Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Review

2013-01-04_Helix-3aLast week I picked up a new laptop to replace the two devices that I lugged around, one for mobility (a Samsung Series 7 Slate) and one for power (Lenovo ThinkPad X220T). Both devices had served me well but I wanted something that would give me the mobility of the Samsung with the power of the ThinkPad.

I was introduced to the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix by Justin Taylor. As soon as I looked at the pictures and the specs I knew that I had to have one, so I went out that afternoon and found a local supplier and spent the evening setting the device up as a developer workstation.

Key Features

There are three different models of Helix. The one that I picked up was the top of the line model which represents a reasonable power-user specification (without going into the gaming machine category).

  • Detachable Tablet Screen with Touch & Pen Capabilities
  • Detachable Keyboard with Integrated Battery & Replicated Ports
  • Intel Core i7 Processor
  • 8GB RAM
  • 256GB SSD
  • 1080p IPS Display
  • Integrated NFC
  • WiFi with WiDi Support
  • Ericson 3G+ Wireless Modem
  • 2 x USB 3.0 ports
  • 1 x Mini DisplayPort
  • 1 x USB 2.0 100Mb/s Ethernet Adapter

Altogether quite a powerful little machine especially considering it is about the same size as my series 7 slate from Samsung.

Overall Comments

The really good thing about this device is that it doesn’t sacrifice power for mobility, whilst at the same time not sacrificing mobility for power. You can totally use this machine as a developer rig, and it is especially useful if you are building apps for Windows 8 because it has most of the bells and whistles you’ll want to test our various scenarios (such as NFC).

Build Quality

The build quality is typical Lenovo, more importantly it is typical ThinkPad. The exterior of the device sports a rubberized plastic finish which makes it easy to old but also a generally understated style which tells you that this thing doesn’t need to pretend that it is powerful.

When you pick up the device it has the characteristic ThinkPad weight but the screen when detached from the base has the same feel as any 11.6″ tablet. The joint where the screen attaches to the base is sturdy and it feels natural being used as a laptop on your, well lap. This is enhanced by the nearly perfect balance between the keyboard and the screen. The engineers must have figured out exactly how much weight needs to be in the keyboard to make this style of design work.

One strange design feature is the magnetic flap which hides the attachment mechanism in two cooling fans. It is an interesting idea but I wonder if future generations of the product will feature the same design.

When detaching the screen there is a simple push lever which can be used with one hand, with another hand used to lift the screen (or the same hand if you want to do it in two steps). Overall the screen release mechanism is probably the best I’ve seen.

Pen and Stylus

The keyboard feels like a ThinkPad keyboard. The spacing is quite natural and has good movement when typing. The keyboard membrane itself doesn’t move at all unlike some of the other cheaper laptops with this design style. I am disappointed with the pen, my X220T had a good sized stylus with two buttons and an eraser. The pen on the Helix feels too narrow and too short to use comfortably. If you are going to use this as a note taking tablet I would recommend getting a better stylus.

Connectivity

Connectivity features all work as advertised. I’ve even managed to confirm that WiDi works OK but I found it to be quite laggy at 1080p, but I am not sure if that was down to the receiving device on the Lenovo.

There are three areas where I felt the device could have been improved in the connectivity space. First, the Ericsson wireless modem doesn’t support 4G has deployed here in Australia by Telstra (and Optus as I understand it). This means that you can really only get slower 3G+ speeds.

The second area where I felt that connectivity could be improved is the USB LAN adapter. It would have been great if Lenovo could have figured out a way to integrate the adapter into the tablet itself. There isn’t much room to work with but it would have been appreciated. Whilst the USB LAN adapter works it is only a USB 2.0 device, and only rated for 100Mb/s.

Finally I felt that the keyboard base itself could have extended the number of ports available beyond just two USB 3.0 devices.

Final Thoughts

The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is exactly what a business-grade tablet-convertable ultrabook should be. It doesn’t sacrifice on power, and it provides the mobility required with a solid battery life (I haven’t really tested the 10 hour claims but as a developer I tend not to reach the theoretician limit that often anyway).

For most non-power users I suspect that the i5/4GB models would be more than adequate and save a little money since this is definitely not the cheapest device out there.

What surprised me is that I was able to find a device that gave me pretty much everything I wanted (putting the connectivity grumbles aside). The device I was going to go for was the Samsung ATIV SmartPC Pro but after getting my hands on one I felt that it feel short in a few areas.

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11 thoughts on “Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Review

  1. Ken Schaefer

    I’ve got one of these too – it’s a great machine if you want a laptop that can also be a tablet. If you want a tablet that can be a laptop get a Surface Pro (with Type Cover) instead.

    The supplied stylus is the main drawback – it’s rubbish (too thin to be ergonomic, and there’s no eraser on the cap). Any Wacom PenEnabled stylus will work (e.g. the Samsung Slate 7 stylus you have already). The trick is to remove the supplied stylus from the holding slot (or lift it up by about a cm). There’s a sensor in that slot that disables the active digitiser when it detects that the supplied stylus is docked.

  2. Mitch Denny Post author

    Hi Ken,

    Good to hear from you. Great tip about the stylus lock, I hadn’t realised that. With regards to the Surface Pro, my only concern there would be the battery life. Have you see what the battery life really looks like? The Helix seems to be pretty solid in that department but I haven’t really tested it. I’m also not a fan of the kick stand on the Surface Pro. Even though overall the finish on the device looks awesome, that particular kick-stand approach just won’t work for me. I often want to use the laptop balanced on my knee (working from a lounge in a hospital right now).

  3. Ken Schaefer

    Battery life on my Surface Pro was about 4 hours using regular Office apps. I suppose that’s to be expected given it’s about half the weight of the Helix. I got the Helix to last for 6-7 hours one day on lowest power settings. For the kickstand issue, I got the Manvex case – lets you stand the SP at whatever angle you like, including tipping it further back then you can with the Helix.

  4. Mitch Denny Post author

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the pointer to that case. I hadn’t seen one of them before. Actually I’m keen to find a similar case for my Samsung Series 7 which I am giving to my wife. I’d love to have a case that contains the screen and the keyboard.

  5. max h.

    Hi Guys,
    can you give a short comment for our beloved red nipple? Will i be able to use the helix without an extra mouse in the same comfortable way as it ever was? I have some concern because of the look of the touchpad, i dont see any really good designed touchpad buttons… :| ?

  6. Mitch Denny Post author

    Hi Max,

    The nipple is present, but to be honest I don’t use it that much. However the track-pad itself has integrated buttons with mechanical feedback, you can feel the click. I would say it is better than a great deal of the track-pads out there, but it won’t replace a mouse for me for serious point and click work. I almost prefer to use the touch screen anyway in many cases.

  7. Paul

    I just received my Helix yesterday. This replaces my Lenovo X61T I’ve had since 2007. I’m impressed with the keyboard. I use the trackpoint and it feels strange not having the click buttons where the new trackpad is located. However, pressing in the same area works very well.

    I do have one issue. If I hold the tablet (not docked) parallel to the ground then lift the top at a 60 deg reading angle, the internal fan makes a grinding sound. Even moving the tablet around from desk to lap makes a grinding sound. Do you hear grinding sounds in yours? I may just have a loose fan.

  8. Paul

    I’m using my right hand. I think it is a bad bearing. I sent it back to Lenovo and they are sending me a new replacement. I used it heavily during a several meetings – connecting to projectors and working on spreadsheets. Using this machine is absolutely delightful.

  9. Robbie

    Hi Mitch, is the WiDi capability found in the tablet/screen or the base? i.e. can i mirror my screen to my WiDi compatible TV when the screen is detached from the base. Thanks!

  10. Ken

    There’s nothing in the base except a battery, keyboard and touchpad – everything’s in the tablet part.

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