Lenovo ThinkPad 8 Review

Lenovo ThinkPad 8 Review

It's the best Windows 8.1 mini-tablet ... but it will cost you

As expected, Lenovo's ThinkPad 8 is the best Windows mini-tablet yet, with a gorgeous 1080p screen and a thin and high-quality form factor. But these advances will cost you, and the ThinkPad 8 is much more expensive than its mainstream competition. Whether it's worth the extra cost will depend on your priorities.

I will say this, however. The notion of a business-oriented Windows mini-tablet is a bit of a stretch. I get a lot of email from people who are curious whether this device—or any 8-inch Windows mini-tablet—makes sense as a productivity device on the go, and whether adding an external keyboard and/or a stylus of some kind will magically overcome the inherent limitations of the tiny screen.

That doesn't work for me, though if you have excellent eyesight or perhaps just need occasional typing sessions, your experience might be more positive. In this realm, the ThinkPad 8 is hit and miss: The screen is so gorgeous, so crisp and so clear, that it helps a bit from a readability perspective. But there's no Surface Pro-like stylus to be had, as the ThinkPad 8 does not support electromagnetic pens. So you can't do a lot of OneNote-based note-taking.

(Tablet stand not included.)

Ultimately, the way that Lenovo justifies the added expense here—remember, you can get a great Windows mini-tablet, like the Dell Venue 8 Pro or Lenovo Miix 2 for as little as $299—in two key ways. First, you get the legendary ThinkPad build quality, which is readily apparent in this device. And second is that screen. It's phenomenal.

So let's discuss both.

To date, the best Windows 8 mini-tablets—like the Dell and Lenovo models mentioned above—are shockingly similar, with the same internal components, screens and basic form factors. Each has little differences that make a decision come down to personal preferences. For example, I prefer the grippy back on the Dell to the shiny metal Miix, but I don't like the Dell's non-standard placement of the Windows button.

When you compare a powered-down ThinkPad 8 with these two devices, the differences seem subtle from afar but become more obvious as you paw them both. Picking up the ThinkPad 8 is like slipping behind the wheel of a BMW for the first time; you thought you understood cars and driving but suddenly you realize there is in fact an important distinction between this vehicle and your previous experiences. That's what ThinkPads provide, and it's readily apparent here.

So how to characterize this difference? The ThinkPad 8 is a bit thinner but also a bit heavier than the Venue 8 Pro or Miix 2. But it's a quality kind of heavy, the feel of something substantial, in the same way that a BMW's steering is heavier than that of ordinary cars. It's not a brick, like a Lumia 920. It's solid and balanced. It's high quality. Bulletproof, perhaps.

It's also a tad wider and noticeably taller than the other two devices. (So is the ThinkPad 8's screen, curiously. It's a bit bigger.) The back of the device is smooth, like the Miix 2, but it's not cold to the touch like the Miix 2 often is. So why does the ThinkPad 8 feel so much better in the hand? Part of the reason is that the ThinkPad 8 features a rubberized edge that snakes around the entire device. So it sticks in place better as you hold it.

And if you're curious, the ThinkPad 8 is not just a Miix 2 with better external bits. The ports are all different and in different places, and even things like the capacitive Windows buttons, which are in the same place on each device, are different. Where the Miix 2 has a scratchy Lenovo logo on the back, the ThinkPad 8 has a non-intrusive ThinkPad logo with the signature red power light in the dot on the "i." It's nice.

Does better hand feel justify $100? No, of course not. But there's more. Let's start with that screen.

To date, all of the Windows mini-tablets I've tested have featured a 1280 x 800 screen. That's fairly low resolution for devices that ostensibly compete with such high resolution alternatives as the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (1080p), Apple iPad mini with Retina Display (2048 x 1536) or Google Nexus 7 (1080p). As I noted in my Miix 2 review, of course, the resolution issue is a bit of a red herring. And that's because Windows does such a magical job of rendering text, especially, in the Modern mobile environment where Windows mini-tablet users will spend most of their time. Text, graphics, and video all look wonderful on these supposedly low-res screens.

But now we have the 1080p screen in the ThinkPad 8. And that means that an oranges-to-oranges comparison is now possible. We can look at the same apps, side by side on each device, and determine whether a higher resolution in fact makes any kind of difference.

The short answer is that yes, the difference is noticeable. Configured identically, content apps like Bing News display text that is crisper and better looking on the ThinkPad 8. Ditto for apps like Mail, People and Contacts. Oddly, the text elements are often a bit smaller—thinner, too—on the ThinkPad 8, as if the lower-res device was compensating a bit. But even with my eyes, the ThinkPad 8 text was always clearest, crisper, and easier to read.

Here, we can see a zoomed in comparison of the text in the Bing News app with the ThinkPad 8 (top) and the Miix 2 (bottom). The difference is real.

The thing is, you only notice this when you're looking at both. Togther, side-by-side. And my contention about the screen quality on those low-res displays still stands. They look great. It's just that the ThinkPad 8 display is better.

So does the enhanced quality of the ThinkPad 8 form factor and screen justify the $100 of additional cost? This is going to sound like a cheap out, but it depends. That is, it depends on your budget. You really do get what you pay for, and if you can afford the $400 that Lenovo is asking for the ThinkPad 8, you'll appreciate the differences in the same way that a BMW 3-series driver does.

But if you're not made of money, the Miix 2 was just on sale at Best Buy for $199, and there are deals on these low-end tablets all the time. Even at full retail, you'll save $100 by going with a Venue 8 Pro or Miix 2 (or Toshiba Encore, which I've not reviewed). And if that's important to you, you'll not suffer for it.

The thing is, beyond those two important differentiators, the ThinkPad 8 isn't much different than its cheaper competition. As I noted in Lenovo ThinkPad 8 First Impressions and Photos, the specs are very similar. The ThinkPad 8 has a slightly faster processor on paper, but used side-by-side the real-world performance is noticeably identical. The ThinkPad 8 offers 64 GB of storage in the base model, compared to just 32 GB on the Dell and Miix 2; but you can upgrade the Miix 2 to 64 GB for just $20, so you're still saving $80. (Dell's 64 GB model is $350, a $50 savings.) The ThinkPad 8 has a strange USB 3.0 Micro-B port instead of the more typical micro-USB port, but it's a faster and more versatile option: You can still charge with a micro-USB cable if needed, or use other micro-USB peripherals. (That said, you'll need an adapter for a "normal" PC-type USB connection, as you would on other mini-tablets.)

Overall, these slight differences still point me in the direction of spending a bit more to get the ThinkPad, especially if you would have upgraded another device to 64 GB. But there is one major downside, potentially, to the ThinkPad 8. The battery life is less than I'd hoped.

I'm still going through these tests a bit laboriously—in addition to just using the device, I'm running my usual video playback rundowns—but the ThinkPad 8 has consistently come in behind the other Windows mini-tablets I've used. Looking at Lenovo's web site, I see that the firm rates the ThinkPad 8 at 7 hours of life compared to 10 for the Miix 2. (Dell also rates the Venue 8 Pro at almost 10 hours, though that's based on some screen dimming chicanery.) But so far, I'm seeing between 5 and 5.5 hours of use. That is not fantastic, and it's a bit lower than what I'm seeing on the other devices.

I received and would recommend the Lenovo QuickShot Cover. This excellent cover costs only $35 and works well, holding to the device magnetically and offering a kind of peek-a-boo corner so you can still use the back camera with the cover folded back. That camera, by the way, is 8 megapixels, higher than the 5 MP on the other devices, but I still can't wrap my head around taking photos with such a device and did not test this or the quality of the camera's photos.

So what have we got here? The ThinkPad 8 is better made than competing Windows mini-tablets and features some real advantages including a stunning 1080p screen, USB 3.0 connectivity and more built-in storage. With a comparable but lower-resolution mini-tablet costing just $50 to $80 less, the ThinkPad 8 is sort of a no-brainer if you were going to upgrade the storage anyway.

If you weren't—and, remember, you can always add microSD storage, up to 64 GB—you can save big by opting for a lower-resolution Dell Venue 8 Pro or Miix 2, especially if you can find one on sale. You'll suffer a bit only with the screen quality, and as noted, that's really not all that bad. And you'll even get a bit better battery life.

So yes, the ThinkPad 8 is absolutely the best Windows mini-tablet available today, the BMW of its market, and it comes highly recommended for anyone looking for the best-possible Windows-based companion device. But you can save a bit of money by looking at some of its lower-cost alternatives. And depending on your needs, doing so may be the better choice. 

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