Home > Broadband, Green computing, Mobility, Tablets > Lenovo Gets Tablet-PC Combo Nearly Right

Lenovo Gets Tablet-PC Combo Nearly Right

Ever since the luggable Osborne of the mid 1980s, an ideal, do-all portable computer has hovered just out of reach. Do-all was realized when 15-inch and larger notebook PCs came into the market. Ideal? Not so much if long battery life, low temperature and light weight figured into your calculus.

The astonishing blooming of device types and sizes in the mobility revolution reminds me of those intensely-lit electronic shop store windows on Broadway – stuffed to the ceiling with devices of every conceivable description.

As a Mac user for many years, I’ve been intrigued by the Macbook Air, the first of the full-powered notebook rendered ultra-light by great mechanical engineering, deletion of a DVD drive, and use of a solid state storage. But the price, high even by Apple standards, put me off and I still haven’t bought one.

Windows 8, with its touch screen capabilities has spawned yet another class of ultralight in which the screen, actually the computer, pops out to become a tablet with a software keyboard. I’ve been trying one out, the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Detachable Ultrabook. It has a generous 11.5-inch (diagonal) touch screen, and it’s powered by a highly capable Intel Core i7 vPro processor. I found it attractive and solidly put-together, as I’ve come to expect from the ThinkPad series dating back forever. My model, without a mobile broadband chip, runs about $1,900 – a serious piece of change.

The computer is relatively lightweight at 3.8 pounds, compact at 11.5 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep. And thin at less than one inch. It’s small enough that it lets you eliminate the “second brief case”. It slides nicely into the rear zippered case of my L.L.Bean brief case. The charger, though, is clunky and because of the way the wall cord and computer cord are attached to it, the cords don’t wrap around it easily. Also, you must supply your own Velcro cable tie to keep it all together.

The Lenovo’s display is sharp and bright, but default fonts on web pages are simply too small to read easily, at least by these 58-year-old eyes. In fact, this Lenovo has a retro feature – namely a stylus that stores in a hole on the top of the unit. In operating routine functions in, say, Google Docs or at WordPress, the stylus is practically a necessity to invoke tiny icons. Be careful, though. The stylus is not tethered so it’s easy to lose.

But the negatives add up. The machine is less a tablet than reworking of a PC to include a software keyboard mated with a customized mechanical keyboard-dock. The keyboard is excellent, firm and responsive. But the design has unfortunate implications.

For one, most of the weight is in the tablet part, so Lenovo by necessity limits how far back it can tilt, lest it flop over on its back. A flimsy plastic limiter is mounted to the keyboard; the machine simply doesn’t open wide enough for some viewing situations. (The limiter piece is the only mechanically questionable part of this machine.) Worse, on more than one occasion when I released the machine from the dock to go to tablet mode, it crashed and I had to restart it.

Battery life is another matter. On a full charge, I found the Lenovo down to half power in about an hour. I’d give it a generous battery rating of three hours, not the claimed eight. That’s notebook territory, not tablet. When clapped shut but not powered down, the battery charge dissipated within a day. So this machine is like earlier generations of portables in that your first task on arriving in a conference room or airport terminal is to scan for an electrical outlet you can sit near.

Using the machine in charging mode made it uncomfortably hot on the back. Two tiny fans located on the dock couldn’t quite keep up.

I can’t comment on the software. From Lenovo the machine unfortunately went first to Federal News Radio’s IT department, where the guys rolled back the version of Windows from 8.1 to 8.0 in order to accommodate an ancient version of Adobe Audition we use. They also installed a virtual station desktop as one of the application tiles on the home screen, spoiling the full experience you’re supposed to get with Windows 8. Windows 8 has well-known of issues, but that’s not Lenovo’s doing.

Judging the machine, though, from what I do – writing – I found come anomalies. The big trackpad-button panel seemed to have a life of its own, sometimes barely responding, sometimes anchoring itself on a word and then highlighting whole paragraphs. Between the standard keyboard controls, the trackpad, the stylus and the touch screen, the user has a lot of ways to navigate and it takes some practice to find the right ones.

I’d judge the Lenovo UltraBook Helix Detachable Ultrabook a decent Version 1.0 for a Ultrabook-tablet combo. It’s sturdy, compact, fast and good-looking. The company needs to address battery life and the undocking-while-running issues.

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