Review: The Lenovo Helix laptop hybrid from an Animator’s perspective

2014-01-26 16.56.26 First off let me say, I am a tough critic when it comes to hardware. I’ve owned dozens of laptops and a number of tablets over the years and I beat them up pretty hard. If I don’t like something I sell it right away. If I do I’ll keep it and recommend it to everyone I think will care. My main tablets have been the LE16600, the LE1700, the Asus EP 121 and the iPad Retina display and Galaxy Note 2. I’ve owned too many laptops to list here. That said, I’ve owned the Lenovo Helix for about a month now and it has taken a bit of getting used to primarily because of Windows 8 and not the hardware itself.

I primarily use it in three ways:

  • Drawing on it (with the touchscreen turned off)
  • Using it as a tablet and surfing the web (touch screen on
  • In laptop mode (touchscreen on)

I could possibly see myself using it in the fourth mode with is presentation mode to pitch either a show or storyboard since the tablet screen then faces outward away from you but you have control of the keyboard but I haven’t needed it yet. I still think that might not work well because you can’t see what page you’re on if you overshoot the panel by double clicking the arrow key or something like that. I do not use the stock stylus but in order to have any stylus work at all you must take the stock on out to have the digitizer recognize a stylus at all. A stupid thing for Lenovo to do in my opinion. because it makes the stylus VERY easy to lose if you want to use a different stylus. A better stylus is a Wacom penabled stylus which feels good in the hand and works very well. Also a Motion Computing LE1600/LE1700 stylus will work with it and that’s about as good as it gets for a stylus as far as I’m concerned.

2014-01-26 17.01.17

A comparison of stylii  Top to bottom; Cintiq, LE 1700, Wacom  Penabled pen,Lenovo Helix stylus

My primary use is lunchtime and working on my own projects in a restaurant or cafe, drawing and writing or working on it while on vacation for an hour to get some small thing done or check a file. I do a huge amount of freelance so i need all of my files to be on the hard drive so I use Dropbox to sync it all and with a 256gb ssd hard drive the Helix does fine job of backing my art and projects up. With every other tablet I’ve owned this was an issue but luckily the Helix is new enough to take advantage of the higher capacity ssd drives. The tablet itself is very well made, sturdy and solid feeling. It feels like you could actually drop it and it would not break. Especially the tablet itself.

2014-01-26 16.58.52The keyboard dock has a small lip on it where the tablet slides
into which might get caught on a bag if you tried to store it by itself.

The keyboard dock is a bit light but sturdy as well. It does not creak at all when you hold it at one end and while it’s a bit heavier than say an iPad it feels like it won’t break and I like that. It’s clearly made well. I use it often to write out scripts and outlines as well as correspond with clients and work. The keyboard is solid but could use a tiny bit more weight to it because with the tablet docked in laptop mode the unit gets a bit top heavy and will rock a bit on the lap. On the desk it’s just fine but it IS a laptop. Another few ounces on the front of the keyboard dock would have made all the difference in the world.

The Helix is an 11.5 inch device and if you’ve owned an LE1600 it is much thinner and smaller. It’s significantly lighter as well.

2014-01-26 16.59.55The Helix vs the LE1700

2014-01-26 17.00.06And side by side you can clearly see it’s significantly smaller in size.

2014-01-26 17.00.38Finally top down.

 

The trackpad has no physical buttons on it and is just one big surface similar to a Macbook pro. It was awful when I first got it but after updating all the Lenovo drivers as well as upgrading to Windows 8.1 the performance is significantly better. If there was no Windows 8.1 I would have returned it. Yes it’s that stark of a difference to me. I did not think I would like the touch screen while using it in laptop mode but I do and tend to use it fairly often. That said, I have found that again Windows 8 rears it’s ugly head in the form of horrific palm rejection but it’s fairly easy to disable the touch screen to draw with and again worth it just for being able to draw at a cafe or train.

2014-01-26 17.04.11How to disable the Touch screen in Windows 8.1

For those that don’t know you can right click on the Windows icon bottom left corner, select device manager and then Human Interface and select the touch driver and right click on it to disable it. Should Microsoft make it easier? Doggone RIGHT they should but they didn’t and this is an easy enough work around. Still, a simple widget on the desktop to toggle such things wouldn’t be that hard for them and yet they’ve clearly NOT done it on purpose since they make the Surface Pro which suffers form exactly the same thing. In general, am horrified by the long string of bad decisions Microsoft is currently making and I hope they shape up soon. I doubt they will however as they don’t even realize they’re doing anything wrong!

Moving on… I primarily draw with Sketchbook Pro and occasionally use Photoshop and Illustrator. When I draw I use a wedge to prop up the tablet called an Allsop Cool Channel platform  which I love because of it’s slight angle and it’s lightness. 2014-01-26 17.08.13The Allsop Cool Channel platform from the side

2014-01-26 17.08.02

And from the front.

I animate in Flash, Maya and After Effects regularly as well as use the Toon Boom Suit of apps such as Storyboard Pro and Animate fairly often. All of these are processor intensive apps (except Sketchbook Pro) and chug fairly quickly on a crappy machine due to vector and 3d calculations. The Helix performs admirably on all occasions as far as I’ve found. Don’t get me wrong it’s NOT a desktop computer and it does NOT have a dedicated graphics card so it WILL chug with the hard stuff like rendering or a file with 500,000 polys but in my mind that’s okay, because I’m walking away anyway and really I seldom render on a laptop. In my mind, cleanup up and final are for desktops but you can get a LOT done on a laptop.

Battery life is decent enough that I am not watching the clock as I work and it will easily go 4 or 5 hours between charges. I charge it every other day or so. The Helix actually has two batteries, one in the tablet itself and one on the keyboard dock which is nice as it does give you an extra bit of juice. Speakers are really loud and work well but don’t expect too much since it’s only a laptop and has speakers the size of your pinky nail. It does NOT have an SD card slot which I find perplexing but I read that Lenovo had a choice, more cooling ability or an SD card slot, and I guess it’s for the best because this sucker does get hot when in use but only in the top left corner and I’m seldom touching up there so it does not bother me.

 

I installed Skyrim on the Helix and while it technically works it’s not very good and you need to use an xBox controller to have any sense of control as the trackpad is useless and so is the stylus. Even then it’s a tiny bit jumpy at best. I also installed the Microsoft top down game: Halo Spartan Assault which works fairly well and I’ve had fun playing that. It’s not really a great gaming laptop to be truthful but I have an Xbox for that so it’s not a deal breaker for me.

So in conclusion, I would highly recommend the Lenovo Helix for artists and animators alike. It’s not prefect, won’t replace your desktop completely but has enough power to use any of the standard apps like the Adobe and Autodesk suites as well as do some light gaming if you’re so inclined. It has a decent sized hard drive to store files, plus an display port that can be used to connect to an HDMI enabled TV (with a convertor) the stylus is crap but you can get a better one easy enough.

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5 Comments

  1. Hi Mike,

    I wanted to ask what is the exact Wacom stylus you got to work with the helix? I have an Intuos3 and a pro pen and neither work with my helix. If you had a model number or some way I could make sure I buy the right one I would be very grateful.

    Thank you very much any help would be great,
    Christopher

    • I got this which seems to work with any display using the Wacom digitizer. It works on my Samsung Note 10.1 as well as my Note 2 and my Note 3. I also know it works on the Asus Ep121 as well as the Motion Computing Le1600 and the LE1700.

      • Thank you very much. I do also want to ask what is the first stylus in the photo? The grey-ish looking one it almost looks like a wacom pro-pen, but I know mine doesn’t work with the helix. Is that also a Wacom stylus that works with the helix? Thank you again very much for the extremely helpful information. 🙂

  2. Hello there and thanks for the review, I need a portable graphic tablet, and I have very similar use as you. I use toon boom a lot and regular illustrator and photoshop work on my cintiq 13HD. I was looking on Cintiq Companion 2, but I feel it’s way over priced. Surface Pro 3 has a cheap pen with many issues..

    I am recently reading about the Helix and to me it has a similar specs (for CPU speed and ram), and I wonder how do you recommend it after using it for a year? The processor is still pretty good (not sure how the fan noises are). I really appreciate to get your thoughts, comments and help.

    • Happy to help! I ended up reselling the Helix due to the awful trackpad because I wanted it specifically to draw AND write and it was near impossible to write with the crappy trackpad.

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