Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review

It used to be that "convertible PC" could mean only one thing: a laptop whose display swiveled around, folding down into tablet mode. Now that Windows 8 is here, though, the category has become a bit muddied. How else to describe our recent collection of reviews? In just the past few weeks alone, we've tested a laptop whose screen folds all the way back, an Ultrabook whose display flips inside the hinge and yet another with a slide-out keyboard. Anything goes -- at least until consumers decide which form factor they like best.

But when Lenovo calls its new ThinkPad Twist a convertible, you can rest assured it's using the old-school definition. As the name implies, it has a rotating screen that allows it to be used as a 12-inch slate. And, like all the business-friendly ThinkPads that came before it, it sports a well-engineered keyboard, a secondary set of touch buttons and, of course, that signature red pointing stick. Now, though, it runs a much more finger-friendly OS, and has a touchpad that can support all the new gestures in Windows 8. It's one of several new touch-capable notebooks from Lenovo, but it's the only one geared toward business users. So is this worth the upgrade from an older ThinkPad? And is it a better buy than Lenovo's other Win 8 convertible, the IdeaPad Yoga 13? Read on to find out.

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Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review

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Lenovo

Lenovo ThinkPad Twist

Pros

  • Excellent keyboard
  • Good port selection
  • Wide viewing angles
  • Useful tools for businesses

Cons

  • Short battery life
  • Performance trails without an SSD
  • Some trackpad issues
Summary

Lenovo updates a tried-and-true form factor with Windows 8, a bright IPS display and an excellent keyboard. However, longer battery life would have made this a better choice for road warriors.

Look and feel


You've seen this design before. And no, we're not even talking about that classic convertible form factor: the Twist has the same look and feel as every other PC in Lenovo's ThinkPad Edge lineup. Like those other models, it sports a soft-touch black finish; rounded corners; a pair of ThinkPad logos with glowing "i"s; and, of course, an island-style keyboard, complete with a red pointing stick and a second set of touch buttons. Basically, it looks like a ThinkPad, which is probably why you're here.

That said, there are some clear indicators that this is one of Lenovo's lower-end machines (you know, in case the price didn't make that obvious). The lid is ringed with a silver-colored band that's supposed to look like metal, but is actually just glossy plastic. There's more shiny stuff to be found beneath the display: there you'll find a wide piece of plastic that houses the Start button and volume buttons. The keyboard panel is made from the same material, so if you look closely, you'll see shiny bits in between the buttons. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that tacky, reflective material looks especially odd next to the matte, soft-touch materials used on the lid and keyboard deck. On the bright side, there's a magnesium alloy frame underneath it all, so while the Twist looks chintzy in places, it actually feels quite solid.

It looks like a ThinkPad, which is probably why you're here.

At 3.48 pounds, the Twist is slightly heavier than other 12-inch, touchscreen Windows 8 convertibles such as the Dell XPS 12, but you'd be hard-pressed to notice unless you had the opportunity to handle the two side by side. Point is, it's plenty easy to cradle in the crook of your arm, or hold one-handed. As you'd expect, the form factor lends itself well to presentations, which is probably a more likely use case here than with a strictly consumer laptop. Still, like so many other 12- and 13-inch Windows 8 convertibles, it's a little too unwieldy to use the way you'd use an iPad, or any other standalone tablet. That said, the screen is responsive, and that soft-touch material feels nice against the fingers. More than anything, we wish the screen accepted pen input, given that it's mainly businesspeople who are going to be buying this.

When it comes to the actual twisting bit, the dual-hinge works one way: you rotate the screen clockwise to flip it around into tablet mode (it simply won't budge if you try and push it the other way). The hinge itself feels sturdy, though we noticed that once we were in tablet mode the accelerometer was a bit slow to detect changes in orientation. Thankfully, it figured it out most of the time, though we consistently had trouble moving from portrait mode to using the machine as a clamshell laptop; we often had to fiddle with it in order to get the desktop upright again.

One nice surprise here is that this is one of very few 12-inch laptops to include an Ethernet jack. Good news for all you road warriors who'd prefer to use a wired internet connection the next time you're camped out in a Hyatt. Additionally, Lenovo threw in two USB 3.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a mini-HDMI socket. There's also a memory card reader, something that often gets left off small machines like this. Looking for the power button? You'll find that on the edge of the lid, down by the keyboard. There's a screen lock button too, in case you think you know better than the built-in accelerometer.

Keyboard and trackpad


DNP Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review

Save for a few small modifications, this is more or less the same six-row, island-style keyboard Lenovo used on the X230 and some other recent systems. At this point, it's been at least six months since the company unveiled its latest keyboard design, but it's still worth recapping what's new, as we imagine some folks are only just getting around to upgrading their old ThinkPads. The important thing to know (besides the fact that this is a chiclet layout) is that the keys have about 30 percent more surface area than they used to. Meanwhile, the page up / down buttons have migrated down south, so that they're clustered in with the arrow keys, arranged side by side instead of stacked on top of one another. It's also spill-resistant, like other ThinkPad keyboards before it. As for ergonomics, Lenovo has maintained that even though it's moved from a traditional spread to a chiclet arrangement, the keys should still offer about the same amount of pitch. In other words, typing on one of Lenovo's chiclet keyboards should theoretically feel similar to typing on one of the company's older models.

DNP Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review

This is an excellent keyboard, even if it does take ThinkPad diehards time to get used to.

Well, we think our resident ThinkPad Fanboy-in-Chief Tim Stevens would disagree with that, but nonetheless, this is still an excellent keyboard, even if it does take diehards a little time to get used to. The U-shaped "Smile" keys offer a comfortable resting place for the fingers, while offering forceful feedback and absolutely no give in the underlying panel. What's nice is that the keys are spaced far enough apart that you're unlikely to ever hit the wrong one. At the same time, Lenovo didn't have to shrink down the Enter, Shift or Caps Lock key to compensate. All told, it's one of our favorite laptop keyboards, and definitely the best you'll find among Ultrabooks, a category where typing ergonomics often fall by the wayside.

So what's new? For starters, Lenovo has added four Windows 8 hotkeys to the Function row up top. These include buttons for searching, settings, the app list and toggling between open apps. With regards to that last one, you'll see a row of thumbnails stretch across the screen, with each one representing an open program. You can click on them with your mouse or finger, of course, but you can also use the left, right and Enter keys to select the one you want. In the past, we've made no secret about the fact that we prefer using Windows 8 with some sort of touch input device, but it's still nice to see Lenovo adding an extra option for folks who prefer keyboard shortcuts.

One other change: this keyboard is not backlit, though you'll find other models in Lenovo's lineup that are. The X230 is one such machine.

Finally, what would a ThinkPad review be without a nod to that signature pointing stick? If you've grown addicted to the thing, rest assured: it's as comfortable and easy to control as ever. If you've always wondered why Lenovo hasn't retired the ol' red nub yet, maybe it's time to finally give it a try. Particularly compared to the touchpad, which falters at single-finger navigation, the pointing stick is impeccably precise when it comes to moving the cursor around screen. We also like that you can push the stick to the left or right as a way of speeding through pages of Live Tiles.

The touchpad is still useful for certain multi-touch gestures, though, including Windows 8-specific ones like swiping in from the left to toggle through open applications. Clearly, the touchpad drivers still needs some fine-tuning, as it's a little too easy to accidentally launch apps when all you're trying to do is move the cursor around the screen. Still, the pad itself has just the right amount of friction, and already responds well to those Win 8 gestures, so we feel it has potential as a more all-purpose navigation device once Lenovo fixes the drivers.

Display and sound


At the center of it all is that 12.5-inch touchscreen. It's coated in Gorilla Glass, like so many other panels we've tested recently, which means, predictably, that it stands up well against nicks and scratches. The 350-nit brightness rating is above average for laptops and indeed, particularly with the brightness cranked up, we had no problem viewing the screen from odd angles. Even if you don't plan on having friends crowd around to watch movies off Netflix, that wide visibility comes in handy if you're laying the tablet face-up on a flat surface -- a likely scenario when your arms invariably get tired from using this 3.48-pound machine in tablet mode.

The vertical viewing angles, meanwhile, are especially nice if you're working with the machine in your lap; you won't have to search for a sweet spot just to avoid wash-out. The one thing that might ruffle some shoppers' feathers is the 1,366 x 768 pixel count, particularly since Lenovo's own Yoga 13 starts at $1,000 with a 1,600 x 900 display. ASUS' Zenbook Prime Ultrabooks, meanwhile, have 1080p screens, and can be had for a little over a grand.

When it comes to audio quality, the sound is about as tinny as you'd expect, though not any worse than what you'll get from other Ultrabooks. The only difference of note is that volume levels are more subdued than on other laptops we've tested.

Performance and battery life


PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 3,113 4,066 E1033 / P549 136 MB/s (reads); 130 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire S7 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 5,011 4,918 E1035 / P620 / X208 934 MB/s (reads); 686 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,422 4,415

E917 / P572

278 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)
Toshiba Satellite U925t (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,381 4,210

E989 / P563

521 MB/s (reads); 265 MB/s (writes)
Dell XPS 12 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 4,520 N/A 516 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)

Though the $900 Staples configuration we tested has the same Core i5-3317U CPU as many other ultraportables we've tested recently, it has hybrid storage instead of an SSD -- specifically, a 500GB 7,200RPM drive paired with 24 gigs of flash storage. As you'd expect, then, its performance scores are lower than what it might have gotten had it had an SSD inside. On PCMark 7, for instance, it notched 3,113 -- at least 1,000 points lower than your typical Ivy Bridge Ultrabook.

Naturally, too, its I/O performance is fairly modest: in the disk benchmark ATTO it reached top read speeds of 136 MB/s and max writes of 130 MB/s, whereas most SSD-powered Ultrabooks are capable of at least twice the write speeds, and two to three times the read rates. And though that 24GB SSD is there largely to help speed up boot times, the Twist's 17-second startup is still about 50 percent slower than other Windows 8 machines we've tested recently. Still, if you're old enough to remember minute-long boot sequences, this really shouldn't be an issue.

In terms of graphics clout, the Twist falls in line with other ultraportable PCs we've tested recently, which makes sense since they all use Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics. Which is to say, if you're interested in gaming, you're better off sticking with older titles, and opting for the minimal settings. In Call of Duty 4, for instance, we managed between 18 and 20 frames-per-second, and that was with resolution all the way down at 1,024 x 768. Throughout, the machine stayed relatively quiet, which we can't say of every Ultrabook we've tested recently. The bad news: it gets a little warm. Not pants-scorchingly hot, but warm enough that your legs might start to feel a little toasty. Even when we were just streaming music from Grooveshark with no other applications running, we could feel tepid air coming out of the side vent.

Battery Life

Lenovo ThinkPad Twist 4:09
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 7:29
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:19
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
Dell XPS 14 6:18
HP Folio 13 6:08
HP Envy Sleekbook 6z 5:51
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 5:32
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2011) 5:32 (OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Dell XPS 12 5:30
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:13
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Toshiba Satellite U925t 5:10
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (14-inch, 2012) 5:06
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 5:05
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:57
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011) 4:20
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S7 4:18
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch) 3:57

Before we started receiving all these Windows 8 PCs to review, we had an idea that battery life on touchscreen systems would be shorter than what we've seen from non-touch models. What we didn't realize was how startling the difference would be. At best, the convertibles we've tested have lasted through five and a half hours of video playback. In the case of the Twist, we were lucky to make it past four. With a video looping, WiFi on and brightness fixed at 65 percent (standard conditions for us), our best run totaled four hours and 18 minutes. At times, though, the 43Wh battery died before even reaching the four-hour mark. Apparently, too, these results are normal: after running a series of similar tests, Lenovo's own product team also saw battery life results hovering in the four-hour range.

What's curious is that the Twist doesn't even have that much overhead, so to speak. It's not like this is a pin-thin system, with room for just the smallest of batteries. And it's not even powering a higher-res display. And yet, this is the second-worst showing we've seen from an Ultrabook. Meanwhile, the Dell XPS 12, which weighs less and has a full HD screen, lasted more than an hour longer in the same test. So that leaves us with a vexing question: we know touchscreens are bad news for battery life, but why does the Twist in particular fare so poorly?

Software and warranty


DNP Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review

While the Twist isn't completely free of bloatware, the list of pre-installed apps is much shorter than what you'll find on other new PCs. On board, you've got Evernote, Amazon's Kindle app, Skype, AccuWeather, eBay, the streaming service rara.com and a shortcut for Intel's AppUp store. Other apps include Microsoft Office, a trial of Norton Internet Security, Lenovo Support and Lenovo Solutions for Small Business, which includes backup and restore options, a USB blocker, software monitoring, an energy-saving profile and tune-up utilities (think: cookie deletion and disk defragmentation). Finally, there's Lenovo Cloud Storage, which is powered by SugarSync on the back end.

Those are the apps that came installed on the system, but there's one more you can download through Lenovo's support site if you're so inclined. It's called QuickLaunch and as you can see in the screenshot above, it brings back the old-style Start Menu so many of you have been missing. Now it's true, if you really wanted to avoid the new tiled Start Screen you could just pin favorite apps to the Taskbar, or create desktop shortcuts. Still, it's nice to have the option of searching for apps the old-fashioned way. As an added touch, there's also a shortcut for shutting down the computer -- you know, in case, opening up the Charms Bar is one swipe too many.

Though some higher-end business machines come with three years of coverage, the Twist has a one-year warranty. That's pretty standard for most PCs (consumer and otherwise), especially at this price.

Configuration options


As it happens, we tested a pre-configured model that retails exclusively at Staples for $900. There's also a $745 model with a Core i3 processor and 320GB of storage. If you'd rather have some control over the specs, you can order it from Lenovo's own site for $1,129 and up (as of this writing, it's going for a promotional price of $1,016). Now, if you're wondering why the price is so much higher, there's a good reason: this guy has a Core i7-3517U processor, along with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. Quite the upgrade over the $900 model, we'd say. We'd also add that for $1,000-ish, the specs are on par, if not better than, similarly priced Ultrabooks. Actually, most thousand-dollar Ultrabooks have a Core i5 CPU with four gigs of memory, so particularly at that promotional price, it's a good deal.

The competition


DNP Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review

Since Windows 8 launched, we've seen few PC makers announce anything like this -- at least, nothing aimed at business users.
If you look to last season's products, you'll find plenty of traditional convertibles, including several generations' worth made by HP. Now that we've entered the Windows 8 era, though, we've seen few PC makers announce anything like this -- at least, nothing aimed at business users. We have a feeling that if you hold out a little longer, companies like Dell and HP will unveil some additional hybrid devices designed for small businesses and enterprise customers. But right now, at least, we can't think of many other Windows 8 PCs that can be used in tablet mode, run Windows 8 and offer business-friendly features.

But what if you're just a consumer who really likes Lenovo's keyboards? If that's the case (and we know there are some you out there), you've got a different set of concerns. On the one hand, if you're so fond of the Lenovo brand that you'd be willing to spring for a business machine, you might not be satisfied with something like the XPS 12, as nice a machine as it is. Funnily enough, Lenovo's biggest competition here might come from, well, Lenovo. If you're considering the ThinkPad Twist, you may as well take a look at the Yoga 13, whose screen can fold back 360 degrees, allowing the PC to be used not just in tablet mode, but in a couple other poses that fall somewhere in between slate and standard notebook. If you go for the Yoga, you'll get a lighter-weight machine, a sharper 1,600 x 900 screen, longer battery life and a solid-state drive (none of this hybrid business).

Now for the bad: the Yoga has more crapware, and is also missing all of the self-help apps aimed at small business users who probably don't have a dedicated IT guy. The keyboard is similar to the Twist's, in that the keys have the same U-shape, but we were disappointed at how small the Backspace button was. Also, we also found that the keys didn't register all our presses; the feedback here isn't nearly as satisfying as what you'll enjoy on a ThinkPad. So, it's not the same typing experience you can expect from the Twist, but it's still superior to what most other Ultrabooks are offering. That and it offers much better specs (and much better performance) for about the same starting price ($1,000 as of this writing). Chew on that before you think of pulling the trigger.

Wrap-up


DNP Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review

Lately, we feel like all of our reviews of Windows 8 convertibles end the same way. The ThinkPad Twist has plenty going for it: a bright IPS display, a good port selection, an affordable price and an unrivaled typing experience. Like ThinkPads past, it also offers some useful software features for businesses lacking dedicated IT departments. All good things, but what's a road warrior to do when the battery barely lasts four hours?

Something tells us the Twist will still appeal to Lenovo loyalists, folks who trust ThinkPad's build quality and wouldn't be caught dead using any other keyboard. If you're more brand-agnostic, though, there are other Windows 8 convertibles with comfortable keyboards -- not to mention, sharper screens, faster performance and longer battery life. Heck, Lenovo's own IdeaPad Yoga 13, currently going for $1,000 and up, is one of them.

If you're wary of consumer machines, though, another option is to just wait: Lenovo was first out of the gate with a Win 8 convertible for business users, but who knows what HP and Dell have up their sleeves? If nothing else, the Twist shows us that Windows 8 and traditional convertibles make a wonderful match. So good a match, in fact, that there will probably soon be more options to choose from.

Engadget Podcast 317 - 11.21.2012