ThinkPad Helix: Expensive hybrid for the enterprise

ThinkPad Helix: Expensive hybrid for the enterprise

Summary: Lenovo has produced a hybrid for the enterprise in the ThinkPad Helix. The Helix couples performance with function to appeal to professionals with a lot of cash.

Full frontal
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

Windows 8 is built for hybrids, those computers that can be used as both a laptop and tablet. There are all kinds of hybrids, many from the folks at Lenovo. The Chinese company has released a hybrid for its ThinkPad line and has crammed every feature inside.

See related: Windows 8 hybrids: How to build the perfect laptop and tablet combo

Producing a hybrid that is worthy of the famous ThinkPad brand isn't cheap, and that's the reason the Helix is expensive. The product starts at a healthy $1,679 and with options configured can be as much as $2,179 on the Lenovo online shop. This high price means the Helix better be pretty hot. It is, but unfortunately the wrong kind of hot.

Hardware specs as reviewed:

  • CPU: Intel Core i5, 1.8GHz, (Ivy Bridge)
  • Display: 11.6-inch, 1920x1080, 350 nits, 10-finger multitouch
  • OS: Windows 8 Pro 64-bit
  • Storage: 180GB SSD
  • Memory: 8GB
  • Camera: Front- 2MP, Rear- 5MP
  • Connectivity: Wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
  • Battery: Tablet- 42 Whr (5.6 hours), Keyboard dock- 28 Whr (8 hours)
  • Ports: Tablet- USB 2.0, mini Displayport, dock connector, Keyboard dock — 2-USB 3.0, mini Displayport
  • Dimensions: Tablet — 11.66x7.37x0.46in, Tablet with dock — 11.66x8.9x0.8in
  • Weight: Tablet — 1.73lb, Tablet with laptop dock — 3.54lb
Side view
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

The Helix is designed to be a full ThinkPad laptop with the tablet in the keyboard dock. The casing of both the laptop dock and the tablet has a black matte finish as is typical of the ThinkPad line. It features a sturdy design for standing up to the bumps of the road.

Like other hybrids, the Helix has two batteries: one in the tablet and another in the laptop dock. Lenovo claims a battery life of 5.6 hours for the tablet and another 8 hours for the dock. This seems to be accurate, if perhaps a little exaggerated in real-world usage.

The tablet attaches to the dock via a sturdy and complicated hinge system that Lenovo has designed to handle all possible configurations for such a hybrid. In addition to use as a tablet while undocked and a laptop when docked, the Helix can also be used in two other configurations.

The tablet can be docked with the screen facing away from the keyboard for use in a presentation mode. With the tablet docked this way, the screen can be lowered down over the keyboard for use as a tablet like convertibles with screeens that can't be detached. The latter makes little sense to me, as the weight of almost four lbs is not comfortable for tablet use. It is logical to instead pop the tablet off the dock for such usage.

It's worth noting that using the Helix in this convertible mode with the tablet sitting on the keyboard, which Lenovo calls the Tablet Plus mode, allows both batteries to be utilized for maximum battery life.

Exposed fans
Two circular fans -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

Lenovo has placed two fans on the laptop dock in front of the docking area along with a strange plastic guide to direct the fan output over the back of the tablet when docked. This is a recognition by Lenovo that the PC hardware, all located in the tablet, runs hot at times.

That's the problem with the ThinkPad Helix: it runs uncomfortably hot much of the time. When held in the hands in tablet mode, the corner of the slate underneath the ThinkPad logo is downright unpleasant to hold. It feels just as hot when docked, so it's not clear how much good those exposed fans do to cool it down. The unit doesn't get dangerously hot, but it's too hot to be comfortable. At one point in my testing I used the tablet for 30 minutes and put it in my thin backpack when finished. I could feel the heat radiating on my back through the bag. That's just too hot for normal use.

Heat issue aside, the Helix serves as a decent laptop worthy of the ThinkPad brand. The keyboard is very good and the big trackpad feels like slick glass. There is even a red trackstick in the middle of the keyboard, customary for the ThinkPad line.

Front closed
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

The tablet is easy to detach from the keyboard via a simple lever on the lower left side of the screen. The Helix tablet is a bit thick and slightly heavier than I like, but some may find it to be OK. Tablet operation is smooth and even offers pen input via the included pen. The small pen stores in a silo on the upper left of the tablet in landscape orientation.

Tablet bottom
Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

The Core i5 processor (Core i7 is optional) is peppy as expected and both tablet and laptop operation is good. That's surely the reason for the hot temperature on the tablet back.

Overall the ThinkPad Helix is a solid hybrid that, heat issues aside, functions as both a good tablet and laptop. It is a little bigger than I'd like and weighs more than other hybrids. It is aimed squarely at the enterprise market given its high price. 

Envy Helix
Top: HP Envy x2; Bottom: ThinkPad Helix-- Image credit: James Kendrick/ ZDNet

The high price and heat problem makes it impossible to recommend the ThinkPad Helix. Perhaps a Haswell upgrade would deal with the heat issue in this Ivy Bridge model. The price around $2,000 is much too expensive considering you can find decent hybrids like the HP Envy x2 for a fraction of the Helix price.

See related:

Topics: Laptops, Mobility, Reviews, Tablets

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  • Close but no cigar . . .

    Mr. Kendrick,

    Were you running any programs in particular that caused the Helix to heat up? Streaming videos? Using OneNote?

    It's a shame this isn't better considering the steep price tag. It comes close to what I would be looking for in a hybrid.
  • I have one and I Love It!

    I have had my Helix in service for almost a month now. Yes it gets warm but I have not experienced an uncomfortable amount of heat so far. It is perfect for taking to meetings runs flawlessly on my network and by far is the best hardware investment I have ever made.
  • hybrids and ultrabooks are all fatally flawed

    The nexus 10 is nearly a year old and it has a 2560x1600 screen. I can't stand a laptop with only 1080px in height. An absolute deal killer...
    • Resolution can be wasted...

      at 1080p on an 11.6" screen, the helix resolution is more than ample. Any more is just wasted resources as the human eye cannot distinguish a difference. Having super high resolutions on a small screen burns battery life unnecessarily and provides no real value. I find the Helix to be stunningly sharp and beautiful at 1920 x 1080. Plus I can always drive external monitors at much higher resolutions where I have the physical real estate to enjoy it.
  • Heat issue supposedly solved....

    According to Lenovo, there are two patches available for addressing the heat issue. They are well aware of the problem and are working to resolve it.

    I currently have an i7 version and just idling with the OS and starting to install my apps, caused it to heat up dramtically. Hence my call to Lenovo tech support where they informed me of the patches. I haven't had time to download and install so i don't know if they will fix the problem.

    One other note, since we don't allow Win8 yet in our environment, i have succesfully installed Win7 Pro. The only thing that doesn't work is the screen rotation, you have to do that manually. I plan on creating a shortcut to tap on to make it rotate. just haven't got to it yet.

    I will have to say, Lenovo has done an otherwise awesome job with this hybrid. NO OTHER manufacturer has built one with the full complement of Win7 drivers. Way to go Lenovo!
    • Heat issue solved - Followup

      I am following up on my earlier post. I installed the two bios updates regarding the heat issues and it made a huge imporvement. I have been using the Helix for about 3 hours and it is about 1/4 as hot as it was yesterday. I can actually hold it comfortably in my hands now.

      JK - I would advise downloading and installing the following patches:

      The user should download and apply the updated firmware from the document “Firmware Update Utility for Enhanced Keyboard Dock firmware for Windows 8” at the following URL:

      NOTE: This will resolve the issue where the error "Keyboard Dock Fan error. Press Esc to continue" was shown during start-up and the devices on the Enhanced Keyboard Dock were not usable.

      Improvements in BIOS 1.14 includes an improved thermal control. The user should update to the latest Helix BIOS Update Utility for Windows 8, version 1.14, at the following URL:
  • Give me this as a 15.6" and We'll talk

    I really want one of these. Except it is the unusable size of 11"! yuck. that is a single spreadsheet at a time.
    It isn't a mobile business user device :(

    I am hating the new Lenovo Keyboard but would be willing to try and use it consistently if I could have this device at 15.6"
  • Helix turned me into anti-Lenovo from Lenovo fanboy within a month.

    I have bought Helix last month, and it had to be in the service center for the most of the time.
    Just a total wate of time and money. I am selling this product when it comes back(hell, god knows when), and I will never look back.
    I do admit it is built from a great concept, but the way Lenovo executed it was waaay below what anyone would normally expect, even from the cheapest laptopts in the market.
  • Expensive?

    News flash: All ThinkPads are Mac-level expensive, but that's the price for a device you can trust it won't let yu down.

    Hell, everything looks expensive compared with HP, but HP tends to fail when you least expect it.