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

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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?

Lenovo_ThinkPad_Helix_35560390_08.jpg
7.8

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Lenovo ThinkPad Helix</b> is a solidly built laptop-tablet hybrid with all the security features your IT department needs. Thanks to dual batteries in the tablet and keyboard base, it can run for a full workday.

The Bad

The Helix is stuck with Intel's less efficient previous generation of CPUs, making it feel especially expensive.

The Bottom Line

Even with the best detachable-screen hybrid hinge we've seen, the older CPU and high price make the ThinkPad Helix a hybrid for a select audience only.

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 1,920x1,080-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.

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Sony Vaio Pro 11 MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013) Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11S
Price $1,539 $1,149 $999 $999
Display size/resolution 11.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 screen 11-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen 11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen 11.6-inch, 1,366x768 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 1,920x1,080 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.

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix
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.

Fortunately, the keyboard base replicates and even improves on these, by offering its own Mini DisplayPort output, plus two USB 3.0 ports, which is better than the single USB 2.0 on the tablet itself. There's no SD card accessibility at all, so be aware if that's something you'll need. Bluetooth is also missing, and Ethernet is available only via an included USB dongle.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Available configurations go from expensive to very expensive, starting at almost $1,700 (although there's currently one of Lenovo's confusing promo code deals on the Lenovo Web site, bringing the base model down to $1,539.12). Moving the CPU from a Core i5 to a Core i7, adding mobile broadband (there's an easily accessible SIM card slot on the tablet), and bumping the RAM from 4GB to 8GB can drive the price closer to $2,000.

All of the Helix models include the sort of enterprise software and hardware IT departments often require (this is a ThinkPad, after all). Those include Intel's vPro platform, a TPM chip, and BIOS encryption. Casual consumers or small businesses typically don't have to worry about this, but it's there, and it's at least part of the reason you're paying a premium for the Helix.

Our Core i5 version of the Helix performed well in benchmark tests, especially considering that many previous 11-inch laptops and hybrids have been stuck with slower Intel Atom processors. Even among the current 11-inch Core i5 crop, including Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air and Sony's 11-inch Vaio Pro 11, it held its own, showing once again that there's little performance difference to be found between this year's' fourth-gen Haswell Intel Core i-series CPUs and last year's third-gen ones. (The Helix, surprising considering its price, is currently stuck with the older CPUs.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

However, one area where having a newer fourth-gen Haswell CPU offers a big gain is in battery life. Lenovo smartly makes up for the lack of a new Haswell chip by combining two batteries, one on the tablet screen and one in the base. Combined, the full laptop ran for 7 hours and 37 minutes in our video playback battery drain test using both batteries, while the tablet screen alone ran for 4 hours, 37 minutes. That's good for a Core i-series PC before the June release of the first Intel Haswell-generation processors, but laptops with those new CPUs have been turning in very impressive battery life numbers, and it makes me wonder what sort of improvement we'd see in an up-to-date Helix, especially if you want to leave the keyboard base at home.

Conclusion
There's a lot to like about the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix. The engineers at Lenovo have come up with the best detachable docking hybrid system I've seen (although there may be no solution to the fact that these docking hinges are just inherently clunky). It feels sturdier and more reliable than many other hybrids, and the double battery system offers flexibility for longer workdays.

That said, the laptop and tablet landscape has changed radically since we first saw this system previewed in January. Six months later, 11-inch tablets and hybrids are everywhere, and at some very reasonable prices. With only the previous generation of Intel CPUs available for now, it's hard to justify spending between $1,600 and $2,000 unless you really need the IT-friendly security features Lenovo is known for.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix
Windows 8 (64-bit); Intel Core i5-3427U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (dedcated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Toshiba SSD

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11
Windows 8 (64bit); 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 256GB Samsung SSD

MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)
OSX 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4240U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,024MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Apple SSD

Sony Vaio Pro 11
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,748MB (shared) Intel HD Grapics 4400; 128GB SSD

Acer Aspire P3 171-6820
Windows 8 (64bit); 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 120GB Intel SSD

Find more shopping tips in our Laptop Buying Guide.

Lenovo_ThinkPad_Helix_35560390_08.jpg
7.8

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Battery 7