Sunday, July 28, 2013

Levono Thinpad Helix Review: An Artist's perspective

One of the great things about being an artist is that you can draw anywhere. From doodling on a napkin to carrying around a sketchbook, its always been easy to be creative on the go. In today's digital era we artists have taken to importing our work onto the PC with programs like Photoshop, Manga Studio and Painter to name a few. This coupled with a drawing tablet allows us to do more with less space and materials.

Tablet PC's have been around for a while but have been expensive, large, heavy and didn't quite always work to our expectations. Tablet devices like the iPad and Android tablet showed some promise, but with no pressure sensitive stylus it just amounted to digital finger painting. However with the latest Windows hybrid tablets we have the potential to achieve the best of both worlds. The release of the Microsoft Surface Pro drew the attention of many artists, including myself. Introducing a decently spec'ed PC with Wacom digitizer presented us the possibility of finally having that digital art experience in something the relative size of a sketchbook.

As with any new product it didn't take long for other manufacturers to follow suit. Companies like Samsung, Asus, and Lenovo joined in releasing their own hybrids with a different spin. One of these devices that also caught the attention of many digital artists is Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix. I was fortunate enough to have the nice people at Lenovo send me a review unit to put it through its paces and give a digital artist's impression.

The Helix takes the hybrid concept in an interestingly different direction. At first glance it looks like a typical laptop until you push the switch on the lower left corner and the screen comes off revealing it's tablet mode. The interesting thing you can do after this is what Lenovo calls "Rip N Flip". Turn the tablet around and re-dock it the other way to have it in "Stand mode"; good for presentations and watching videos. Push the lid down with the tablet docked this way and you have "Tablet+ mode" which gives you a thicker, heavier tablet that nearly doubles your battery and increases performance a bit due to the extra battery and fans located within the keyboard portion.

It also comes with a Wacom digitizer that slides into the tablet for storage. It's rated for 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity . As far as specs go, the review unit I received came with an Intel Core i5-3337U, 4 GB of RAM, 11.6" 1080P resolution IPS touch screen, 128 GB SSD drive, Windows 8 64 bit, 5MP rear camera, 2MP front camera, 1 USB 2.0 port on the tablet/ 2 USB 3.0 when tablet is docked, 802.11N, mini Displayport out, and of course an audio jack.
I will be comparing the Helix with the Surface Pro as this is what I use for my work on the go. The first item I set about testing was Photoshop. It opened very quickly, slightly quicker than my Surface Pro. After trying a few brush strokes, I noticed that there was no pressure sensitivity. This did not alarm me as I had the same issue with my Surface Pro. After installing the tablet PC drivers from Wacom's support page I was ready to go. Once I installed my favorite brushes I tried a couple of quick sketches to get a general feel for things. One thing I should note, unless you have tiny hands, I found the included stylus almost useless for drawing comfortably. It is only about 4.5" long and slightly less than .25" thick.

I used my Wacom "Bamboo feel" that I bought for my Surface Pro which I highly recommend. This lead me to discover two problems though. If you leave the included pen in the slot, it disables pen input all together. I had to keep it out if I wanted to use my Bamboo feel. The other problem I noticed was if I booted the machine with the pen in the slot, the pen cursor would be stuck in the upper left corner. The only thing that would fix it was a reboot (making sure the pen was out of the slot). Upon first use I quickly realized that it's very sensitive, a bit too much. I had to go into the driver settings and ratchet up the firmness to its max setting before I felt comfortable with it. The other problem I encountered was that its pen calibration was inconsistent. I re-calibrated it several times but could never get it quite right. It would be fine to the left and middle of the page but would shift off slightly as I worked towards the right side of the canvas. If I changed the angle of the pen it would improve a little but became awkward to use. Other than that, it was as responsive as my Surface Pro. Though, like my Surface Pro, I needed to change the drawing rendering mode to "Basic" in performance preferences to remove the bit of lag I was getting. I also tried out Manga Studio 5 which performed just as well.

I also decided to "benchmark" the next most important items to a digital artists' art tool: screen performance and color accuracy. As mentioned earlier, the Helix has a 1080P IPS screen. This provides a nice high resolution, and an IPS display typically allows for better viewing angles and more accurate color representation. My first test was to compare it using an image I worked on so I would be familiar with how it's supposed to look. My Surface Pro's color was very good out of the box; it matched my work IPS monitor pretty well so I never felt the need to calibrate it. Looking at the image on all three screens revealed that while the image looked fine on the monitor and Surface Pro, the colors on the Helix were off a bit and a little too saturated. I then ran some tests using, which has a nice variety of screen tests including Contrast, Clock and Phase, Sharpness, Gamma calibration, Black Level, White Saturation, Gradient (Banding), Inversion, Response Time, Viewing Angle, Contrast Ration, and Subpixel Layout. Both did well in all tests but the Helix again showed that its colors were not where they should be. It did have a little better response time than the Surface Pro. I also noticed an oddity where the site reported the resolution on the Helix at 1534 x 856 instead of 1920 x 1200; I'm not sure of the cause of this.

Next I ran the Passmark MonitorTest 3.1 to further test the screen's accuracy. This showed how the Helix's colors were not quite right. I had to run the test a couple of times because the scaling settings on the Surface Pro gave me inconsistent results. After changing that it fixed any issues I was having. Passmark also includes some single touch and multi-touch tests as well. The Helix performed a little better with capacitive touch.

The rest of my testing involved using the Helix as my daily portable machine for a couple of weeks. Here are my findings: The larger 11.6" display on the Helix vs. the 10.6" on the Surface was definitely nice and the keyboard on the dock is great. However, carrying around the tablet and the keyboard was a lot heavier and not something I would always want to cart around. You could carry just the tablet alone but you lose the extra battery life, USB 3.0 ports, and of course the keyboard which I didn't want to do, granted the tablet alone did give me better battery life than my Surface. I got over 5 hours on the tablet alone, versus the 3-4 hours on the Surface. I also liked the physical home button. I had to get used to not accidentally tapping the capacitive home button on the Surface by accident; on the Helix this was not a problem. It was nice to have the laptop form factor when I didn't have a flat surface handy to do some writing, though I'm on the fence as to whether the extra weight is worth it. It worked well for drawing except when the inconsistent calibration interfered with my workflow. It was frustrating when I needed precision in those areas. Another thing I noticed during this time is that switching from pen input to finger input acted strange at times. While palm rejection worked wonderfully, it would lag if you were using the pen and then wanted to use your finger for something. Nothing would happen, then 2-4 seconds later you would see what you attempted to try happen. It didn't interrupt my drawing much but it did become annoying depending on what I was trying to do.

As I mentioned, flipping the tablet around and closing it gives you the "Tablet + mode". This is nice because of the extra battery life you gain and the minor performance boost. The performance boost wasn't too noticeable but things did feel a tiny bit zippier to me. The problem with this is the fans. They are always on and they make a high-pitch whining sound, which while not too noticeable with some background noise, can be annoying if you're trying to work in silence. The fans stay on even if you're idle and the machine is cool. I also encountered the fan issue while docked normally in laptop mode. Another gripe I had is with the ports; if docked you have two USB 3.0 ports at your disposal, but I don't know why they chose to have only USB 2.0 on the tablet itself. Since there is no memory card slot like the Surface has it limits your storage options.

In conclusion, The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is a very nice device, but not without its obstacles. The pen calibration is a problem; if I can't get accurate pen tracking it's a deal breaker. The colors are not bad but not where I would want them to be, though that could probably be calibrated to acceptable standards. The weight is another problem as I would prefer to travel a little bit lighter. I don't mind some heft, but it's a bit too much for me with everything I tote around. The pen is too small but that is easily remedied using an aftermarket pen. This brings me to my main issue; the device is expensive. At $1,679 for the Core i5 model and $2,129 for the Core i7, it is a bit too costly especially given that it's running a last generation processor. Now that devices with the latest Haswell processors are being released, and this is stuck on Ivy Bridge, makes it a harder sell. The Core i7 comes with 8 GB of RAM as well. I wish they would have allowed for a Core i5 with that much RAM as a configuration option. Pricewise it would have made more sense to sacrifice the processor speed for Photoshop work and to have the extra RAM. Granted most of these issues can be fixed with a few software patches but until that happens and it gets a significant price drop I have a hard time recommending it for artists.

•11.6" screen size
•Physical home button
•Great battery life
•Terrific keyboard
•Laptop form factor
•Flip screen for viewing mode
•Tablet alone is lightweight
•Good response rate

•Heavy with keyboard
•Screen color not as accurate out of the box
•Pen too small
•Pen calibration uneven
•Fan noise when docked
•Processor already outdated
•USB 2.0 on tablet portion
•No memory expansion
•Odd resolution reported •Lag and glitches switching from pen to touch
•Pen does not work if included pen is in slot
•Pen needs to stay out of slot when booting up otherwise pen cursor will be stuck in the corner

Final Score:
B- if software issues are patched
B if price is also dropped
C+ if not


milowerx said...

Thanks for the review! Do you still own it? IF so, has the software patches fixed your issues? IF you don't own it, what did you get instead?

- said...

First of all I'd like to say thank you for such a useful review. So, Have you been still using the Machine? Is it still works really well? And just one more question, please. Does the Bamboo feel pen fully compatible with the Helix ?

Andre - Brazil