June 24, 2024


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Lenovo ThinkPad Helix review: A business hybrid with an executive price

The Helix is a well-made but expensive product that presents an interesting question. While there very well may be a market for an 11-inch hybrid with an emphasis on business and security features and a body leaning toward the industrial, rugged side, exactly what sort of premium should one expect to pay for it?

When it was first introduced at CES 2013, Lenovo described the Helix laptop-tablet hybrid as a “flip-and-rip” system, which sounded like the usually staid company was trying to add a little sizzle to the normally conservative ThinkPad lineup.

In person, this detachable-screen hybrid still has a very ThinkPad-like look and feel, and from a distance, it looks nearly identical to the army of ThinkPads on office and cubicle desks around the world.

The flipping and ripping comes into play when you activate the small hinge-based latch for removing the display from the rest of the body. In this case, the screen pops off much like any other hybrid’s, but then can reattach after being rotated 180 degrees, leaving the screen facing out from the back of the system. That makes for a good presentation mode, which I sometimes call a “kiosk” setup. Of course, you can also use the Helix screen by itself as a Windows 8 slate, or fold the unit shut with the screen facing out for a thicker tablet mode backed up by the extra battery power of the keyboard dock.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But as an 11-inch laptop, the Helix is in the middle of a suddenly crowded market. The Sony Vaio Pro 11 and 11-inch MacBook Air are on the traditional clamshell side, while Lenovo’s own IdeaPad Yoga 11S and the Acer Aspire P3 are hybrids, although ones that work differently than the Helix.

Another potential stumbling block: the Helix (like the Yoga 11S) is currently stuck with Intel’s previous-generation processors, rather than the new fourth-generation Core i-series, called Haswell. The difference is important for a device such as this, because the battery life numbers we’re seeing from the first few Intel Haswell laptops make the new chips more than worth waiting for, especially if you’re going to be using a hybrid in its extra-portable tablet mode. The Helix ran for an acceptably long time when both the base and screen batteries were used together, but for pure tablet use, it’s tempting to wait for an updated version.

Because this system is from Lenovo’s professional-grade ThinkPad line, as opposed to the consumer-targeted IdeaPad line, you can expect to pay a bit of a premium compared with other machines with similar specs. For a ThinkPad’s rigid construction, best-in-class keyboard, and IT-friendly security features, that’s perfectly reasonable, in theory. But, the Helix starts (starts!) at a frankly surprising $1,679 — and for that, you get only a last-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive (but, points for the 1,920×1,080-pixel-resolution display). Upgraded versions (all include a digitizer stylus) add faster processors, more RAM, larger SSDs, and mobile broadband, but those can cost somewhere north of $2,000.

Price $1,539 $1,149 $999 $999
Display size/resolution 11.6-inch, 1,920×1,080 screen 11-inch, 1,920×1,080 touch screen 11.6-inch, 1,766×768 screen 11.6-inch, 1,366×768 screen
PC CPU 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y
PC Memory 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 8,192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000 1,748MB Intel HD Graphics 4400 1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000 32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000
Storage 128GB SSD 128GB SSD 128GB SSD 256GB SSD
Optical drive None None None None
Networking 802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11 b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) OS X Mountain Lion 10.8.4 Windows 8 (64-bit)

Design and features
Though I have misgivings about the price and older components, Lenovo has created the best detachable-screen latching system I’ve seen. It’s still overly fiddly, with multiple hook-and-eye-style connections, but it feels more robust and solid than other detachable hybrid hinges, and the release mechanism is a large push-in button on the left edge of the hinge, rather than a chintzy-feeling button right below it (as found on the HP Envy x2 and other hybrids).

There’s even a short horizontal panel that covers the entire hinge mechanism from the rear of the system, both to protect it from the elements and to give the entire package a cleaner look. I’ve taken to calling it the Helix Modesty Skirt.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At 3.7 pounds for the screen and body (not including the power cable), it’s hefty for an 11-inch laptop, but note that there’s a three-cell battery in the tablet and a separate four-cell battery in the keyboard dock.

Removing the screen from the base, flipping it around, and reattaching it has a couple of obvious uses. One is to create a kiosk-style display, with the screen pointing toward your audience without a keyboard or touch pad in the way. I’ve used Lenovo’s own Yoga 13 like this many times, and if you share a lot of onscreen content, it can be a useful feature, especially if you can still drive the system from behind, as you still have access to the keyboard and touch pad.

From that kiosk mode, you can fold the system shut, so it’s in its closed clamshell mode but with the display pointing out. That gives you what Lenovo calls a tablet-plus mode, which essentially means you’ve got a large secondary battery bolted to the back. That makes for a thick and heavy tablet, but if you need a half-dozen hours or more of Windows 8 touch-screen productivity, you can get it.

The rest of the physical design is up to Lenovo’s usual impeccable ThinkPad standards. The matte-black chassis feels like it could take a bullet, and the standard, island-style ThinkPad keyboard, with keys slightly curved at the bottom, is impossible to top.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Keyboards on 11-inch laptops are especially tough to design well, but using the Helix, I never felt unduly cramped while typing. Shift, Enter, Tab, and other important keys are well-sized, and functions including volume, microphone, and brightness controls are mapped to the primary functions of the F-key row at the top of the keyboard. But, keep in mind the power button is actually on the top edge of the screen itself, so you can use it while in tablet mode.

The large, buttonless clickpad is also generous in size and feels tighter than its counterpart on Lenovo’s X1 Carbon ultrabook. There’s a red trackpoint nestled between the G, H, and B keys. I’m on the record as saying that method of pointer navigation is not what most laptop users are looking for these days, but at least it’s only minimally in the way.

The 11.6-inch display has a very high native resolution of 1,920×1,080 pixels, which is great to see in such a compact laptop/tablet. In the Windows 8 interface, icons and text scale automatically to a comfortable level, although in the traditional Windows view, things can look very small indeed. The screen itself is bright and glare-free, and, very importantly for a tablet, it’s an IPS display that looks fine even from extreme side angles.

Video DisplayPort [tablet and keyboard base]
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack [tablet]
Data 1 USB 2.0, SIM card slot [tablet]; 2 USB 3.0 [keyboard base]
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi
Optical drive None

Connections, performance, and battery
The ports and connections on the Helix, such as they are, sit on on the bottom edge of the tablet. That means they’ll be covered up when the tablet is connected to its dock in laptop mode, except for the audio jack.

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