Lenovo ThinkBook Plus review: Second E-Ink screen adds an extra dimension

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  • Editors' rating
    7.9 Very good

Pros

  • Innovative E-Ink panel in lid
  • Robust build
  • Excellent keyboard

Cons

  • Limited uses for the E-Ink panel
  • Large bottom bezel on main screen
  • Only one USB-C port
  • Battery life could be better
  • No on-device housing for the Precision Pen

Lenovo's first ThinkBook, introduced last year, was a solidly built laptop in both 13-inch and 14-inch form factors; it wasn't overly expensive, and was billed as a device that could bridge the work/play divide -- it had the strapline 'Built for Business, Designed for Generation Next'. 

This new 13.3-inch ThinkBook Plus retains some of the design smarts of the earlier model, and adds an entirely new feature -- a 10.8-inch E-Ink display built into the lid. This can deliver information, act as an ebook reader, and also has interactive aspects: you can take notes and annotate PDFs on it, for example. There's only one version of the ThinkBook Plus available in the UK, a Core i5 model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage, which costs £1,019.99 (inc. VAT; £849.99 mex. VAT). Two variants are available in the US: Core i5/8GB/256GB for $1,299 and Core i7/16GB/512GB for $1,529.

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The ThinkBook Plus runs on 10th-generation Core i5 or i7 processors. As well as the main 13.3-inch FHD IPS display, it has a second 10.8-inch E-Ink touchscreen on the outside of the lid.

Images: Lenovo

So, how useful is the E-Ink panel, and how well does the ThinkBook Plus perform in general?

When you think of E-Ink you probably visualise ebook readers from Amazon, Kobo and others. But E-Ink has featured in other devices too. It acted as a second screen for the YotaPhone smartphone, for example, and Lenovo used it to provide its 2016 Yoga Book with either a touch-sensitive keyboard or a drawing pad in the area normally occupied by a physical keyboard. This time, a 10.8-inch E-Ink display occupies the bulk of the lid of the ThinkBook Plus. 

The great advantage of E-Ink is its low energy usage. Pixels are either on, or off, and while power is required to change their state, once they are set, there's no power draw. Moreover, pixels remain visible in their set state so that whatever they are displaying can remain constant. Just like with ebook readers, the display is touch-responsive, and you can also interact with it using the provided Precision Pen stylus. 

E-Ink has some important differences compared to a standard laptop screen. It is greyscale rather than colour and it's slow to refresh, which limits the use cases. It's also worth noting that the E-Ink panel in the ThinkBook Plus lacks a backlight.

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This means Lenovo can only offer a small set of functions for the E-ink display. There are just two apps available from the tappable icon bar in the bottom right corner: Note and Reader, both of which can work in portrait and landscape orientation.

Note is a writing and drawing tool. Creations made using the Precision Pen can be saved directly onto the desktop as images, text, formulae or diagrams. The E-Ink display also synchronises with Microsoft OneNote, so your scribblings are available in editable format on the laptop proper.

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Top: The Reader E-Ink app. Above: Settings for the E-Ink screen.

Images: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

Reader displays documents in PDF, EPUB, MOBI and TXT formats, and allows you to annotate PDFs. Although versions of this laptop on show at CES in January sported a Kindle shortcut on the E-Ink screen, there was no Kindle support on my review unit. Nor is there any information at Lenovo's website or in the E-Ink help on the laptop itself about adding new apps.

There are a couple of additional features available through the E-Ink display's setup area: you can opt to show your Outlook Calendar, Outlook Email, the weather and the date; you can also select wallpaper including using your own images. There is a tiny battery life icon in the top right corner of the wallpaper screen. 

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The Precision Pen clings magnetically to the left or right side of the lid.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

The E-Ink screen needs protection, and Lenovo provides a substantial sleeve for the ThinkBook Plus. Unfortunately neither this nor the ThinkBook Plus itself has a housing for the Precision Pen. Instead, the pen clings magnetically to the lid's short edges, but it's not held very firmly and isn't a satisfactory solution when the laptop is in transit.

To accommodate the E-Ink panel, the lid is rather thicker than usual which means an overall thickness of 17.4mm thickness. The desktop footprint is minimal for a 13.3-inch laptop, at 308mm wide by 217mm deep and the extra panel doesn't add a great deal to the weight, which is 1.4kg. The net result is a laptop that feels solid but not overburdened by its second screen.
 
The main screen is a 13.3-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS panel with 300 nits brightness and 100% sRGB colour space coverage. It isn't touch responsive, which arguably is an omission, although this does keep both the price and the lid thickness down. Screen bezels are a little wider than top-flight Lenovo laptops tend to offer, and the bottom bezel is noticeably deep. I found it challenging to have two working applications open side by side. If need be, the main screen will open to 180 degrees and lie flat on a desk.

The speakers deliver reasonable quality sound. Volume goes quite high, and while the audio is a little short on bass tones it should be fine for video watching, presentations and video calls.

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The full-size keyboard is backlit, with Skype for Business hot-keys on the right-hand side of the Fn key row.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

The keyboard is typical of Lenovo with its pot-bellied keys providing more of a target than usual. The keys are large and well-spaced, and I was quite happy touch-typing at my usual speed. The Fn keys are relatively large, with the right-most pair being shortcut keys for Skype for Business calls.

The touchpad feels a little cramped, but that's hardly unusual in a 13.3-inch laptop, and it was comfortable and responsive to use. It's easily disabled with a Fn key. 

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The on/off switch is on the right edge of the chassis and incorporates a fingerprint reader. This location means you can power up the laptop when the lid is down, enabling use of the E-Ink screen. Windows Hello authentication is also supported via the 1MP webcam.

Our ThinkBook Plus review unit ran on a 10th generation Intel Core i5-10210U processor with integrated Intel UHD Graphics. Discrete graphics would be nice, although this would come at a price. There is 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. The ThinkBook Plus runs Windows 10 Pro.

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The power button on the right-hand side (top) has an integrated fingerprint reader. There are two USB 3.0 ports and, on the left side (middle), full-size HDMI, USB-C (with DisplayPort and power delivery) and 3.5mm audio.

Image: Lenovo

Lenovo provides a full-size HDMI port as well as two USB 3.0 ports and a single USB-C port. The latter is out of action when you are charging the laptop, and Lenovo should have provided a second USB-C port, ideally with Thunderbolt support. There is also a 3.5mm headset jack. 

According to Lenovo, the battery is good for up to 10 hours. I put it through its usual paces, leaving video streaming for a three-hour work session while also working in web apps, viewing web pages and occasionally streaming music. The screen was set automatically to its maximum (300 nits) brightness, and I wouldn't want to work with it much lower than that for extended periods.

In the three-hour period the battery dropped to 56%. I would not say I subjected the ThinkBook Plus to a particularly demanding workload, and doubt that it would power my typical working day from a full charge. Still, there's good news in the shape of Rapid Charge support, which will take the battery from zero to 80% in an hour.

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Image: Lenovo

Conclusions 

Lenovo's idea of putting a second screen on the front of the ThinkBook Plus, turning what's usually dead space into an area for productive use, is laudable. The E-Ink screen's functionality is limited, though, and it relies heavily on a stylus which you will need to carry separately from the laptop and be careful not to lose. 

I'd like to see Lenovo explore this idea further, including integrating connectivity with more than just Microsoft products, and adding the Kindle support that was on show at CES in January. I'd like to explore ebook reading on this screen compared to a dedicated reader or a smartphone. 

Elsewhere, the ThinkBook Plus is a well-made, nicely designed laptop with an ergonomic keyboard and a serviceable main screen. It could do with a second USB-C port and better battery life, but it's certainly an intriguing development for the traditional clamshell laptop.

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