Review: Lenovo ThinkPad Helix flips Ultrabook expectations

Fast, functional Windows 8 laptop-tablet lets you detach for tablet use or dock with the display facing in or out

"Convertible" Ultrabooks -- full-fledged laptops that can also function as touch-driven tablets -- have become something of a commodity these days, so my attention goes to the manufacturers who can do something flashy and new with the idea. Enter Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix, a highly usable tablet-laptop aimed at "businesses, vertical and educational markets, as well as the technology enthusiast."

Whereas businesses will be keen on the Intel Core processor and TPM security chip under the hood, the enthusiasts will surely be interested in a feature of the Helix that Lenovo calls "Rip 'n Flip." The main unit can be docked with the keyboard, but with the screen facing either toward the user or away. Dock with the screen facing away, and you can use the machine in "stand" mode. Close the unit with the screen facing out, and you have a tablet with a tucked-away keyboard. It's a great idea, and in practice it's only slightly clumsier than having a system with a 180-degree hinge, but with the additional advantage that you can leave the dock behind when you want to.

[ Also on InfoWorld: The best Windows 8 tablet laptops, convertibles, and Ultrabooks | Introducing Windows Red: A serious plan to fix Windows 8 | For a quick, smart take on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld Tech Brief -- subscribe today. ]

The dock provides a comfortable keyboard with the pleasantly clicky key action I've come to expect from the ThinkPad line, as well as not one but two pointing devices: a generously sized, multi-touch-enabled touchpad and a nub mouse. The top, bottom, and center of the touchpad all have mechanical click sensors. Between the touchpad, the nub, and the touchscreen you can't complain about a lack of input options. Another bonus is the dock's secondary battery, which together with the main unit provided approximately six hours of runtime in my Netflix battery rundown test.

Most striking about keyboard-dockable tablets is the variation in the build quality of the docks themselves. What I've seen ranges from the fantastic to the flimsy. The Helix's dock is mostly plastic, but it's on the sturdier side of the docks I've examined. Two fanglike prongs protrude from the mouth of the dock to guide the tablet into place. To release the unit from the dock, you press in a switch on the left side of the connector. I was a little worried about snagging one or more of those protruding pieces on the corner of a desk or something, but thankfully this never came to pass.

Note that the vast majority of the weight in the dock is in the connector, which causes the Helix to tip over backward if it's perched on a precarious surface -- say, your lap. The battery seems to provide enough counterweight to keep the unit on an even keel if you're using it on a flat surface like a desktop, but be careful otherwise.

Today's Ultrabooks give off a lot less heat than previous generations of laptops, but there's still a real need for creative ventilation solutions. The Helix places its heat vent along the top edge of the machine, slightly to the right. This is generally a good place for it unless you hold the tablet in portrait mode -- it's a bad idea to put a hand over the vent, and the back of the unit near the vent can get surprisingly warm as well. But the dock doesn't generate any heat of its own. In fact, the dock has a fan that blows cold air up into the attached unit to provide additional cooling.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Security and management (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Build quality (20.0%)
Usability (30.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 8.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.2
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