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The company's new ThinkPad covers the bases as both a tablet and laptop.
Whereas fully convertible tablet/notebooks used to be one of the most popular tablet types for users who didn't want to give up their keyboards, today tablet models with keyboard docking stations are gaining traction. One of the most elegant entries in this field is the Microsoft Surface, which GCN recently reviewed for government users. The Surface's keyboard magnetically snaps into place and is extremely light, though the tablet is still about two pounds.
The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is a new competitor in this field, but Lenovo handles the keyboard add-on component differently than Microsoft. For the Helix, the keyboard component is more of a docking port, adding extra ports, a full keyboard and more than a bit of extra weight to the unit. It's more like a convertible notebook with a detachable tablet than a tablet with an add-on keyboard. The one feature that Lenovo seems to focus on is the fact that the tablet can either be used as a notebook or "ripped and flipped" 180 degrees around so that the keyboard becomes a stand for the tablet as a presentation tool.
The tablet part of the Helix weighs 1.73 pounds, which is average for the most tablets, though it is just a bit thinner than most. The keyboard dock, however, is 1.81 pounds, so it’s even heavier than the tablet. That adds up to a total of 3.54 pounds, without any of the support cables. That's a bit much to be carrying around all day. With the tablet on backwards and folded down over the keyboard, it's almost no different than a convertible notebook, with all the advantages and flaws that entails.
The tablet itself is 11.66-inches by 7.37-inches and .46-inches thick. With the dock attached, it maintains the same length, but the width jumps up to 8.9 inches. The thickness almost doubles to 0.8 inches.
One really nice feature of the Helix is the 11.6-inch screen, which should please many government users. The front is made of Corning Gorilla Glass, which is probably as tough as the magnesium and polycarbonate ABS plastic frame.
The Helix’s touch screen is highly responsive, whether running in standard Windows 8 mode or the emulated Windows 7 mode the OS offers. One minor complaint is that when running in compatibility mode, the native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 is far too small for most programs. Standard 10-point text is almost too tiny to read. It’s a big screen for a tablet, but still small overall. Dropping that resolution down is likely going to be necessary for most programs outside of the big blocks of Windows 8.
In terms of ports, the tablet itself has one USB 2.0 port, a mini DisplayPort, a SIM card slot and a dock connector. Attaching the keyboard dock gives users access to another mini DisplayPort and two USB 3.0 ports. It's kind of odd that USB 3.0 is supported, but only through the keyboard dock, though we suppose that is the only time users would likely have an appliance like a portable hard drive attached that could take advantage of the extra speed 3.0 offers.
In terms of performance, our unit came with an Intel i5-3337U processor running at 1.8Ghz, which drove the 64-bit version of the Windows 8 operating system. There was also 8G of DDR3L memory, which was soldered directly to the system board and thus not expandable. The Helix was able to get 1,394 on the Passmark PerformanceTest Benchmark, which is not bad for a tablet computer. The benchmark was not able to run the 3D portion of the testing because the integrated Intel 4000 graphics don't support it, but it did fine with 2D and business graphics.
As with most Helix functions, battery life performance depends on whether it is running with just the tablet or with the keyboard attached. With just the tablet, there is access to a 3-cell lithium battery. We ran our worst-case scenario testing on it, with a movie playing the entire time, and got 2 hours, 49 minutes worth of power before the system forced itself to shut down. Adding the dock also adds another 4-cell lithium battery, which accounts for some of the added weight. We recharged the tablet and ran the same test with both batteries together. That time around, the Helix lasted for 6 hours, 31 minutes. It's worth noting that normal use would likely stretch this time out a bit, but also, there's a definite advantage to carrying the keyboard besides having the keys handy.
For extras, there is a front-facing (in the most likely orientation of tablet and dock) camera that is 2.0 megapixels. It's a standard fixed-focus lens, which is fine for teleconferencing but not much else. The rear-facing camera at the back of the tablet is a much more advanced 5.0 megapixel model with automatic focus and a powerful LED flash that delivers good pictures even in low-light environments.
The actual rip-and-flip part of the Helix doesn’t work as well as it might. The metal bars that stick up into the Helix and hold it in place rotate rather stiffly. At first we tried to rotate them up so that we could snap the tablet in place with the keyboard, but they wouldn't budge. So we ended up having to slide the tablet across the keyboard horizontally until it clicked before we could bring the screen into viewing position. Then the first time we picked it up off the table, we grabbed it by the screen. The keyboard started to come with it but then dropped off and clattered across the floor. Apparently it wasn't completely locked on. After that unintentional rugged test, we wrestled it back in place and tried to make sure it was stable, but we never trusted it after that. Even later, there was always a little bit of give when moving the Helix.
To actually separate the tablet from the keyboard the correct way, there’s a little button on the left side of the dock. It's very easy to detach, but it's also easy to accidentally detach, so users will need to be careful. Also, most convertible notebooks simply allow their screens to rotate around 180 degrees. The Helix's rip-and-flip method is actually an extra step because the tablet has to first be removed then reattached.
It's not a terrible design, but it’s far from elegant. We realize that the dock on the Helix is much more functional than something simple like the keyboard on the Surface, so there is no way it could just magnetically click into place. But we've seen easier to use docks even on standard notebooks. On the plus side, the single-button release is Section 508 compliant, which is a great advantage for government buyers.
The Helix as configured for our testing was $1,649, which is good given the performance and functionality it offers. However, government buyers getting it through their authorized channels can expect a discounted price of $1,236, which catapults it from a good buy to a great one.
Users who want tablet functionality but who are not quite ready to totally drop their keyboard security blanket should give the Helix a look. Our guess is that it will mostly be used as either a straight tablet or like a standard notebook, and it works well for either of those tasks. The rip-and-flip stuff is a cute extra, which is thankfully unneeded, but it's there if users want an actual workhorse with a bit of a cool factor, or who could realistically see a use for it with the screen pointing away from the attached keyboard.