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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.