Lenovo ThinkPad Helix: Jack of all trades, master of none
What do you call a device that can be either a laptop or a tablet, or even a few additional novel form factors in between? A Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, that’s what—which, as the name implies, is a hybrid with a twist.
Here’s how it works: In laptop form, the screen is firmly affixed to a keyboard dock, forming your standard clamshell. But press a button on the dock, right below the lower-left corner of the screen, pull up on the screen, and—voilà—the screen is freed to serve as a stand-alone tablet. Or you can flip the screen around, return it to the dock facing backward, and either put the device into presentation mode (hinge on top, keyboard dock acting as a kickstand), or fold the screen flat so it’s facing outward while covering the keys. Both instances provide a quasi-tablet experience while retaining the extra dock’s bigger battery.
The Helix’s ThinkPad pedigree is evident: all-black body, rubberized surfaces, and the familiar black, slightly concave keys surrounding the signature red TrackPoint nubbin.
That’s a lot of versatility, for sure. Yet for all its possible permutations, the Helix comes up lacking.
It’s most glaring weaknesses are as a laptop. At the top of the list is the fact that you’re getting an Ivy Bridge processor—namely, a 1.8GHz Core i5-3427U—where the greater power savings of a Haswell proc would make more sense. But even that wouldn’t remedy our other gripes. At 11.16 inches, the Helix is small, but on a whole it’s not especially thin or light. It measures .8 inches in height and has a lap weight of nearly four pounds, half of which is concentrated in the display, where all the major components live. This makes the Helix noticeably top-heavy and prone to toppling backward when propped on a lap or other unstable surface. Furthermore, the Helix’s hinge, which contains the mechanism for separating the device, has limited range of motion, so the screen can only be tilted back 20 degrees or so, which is fine if you plan to always use the laptop from a fixed position, but is otherwise highly annoying. There are just two USB 3.0 ports and a Mini DisplayPort on the back of the dock, where they’re not easily accessed without turning the laptop. The chintzy storage allotment, consisting of a sole 128GB SSD, seems like the least of the Helix’s woes.
On the positive side, the screen—an IPS panel with 1920x1080 res—looks great, with accurate color reproduction and a wide viewing angle. That’s a lot of pixels to cram onto an 11.6-inch touchscreen. To help navigate some of the smaller elements, where chunky fingers might not suffice, Lenovo bundles a digitizer pen, stowed in a handy compartment built into the screen. As for the Helix’s other input methods, we found the keyboard comfortable and easy to type on, despite its relatively small size, but the glass touchpad, which feels nice, was frustratingly erratic until we fiddled with the Synaptics driver.
In our benchmark tests, the Helix was a conservative performer. It has the same CPU as our zero-point Ultrabook, yet performed noticeably slower, due to the Helix’s proc rarely, if ever, hitting its Turbo Boost potential—most likely in the interest of thermals. The Helix did, however, shine in battery life, outlasting other laptops of its class, with an HD video runtime of nearly five hours.
We have few complaints about the Helix as a tablet. The screen does a good job with media, the speaker is robust, and while it’s not exactly light at almost two pounds, it’s not uncomfortable to hold either. The wide format, however, can make it challenging for smaller hands to type with thumbs while also holding the device. And our video rundown test saw the battery last just shy of three hours. For ports, it offers USB 2.0 and Mini DisplayPort, along with a SIM card slot.
In the end, the Helix’s versatility has to be of paramount importance—enough to overlook its inherent compromises. Otherwise, it’s too tempting to spend the $1,650 this Helix costs on a separate laptop and tablet, each of which does its respective job without trade-offs.