Squeezing both tablet and ultrabook into a 10-inch, 2-pound package
In a weird way, my excitement about Windows 8 tablets started with the Motorola Atrix, which is neither a tablet nor runs Windows 8. Basically, the Atrix promised to turn your gadgets into Legos. You have one device — in the Atrix's case a smartphone — that holds all your data, apps, and settings. Then you go about your life, adding and removing peripherals as you need them. Need a big screen? Toss it into a tablet or connect it to a monitor. Need to get some work done? Oh, here's a keyboard!
Needless to say, neither the Atrix nor this wonderful future has yet taken the world by storm. But Windows 8 offered a limited, perhaps more attainable version: an operating system and app ecosystem that's equally at home on a tablet and a laptop. It's touch-friendly, trackpad-friendly, and of course amenable to all the work and play we're used to doing on a Windows PC. And I've seen that it can work, though only in pieces — I've tested good Windows 8 laptops and good Windows 8 tablets, but not yet a device that glides frictionless between both worlds.
Ever since I first saw Lenovo's new ThinkPad Tablet 2, I've thought it might actually pull off this balancing act. It's very much a tablet — there's no dock, and you can't really call it a "hybrid" anything – but it comes with pen support and a keyboard, two things Lenovo's proven it does very well. The 10.1-inch tablet runs Windows 8 on Intel's low-powered Atom processor, and promises to marry all-day battery life and iPad-level portability with the ability to actually get real-world work done. Lenovo's Windows 8 laptops have been among the best I've tested in the last few months, so I hoped against hope that it had finally cracked the "one device, every situation" cipher. Finally, maybe, I could move toward the life the Atrix never gave me.
It may be a ThinkPad, but this device is unequivocally a tablet — a wide, skinny, thin tablet, more like a Kindle Fire HD than a MacBook Air. The all-black exterior is sleek but utterly ordinary, and its 1.3-pound heft is pretty much bog standard as well. It's certainly well-made, with comfortable rounded corners and a soft-touch matte finish, it's just not a particularly unique look. The device gives and flexes a little more than I'd like, but it held up well to all the times I "accidentally" let it slide off my lap and onto the floor, and even the time I picked up my bag from the bottom (genuinely unintentionally), which sent the tablet careening onto my hardwood floors. It has a couple of scuffs after a few weeks of heavy use, but nothing worrisome. I prefer its softer, classier look to the chrome flashiness of a device like the HP Envy X2, and certainly over the plasticky Samsung Ativ Smart PC.
Whenever I'm testing a tablet, I wind up using it a lot in bed right before I go to sleep. At that point, I either want to read a book or watch something on Netflix (usually The League or West Wing), and which activity I choose seems to be oddly dependent on the device I'm using. When it's an iPad or another 4:3 tablet, I wind up reading — it's comfortable in portrait mode, and you get ugly letterboxes when you're watching a movie anyway. A 16:9 tablet like the ThinkPad Tablet 2, on the other hand, triggers something in my subconscious that says "this is for movies!" Holding this device vertically is both difficult and just strange, since it's so tall, and reading in landscape mode always felt odd to me.
At 1366 x 768, this particular screen is a lot lower-res than some of the tablets I've tested, which come with 1080p displays about the same size, but it mostly looks fine. Viewing angles and colors are great, though like pretty much any tablet display it's so reflective that you can't see much of anything outdoors or in a room with a lot of bright lights. This is a good laptop display, but only a decent tablet display — and this device is a tablet, first and foremost.
The speakers, too, are decent without being exceptional — one fires out the bottom of the tablet and one out the left side, which actually creates a nice stereo effect, but they're still not very loud and don't sound better than any other device.
Get ready for TrackPoint Stockholm Syndrome
Last time Lenovo called a tablet a ThinkPad, it apparently did so because there was nothing better to call it. It in no way recalled Lenovo's illustrious line of laptops, with their red-and-black color schemes, excellent keyboards, and love-it-or-leave-it TrackPoint nubs. It also just wasn't a very good tablet, and never made much of a dent in the market or in consumers' minds.
This time, it's fair to call Lenovo's tablet a ThinkPad. Partly because it's a "black box" — though if that were the only requirement, basically every tablet on the planet other than the white iPad would qualify — but mostly because an extra $119.99 buys you a Bluetooth keyboard / stand combo that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who's laid fingers on a ThinkPad laptop. Its six rows of "smile" keys, curved at the bottom and slightly concave, are just like those on the X1 Carbon and other recent ThinkPads. Since Lenovo only had the tablet's 10.1-inch width to work with, the keyboard is a little cramped: I look like I'm about to pounce on the keyboard, perched over it with all four fingers smashed together on home row. Lenovo maximizes the space at hand, though, and other than the slight claustrophobia of the whole experience I got used to typing on the ThinkPad Tablet 2 pretty quickly.
At first, I happily poked away at the touchscreen to open apps or jump through settings menus. Then came a moment I needed to deal with the tiny menus in the Control Panel: "to the trackpad!" I thought, before the horrible realization set in that there is no trackpad on the ThinkPad Tablet 2's keyboard accessory. There is only the TrackPoint, that red nub (or nipple, or whatever dirtier word you want to call it) that sits in the space between G, H, and B keys. If you want a pointer, you're either using the TrackPoint and the three clickable buttons below the space bar, or you're plugging a mouse into the tablet's USB port. Some people, particularly long-time ThinkPad devotees, love the TrackPoint; I am not one of those people. But I begrudgingly used it, and found that it may not be the worst invention in the history of technology after all. I used the touchscreen nearly all the time anyway, and the TrackPoint served me functionally when I needed it. But I still refuse to use it unless I have to.
The keyboard accessory is light and sturdy, and almost exactly equals the tablet's 0.34-inch thickness. It matches the tablet's aesthetic perfectly, down to the rough matte texture on the back and sides. The tablet slides into a groove just above the keys and rests comfortably against a pop-up flap in the accessory; they pair easily and automatically via Bluetooth, and the two parts work as well together as they should given that, you know, they're made for each other. They're not as sturdy as a laptop when paired together — the tablet fell out or slid off a couple of times — but I was able to use them on my lap, albeit at a slightly awkward angle to the screen. Carrying two parts around can be a bit of a pain, and I do wish there were a way to more securely dock tablet and keyboard for transport; the Atom-powered HP Envy X2 has a nice dock, but the best you can do here is buy a case (I used the $39.99 ThinkPad Tablet 2 Sleeve) that holds both. You can do without the case, but don't buy the tablet without buying the keyboard — neither feels complete without the other.
An impressive shape-shifting act can't hide what's inside
While I was using the ThinkPad Tablet 2, I became keenly aware of when and where other people used tablets. The most common place I saw tablets of any size was on the New York subway, but I was struck by the fact that while those with small slates — Kindles, Nexus 7's, iPad minis — were comfortable standing and using their tablet simultaneously, 10-inch tablets were almost exclusively the province of the seated rider.
Studies far more scientfic than mine have shown that few larger tablets leave people's homes — they're simply a more comfortable device for the bedroom, or the kitchen, or the couch, or the bathroom. That's not all the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is trying to be, though. This is a full-on Windows computer: unlike Windows RT devices like the Surface RT, which can't run legacy Windows apps and really only have a desktop to run Office, every Windows app is available to the ThinkPad Tablet 2. Of course, that doesn't mean they all work well.
I found myself using Evernote, Rdio, and a handful of browser windows at a time throughout my testing, and at various points opened up Office apps, Photoshop, and Quicken. (It is tax season, after all.) I also used about two dozen Windows Store apps, from the New York Times and ESPN to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Fruit Ninja. For what I call "Grandma tasks" — browsing the web, watching videos, checking email, forwarding weird conspiracy theories to everyone I know, unintentionally making fonts huge and bold and Comic Sans — the device held up just fine, but as soon as there's a Photoshop-sized hurdle in front of it the ThinkPad Tablet 2 falls flat on its face.
Desktop mode is usable, but only for the truly patient
The 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760 processor inside the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is part of Intel's Clover Trail lineup of low-powered chips, but the practical reality is this: I had more than enough time to make a sandwich in the interim between my double-clicking the Steam icon and the application opening. Not a Steam game, mind you, which would be large and unwieldy and thus forgivable in its delay — honestly you shouldn't expect most games to be playable on an Atom processor anyway. I'm talking about Steam, the small shell app that lets you play or buy games from the Valve store. I never even made it to actually playing a game, for fear of death by hopeless boredom while waiting for the game to launch. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 does fine with desktop apps as heavy as a Twitter client, and that's it – even Chrome, the browser I can't really live without, stutters and lags at every turn.
Touch-friendly apps are still too scarce
The desktop side of Windows 8 is only slightly re-skinned from Windows 7, and it's a long way from touch-friendly — a long way. In most cases the TrackPoint was the only practical way for me to navigate the desktop, but what happened more often was that I went way out of my way to avoid using the desktop at all. I was stuck running apps from the Windows Store, which are almost universally fun and intuitive to use — I've really grown to love the aesthetic Microsoft is promoting. The dearth of apps is more and more obvious every day, though, and as I looked for a good app for my to-do list or a solid Twitter client I came up empty more often than not. Desktop apps remain plentiful, but even the ones that the Atom processor can handle aren't pleasant to use without a mouse.
In theory, the ThinkPad Tablet 2's digitizer pen can at least mitigate this problem. The pen slots into the upper left corner of the chassis, and even adds a dot of red to the all-black frame when it's in there — a nice ThinkPad-y touch. The pen is small and simple — you either tap to click, or tap while holding its only button to right-click. It also has the same hover-over effect as the Surface Pro, where you can see where you'll click before you actually click. The pen works well and is really useful in the desktop, where everything's too small for my apparently fat fingers to touch reliably, but it's nowhere near as fast as a mouse for general use. If you're an artist or a serial photo-retoucher, though, it's a great tool, and the tablet's light enough that you can hold it like a canvas while you paint your masterpiece. In Paint, presumably.
In fairness, Lenovo does want you to be able to plug a mouse, keyboard, and monitor into the ThinkPad Tablet 2, and use it like a desktop — that's the third device this and most Windows 8 devices claim to be. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 has most of the requisite ports for doing so: a full USB port on the left side, and an HDMI jack on the bottom, along with an optional SIM card port (you can get the ThinkPad Tablet 2 with AT&T-provided LTE, starting at $949) and a microSD slot. Bluetooth is your friend in this situation, though — the tablet looks like a hospital patient when it's connected to peripherals, with cables every which way — but all these ports are nice to have in a pinch, especially the full USB port. The tablet worked just as well connected to a monitor as it did by itself, but its performance still lags what you should expect from your desk-bound computer.
As good a tablet operating system as Windows 8 is – I love the live tiles, have grown accustomed to the gestures, and now loathe the iPad's inability to tell me what's on my calendar in fewer than 167 taps — it's a terrible tablet ecosystem. There just aren't enough touch- and lap-friendly apps, and if you're in desktop mode all the time you're going to want to sit at a desk and connect a keyboard and mouse. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 is as pleasant and capable a tablet as I've seen running Windows 8, but when the guy next to me on the subway started playing Temple Run 2 and reading with Pocket on his iPad I started imagining how I'd convince him to trade tablets with me.
All of the performance letdowns are the result of Lenovo's using that Atom processor, which exists for one reason and one reason only: battery life. After reviewing Intel-powered Windows 8 "tablets" that last all of three hours, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 was a nice respite for the battery-meter-watching tic I've developed. It lasted seven hours, three minutes on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a sereies of websites and high-res images with the screen at 65 percent brightness. That's a bit shy of what some tablets get – the iPad lasted more than nine hours, and the Surface RT outstripped eight hours — and is even bested slightly by the HP Envy X2's score, but it's still among the best I've seen for a device running full Windows 8. It definitely passes the cross-country-flight test, unless you live in a much larger country than I do. The "give a mouse a cookie" side of me wishes there were a docking keyboard with a second battery that would add life to the ThinkPad Tablet instead of draining it via Bluetooth, but I guess I can't have it all.
It does the basics beautifully, but hits its ceiling quickly
I like almost everything about the ThinkPad Tablet 2. It's a handsome, well-made device that offers excellent battery life, does everything I'd expect a tablet to, and does it all well. It even does a few things I wouldn't expect from a slate – try running Photoshop or Steam on your iPad, I'll wait — and even if it doesn't do them especially well, its ability to masquerade as a "real computer" is still a big advantage. At the risk of beating a dead horse, this isn't a replacement for a Windows PC like the Acer Aspire S7 or Lenovo's own Yoga 13, but next to the other Windows tablets on the market it's clearly the best option. It's also the best Atom-powered device I've tried, besting the HP Envy X2, the Acer Iconia W510, and others on battery life, performance, and especially build quality — but they do have trackpads, so choose your tradeoffs wisely.
Unfortunately, $679 is only the starting point for the ThinkPad Tablet 2, and the math gets ugly fast: by the time you add the absolutely necessary keyboard accessory and a case to hold everything, you're paying well over $800 for a device that absolutely can't be your only computer. If you have the cash to spare and want a more powerful portable device to supplement your computer, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is unquestionably the way to go — it's far more powerful and more versatile than the Surface RT or the Vivo TabRT, or really any device running Windows RT. But don't mistake the ThinkPad Tablet 2 for a replacement for your laptop — it's not. Without a better ecosystem for touch-friendly apps that run well on a tablet, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 can't measure up to the iPad either. That means that, at least for now, I'm still left waiting for the next step toward the future the Atrix and Microsoft promised me.