Partying like it's 2002
In ten years, it seems like everything's changed — but maybe things aren't so different after all.
In 2002, Acer revealed a PC that was also a tablet, the TravelMate 100. The convertible device used a swiveling central hinge, allowing the screen to rotate 180 degrees and fold down on top of the keyboard so you could hold it in two hands like a tablet. The concept never caught on in a truly mainstream way, but has occupied a niche ever since the TravelMate's introduction.
Now, a full decade later, Lenovo is trying once again to take the rotating laptop mainstream by bringing the swivel back with the new ThinkPad Twist. Fortunately, though, the hinge is the only thing that's stayed the same: the ThinkPad runs the touch-friendly Windows 8 instead of the horrid Windows XP Tablet PC Edition; it has a 2.6GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, all specs that would've seemed like science fiction in 2002; and at $899.99 it's a lot cheaper than the $2,500 TravelMate 100.
The TravelMate 100 concept has clearly stood the test of time. But ten years after its introduction, have hardware, software, and processing power finally converged to a point where a swiveling convertible like the ThinkPad Twist makes sense?
Lenovo's proven it can do better than this
Generally speaking, I like the look of the newest ThinkPad lineup. The Twist has the same matte texture as the X1 Carbon, though here it's a slightly brownish purple instead of the sleek black, and is accented by a silver strip around the edges. When it's closed, the 0.8-inch-thick device is pretty handsome — the rounded corners and sloped front, plus the slight underbite of its lid to make room for the hinge, make it look and feel slick and professional. There's a silver Lenovo logo in the left corner, and an angled ThinkPad logo wrapping the corner on the right. The dot above the "i" in ThinkPad also glows when the machine is on, which seems like a nice idea, but waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a blinking red light is a little disconcerting.
The Twist is a business laptop. It's for People Who Get Things Done, and People Who Know Things, and Very Important People. So Lenovo crammed the kitchen sink into the laptop’s sides, offering as large a port selection as I’ve seen on an ultrabook. You get a SIM card slot (for adding mobile data to your Twist), a full-size SD card reader, Gigabit Ethernet, two USB 3.0 ports, a mini HDMI port, a MiniDisplay Port, and a headphone jack — it’s a tough list to beat on any device this size.
The clean, simple look of the Twist’s exterior disappears as soon as you open the lid. There's another blinking ThinkPad logo on the right side of the palmrest, exactly where it is on the lid — it creates a cool visual effect as you open up the laptop and the logo never moves. But the Twist is otherwise just too... busy. There are stickers in two different places: on the palmrest and on the bezel above the screen, which might be the only place worse than the palmrest. They're incredibly distracting, and I've never peeled them off so fervently or so quickly. Below the screen, there's even more to look at: a Lenovo logo, a Windows button, volume controls, the word "Twist" in case the other logos weren't enough, and an icon indicating the location of the power button. It's all done in service of making the Twist more useful as a tablet, but it's just ugly and cluttered.
"Ugly but functional" also neatly describes the Twist's hinge, which lets the screen spin up to 180 degrees, and either lay flat or fold down on top of the keyboard. It's also made of a different material than either the base or the bezel, which makes it stick out, and three individual parts (the circular spinning plate, and the two supports) look a bit like Mickey Mouse ears. The hinge only spins in one direction, and even when you're moving it the right way it takes a good shove to get it moving — heaven forbid you try a little too hard to move it the wrong way. (There's an arrow on the base pointing you in the right direction, but that didn't stop me from nearly snapping the screen off a few times.)
The hinge is sturdy, at least, and can hold the screen in place at almost any angle you can think of, though it does wobble a tad whenever you tap on the screen. I actually kind of enjoyed leaving the computer out, sitting as if it was hanging together by a thread, and seeing the looks I got from people. It's most useful in two orientations, though, or three if you count normal laptop position. You can simply turn it 180 degrees so the screen is facing away from you; it's handy as a presentation tool, or for quickly showing a co-worker what you're working on. You can also fold it down, and hold the Twist in two hands like a tablet. I didn't do this much, because the 3.5-pound device is much too big and heavy to be a useful tablet, but for watching a movie in bed or reading news it's a nice option to have.
Lenovo's definitely figured out that it needs to make laptops that are mostly laptops, but let you do some nifty and new things with the screen. Lenovo's own Yoga 13 does a better job of making those transitions feel like a native part of the machine rather than an ugly hack, but I really did like being able to quickly turn my screen toward whomever I was talking to. It's much easier to just swivel the screen around than to engage the Yoga's crazy contortions, and for that I really enjoyed the Twist.
It's nothing to look at, but the swiveling screen is great
Finding a display that works for both laptops and tablets is tough
At 12.5 inches, the Twist's display is slightly smaller than I'm used to — I see more 13-inch screens than anything else — but since the resolution is still 1366 x 768, I didn't really notice the difference. Since pixels are slightly more tightly packed, text and touch targets can be slightly smaller than on some other devices, but it was never much of a problem. The resolution is totally adequate when you use the Twist like a laptop, with the screen a couple of feet from your face, but when you bring it closer to you (as you might when using it like a tablet), you'll definitely notice individual pixels and jaggies. A 1600 x 900 panel like the one on the Yoga 13 might help that problem a bit, and a 1080p screen like the Zenbook Prime's would be ideal — though that causes its own problems with touch targets and UI elements, and I'm guessing Lenovo can't sell a laptop for $899.99 with a display that high-res anyway.
The screen itself is quite good, an IPS display with excellent viewing angles and wonderful color reproduction and contrast — blacks are deep and whites pearly, which in turn makes every other color pop just a little bit more. The touchscreen is impressively responsive, both to edge gestures and general interaction. I was worried about gestures, which were a bit of a problem on the Yoga 13, but they worked exactly as advertised here.
Sound quality, on the other hand, is seriously disappointing. The Twist's audio comes through its keyboard, and it gets relatively loud without distorting, but Lenovo employs astonishing levels of compression to avoid that distortion. It feels like the top and bottom third of every song I listened to were cut off — there's no bass response whatsoever, and high vocals get muffled too. Everything's mushed together in the middle, making even the most dynamic music sound monotone. I hate my MacBook Air's speakers, and yet they sound far better than the Twist. It's decent enough for a Skype call, just by virtue of being fairly loud, but listening to music on the Twist is hopeless.
I also had some troubling issues with using the Twist to record audio. On a Skype call, the machine picked up an enormous amount of background noise, and seemed to be inserting static into the sound — this happened whether I was using the internal mic or plugging in a separate device. When I used the same headphones on my MacBook Air, the problem disappeared. The amount of noise isn't overwhelming or even a problem in most cases, but if you're podcasting or trying to record clear audio it could be trouble.
There's not a lot of variation among ThinkPad keyboards, and for the most part that's a wonderful thing. I love the "smile" design, with the slightly rounded bottom edges on each key — it spaces the keys out even more than usual, so I almost never hit the wrong key by accident. There's plenty of travel on the keys, and they're just the right amount of resistant; you definitely have to give the key a good press to get it down, but it never feels like you're slamming a letter before it registers. The layout is pretty normal, with five rows of keys surrounding the red TrackPoint nub, with the three clickable mouse buttons and the touchpad below. Tiny arrow keys and PgUp / PgDn buttons are mashed together in the bottom right corner, but there's plenty of room for everything else, and everything is where it should be.
F1-12 is relegated to the secondary functions on their respective keys, so you have to hit Fn along with them. (Honestly, I can't remember the last time I hit, say, F7 anyway.) The primary use for the top row is system shortcuts, and I'm absolutely addicted to them — in addition to the standard playback and volume controls, the Twist has keys for opening the Windows 8 settings menu or the search charm, switching between apps, and even changing display modes. Especially for an uninitiated user, not ready to handle dozens of gestures or keyboard shortcuts, these keys are an absolute godsend. Now I try to hit F10 every time I want to search on any device, and every time it doesn't work I long for the Twist's layout.
The Twist's trackpad isn't terrible, but it's not great. It has many of the software issues I've seen on other Windows 8 machines — two-finger scrolling is jumpy and inconsistent, edge gestures only work some of the time, and even as a pointer it can stutter across the screen at times. That can all be fixed with software updates (and hopefully will be), but the touchpad itself has problems too. The whole pad clicks, but you have to press it down a long way to get it to register. I mostly click in the bottom left corner, where the Twist's palmrest slopes down underneath the touchpad, almost like the pad has an overbite — that creates an awkwardly long distance for the touchpad to travel as you click. The surface itself is a rubbery matte material just like the palmrest, and it's not nearly as smooth to glide your finger across as some others I've tested.
I wound up using the Twist's touchscreen a lot more often than I did with some other Windows 8 machines, and I'm pretty sure it was in a subconscious effort to avoid using the trackpad. For TrackPoint fans or external mouse devotees, this won't be a problem, but I'm neither, and I got really frustrated trying to use the Twist as a result.
I tested the Twist that's currently available on shelves in Staples, an $899.99 machine with a 2.6GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and hybrid storage — a 24GB SSD to make booting and resuming faster, plus a 500GB spinning drive to store all your stuff. It's a pretty standard set of ultrabook specs, so for the most part it performs like a standard ultrabook. It didn't mind my penchant for opening dozens of browser tabs at once, nor did it give under the pressure of streaming music while I downloaded a game, browsed the web, and played a few YouTube videos.
Where the performance does suffer is when you're opening big files, or editing photos and video. It's very obvious you're not loading files from an SSD — things took a couple of extra seconds to load every time, and even saving or editing files was a little slower. The small SSD is designed to make boot and resume fast, and it mostly works: the Twist boots in about 15 seconds, though its three-to-four-second wake time is a little slower than I'd like. But it doesn't play much of a role beyond that, and unless you absolutely need a giant hard drive at your disposal all the time I think it's worth paying a little more to get all solid-state storage. Actually, it's more than a little more; to get the Twist with a Core i7 processor and 8GB of RAM is $180 more than the $899.99 base price, and a 128GB comes for $50 on top of that. You can also get slower processors, too — you'll just have to buy the Twist somewhere other than Staples.
As with most of its competitors, this is a far cry from a gaming machine. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 works fine on low settings, but as soon as you crank up the details and the visuals everything starts to collapse. As with any ultrabook, and any device using Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics, it's not for a gamer, but it's more than capable of just about everything else.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I praised Lenovo for doing away with nagware and pop-ups on the Yoga 13. So imagine my surprise when I turned on the Twist, went to the Desktop, and was immediately barraged with pop-ups, nags, and prompts. Norton Antivirus had something to sell me. "Absolute Data Protect" needed my help installing itself, which I didn't really think was a great idea. "Lenovo Solutions for Small Business" greeted me as well. It was like being on a Windows 7 computer again, in the worst possible way — apparently Windows 8 hasn't convinced manufacturers to scale back the crapware after all.
Lenovo also installs a bunch of bloatware apps in a separate section on the Start screen. Some are useful, like Kindle and Skype, while others like Rara.com and Intel AppUp Center are pretty pointless. But these are unobtrusive enough, and they're easy to get rid of, unlike the insanity that is the desktop environment. These are business machines, and some of the preinstalled apps are genuinely useful in a professional setting, but Lenovo could’ve implemented them in a far less obtrusive way here.
The more time I spend with Windows 8, the more bugs I'm uncovering in how manufacturers are implementing Microsoft's new OS. My discovery with the Twist was that its screen orientation sensor and rotation software is a mess — when I spun the screen around or folded it down into tablet mode, the device would often flat-out freeze in the wrong orientation, and wouldn't snap into the correct place for five seconds or more. As with so many of the Twist's issues, this isn't a dealbreaker by any means, but it leaves a constant taste in your mouth that Windows 8 isn't... finished.
You can't get a large SSD for $899, apparently
Four hours of battery doesn't scream 'ultrabook'
There's a fine balance between keeping a laptop cool and keeping it quiet, and the Twist walks the line perfectly. It gets relatively warm, especially in the back right corner, and you can certainly tell when the fans whir to life as you start a Flash video or load a game. But it's never problematically hot, nor is it annoyingly loud. Even playing an epic Modern Warfare 3 campaign, the Twist always stays in control.
Unfortunately, it doesn't do so for very long. On the Verge Battery Test, which loops a series of websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent, the Twist lasted four hours, seven minutes. That's 37 minutes less than the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and I complained about its battery life; It's also between an hour and two hours shorter than most ultrabooks. In my real-world testing, which just involves working a normal day until the battery dies — lots of Rdio streaming, browsing, writing, and the occasional Skype call — it lasted just about four hours on the dot. For a "road warrior" machine, that's an unacceptable number.
The swiveling works, but the Twist misses the mark
I can pretty safely say one thing: the Acer TravelMate 100 would've had a much better shot in 2012 than it did in 2002. Windows 8 makes a convertible a much more sensible device than it's been for the last ten years, since it's an OS equally at home in touch and non-touch environments. But building a device like the ThinkPad Twist forced Lenovo to make some odd design decisions, and as a result it looks like a 2002 blueprint forced onto a 2012 chassis.
The Twist's price is certainly right — $899 buys you a very capable laptop and a semi-useful tablet — but it has just enough problems that I'm reluctant to recommend it. The keyboard is excellent, but the trackpad isn't. The screen is solid, but the speakers are terrible. But most of all, you're making two key sacrifices to get a laptop this cheap: performance, because you're so reliant on the hard drive, and battery life. Those are tough sacrifices to make.
If you can wait, wait. We're early in the Windows 8 game, and Microsoft and its partners are still working out hardware and software kinks. In the next six weeks (through CES in January), we're likely to see a flood of new Windows 8 laptops — and I bet one of them will be an $899 laptop with an SSD that doesn't force you to carry a charger all the time. I hope so, anyway.