Why buy a Surface Pro 4? Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Tablet beats it spec-for-spec

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Microsoft wanted Windows 2-in-1s to happen so badly that it stopped waiting for the OEMs and built its own. After years of mixed results, devices like the Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book are widely regarded today, showing the world just how useful a Windows tablet can be. That has left computer manufacturers in the odd position of trying to catch up with Microsoft, their longtime partner – and most have failed.

Lenovo’s latest Surface competitor, the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, could be the exception. The device, which comes complete with a ThinkPad keyboard, starts at $810 with an Intel Core M3 processor and 4GB of RAM. The $1,230 model we reviewed, meanwhile, includes the top-of-the-line M7 processor and 8GB of RAM. That’s an excellent specification, and it significantly undercuts the pricing of Microsoft’s Surface line.

Can the ThinkPad X1 Tablet manage to be a tablet and a ThinkPad, all at once? And is there any reason to get this over a Surface Pro 4? Let’s take a look.

The ThinkPad brand has had a particular look since the 90s, and Lenovo has always been careful to respect that aesthetic. The ThinkPad X1 Tablet brings this look to the tablet market, with some obvious influence from the Surface Pro 4 thrown in. The result is exactly what you’d expect when you hear the words “ThinkPad tablet,” right down to the defined corners and the iconic face of the keyboard, complete with the obligatory red dot.

Related: The Surface Pro 4 is not alone — here’s its best competitors

When we first picked up the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, we were slightly puzzled. The keyboard attachment and the tablet were easy to identify, and putting them together isn’t rocket science by any means. A secure magnetic latch snaps into place and holds firm. But to sit everything on a desk or table, the user needs to unlock the metal kickstand on the back of the tablet that serves as a sturdy counterweight. The mechanism’s workings aren’t obvious at a glance.

Once you work this out, using the ThinkPad X1 is easy. To adjust the angle of the screen, users have to avoid the urge to tilt the screen itself and instead adjust the kickstand. The hinge is solid, and its presence means the keyboard doesn’t have to serve as counterweight to the tablet, which saves both space and weight. This otherwise top-heavy tablet works comfortably docked on a desk, or even your lap.

The tablet is 11.45 by 8.24 inches, and weighs 2.4 pounds with the keyboard attached. The tablet itself is .33 inches thick, identical to the Surface Pro 4 and slightly thicker than the iPad Pro’s .27 inches. The ThinkPad X1’s keyboard attachment is .20 inches thick, meaning while docked and closed everything is just over a half inch thick. These dimensions make the ThinkPad X1 relatively large and heavy for a 2-in-1. However, a total thickness of a half-inch with keyboard isn’t exactly massive, and the size never annoyed us.

Overall, the ThinkPad X1 manages to be like a tablet and a ThinkPad all at once, which isn’t easy to pull off.

Our ThinkPad X1 Tablet came with five distinct input devices. There’s the touchscreen, the optional ThinkPad Pen Pro ($40), and the keyboard attachment, which in addition to its keys offers a touchpad and a trackpointer.

The touchscreen felt great in our tests. The surface was smooth and consistent, as you’d expect, and gestures were all correctly identified. And if you want more precision than your greasy fingers can offer, the ThinkPad Pen Pro delivers. It makes stylus input quite natural, and works well with the Windows desktop thanks to its built-in buttons for right and left clicking. Hover a bit above the screen and you’ll see a pointer, which makes it easy to avoid accidentally tapping a button or icon.

While the ThinkPad X1 keyboard doesn’t quite measure up to the keyboard on a ThinkPad laptop, it comes close. The keys are what you’d expect from a ThinkPad. They’re well-spaced, and give enough feedback for touch typists to develop a flow. Of course, certain compromises had to be made to fit a keyboard into a small cover, so don’t expect the full ThinkPad keyboard experience. The depth of each keystroke is noticeably shorter, which dampens the tactile experience. Having said that, this is the closest thing to a ThinkPad keyboard available for any tablet, and is among the nicest tablet keyboards we’ve used.

The keyboard is backlit, though the feature is disabled by default. To enable it, you’ll need to hold “Fn” and hit “Space,” which are easy enough keys to find in the dark.

Some magnets placed in the keyboard cover snap onto the bezel, giving you a pleasant angle for typing. Typing is easier at an angle, this arrangement making typing louder, which could be a problem if you’re using the tablet beside a sensitive neighbor.

The touchpad is quite small, two by three and a half inches. Input was accurate, and the texture is pleasant. As with most ThinkPad touchpads, it’s smaller than it could be because of the need to offer buttons to trackpointer users. Speaking of, there’s the trackpoint, the longtime staple of the ThinkPad line. It honestly seems like an anachronism on a tablet, but we’re sure longtime ThinkPad fans will enjoy its inclusion.

Users hoping to login to their tablet without a touchpad will enjoy the Windows Hello compatible fingerprint reader.

The ThinkPad X1 Tablet offers one USB 3.0 port on the side of the tablet itself, alongside a USB type-C port for connecting the tablet to a power supply. A mini display port makes it possible to connect external displays, and a headphone jack works with external speakers. There’s also a microSD port.

There are no ports whatsoever on the keyboard, but Lenovo has left room for more with a unique module system. Basically, you can snap attachments between the keyboard and the tablet, giving you extra features.  A $150 productivity module gives you an HDMI port, a Onelink+ Port for docking, another USB 3.0 port, and a two-cell battery rated for five additional hours of usage. Another attachment offers a built-in projector. We weren’t able to try any of these attachments out, but they’re interesting in concept.

Wireless capabilities are handled by the Intel 8260AC+BT card, which provides 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity.

The 12-inch display offered by the ThinkPad X1 Tablet offers a resolution of 2,160 by 1,440, which is generous. Despite being relatively small, there always seems to be room to work with.

At full brightness, the ThinkPad X1 puts out 395 lumens of light, which is exceptional. Using this device outside shouldn’t be a problem. And the contrast was excellent, with a 720:1 rating at max brightness. That’s nowhere close to the absurd 416300:1 rating of the Samsung TabPro S (which has an OLED display, currently unique in the 2-in-1 market), and also behind others like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Dell’s Latitude 12 7000, which hits a maximum ratio of 970:1. With that said, a ratio of 720:1 is not bad, and actually above-average for the 2-in-1 category as a whole.

Color more of an issue. Our results showed the X1 hitting 68 percent of the AdobeRGB standard, which isn’t terrible, but is one of the lower results we’ve seen among high-end devices lately. The sRGB scale rating was 94 percent. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Dell’s Latitude 12 7000 hit 99 and 98 percent, respectively.

Numbers are one thing. Experience is another. Watching this delightful cartoon, it was easy to appreciate the time put into every texture, and the colors looked great. While the X1 doesn’t quite measure up on paper, it’s still good enough to deliver an enjoyable experience.

Moving on to live action, we watched the trailer for Star Trek Beyond. It was easy to make out every detail of the unnecessary chaos and carnage, even in darker scenes with a lot of shadow. The spirit of exploration and hopefulness that once defined this franchise could not be detected, but that is no fault of the display.

Audio is a different matter, as with many tablets. Everything is clear and easy to make out, but bass is muddled. You can’t really rock out to these speakers, but you’ll be able to make out music or podcasts from across the room. External speakers or headphones are highly recommended.

The ThinkPad X1 Tablet is powered by an Intel Core m7-6Y75 processor. The Core m7 isn’t as powerful as the better-known Core i7, as it seeks to balance performance with portability. Still, it’s no slouch.

Our Geekbench scores show just how much this processor can do. The single core rating was 3,212, and the multi-core score was 6,521. The ThinkPad X1 can keep up with most Windows 10 tablets on the market right now, and that includes the Surface Book.

These results are surprising. The Core m7 in the ThinkPad X1 is on par with the Core i5 in the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. While that may seem a disadvantage, the two models are similarly priced, so it’s a real neck-and-neck competition. Core M is built for efficiency but, in certain situations, it can perform very well.

This was reflected in day-to-day usage. Performance was so good that we forgot this entire machine was crammed into a tablet form factor, thinking of it instead as a full-blown laptop. Browsing the web and writing were no problem, but neither were more processor intensive tasks. Our 7Zip combined benchmark score of 9000 shows that even processor-heavy tasks like compressing files are fast compared to other tablets.

We only ran into a bit of a snag with our Handbrake test, which at 2,510 seconds took longer than other devices. This may indicate that the Core m7 processor in the X1 Tablet is only configured for extreme performance in short bursts. The ThinkPad’s loss in that test should be noted. Fast though it may be, this is still a tablet. It can’t replace a workstation desktop or laptop.

The ThinkPad X1 offers a Samsung M.2 2280 solid state drive, with 128GB of storage space. An extra $530 brings this up to 1TB, if you need a lot of space.

How fast is the drive? Somewhat disappointing. Our Crystal DiskMark benchmark showed a read speed of 476 megabytes per second, and a write speed of 307MB/s. That’s half the speed of the Microsoft Surface Book in both reading and writing, and a much slower write speed than the Surface Pro 4.

Our HDTune test showed a read speed of 291MBps, which is worse but in line with the other results.

This is by no means a cripplingly slow drive, but it is quite a bit behind the competition. This means that saving files, and long file transfers, are going to be quite a bit slower on the ThinkPad X1 than tablets like the Surface Pro 4 or the Dell Latitude 12 7000.

There’s not a lot of room for dedicated graphics cards inside tablets, so they’re powered by on-board graphics. The ThinkPad X1 uses Intel HD graphics 515, which is one the least powerful IGPs currently available.

Here, as with processor performance, the X1 Tablet outdid our expectations. Its Fire Strike score of 738 is far from the highest score we’ve recorded, but respectable so far as tablets are concerned. Surface Pro devices edge the X1 out, but only barely, and the X1 outperforms the Dell Latitude 12 7000.

To see how this 2-in-1 handles real-world gaming, we fired up Heroes of the Storm. We started at a low resolution, 1,366 by 768, in part because that’s what the game recommended. At the lowest graphics settings, this gave us a framerate of 62 frames per second, which is playable. Things changed when we cranked the graphics up to max settings, with a framerate of 20FPS.

We then tried Counterstrike: Global Offensive at 1080p, low settings gave us 59 FPS, which was perfectly playable. Cranking the settings up, we got 13 FPS, which was a stuttery mess. Finally, just because we were curious, we turned the settings all the way up to the tablet’s max resolution of 2,160 by 1,440. The result was a respectable 44 FPS on the low settings, and 8 FPS on the high settings.

All in all, the X1 Tablet is not as bad as it could be, and it exceeds the average for the 2-in-1 category. However, the fact remains that Intel’s HD 515 is not built for serious gaming. It’ll only handle the least demanding 3D titles, and even then, you may be forced to play at low detail settings.

This tablet weights 2.4 pounds when docked with the keyboard, and is just over a half-inch thick total. It can easily fit in your bag, and is light enough that you’ll wonder multiple times during a long trip whether you’ve forgotten it somewhere.

But all that portability doesn’t mean much if the battery dies during your trip. Our Peacekeeper battery benchmark, which runs a number of browser-based tasks on a loop until the battery ultimately dies, gave us three hours and four minutes of battery life. This is a disappointing result. The Surface Pro 4 lasted six hours 26 minutes, for example.

Things were a little better in our web browsing loop, during which a numbers of popular websites are loaded automatically until the battery dies. The X1 lasted five hours and 46 minutes, which is a decent web browsing session. The battery did even better while looping a movie trailer, lasting seven hours and 40 minutes.

Overall, the battery life could be better, which is probably why Lenovo is selling an attachment with an extra battery. But considering the price, and the mobile processor, we expected better.

There are no fans on the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, meaning you’ll never hear it no matter how hot it gets.

And it will get a little warm. Left idle for five minutes, we detected a surface temperature of 92 degrees Fahrenheit. To be fair, that high temp was only found in a single spot behind the kickstand, but it is noticeable.

And it became more noticeable after running benchmarks for a while. We recorded a surface temperature of 122 degrees in that same spot. These temperatures are far from dangerous, but they can be a little unpleasant during extended sessions, especially if you’re holding the tablet.

Lenovo offers a one-year warranty for the ThinkPad X1, which is standard for laptops and tablets.

The ThinkPad X1 Tablet is not a perfect 2-in-1, but it is a very good one. It competes with or exceeds the Surface Pro 4 on almost every benchmark, and offers a much nicer keyboard. In some ways, the ThinkPad X1 even manages to compete with the Surface Book, with similar processing power and graphics capability fit into a much smaller form factor. The display, while not perfect, is in line with the competition. And a unique docking system gives users the ability to add all sorts of extra ports between the keyboard and the tablet, something no competing Windows 10 tablet currently offers.

The ThinkPad X1 offers all this, and is competitive on price. Offering a similar range of processor and memory configurations as the Surface Pro 4 and the Dell Latitude 12 7000 series 2-in-1, the X1 Tablet is more affordable than either when similarly configured.

The Lenovo’s main weakness, and what keeps it from earning an Editor’s Choice award, is its battery. The X1 Tablet is definitely behind the competition in that area. The hard drive is also relatively slow, with half the read speed of the Surface Pro 4 and the Dell Latitude 12 7000.

Still, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Tablet is a great third party alternative to the Surface Pro 4. If other OEMs stepped up to compete at this level, Windows 2-in-1s would go from relative obscurities to the mainstream.

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