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Grow Your Business Technology

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 2 Review: Is It Good for Business

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 2 Review: Is It Good for Business
The ThinkPad Helix 2 has a compact 11.6-inch display. / Credit: Jeremy Lips

The mark of a good 2-in-1 laptop is that you forget it's a 2-in-1 while you're using it. Most laptop/tablet hybrids fail that test, with shallow keyboards and flimsy, restrictive hinges that serve as constant reminders that you're not working on a traditional notebook. That's why I like the ThinkPad Helix 2: It feels like a true ThinkPad when docked with its keyboard, with almost none of the compromises you have to make with the average 2-in-1.

You also get an overall durable design, fast performance and long battery life. And unlike with a standard ThinkPad notebook, you can detach the tablet display from the keyboard, which is great for note-taking with the included Wacom pen. Those features are enough to make the ThinkPad Helix 2 my favorite overall 2-in-1 for business users, even if it's a bit on the heavy side.

The Helix 2 may feel like a traditional ThinkPad, but it doesn't exactly look like one. That's because there's a big metal flap overlapping part of the lid when the tablet is docked with its keyboard. The flap is actually part of the hinge mechanism. It makes for a sturdy connection, but it looks clunky, with sharp angles around the edges of the flap. 

Otherwise, the notebook's overall aesthetic adheres very closely to the style of the ThinkPad brand. I like the rounded corners and the matte black paint job, which will look right at home in a conference room.

The Helix 2 feels like a notebook that can withstand a bit of abuse, thanks to its tough, rigid design. The machine's outer shell is made from a combination of magnesium and durable ABS plastic. 

Those tough materials make the device relatively hefty, though. The Helix 2 tips the scales at 3.65 lbs. when docked with the keyboard, making it significantly heavier than the Toshiba Portege Z20t (3.2 lbs.), even though that hybrid has a bigger 12.5-inch display. The 12.2-inch Microsoft Surface Pro 3 weighs a superlight 2.4 lbs. with its keyboard attached, but its keyboard is a lot shallower and doesn't include a second battery. 

As a stand-alone tablet, the 1.7-lb. Helix 2 weighs about as much as competing devices, including the Surface Pro 3 (1.76 lbs.) and the Portege Z20t (1.6 lbs.). The Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000 also weighs 1.6 lbs., even with its smaller 10.8-inch display.

The bottom line is that if you're looking for a hybrid laptop to travel with, there are certainly lighter options than the ThinkPad Helix 2.

Detaching the Helix 2's display from its keyboard is easy; just press the large button on the left edge of the hinge that connects the two, and then pull. It works pretty well, but it's not as seamless or simple as the magnetic latch on the Portege Z20t, which doesn't require any button presses.

I was happy to discover that the tablet can be docked in the reverse orientation, with the screen pointed backward. That's handy for number of reasons. First, it lets you use the keyboard dock to prop your tablet upright during presentations. Second, it lets you use the display in tablet mode, with the keyboard tucked underneath. Finally, you can tilt the tablet back at a nice, natural angle for taking notes on the screen.

The Helix 2 has a sharp, bright display, but it's relatively small for a device with these dimensions. In fact, the 11.6-inch Helix 2 has a larger footprint than the Surface Pro 3, even though that device packs a bigger 12.2-inch screen. That's thanks to the superchunky bezels around all four corners of the tablet's display, and a hinge that adds an extra inch of space below the screen.

Otherwise, the Helix 2's display looks pretty good, with a full-HD resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels and wide viewing angles. And, topping out at 306 nits of brightness, it's also brighter than the average ultraportable notebook display (277 nits).

It's hard to ignore that the Helix 2's display is pretty small, especially when other hybrids manage to cram bigger screens into devices with a similar footprint. Screen-intensive productivity tasks like viewing documents and editing spreadsheets feel OK, but split-screen multitasking gets a bit claustrophobic. 

The ThinkPad Helix 2 comes equipped with a Wacom digitizer stylus, which provides very accurate pressure sensitivity. In other words, it can tell how hard you're pressing down on the screen, so you can feather your lines and vary your line weight, just as you would with a regular ink pen. This allows for a much more natural handwriting experience than you'd get from the sort of standard capacitive pen you'd buy for an iPad, for example. 

Lenovo's pen felt great when I tested it in Microsoft OneNote, a note-taking app that comes preloaded on the Helix 2. My strokes felt precise, and the tablet's palm rejection worked well. There's no place to stow the stylus on the device itself when you're not using it, though, so you'll need to be careful about losing track of it.

My biggest gripe is that, while the display's wide-screen, 16:9 aspect ratio is nice for a laptop screen, it felt supernarrow when I was holding the tablet in portrait mode, and that was especially true when I was taking handwritten notes with the stylus. I found myself pining for a wider tablet like the Surface Pro 3, which has dimensions that are closer to those of a standard sheet of notebook paper. 

Lenovo's optional Ultrabook Pro keyboard is the accessory that helps the Helix 2 stand out in a sea of mediocre 2-in-1 laptops. It's simply the best keyboard dock I've tested.

The keyboard dock has the same functions as the keyboard on a traditional ThinkPad laptop like the ThinkPad T450s. That means it offers large, well-spaced keys, each with a sculpted shape that makes them easy to navigate by touch. You get an impressive 1.5 mm of travel with each key, which is above average. That's good, because deeper keys provide a more comfortable, desktoplike feel. The individual keys also feel snappy and responsive.

Unfortunately, the Helix 2's top-heavy design makes it less than ideal for typing in your lap. Because most of the weight is in the tablet instead of the keyboard, it started to tip back slightly whenever my palms weren't resting against the keyboard deck. It's perfectly stable on a flat desk or table, though.

The Helix 2 can be ordered with or without the Ultrabook Pro keyboard. The accessory adds $320 to the cost of the tablet, making it far and away one of the priciest add-ons I've seen. Lenovo also sells a cheaper version, dubbed simply the Ultrabook keyboard, for $120. 

But there are big differences between the Pro and standard keyboard docks. Features exclusive to the Pro model include a full-size USB 3.0 port for connecting accessories, a mini DisplayPort for linking to monitors and projectors, backlit keys, speakers and the TrackPoint pointing stick (more on that below). The Pro keyboard also includes backlighting, as well as an extra battery that boosts the machine's overall battery life by nearly 50 percent — two features the non-Pro keyboard lacks.

Measuring 2.5 x 1.5 inches, the Helix 2's touchpad is a bit on the small side, but it's big enough for a device with such a compact display. I liked the pad's smooth matte finish, which my finger glided over easily. Cursor navigation felt precise, and multifinger gestures like two-finger scrolling were responsive.

The Ultrabook Pro keyboard comes with a second way to control the cursor using the TrackPoint pointing stick, a red nub positioned right between the G, H and B keys. It's not for everyone, but I like using the TrackPoint because it gives me precise control over the mouse without requiring me to move my hands from the keyboard.

The tablet portion of the Helix 2 offers just a handful of ports, including a USB 2.0 port, a mini HDMI-out port, and an SD card reader for expanding its internal storage.

The Ultrabook Pro keyboard adds a second USB 3.0 port, a mini DisplayPort and a security lock slot for physically securing your device at your desk. There's no Ethernet port, but you can purchase a USB-to-Ethernet adapter if you need to connect to a secure work network.

My Helix 2 review unit provided plenty of power for daily productivity tasks. It came equipped with a 1.2-GHz Intel Core M-5Y71 processor with 8GB of RAM and a generous 256GB solid-state drive (SSD). The slate's low-power Core M processor isn't as speedy as a Core i-series processor you'll find in most traditional ThinkPad notebooks, but it does provide pretty good performance for everyday work activities, with no need for a cooling fan.

I saw very good performance out of the Helix 2 during my testing period. Apps opened and closed quickly, and multitasking was smooth, even when I tried to stress the processor by editing a spreadsheet while streaming HD video on YouTube, with more than a dozen tabs open in my Firefox Web browser.

Like any good business notebook, the Helix 2 comes with a handful of features to keep your data secure, starting with a fingerprint scanner located on the back edge of the tablet. It's a nice perk for business users, since it lets you lock down your work notebook without messing with a password screen every time you turn it on. The placement of the scanner is admittedly a bit awkward, but at least it's available even when the tablet is not docked to the keyboard. I registered the prints for my index and middle fingers on my right hand, and the scanner recognized them quickly and reliably. 

Thanks to the second battery crammed into its Ultrabook Pro keyboard dock, the Helix 2 delivers very good battery life. When docked, it lasted 10 hours on our battery life test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi. That's a lot longer than the ultraportable notebook category average of 8 hours and 17 minutes. Other hybrids with secondary batteries lasted longer, though, including the Venue 11 Pro (13:33) and the Portege Z20t (14:37).

Without its dock, the slate lasted a meager 7 hours and 6 minutes. That's not bad, but competing tablets lasted a bit longer, including the Venue 11 Pro (8:00), the Portege Z20t (7:29) and the Surface Pro 3 (7:27.)

The ThinkPad Helix 2 comes with Windows 8.1 Professional installed, but it's eligible for a totally free update to the just-released Windows 10 operating system. The update is simple to install: Just run Windows Update, and you'll be prompted to upgrade. I recommend that all business users install Windows 10 as soon as possible, since it's much more practical for productivity than the touch-focused Windows 8.1.

Windows 10 offers a bunch of new productivity features that business users will appreciate. For example, the new Action Center collects all of your notifications in a single place, including incoming email messages and calendar alerts. I also like the new virtual desktop feature, which makes it easy to switch between groups of apps without cluttering your taskbar.

There are also a ton of general usability upgrades. The new Settings menu is far more usable than the convoluted Control Panel of previous Windows iterations, for example. I also love the abundance of small tweaks, like the ability to uninstall programs by right clicking on their name in the Start menu instead of wading through a bunch of menus.

Helix 2 owners can also take advantage of Continuity, a new feature introduced in Windows 10 hybrids that makes it easy to switch between desktop and tablet modes just by detaching the tablet from the keyboard dock. Tablet mode makes the interface more touch-friendly — apps automatically run in full screen, with bigger buttons, and the desktop is replaced with a full-screen Start menu that makes it easy to launch apps from Windows 10's growing mobile app library.

With a top-notch keyboard, good performance and strong battery life, Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix 2 is a really nice 2-in-1 for work. It has almost everything you'd expect from a traditional ThinkPad notebook, with the added bonus of being able to detach the tablet display, which is great for taking notes with the included Wacom pen. Combined, those features make it an enticing option for mobile business users.

On the other hand, mobile pros might lament the machine's cramped 11.6-inch display, as well as its relative heft. Both the Toshiba Portege Z20t and the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 are noticeably lighter, even with their bigger displays. However, neither of those machines can match the Helix 2's excellent keyboard.

The bottom line is that the Helix 2 is the most well-rounded 2-in-1 laptop I've tested, and my favorite overall device in its category. Business users who don't want to carry a separate tablet alongside their work laptop are likely to be pleased with this one.

Brett Nuckles

Brett Nuckles has been a working journalist since 2009. He got his start in local newspapers covering community news, local government, education and more before he joined the Business News Daily staff in 2013. He graduated from Ohio University, where he studied Journalism and English. Follow him on Twitter @BrettNuckles.