The release of Intel’s new Atom processor, Bay Trail, late last year promised to usher in a new tier of low-cost tablet PCs capable of running the full version of Windows 8. The performance-packed but power-efficient chip meant that tablets could be much thinner, lighter and longer lasting but still powerful enough to run traditional desktop programs alongside apps downloaded from the Windows Store.
Coupled with the release of Windows 8.1, which added support for smaller-screen devices, manufacturers now have the means to deliver sub-$600 tablet PCs that are similar in size to the Android and iOS competition (between 7 and 10 inches), all the way up to 11.6-inch convertible devices that double as notebooks.
If anything, it has provided renewed hope among PC makers who have been reeling from disappointing sales of Windows tablets and hybrids, most of which sold for more than the average buyer’s budget of $900.
Enter the Lenovo ThinkPad 8 -- a $549 8.3-inch tablet that’s small enough to be slipped into a jacket pocket but powerful enough to run a full version of Windows 8.1 Pro. The tablet can even be used as a desktop PC with the ability to drive multiple external displays. While this all looks good on paper, does it actually deliver in practical everyday use?
Rock solid design with an impressive display
At $549, the ThinkPad 8 is on the pricey side but there are enough extra features on board to justify the price tag.
Firstly, it’s the only 8-inch Windows tablet to come with a 1920 x 1200 resolution display. In comparison, cheaper competitors such as the Dell Venue 8 Pro max out at 1280 x 800. It has a quality IPS panel as well with excellent viewing angles, good colour reproduction and a bright output that holds up well in sunlit environments. It also trumps the competition in the storage department with a generous 64GBs on board, which is expandable via the included microSD card slot. A Micro-HDMI output for connecting to an external monitor is also on show. The port selection can be expanded further with an optional dock accessory that adds dual-monitor support, ethernet and additional USB ports. On the software side, Lenovo throws in a copy of Microsoft Office as well.
ThinkPads have earned a reputation for their rock solid design over the years and that design DNA is well and truly alive here, with a sturdy yet understated aluminium body and gently tapered edges that feel great in the hand.
It’s also one of the thinnest and lightest Windows 8 tablets on the market. While it’s technically 100g heavier and 1mm thicker than the iPad mini, the difference is meaningless in everyday use. It feels just as comfortable to use as the mini and you do get a slightly larger 8.3-inch display in return.
Mixed performance and disappointing battery life
The ThinkPad 8 packs a quad-core 2.4GHz Intel Atom Bay Trail processor (Z3770) with 2GB of RAM. The Z3770 might be the fastest Atom processor currently available but don’t expect performance to be on par with Intel’s modern core processors normally found on Ultrabooks.
That said, the processor is more than up to the task of running full blown Windows 8.1 and navigating the Modern UI (formerly know as ‘Metro’) felt snappy. Similarly, installing and running desktop applications such as VLC, firing up webpages on the Chrome web browser and editing documents in Microsoft’s own Office suite felt just as responsive.
One of the key multitasking features of Windows 8.1 is the ability to snap apps downloaded from the Windows store or traditional desktop applications, side-by-side. Applications on either side can be quickly swapped out with a single swipe from the corner of the screen. We snapped the left half of the display with a streaming HD Flash video while simultaneously streaming a movie from the Crackle app on the other half of the screen. We didn’t encounter any stutter or dips in responsiveness even when swiping in other applications like Outlook, VLC or Skype. We also appreciated the fact that streaming videos continued playing from exactly where we left off, even after resuming from standby.
The ThinkPad 8 also did a fine job of driving our external monitor with multiple windows of applications running.
That said we did encounter some performance hiccups in other areas such as stuttering transitions while jumping between menus in the 'PC settings' section of the Modern UI. There are also some apps on the Windows Store that remain unoptimised for the Intel Atom processor with games such as Asphalt 8 experiencing consistent frame rate drops, making them virtually unplayable.
Running more demanding desktop applications such as Photoshop or video editing programs is out of the question, but for productivity tasks (Office suite, email, video conferencing) and general content consumption (watching movies and browsing the web), the ThinkPad 8 is up to the task.
Unfortunately, the tablet will struggle to get through a full work day though with our rundown tests coming in at only 6 hours and 35 minutes, which is well below the stated 8 hours. It’s a disappointing number for a tablet given the 10-plus hours we were able to achieve from the iPad Air and Microsoft’s own Surface 2. It even falls short of the 7.5 hours on the Surface Pro 2 which uses a faster processor and graphics.
Windows 8.1 transition to the small screen not perfect
The world of mini tablets is new territory for Windows 8 and we were curious to see how the familiar OS experience fared on the smaller pixel-dense touchscreen display.
Unless you have the ThinkPad 8 connected to an external display with a keyboard and mouse, desktop mode was a painful experience on the smaller 8.3-inch display and should largely be avoided. Setting the scaling to the maximum 200 per cent simply wasn’t large enough to make desktop elements comfortable to the eye and it didn’t change the fact that our human fingers are still bigger than most icons or buttons -- resulting in unintended selections. Stylus support would have helped in this department but the ThinkPad 8 lacks support for any sort of stylus or pen input.
Scaling issues aren’t just limited to the desktop, however, with text and buttons inside Modern UI apps such as Facebook and Twitter often feeling too small for the ThinkPad 8’s high-DPI display.
Scaling would be less of a problem on a lower resolution 8-inch display but with the resolution bar continually being raised by the industry, Microsoft needs to get the scaling balance right sooner rather than later.
Another glaring omission is the lack of unified app purchases across the Windows 8 ecosystem. This means that app purchases made in the store on Windows Phone 8 won’t carry across to a Windows 8 tablet or PC and vice versa, effectively requiring you to repurchase the same app twice.
Sticking with apps, the Windows Store now has over 100,000 of them and while that’s a steady improvement, it still pales in comparison to the 1 million-plus apps available on Android tablets and over 900,000 apps on the iPad. You can get around the issue by using the desktop browser to access the website versions of popular apps but that’s a less than ideal experience.
If you’re looking for an iPad mini equivalent of the Windows world, then the Lenovo ThinkPad 8 is your best bet, despite its flaws. It nails the form factor, solid build quality and offers a better display than the rest of the small-sized Windows powered tablets currently available. The tablet can also double up as relatively underpowered desktop computer that is perfectly suited to running productivity suites and other business related applications. It’s also more versatile than the Windows RT infused Surface 2 which is incapable of running desktop applications.
But a less than stellar battery life coupled with a complete lack of stylus support is likely to be a deal breaker for some. And while the Intel Bay Trail processor is more than capable of coping with everyday productivity tasks and general content consumption, those looking to run more demanding applications will be better served with the Haswell powered Surface Pro 2.