Introduction and design
Along with full x86 compatibility, one of the alluring features of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 over an iPad or Android tablet is its strong performance. You can get a lot done with a dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory and an SSD of up to 256GB – but in a tablet form factor, not a laptop, so it’s portable as well as powerful.
The ThinkPad Helix takes this one step further, offering even greater performance under the hood. Part of this is down to it using the latest generation of Intel processors – the 14nm Broadwell-based Core M chips.
Unlike the Surface Pro (and certain other Windows tablets), which is a traditional tablet with an optional Type Cover, the Helix is a true 2-in-1 hybrid tablet, with a dock called the Ultrabook Pro Keyboard that features a proper trackpad with physical buttons, and an array of extra ports.
It joins a number of other 2-in-1 Windows tablets in offering high performance x86 compatibility. The Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000 uses the same processor, while Lenovo’s own ThinkPad Yoga 12 has a Core i5 processor rather than a Core M.
As it carries the ThinkPad branding, the Helix has a few of its trademark features. Namely, a red joystick right in the centre of the keyboard dock to move the mouse pointer, two chunky physical mouse buttons and, when the tablet is woken from sleep mode, the dot above the "i" on the ThinkPad logo lights up red.
Since ThinkPads are business-class machines, the three ThinkPad Helix variants carry business-class pricing. Starting at £1000 inc VAT ($1241 in the US, or AU$1602) and going up to £1500 inc VAT ($1860 in the US, or AU$2400) the Helix is certainly no toy.
Although the Helix is an 11.6-inch tablet, it feels quite hefty compared with the Surface. When it’s docked and closed shut, it isn’t completely obvious which side is the front and which is the back, since the hinge completely covers the front edge.
It’s not especially thin either. With the dock closed it measures 22mm off the ground, with the tablet portion measuring almost a centimetre. It matches the Surface Pro in terms of weight, starting at 795g (for the tablet on its own, since the dock increases the overall weight to 1.35kg).
There’s a black bezel around the display, which seems thick, measuring 20mm at the sides and 25mm at the bottom, with the effect of making the viewable screen area look a bit like a letterbox.
But the ThinkPad range has never been known for form over function – and a rigid, solid design adds a feel of sturdiness. We wouldn’t test it, but it does seem like the Helix could survive a few light knocks that might easily destroy other tablets.
The tablet and dock are separated by pushing in a button at the side, otherwise they’re bonded together very strongly.
Holding the tablet in your hand, the device has an odd asymmetrical look. One edge uses round corners, while on the other the corners are square, for a flat connection to the dock.
You can flip the Helix around to use it in an upright position, with the keyboard behind it, or push it down again so it becomes more of a ‘slate’. And if you want, it can be used in ‘tent’ mode, like an inverted V shape, although since the dock works so well to hold the Helix upright, it’s hard to see why you’d do this.
There are plenty of expansion ports. On the tablet, a USB 3.0 port hides behind a protective cover, joined by a second USB 3.0 port on the dock, along with a DisplayPort output. And behind another protective cover on the tablet you’ll find slots for a microSIM for mobile broadband, and a microSD card.
At the top of the tablet is the power switch and an autorotate lock button, with a volume rocker and 3.5mm audio jack at the side. Further down you’ll find a microHDMI port.
Specification and performance
There are three ThinkPad Helix variants listed on Lenovo’s site. The "low-end" variant comes with a dual-core, four-thread Intel Core M-5Y10c, which has a maximum clock frequency of 2GHz. The other two pricier models have a faster Core M-5Y71, with a base frequency of 1.2GHz, but in Turbo Mode, this goes up to 2.9GHz, a high clock speed for a tablet.
8GB of memory comes as standard in all models, as does a 1920 x 1080 display, which Lenovo touts as capable of 400-nit brightness. As I was sent a high-end model with a Core M-5Y71, it came with an Intel HD5300 integrated graphics chip, which isn’t quite the performer the HD5500 is (that’s what you get with Intel Core i5 processors as seen on, for example, the ThinkPad Yoga 12).
There are multiple batteries, one in the dock, one in the tablet itself, with two power connectors to charge either separately. They behave as you might expect. The primary battery is in the tablet itself. When connected, the dock charges the tablet, and if it is left disconnected from a power source, it’s the dock’s battery that powers the Helix – and obviously when you remove the tablet, then it’s using its own battery.
The dock and keyboard also house separate speakers, with a mono speaker in the tablet and stereo speakers in the dock, which inevitably produce a more powerful sound. And as is the case with the batteries, when the two are conjoined, the audio switches back to the dock by default, with a pause of a few seconds as it does so.
A 128GB SSD is present in the entry-level and mid-range models, while the high-end variant has a 256GB SSD, which supports Opal 2.0 self-encryption.
Dual-band 802.11ac wireless connectivity is catered for with an Intel 7265 wireless chip, as used in many mobile devices.
The Helix also comes with an Active stylus on the low-end models, with a Digitizer Pen in the high-end model, offering 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, although this can be purchased separately on Lenovo’s site.
Here is the spec sheet of the review model provided to TechRadar:
- CPU: Intel Core M-5Y71
- Graphics: Intel HD5300
- RAM: 8GB
- Screen: 11.6-inch 1920 x 1080 Multitouch
- Storage: 128GB SSD
- Optical drive: None
- Ports: 2 x USB, microHDMI, DisplayPort
- Connectivity: Dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
- Camera: 5MP, 2MP
- Weight: Tablet: 759g With dock: 1.35kg
- Size: Tablet: 300mm x 192mm x 9mm
The Helix is not quite the most powerful tablet around, as it’s pipped to the finish line by a few other models, including the aforementioned Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12, but it’s still a great performer. As with most high-end x86 tablets, expect just about any software you might use on a laptop to run perfectly well on the Helix.
However its CPU and graphics performance can’t quite beat a Core i5 and more powerful HD 5500 graphics processor, with slightly lower PCMark and Cinebench performance.
Here are the benchmarks we recorded:
- 3DMark: Cloud Gate: 2922; Sky Diver: 1888; Fire Strike: 504
- Cinebench: CPU: 172 points; Graphics: 17.3 fps
- PCMark 8 Home Test: 1891
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 5 hrs 41 mins (with dock) 3 hrs 59 min (tablet)
However, there are still some great results here, particularly the battery life. Almost four hours for a Windows tablet in PCMark 8, a quite taxing test, is a very impressive result, and this goes up by close to 50% when the dock is connected.
I also used a Spyder4 Colorimeter to test the display against Lenovo’s claims. The result of the uncalibrated brightness test came out slightly lower than the quoted 400 nits, with a result of 361, but this is still good. sRGB coverage of 78% and Adobe coverage of 58% aren’t up there with standalone colour-accurate PC monitors or high-end laptops such as HP’s DreamColor display, but these results are still more than reasonable.
Lenovo’s ThinkPad Helix offers a pretty powerful overall performance, and a very impressive screen to boot, with laudable brightness levels and accurate enough colours. The battery life is also a high point, with the tablet performing well as a standalone device, and the dock adding even more juice.
While performance is good, the Helix is edged out by some of its hybrid rivals. We must also bear the price in mind – this is one expensive piece of hardware, especially at the high-end of the range. Another downside is that the Helix isn’t particularly thin, nor is it particularly light.
Just who is the pricey ThinkPad Helix for? Clearly it isn’t competing with Android tablets or the iPad. Perhaps not even the Surface Pro 3 – it would be silly to. All three have their own niche which they cover well, and Lenovo might not succeed if it took them head-on at their own game.
Instead, the ThinkPad Helix sits in its own segment of the market – this is a genuine hybrid tablet that actually has the power of a laptop. And there are plenty of people who want just that – a handheld, touchscreen device that can run any software going.
And with the dock, you can use it just like a laptop too.
Although it’s not the thinnest or lightest tablet, the design is of a very high standard. The battery life is superb, the overall performance is good and the large high-resolution IPS screen is bright and big enough to be useful for real work.
The Helix should work just as well with more taxing tasks, such as light Photoshop use, as it does for the basics, such as web surfing or word processing. And that is perhaps the best thing about 2-in-1 hybrid devices – they’ll run nearly all the same software you have on your desktop or laptop PC.
It’s unfortunate though that the relatively high price isn’t justified by market-leading performance, as the Helix comes out slightly slower than other models. But regardless of this, if it’s a powerful Windows tablet you want, you’re unlikely to be disappointed by the ThinkPad Helix, just as long as you can meet the asking price.