ThinkPad Helix: Expensive hybrid for the enterprise

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.

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