (inc. VAT; £1,116.66 ex. VAT) probably puts it outside the scope of mass deployment, making it more of an executive-level purchase. Fortunately, its 'rip and flip' detachable screen is one of the best hybrid designs we've seen.

tp-helix-group

Design

With the lid down, the ThinkPad Helix looks like a solidly built ThinkPad — albeit one with a gap at the back of the lid section, which indicates some quirk about the screen hinge mechanism. The lid is solid and when you pick it up you realise that, at 1.6kg, this system is a little heavier than your average 11.6-inch notebook.

tp-helix-closed

Apart from the branding, the rear of the lid has a stylus slot on the right-hand side and an outward-facing 5-megapixel camera — there's also a conventional 2-megapixel camera in the middle of the screen bezel, at the top.

The screen hinge works a little differently to what you'd expect from a notebook, with the screen section folding in behind a supporting wedge. This helps with stability — the screen section is pretty heavy, and without it the system might tip backwards when you prod the touchscreen. It also means there's room for some connectors on the back.

tp-helix-back
The back of the keyboard dock has two USB 3.0 ports, the power connector and a Mini-DisplayPort connector. (Image: Lenovo)

That's important, because the back edge of the keyboard section is the only place that could accommodate extra ports and slots — it tapers to a very thin finish on the other three edges.

You detach the tablet by releasing a sliding lock on the left edge of the docking section. This reveals the connectors on the hitherto-hidden long edge of the tablet. That's clever because when in dock mode the three visible tablet edges are almost smooth – just as they would be on a standard ultrabook or notebook. The exceptions are small and discreet: the on/off switch on the top, and the headset jack plus volume and autorotate lock buttons on the right.

The overall impression is of a well thought-out design that nicely balances the ergonomics of working in both tablet and ultrabook mode.

tp-helix-kb
The ThinkPad Helix's keyboard section also contains a second 4-cell battery. (Image: Lenovo)

There are a few niggles, though. Unusually for a ThinkPad, the keyboard is merely good rather than great. The keys feel comfortable enough and there's plenty of travel, but some may find them a little close together and the sunken keyboard a little awkward.

The characteristic red ThinkPad pointing stick sits in its usual location between the B, H and G keys, but is a little less pronounced than usual and harder to use. The trackpoint's buttons, which usually sit beneath the space bar, are built into the enormous touchpad; fortunately they're easier to use than some, with the touchpad depressing a long way when pressed.

The Helix's 11.6-inch screen has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels and is a pleasure to use. Its reflective surface does make working with a nearby light source tricky at times, but the clarity of images and text is superb and viewing angles are also very good.

The screen's touch-sensitivity is exemplary, making for smooth side sweeps, presses and multi-touch gestures. The mechanism that holds the screen in place in ultrabook mode offers just one, somewhat upright, position — presumably, if it were any steeper the system would tip backwards when you use the touchscreen. The stylus works efficiently, and it fits relatively snugly in its housing and so shouldn't be too easily lost.

The docking mechanism is symmetrical, so you can dock the tablet section with its screen facing outwards and either lay it flat on the keyboard or use the base to form an A-shaped stand. This is reasonably sturdy and handles for screen prods well. This mode could be ideal for giving presentations to small groups.

Features

The ThinkPad Helix, which runs Windows 8 Professional, comes in three preconfigured models on Lenovo's UK website, starting at £1,339.99 (inc. VAT; £1116.66 ex. VAT) for the 1.8GHz/2.8GHz (with Turbo Boost) Intel Core i5-3427U-based system. The top-end model, costing an eye-watering £1,769.99 (inc. VAT; £1,474.99 ex. VAT), runs on a 2GHz/3.2GHz Core i7-3667U and includes mobile broadband. Our review sample was the mid-range £1,599.99 (inc. VAT; £1,333.32 ex. VAT) model, also running on a Core i7-3667U but lacking 3G connectivity. It's a shame the fourth-generation Haswell chips don't get a look in. The two more expensive models have 8GB of RAM, while the entry-level system has 4GB. The graphics subsystem is based on Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4000 GPU across the range.

The entry-level and mid-range models have 128GB of SSD storage, while the top-end system has 180GB; a 256GB SSD option is also available. All the connectivity you could require is present: Wi-Fi (dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth (4.0) throughout the range plus mobile broadband (Ericsson C5621 TFF) on the high-end model. NFC is integrated too, with the touch area marked on the back of the tablet section.

Wired Ethernet connectivity is catered for via a (provided) USB dongle. It's irritating not to have a dedicated slot on the device itself — even if only on the keyboard section.

As noted earlier, the keyboard section ports are all on the back of the chassis. These comprise a USB-style power connector, two USB 3.0 ports and a Mini-DisplayPort connector.

You need to lift the tablet out of the dock to access its SIM card slot, which sits on its lower long edge. Here you'll also find a second power connector, plus a USB 2.0 port and a Mini-DisplayPort connector. There's no SD card reader, which is a surprising omission; we'd have liked to see HDMI in the mix too.

Performance & battery life

The ThinkPad Helix's Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 5.5 (out of 9.9) is a little disappointing. There's a decent 8.1 score for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate) thanks to it being a fast SSD, with Memory (RAM Memory operations per second) coming a close second on 7.9 and Processor (Calculations per second) not far behind on 7.1. As so often, though, the integrated graphics subsystem proves the weakest link: Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) scored 6.4 and Graphics (desktop graphics performance) just 5.5.

The ThinkPad Helix has batteries in both the tablet and keyboard sections. Lenovo claims that the tablet's 3-cell battery should deliver six hours of life, with the keyboard-hosted 4-cell battery boosting that to 10 hours when the two sections are docked. Six hours is not great for a tablet, but it should be possible to get a day's work from the ultrabook configuration.

Although Lenovo has clearly thought about presentations with the configuration in which the keyboard section doubles as a stand, it's disappointing that the sound quality is not great. Audio is rather tinny and volume too low deliver an effective multimedia presentation — even to a small group — without recourse to a set of external speakers.

Conclusion

The ThinkPad Helix is a excellent Windows 8 tablet/ultrabook hybrid. Its well-designed keyboard docking mechanism works better than the folding, sliding ideas that others have used, in our opinion. Build quality is typically solid, and the specification well up to the mainstream business use case. The Helix has a hefty price tag, though, and the lack of SD-based storage expansion is perplexing.

Specifications

General
Case form factor convertible tablet/clamshell
Dimensions (W x H x D) 29.61x18.73x20.4 cm
Weight 1.66 kg
OS & software
Operating system Windows 8 Professional
Chipset & memory
RAM installed 8096 MB
Number of memory slots 1
RAM capacity 8 GB
Video
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4000
GPU type integrated
Video connections Mini-DisplayPort (on tablet and keyboard)
Connections
USB 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0
Networking
Ethernet via USB dongle
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n
Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile broadband optional (Ericsson C5621 TFF)
Input
Pointing devices touchscreen, stylus, touchpad, pointing stick
Keyboard Precision ThinkPad keyboard
Camera
2nd camera front
Main camera rear
2nd camera resolution 2 megapixels
Main camera resolution 5 megapixels
Audio
Audio connectors line out
Speakers stereo
Microphone yes (noise cancelling digital)
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter, USB Ethernet dongle
Battery
Battery technology Li-polymer
Estimated battery life (mfr) 6 h
Number of batteries supplied 2
Number of batteries supported 2
Removable battery No
Processor & memory
Clock speed 2 GHz
Processor manufacturer Intel
Processor model Core i7-3667U
Solid-state drive
Interface SATA III
Capacity 128 GB
Expand

Prices

Price
Price GBP 1333.32

Topics: Tablets, Laptops, Lenovo, Reviews, Windows 8

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Talkback

15 comments
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  • Lenovo is leading the way

    8.0

    Lenovo has just about every option you can imagine ... Just about... I think it's time to relegate 1366x768 to the past across the board. Glad the Helix has 1920x1080. Keep em coming...
    greywolf7
  • For Win 8.x Pro = Min. Config: 8 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD, 1920x1080 Resolution

    For any Windows Tablet or Ultrabook to be successful, the minimum configuration should be as follow:
    For Win 8.x Pro = Min. 8 GB RAM (12 or 16 GB preferable), 128 GB SSD (256 GB Preferable), 1920x1080 Resolution (forget the older 720p or 1600x900 Pixel resolution). Allow VMs to be run adequately. Bring the 8GB RAM w/ 256 GB SSD based machine within $ 1,000 price range.
    hasaniqbal1@...
    • LOL. Min config for doing what

      Your use case for 12+GB ram far exceeds normal use scenarios. Most people don't need more than 4GB. The average user isn't running 3 - 4 VMs at the same time.
      greywolf7
  • Display Undocked

    5.0

    What happens to the display when undocked? Does it stay on or go off? If it goes off after the rip and flip with power on does it pick up where it left off?
    MichaelInMA
    • The dock/keyboard disconnects just like any other keyboard

      All the guts are in the tablet so it just keeps working. This is not a new capability, no different really than adding a standard keyboard and mouse to a laptop. Connect, disconnect, reconnect... No issues.
      greywolf7
  • ultrabooks

    10.0

    Best ultrabooks for 2013 http://www.bestnewultrabooks.com
    ultrabooks
  • Why no SD?????

    7.0

    While I appreciate the quality build. For me anyway.....the lack of external SD storage is a deal breaker.
    Techyard Dog
    • really!

      No SD? what were they thinking? Deal breaker no matter what else it has or what it costs.
      Tom_the_Realtor
  • One of the nicer business class Tablet designs

    8.0

    The device is a good Tablet and the clamshell keyboard dock is a refreshing capability.

    I have been using one since first released. It makes an excellent laptop replacement. Like all such devices it is dongle heavy and USB port poor. I use a USB 3 dock at my desk for a single plugin to monitor, a full size keyboard and other peripherals.

    The screen orientation lock button is an exceptional idea. Almost all this type of devices tend to rotate the display at the slightest hint of movement.

    The Tablet USB port (USB 2.0!) and mini-DP is on the docking edge. Both poor design choices. If you are using a dongle and a USB thumb drive (that no SD card slot for disk expansion) when you undock the tablet you have to also move the devices.

    Moving the Tablet ports to an edge other than the dock edge and making he Tablet USB 3.0 would bump up the rating. A second Tablet USB port would improve the device more.

    With the next generation of processor and chipsets as well as mSATA drives going up to 512/480 GB this becomes a great choice as the sole system for the majority of office workers.

    The Tablet itself is a light device. The Tablet + clamshell keyboard is a light weight laptop which is the role it fulfills in that configuration.
    PeterBoyles
  • Pay a premium to stay with Windows?

    You gotta be kidding. I wonder how well this device will skip across the water of a really deep lake.
    StevenAbaby
    • What else are you going to run on a tablet/PC?

      Android is about the only tablet OS that comes close but still is not a business computer but a companion device. Windows is currently the only full OS that runs well on a tablet, even the desktop will works OK with touch esp. with features turned on to optimize it.

      OSX works well on, say, a MBA but Apples do not integrate well with enterprises systems and enjoy only a small deployment footprint in the enterprise.
      Rann Xeroxx
  • re SD expansion

    They're a security hole for companies which don't allow copying or saving files to external drives. Group policy provides for disabling writing to external or removable media in many classes, but I believe not SD card drives. Those would need to be disabled by GUID which could vary from machine to machine, so would be more than a headache for IT shops to disable.

    Simply providing no built-in SD card drive would fix this. Cure by amputation, but effective.
    hrlngrv 
    • Simple and effective

      If the company doesn't want you to use the SD card slot they can always epoxy them shut. :-)
      greywolf7
  • ThinkPad Helix build quality is very bad. Do not buy it

    1.0

    Think Pad Helix has several problems like mic noise caused by internal Fans. Therefore, the quality of skype calls are affected. Also, it has a problem of bad contact of 2 connector causing a long time use some problems like blue screen or keyboard bad function. The image quality of the front camera is also inferior compared with other tablets or smartphones like iPhone.
    I also have digitizer accuracy problems.

    People, Lenovo is not old IBM. It is another company with another quality control. The build quality is very inferior compared with Apple, Sony or Samsung.

    If you open the ThinkPad Helix you will see. It is a mess, a lot of rework and improvised component placement.

    I will sell on e-bay and buy Microsoft Surface Pro 2 or Sony VAIO Duo 13 or Samsung Active Q...
    annnouuser
  • Worse Notebook / machine ... Lemon Series.. do not Buy it ...

    1.0

    I tested and owned this machine with the highest specs possible. (i7 , 256 SSD, 8 GB ram ...) It is slow , lagging for basic tasks,., and fan is extremely loud running all the time. It is a shame to take this machine to a meeting,,, forget about presenting anyway...
    DrSins