Lenovo has managed to build a name for itself when it comes to rock solid enterprise grade laptops ever since it acquired the ThinkPad name from IBM back in 2005. An acquisition that has propelled the Chinese tech company to become the no.1 PC brand in the world, outselling industry stalwarts HP and Dell in an otherwise shrinking market.
Another big plus for Lenovo is that it hasn’t been shy about tinkering with the traditional laptop design.The manufacturer was arguably one of the first to unveil a notebook-tablet hybrid machine with the 2010 release of the IdeaPad U1, a dual purpose Windows 7 notebook equipped with a detachable screen that could also be used as an Android Tablet.
Last month, Lenovo turned heads with the release of the world's first multi-mode Ultrabook, the Yoga 13, a notebook that can be used in various positions by simply folding the 360-degree screen and laptop body at different angles.
Now, the ThinkPad Helix highlights Lenovo’s fresh take on the hybrid form factor, armed with what the company describes as a “rip and flip” design that offers up to four different modes of operation: Laptop, Stand, Tablet and a mode that Lenovo calls “Tablet ”.
Since the release of Windows 8 twelve months ago, we have seen a spate of hybrid devices by manufacturers attempting to deliver the all-in-one mobile tablet without compromising on the traditional laptop experience. Is Lenovo's latest effort capable of standing out in an increasingly crowded market?
The ThinkPad Helix is, first and foremost, a high-end business Ultrabook when used in its default laptop mode.
Lenovo has brought across all of the key features that have made ThinkPads so popular amongst business users including a solid but heavy construction, excellent full-sized keyboard with well spaced keys that have a healthy amount of travel and enterprise grade security integrated into the hardware such as Intel's vPro, BIOS encryption and a TPM chip that stores passwords, encryption keys and digital certificates.
Though the machine is using Intel's last gen Ivy Bridge processors instead of the more power efficient Haswell chipsets, the battery life is one of the best we have come across in an Ultrabook. Expect to get through a full work day when using the machine in laptop mode with our battery run-down tests clocking in at just a little over eight hours.
However, the excellent battery life and durable build quality does add a bit of heft to the overall package, which weighs in at 1.7kgs, making it a bit on the heavy side when compared with other 11.6" Ultrabooks on the market. While the extra weight is unlikely to put you off lugging it around, it will almost certainly be noticeable when stowed away in a bag or briefcase.
The 1920x1080 multi-touch IPS panel is a real standout, producing razor sharp text and accurate colour reproduction that remains true regardless of the viewing angle. The display is also nice and bright with a 400-nit brightness rating.
Some, however, may find the 11.6" display too small to use on a laptop and we would have loved to see Lenovo sacrifice some of the large bezel space for a slightly bigger and more comfortable 13" screen.
With the press of a button, the screen can be disengaged from the keyboard, turning the display into a standalone tablet.
As a tablet, the ThinkPad Helix weighs less than other Core i5 tablets such as the Surface Pro and is just 200 grams heavier than an iPad 4.
The downside is that once disengaged, you lose the keyboard's auxiliary battery and, as a result, battery performance takes a noticeable dip with the tablet lasting a little over 5 hours from a single charge.
Tucked away on the top of the tablet you will find a pressure sensitive Wacom stylus which worked very well in our tests. It's one of the few tablets on the market that accepts pen input and the extra level of precision makes it ideal for taking notes while in a meeting, annotating documents or navigating the Windows desktop.
The Helix also comes with NFC sensor on the back of the screen for quickly pairing compatible gadgets in addition to an integrated 3G modem for on the go data access.
The on board cameras bears mentioning as well, with the front-facing camera capable of recording 1080p video making it ideal for video calls and the rear facing camera equipped with a decent 5MP snapper and an LED flash. Both performed reasonably well in low light conditions as well.
Flipping the tablet around and locking the display into the keyboard dock will give you a setup that would be useful in a group collaboration setting.
The quality of the screen is certainly fit for this purpose but ultimately the small screen size will limit the mileage that you get out of this mode.
If you prefer the longer battery life of laptop mode while using the machine as a tablet then you can access what Lenovo calls "tablet ", which can be initiated by simply folding the screen all the way down from the stand position. Thankfully, the keyboard remains unexposed unlike Lenovo's Yoga line.
Unfortunately, the combined weight of the keyboard dock and tablet is just too heavy for this mode to be practically usable for anything more then a couple of minutes. Using a 1.7 kg tablet for any real length of time is just uncomfortable and we can't see too many people using this mode.
With a starting price of a little over $2,000, the ThinkPad Helix is priced out of the range of most consumers. But for business professionals looking for a reliable and sturdy ThinkPad Ultrabook that can also double as a usable tablet with pen input, it's hard to go past this machine.
Having said that, we would recommend holding out for the eventual Haswell refresh, as this will give a much needed boost in the tablet's battery life and should also mean a lighter overall package.
Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based Freelance Journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering Business IT and Consumer Technology.