Hybrid notebooks are neat, but can they help you do your job? They can when they're paired with an integrated Wacom stylus, like the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12. The compact notebook combines the best qualities of Lenovo's durable ThinkPad notebooks with the flexible nature of a laptop/tablet hybrid like Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, creating one of the most versatile work machines I've seen.
But there are tradeoffs to packing an active pen digitizer into a notebook this small. The ThinkPad 12 is thicker and heavier than some competing machines, which in turn makes it less comfortable to carry around as a tablet.
Then again, you won't find another 12-inch notebook that combines a best-in-class ThinkPad keyboard with an industry-leading Wacom pen. You also won’t find many business-class notebooks with a folding design that makes note taking easy.
At a glance, you’d never know that the ThinkPad Yoga 12 isn’t a standard ThinkPad laptop. It sports the same boxy design and matte black finish as other machines in the line. It’s not exactly eye-catching, but it looks and feels extremely solid and well-made.
Extra durability is one of the primary reasons to choose a business notebook over a consumer machine, and the ThinkPad Yoga 12 doesn’t disappoint on that front. The machine’s magnesium alloy frame is rock-solid and showed no signs of flexing during handling. Lenovo also says the display glass is scratch- and smudge-resistant, which is great for road warriors how need a notebook that can withstand some abuse on long business trips.
The Yoga 12 looks compact, but it’s actually relatively bulky compared to its main competitors. At 3.52 lbs., it outweighs even the heavyweight Dell Latitude E7250 (3.4 lbs.). The featherweight HP Folio 1020 weighs just 2.68 lbs., though it runs on a less powerful (and fanless) Core M processor and lacks a pen digitizer. Meanwhile, Dell’s 13-inch XPS 13 weighs 2.8 lbs., and Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 3 lbs.
Measuring 12.4 x 8.7 x .7 in., ThinkPad Yoga 12 is also a bit bigger and thicker than most competing machines. The Dell XPS 13 is more compact, measuring 11.8 x 7.56 x 0.11-0.68, even with its bigger 13-inch display. The HP EliteBook 1020 is also smaller and slimmer, at 12.2 x 8.27 x 0.62. Dell’s Latitue E7250 is also smaller, but a bit thicker at 12.2 x 8.3 x 0.83 inches.
Lenovo made a few interesting design decisions in order to accommodate the ThinkPad Yoga 12’s hybrid design, such as placing the small power button on the right edge of the chassis. That keeps the button accessible when using the device in tablet mode, but I found it a bit difficult to find and press by touch alone. I definitely like the inclusion of a volume rocker just below the power button, though. There’s also a round Windows button in the center of the bottom bezel that’s easy to press when using the device in tablet mode.
What makes a Yoga notebook a Yoga is its flexible, folding design. True to its heritage, the Yoga 12's lid can fold backward a full 360 degrees, effectively turning the machine into a very large, very thick tablet.
The Yoga 12 features Lenovo's "lift 'n' lock" keyboard, which means that the keys automatically disappear into the frame as soon as you open the lid beyond 270 degrees, and lock in place to avoid accidental key presses while using the notebook in as a tablet. Plus, small rubber stoppers on all four corners protect the keyboard deck when it's sitting on a table or desk.
That's just one way to make use of the folding design of the Yoga 12. There's also Tent Mode, which provides easy access to the touchscreen. But far more useful is Stand Mode, in which the keyboard deck is used as a stand, with the display tilted back. It makes the touchscreen very easy to use in cramped quarters – say, on an airplane tray table during a long business flight. And it also gives you a nice, angled writing surface for use with the included digitizer pen. The hinge is sturdy enough to prevent rocking or wobbling while writing.
I prefer this design to Dell’s Venue 11 Pro, which has a screen that detaches from its keyboard instead of folding 360 degrees. When detached, the Dell tablet lays flat instead of providing a natural tilted angle for writing.
Digitial note taking doesn't get much better than this. The ThinkPad Yoga 12 can be outfitted with a Wacom digitizer integrated into the display, which enables pressure sensitivity – in other words, the machine can tell how hard you're pressing down on the screen, letting you easily vary your pen stroke, just like you would with a real pen.
That's a big deal, since standard capacitive styluses – the kind you'd buy for an iPad, for example – can't detect pressure at all. And while laptop hybrids like Dell's Venue 11 Pro can be purchased with an optional Active Pen, the pressure sensitivity afforded there doesn't feel nearly as smooth as it does on a Wacom-equipped machine. The only devices that can really compare are other Wacom-equipped notebooks, and the Surface Pro 3 and Surface 3, which use N-Trig pen technology.
The above image shows the difference between the Venue 11 and ThinkPad 12. Notice the obvious wobble in the lines drawn on the Venue 11.
The other advantage of Wacom technology is that it doesn't require a battery to power the stylus. That means the stylus can be smaller and lighter – small enough, in fact, to slide into a silo at the front right corner of the chassis. Having a spot on the device to stow the pen is a big perk, since it helps ensure you don't lose it. Lenovo also sells a larger stylus that's about the size of a traditional ballpoint pen for an extra $25, if you prefer that.
The benefit of good stylus integration is that it turns a notebook like the ThinkPad Yoga 12 into an excellent digital notepad. That's especially true when the pen is used in conjunction with a good piece of software like Microsoft's OneNote, which comes preloaded. Microsoft's Office 365 software also comes with good inking support.
Digital notes have some big advantages over paper notes. They're automatically backed up to the cloud, so you won't lose them. And you can access your OneNote account on any Internet-connected device, so you can review your notes from anywhere.
The ThinkPad Yoga 12 carries on the line’s traditional of top-notch keyboards. In fact, I don’t think I’ve used a better keyboard on a 12-inch system. Keys are large and well-spaced, with a nice sculpted shape that makes them easy to navigate by touch. Key presses offer a good level of feedback, and key travel is deeper than on other compact notebooks. That’s a big plus for business users, since deeper keys offer a more desktop-like feel, and a more comfortable typing experience overall.
The keyboard also offer back lighting for easier typing in low light situations. I also like that the top row of “Fn” function keys are set to perform functions like adjusting the volume and screen brightness by default.
Touchpad and TrackPoint
Like other ThinkPad models, the Yoga 12 offers two distinct ways to control the mouse cursor: a standard touchpad, and the TrackPoint pointing stick.
The touchpad delivers sensitive, responsive control, and is roomier than expected on a laptop this small. Mousing around feels accurate, and gestures like two-finger scrolling worked very well. Instead of offering dedicated mouse buttons below the pad, the pad itself can be pressed for left and right clicks. That’s a tradeoff, since discrete buttons are more reliable for right clicks, but this setup provides more room for navigation. Besides, a two-finger tap for right clicks works flawlessly.
There are three buttons above the touchpad, which are intended to be used with the TrackPoint pointing stick, a small nub located between the G, H and B keys. The advantage of a pointing stick is that it lets you control the mouse without removing your fingers from the keyboard, which can interrupt your workflow. Business notebooks from Dell and Toshiba also offer pointing sticks, but I prefer the rounded top of the TrackPoint stick to the concave sticks of competing brands.
Lenovo sells the ThinkPad Yoga 12 with several different configurations for its 12.5-inch display. You can order the notebook with a resolution of either 1366 x 768 pixels, or a full HD display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. Both have touchscreen functionality, but only the full HD model comes with the pen digitizer.
My review unit came with the higher-res display, which will run you an extra $250 over the baseline model. I strongly recommend the higher-res screen, though, since it gives you more room to work – crucial on a compact screen like this – and is the only option with stylus support.
Like most business notebooks, the display comes with a matte finish that dulls colors a bit. That’s a bummer if you want to watch movies on the device, but it does a pretty good job of keeping reflections from bright office lights at bay.
Specs and performance
Lenovo sells the ThinkPad 12 in a variety of hardware configurations, up to an Intel Core i7 processor with 8GB of RAM and a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD). My review unit is a better sweet spot for the average business user, with a Core i5-5300 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.
The notebook proved more than powerful enough for my daily workload. Multitasking felt smooth and speedy, and I never noticed any slowdown, even while trying to tax the machine by editing a large spreadsheet while streaming HD video from YouTube with about a dozen tabs open in my Firefox Web browser.
The ThinkPad Yoga 12 comes with a relatively clean installation of Windows 8.1, with a handful of Microsoft productivity apps that come preloaded. That includes OneNote for taking notes, OneDrive for saving your documents and files to the cloud, and Skype for videoconferencing. A free 30-day trial for Microsoft Office 365, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, is also included, though you'll have to purchase a license if you want to use the suite beyond the trial period.
Ports and connectivity
The ThinkPad Yoga 12 offers a decent number of connectivity options, but ports aren’t as varied as on larger ThinkPad models. You get a OneLink docking connector, two USB 3.0 ports for connecting accessories, a mini HDMI port for linking the notebook to a monitor or projector, an SD card reader to expand its internal storage and Kensington lock connector for extra security.
Larger ThinkPad models like the T450s also include a mini DisplayPort and VGA out port for video, as well as a 4-in-1 card reader, Smart Card reader, and Ethernet port for connecting to wired networks. Those features are missing from the smaller Yoga 12 machine, though it is possible to recreate the functionality with the right adapters.
The ThinkPad Yoga 12 comes with a port on the side of the machine that lets it connect to Lenovo’s OneLink desktop dock. It adds a bunch of extra ports, including 2 USB 3.0 ports, 2 USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, and an Ethernet port. The dock lets you easily connect your notebook to all your desktop accessories with one single connector.
The ThinkPad Yoga 12 also doesn’t offer as many security options as larger models in the line. The notebook does come with a Trusted Platform Module chip, which lets the notebook resist malicious attacks at the hardware level. Unfortunately, there’s no option to get a fingerprint reader, which provides an easy way to keep larger ThinkPad notebooks locked down. There’s also no SmartCard slot, which lets you unlock other models with a physical key card.
By notebook standards, the Yoga 12's front-facing camera captures a decent amount of detail, which is a perk if you plan to use the machine for meeting remotely with clients or colleagues. A selfie I snapped with the webcam was grainy, but visual noise was relatively minimal. The Yoga 12 comes preloaded with Skype, a basic video chat app, so you can get started right away.
Lenovo rates the Yoga 12 at about 8 hours of battery life. During my testing period, the notebook ran for a full workday of mixed use, with several hours of battery life to spare. Business users can expect it to easily last through the end of the workday.
Dell’s Latitude E7250 offers similar notebook functionality at a similar price but, but it’s not a hybrid and it lacks pen support.
HP’s EliteBook Folio 1020 is much thinner and lighter than the ThinkPad Yoga 12, but it runs on a less powerful Intel Core M processor
Dell’s XPS 13 is thinner and lighter, with a much smaller footprint, but it lacks hybrid functionality and pen support.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is a premium laptop tablet hybrid with a kickstand and a excellent pen support, but its snap-on keyboard isn’t nearly as good as a ThinkPad keyboard.
Lenovo’s own ThinkPad Yoga 11e offers a similar design in a slightly smaller package, but runs on a less powerful Intel Celeron processor.
The bottom line
The ThinkPad Yoga 12 offers a flexible design that rivals the Surface Pro 3 in versatility, and the durability and security features to rival business notebooks like the Dell Latitude E7250. The sacrifice you’ll make for that combination of features is size; business laptops come much smaller and thinner than the ThinkPad Yoga 12, so it’s a poor choice if portability is your top concern.
Still, you get good battery life, tons of ports and an unbeatable keyboard. Meanwhile, pen support is top-notch, and Stand Mode provides a nice angled writing surface, making the Yoga 12 a great pick for digital note taking. If you’re in the market for a dependable business hybrid that’s great for note taking, this machine is a winner.