Lenovo Tries to Make a Better Surface Pro – and Mostly Does
Roopinder Tara posted on August 06, 2018 |
The 3rd Generation ThinkPad X1 Tablet (Image courtesy of Lenovo.)
The 3rd generation ThinkPad X1 Tablet (Image courtesy of Lenovo.)
Using the ThinkPad X1 Tablet in flight, even in first class, creates a balancing act. The slightest bump makes the stand slip off the front of the back tray and fall. Even with the unit as far forward as possible, the keyboard still hangs over the front of the tray by several inches. With your elbows in your ribs, even a short flight will make you wish you had alligator arms.
Using the ThinkPad X1 Tablet in flight, even in first class, creates a balancing act. The slightest bump makes the stand slip off the front of the seat back tray and fall. Even with the unit as far forward as possible, the keyboard still hangs over the front of the tray by several inches. With your elbows in your ribs, even a short flight will make you wish you had alligator arms.

In a bike race, like the Tour de France, veteran racers know to follow the leader, shelter in the draft of riders in the front and then sprint ahead at the last second to win. This is what Lenovo may have been hoping to do with ThinkPad X1 Tablet. The company found itself watching as Microsoft created an overnight sensation in 2012 with a new category in portable computing dubbed the “2-in-1,” a tablet/keyboard combination that had a fully functioning tablet and keyboard.

The 2-in-1 began popping up in airport terminals and conferences.  It became a favorite with the Windows crowd for its compactness, light weight and attractive design. Finally, something that could make Windows users feel as cool as the hipsters with their MacBook Airs. There was a real danger for Lenovo: business users, who had for decades declared the black ThinkPad as the gold standard in laptops, were about to be won over by an upstart—made by a software company, no less!

Enough is enough, said Lenovo, and introduced the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, now in its third generation.

The latest ThinkPad X1 tablet aims squarely at the MS Surface Pro, passing it in several ways — but also incorporating some of its faults. Let’s compare one to the other and show no mercy to either side.

Awesome Keyboard

The keyboard is the same layout as all modern ThinkPads and includes the beloved TrackPoint. For ThinkPad lovers who can’t live without their little red pointing device, most conveniently below the “G” and “H” keys, it offers control of the cursor without moving the fingers off the keyboard. For extended desktop use, users usually prefer a mouse. But when space is at a premium, such as during travel, the TrackPoint performs almost as well as a mouse.

The ThinkPad X1 Tablet’s stiffer keyboard yields a much superior typing feel than the Microsoft Surface Pro. This is noticeable when the keyboard is in its tilted up position and especially noticeable when the keyboard hangs over an edge. On a seat back tray in flight, 40% if it hangs off the edge. It does look a bit precarious, but with a light touch, it can still be typed on. The Surface Pro, on the other hand, has too much deflection to be used in this mode.

Fit for Travel?

Business travel usually demands staying connected and keeping up with work as if you were in the office, despite the inefficiencies and challenges imposed by being away from it. For example, we work off a small laptop screen as opposed to dual, 2K monitors or wrestle with hotel Wi-Fi. With large chunks of time in the air, we count on some semblance of productivity in flight, whether it is answering emails or, in the case of editors, writing articles. A laptop is the frequent flyers tool of choice. A 14in laptop fits on the seat back tray and is comfortable in your lap.

However, using a 2-in-1 in laptop mode is so fraught with challenge that calling it a “laptop mode” is a misnomer. It simply does not work on your lap. The stand that holds up the tablet in laptop mode will slip off your knee so be ready to grab the unit before it falls to the floor. You will need a desk or a table for the X1 Tablet. On a flight, using the X1 Tablet was a situation we would not want to repeat. The unit was precariously balanced on a seat’s back tray with the keyboard hanging off the front. Even in first class, extended typing was uncomfortable. With the tray and X1 as far away as possible, it was still too close for comfortable typing.

The current X1 Tablet copies the “kickstand” used in the popular Microsoft Surface Pro, which has the same problems in flight, such as falling off seat back trays and laps. The previous (2nd generation) X1 may have had a stand that accommodated trays and laps a little better. It was hinged lower on the tablet, but may have suffered from not having a variable screen position. That unit was not tested.

An easy design fix would be to have a hinge at the bottom of the tablet.

Kicking Around the 2-in-1 Design

A laptop’s utility in small spaces hinges (literally) on a friction joint that accommodates multiple screen position, as well as demanding a footprint for the keyboard only. Having a hinge on a 2-in-1 without a support underneath the tablet would rely on the counterbalance of the keyboard. Since the keyboard is relatively light compared to the tablet, it would make the unit topple if the tablet was tilted too far back. Adding weight to the keyboard would be one fix for this problem. Since weight is a critical factor in portable computers, designers will be loath to add any more of it to the X1, which is already quite heavy. It weighs 2.79lb, considerably more than its main competition, the Surface Pro, at 1.73lb.

HP is also eager to get in on the 2-in-1 business with its recently introduced Spectre x2. HP copies the inherent design flaw of Microsoft’s Surface Pro with a support that would also make the tablet fall off a small surface or a lap. HP goes as far as calling its tablet support a “kickstand.” It was a poor choice of words when Microsoft did it. Seriously, do marketing department have no editors? It’s not a kickstand. You don’t kick it. It’s just a stand.

Pet peeve aside, the best design for usability on small surfaces and laps for an all-in-one may be Dell’s XPS, which incorporates a friction hinge. The tablet is not removeable from the keyboard, but the hinge does allow for the tablet to fold completely against the back of the keyboard. It can be carried and used on the forearm, standing up, like a real tablet. The Dell XPS weighs in at 2.7lb, about the same as the Lenovo X1 Tablet.

While Lenovo and HP seem set on having a removable tablet, it’s silly to have a removeable tablet that renders the keyboard unusable. The MS Surface Pro and 2-in-1s like it have the tablet snap quickly and conveniently into place on to the keyboard. It’s pretty cool when you first do it. For most users, they do it only once and the pieces stay together. Though 2-in-1 vendors show happy users taking advantage of the tablet by itself, we have rarely observed that among real users. Besides, what will you put the keyboard now that it is just dead weight? A better design would have Bluetooth connection between the keyboard and tablet. Some airlines have seat backs that grip a tablet. With the keyboard on the lap or tray, a screen conveniently mounted would be a welcome choice. 

Screen

The X1 Tablet's screen is 3,000 pixels wide, making it among the best in portable Window-based computers. It rivals the clarity and brightness of the MS Surface Pro. The resolution is so high that you will need to make characters and icons 150 percent of their size so they can be seen.

Le Pen

The pen is a pretty interesting part of the tablet phenomenon. With undeniable help as a graphic arts tool, as an engineering tool it is more of a curiosity. We fully wanted to look into it. However, most of the time the pen was nowhere to be found. It has the most annoying habit of falling out of its holder. Over half the time, we had to rummage for it in the bottom of knapsack and laptop bags. Once, it was in pieces. Putting the AAA battery back in the pen was a hit or miss affair. There is no +/- or battery graphic to tell which end to put in first. Also, the pen’s holder must be jammed into the edge of the tablet with way too much force. It feels like you’ll break the screen. 

How to Turn It On?

The power button is not exactly hidden, but having it on the side of the tablet makes it out of sight in normal usage. It must be pressed every time you go back to using it to bring it out of sleep mode. The button is almost flush with the edge of the tablet which makes it hard to find by feel. It glows to make detection a bit easier. We expect you will be trained on its location after a few months. For a while, you will be flipping the tablet/keyboard around like a mad sign waver looking for the button. We wish the switch would be on the front of the unit like it is on ThinkPad laptops.

Why Only USB-C?

The ThinkPad has two of the new USB C ports and none of the standard USB ports. That means that none of the devices you have will work unless you buy an adapter. We bought one that was fairly inexpensive at $6. But it is one more thing to carry around and lose. Most Windows users, even those who like the TrackPoint, will carry a mouse. The Logitech wireless mice, the most popular choice for laptops, require a standard USB port. 

Comparison

ThinkPad X1 Tablet (3rd Gen)

Microsoft Surface Pro

Processor

Intel Core i7

Intel Core i7

Memory

16GB

16GB

Hard drive

512GB SSD

512GB SSD

Screen

13in, 3000 x 2000

12.3in, 2736 x 1824

Dimensions

11.96 x 8.88 x 0.59in
304 x 226 x 15.1mm

11.50 x 7.93 x 0.33in
292 x 201 x 8.5mm

Weight

2.79lb (1.27kg)

1.73lb (0.784kg)

Price (as tested)

$1,949
discounted to $1,561.15 at time of this writing

$2,199


Conclusion

The legendary ThinkPad keyboard, with its lovable little, red pointing device, will make the ThinkPad X1 Tablet an easy choice for the dyed-in-the-wool ThinkPad fan who thinks their next mobile computer must have a tablet. Since the price can be hundreds less than the Microsoft Surface Pro, their decision will be a no brainer.

For those who need the absolute smallest, lightest portable—with the silvery finish like the Apple's—the market leading Microsoft Surface will be hard to compete with.

However, both units suffer from a basic design flaw: lack of usability on small surfaces and laps. This is due to the support underneath the tablet when the screen is at a proper viewing angle. This all by itself makes the 2-in-1 design less than optimum for travel, when space is often at a premium. While the tablet does detach and could theoretically be placed anywhere, the keyboards that come with the unit are not Bluetooth enabled, so they cease to function.

The future of 2-in-1s belong to the company that can make a detachable tablet useable anywhere. Until then, premium lightweight laptops remain the tool of choice for business users.

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