Lenovo's Horizon all-in-one: Testing out the tabletop PC

Laptops are learning new tricks, but the desktop is also due for a makeover. Lenovo's IdeaCentre Horizon is among the first of a new breed of touchscreen all-in-ones designed to be shared by the whole family.

Image: Lenovo

The industry has been busily reinventing the PC in hopes of winning back customers captivated by tablets. Much of the focus has been on convertible laptops that double as tablets. But desktops are also getting a makeover. In particular, computer makers are designing more versatile all-in-ones that can be shared by the whole family.

The use of touchscreens on all-in-ones is not new. HP has been trying to jumpstart this market with its TouchSmart PCs for years. But the introduction of Windows 8, which is optimized for large touchscreens, really got things rolling. Now, PC makers are taking it a step further by adding batteries, so that you can easily move all-in-ones from room to room, and display hinges that fold flat, so that you can share them. Although some reviewers regard these as oversized tablets, a better name for the category is the tabletop PC.

For the past few weeks, I've been testing out one of these new tabletop PCs, Lenovo's IdeaCentre Horizon. Others in this category include the Dell XPS 18, HP Envy Rove 20, and Sony Vaio Tap 20. The Asus Transformer All-In-One is a sort of hybrid that is part Windows desktop and part Android tablet (I wrote about these in a previous post ). And the Acer Aspire R7 accomplishes much the same thing with a 15-inch touchscreen that folds flat, but it is more mainstream laptop than all-in-one, with its built-in keyboard and trackpad.

The Horizon is based on a 27-inch, 10-point touch display with a resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels. It is big and weighs a hefty 17 pounds, but a black rubber frame makes it easy to grip the display to adjust it or move it. When you tilt it forwards or backwards, it stays perfectly in place. If you fold it all the way flat, it automatically launches Lenovo's Aura tabletop user interface. And if you pick it up again, the sturdy kickstand automatically pops out and the system prompts you to return to Windows 8. (You can also exit Aura and use Windows 8 when the Horizon is folded flat.)

There are several good, in-depth reviews of the Horizon PC available elsewhere — including Dan Ackerman's take on ZDNet's sister site CNET — so I won't spend too much time on the basic specs or performance. The configuration I tested, with a third-generation Core-i7 mobile processor, 8GB of memory, Nvidia discrete graphics, and a 1TB hard drive, is $1,600 at Best Buy. The store is also offering a $1,500 model with a Core i5 and 6GB of memory. Either one should have plenty of performance for typical productivity and entertainment applications, as well as basic gaming.

The Windows 8 apps from the Windows Store look great on a large touchscreen. Lenovo's Aura interface has its own set of apps and games designed for touch and for special Horizon peripherals. And Lenovo has its own App Shop — really a version of Intel's AppUp store — with a handful of "Horizon Select" apps. Lenovo said it is working with Electronic Arts and Ubisoft to create versions of their games for the App Shop. For good measure, Lenovo throws in the BlueStacks emulator so that you can run Android apps, though they don't look great on such a large display, and not all apps or features will work properly.

Choice is good, but this makes for a fragmented experience. Each store has its own set of apps and games. And the Lenovo App Shop only works with standard Windows applications, so even though all of the same games and educational apps were already pre-installed in Aura, the App Shop didn't recognize them, and wanted to install stand-alone Windows versions, even though they seemed identical. Ultimately, it isn't realistic for every hardware company and each device to include three or four different app stores — there just aren't enough developers or users to go around — and it would be better if all vendors concentrated on distributing apps with or without special optimizations for their hardware through the regular Windows Store.

Having said that, the Aura apps do a nice job of demonstrating the potential of tabletop computing. These include games (such as Air Hockey, Roulette, Monopoly, and Texas Hold 'Em); educational apps; and basic photo, music, and video viewers. The apps don't have any real editing features, but they work fine for sharing content. Using your fingers, you can resize windows, move them around, and rotate them to give everyone a better view. Lenovo has also developed several accessories, including joysticks, paddles, and USB dice to enhance the games. Some of the Aura games had a slight lag, but overall, they looked good and were fun to play with a small group.

Ultimately, that's the idea behind this emerging tabletop category. Some of the hardware decisions are questionable. For example, despite its size, the Horizon doesn't have a slot-loading DVD drive, includes only two USB slots (one of which is used up by the dongle for the wireless keyboard and mouse), and gets only a couple of hours of battery life — a bit short even for a so-called transportable designed to be moved from room to room. But this is version 1.0, and Lenovo said future versions will include models with smaller displays, more features, and (hopefully) longer battery life. Lenovo deserves credit for trying something innovative on the desktop and pioneering this tabletop category. By the holiday season, I expect to see many more of these hybrid all-in-ones that also function as large tablets or tabletop PCs.