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Review: Mobile Tablet/Notebook Convertible Can Run CAD

With the advent of Windows 8, most PC manufacturers released tablets and convertible systems combining touchscreens with small, often detachable keyboards. One new category of systems is the ultrabook. Based on a specification developed by Intel, ultrabooks represent a new class of high-end subnotebooks designed to feature reduced bulk without compromising performance and battery life.


Ultrabooks use low-power Intel Core processors and solid-state drives (SSDs). The big question for DE readers, however, is whether these new ultrabooks are capable of running mainstream CAD software. We finally got a chance to find out firsthand when we received the new Lenovo ThinkPad Helix.

The machine consists of two distinct components: an 11.6-in. tablet and a keyboard dock featuring an 83-key full-sized, spill-resistant keyboard. On its own, the 11.7×7.3×0.5-in. (WxDxH) tablet weighs just 1.8 lbs., and features a bright (400 nits) full HD 1920×1080 display with a screen protected by Corning Gorilla glass. When inserted into the keyboard dock, the Helix resembles a small, 3.7-lb. laptop measuring just 11.66×8.9×0.77 in. You can also insert the tablet into the keyboard dock with the screen facing away from the keyboard for use as a stand — or even fold the entire system flat.

Lenovo offers a choice of either the 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U CPU, which came in our evaluation unit, or the nearly identical Core i5-3427U processor, which has a slightly faster maximum turbo frequency, faster built-in graphics and adds Intel Clear Video, vPro and Trusted Execution technologies. The i5-3427U processor adds $80 to the overall system price. Both processors are designed specifically for ultrabooks and feature two CPU cores for a total of four threads, a 3MB cache, and support for up to 32GB of memory, although Lenovo only offers the Helix with 4GB of RAM.

Lots of Flexibility

On its own, the Helix tablet is considerably bigger and a half-pound heavier than an Apple iPad. But its dimensions result in an industry-standard 16:9 display, compared to the iPad’s 4:3 ratio. The Helix powers on via a button on the upper-right edge. A digitizer pen fits into a storage slot in the upper-left edge, and a fan louver extends along a portion of the upper edge. In spite of the fan, which is sometimes audible, the tablet does get a bit warm — around 86 F. The digitizer pen has both a tip sensor and a side-mounted button; it enables you to input text in a natural manner as well as take notes, annotate PDF files, and draw when used in conjunction with compatible software.

A combo audio jack, volume controls and a screen rotation lock button are located on the left edge. Along the bottom edge are a power connector, emergency reset hole, keyboard dock connector, subscriber identity module (SIM) card tray, mini DisplayPort connector, and a single USB 2.0 port. A 2 megapixel 1080p front-facing camera and Windows button are centered above and below the screen, respectively. There are also stereo speakers located at either corner below the screen, as well as a built-in microphone and an ambient light sensor.

On the rear of the tablet, an illuminated dot in the ThinkPad logo glows red to indicate when the tablet is powered on and in use, and blinks to indicate other modes. There is also a 5 megapixel 1080p HD webcam with auto focus and a built-in flash. It’s capable of shooting video at 30 frames per second, as well as Motion JPEG.

The standard tablet houses a 128GB SSD, but Lenovo included a 180GB drive in our evaluation unit, which added $100 to the price. A 256GB drive (a $200 option) is also available.

In addition to adding an excellent keyboard, the keyboard dock acts like a port replicator and holds the tablet upright to provide a typing experience similar to that of a notebook computer. A gesture-sensitive 4×2.5-in. touchpad is centered below the keyboard, while a TrackPoint pointing stick is nestled above the B key. Again, a red LED within the ThinkPad logo in the lower-right corner of the palm rest functions as a system status indicator, with a blinking or constant light indicating the current system status. On the rear of the keyboard dock are a pair of USB 3.0 connectors, a mini DisplayPort connector, a power connector and an emergency reset hole.

One of the most interesting features of the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is that both the tablet and keyboard dock include batteries. The tablet itself comes with a three-cell battery that Lenovo claims to provide up to six hours of battery life, while the keyboard dock has its own four-cell battery. According to Lenovo, the combination provides up to 10 hours of use. On our own battery run-down test, however, the system ran for just six hours before warning that our charge was down to 5%. The system shut down completely 18 minutes later.

Performance Better Than Benchmarks

So now the big question: Can you run mainstream CAD applications on this ultrabook? We are happy to report that the answer is yes! We installed AutoCAD, SolidWorks and a host of other applications — as well as all of our standard benchmarks — and put the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix through the exact same paces as any other workstation. While the Helix certainly didn’t set any records, and we do not recommend it for daily production, you can definitely load it up and take it with you for extended trips away from the office.

In fact, our benchmark results do not really reflect our actual experiences using CAD applications on this diminutive device. Because the Helix relies entirely on the Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated into the Core i5 CPU, its graphics performance on the SPECviewperf benchmark pales in comparison to systems equipped with discrete graphics. Indeed, the Helix was incapable of even completing the Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA) portion of the SPECviewperf test.

Similarly, we were unable to run the SPECapc SolidWorks benchmark because the Intel HD Graphics 4000 does not support the SolidWorks RealView feature, which is an integral part of the test. But the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix ran SolidWorks 2013 just fine — and we had no problem working with parts and assemblies.

We also ran our standard AutoCAD rendering test. Again, because this test is multi-threaded and is meant to illustrate the benefits of multiple, fast CPU cores, the results were the slowest we’ve recorded in years — averaging slightly more than four minutes. But we doubt anyone would rely on a system like this for rendering unless they were out in the field and had no other choice. The Lenovo ThinkPad Helix performed fine when doing actual work in AutoCAD.

Prices for the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix start at $1,477. Although the base configuration comes with Windows 8 64-bit, our evaluation unit came with Windows 8 Pro 64, which added an additional $50 to the price. Other than that and the bigger hard drive, our review unit was pretty basic. You can have Lenovo preload Microsoft Office and various other software, and add a mini DisplayPort/VGA monitor cable to connect to an external monitor. We hooked the Helix up to an external monitor using a mini DisplayPort cable we already had on hand.

Lenovo backs the Helix with a one-year depot/express warranty. The company also gives you a number of custom tools, including Lenovo Quick Launch, which adds a Start button that can be used in lieu of the standard Windows 8 interface, as well as Evernote, Skype and a number of other preloaded applications. With built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, near field computing, and optional 3G mobile broadband, the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix is a great system for engineering executives on the go. It’s certainly not a replacement for a high-end mobile workstation, but at just 3.7 lbs. and with a price of $1,609 as tested, the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix may be just right when you need to travel light and still get some work done.

David Cohn is the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies. He also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.

More Info

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix

  • Price: $1,609 as tested ($1,477 base price)
  • Size: 11.66×8.90×0.77-in. (DxWxH) notebook
  • Weight: 3.7 lbs. as tested, plus 0.25 lb. for power supply and cords
  • CPU: 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U dual-core w/3MB cache
  • Memory: 4GB DDR3 at 1,333MHz
  • Graphics: integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • Display: 11.6 in. full HD (1,920×1,080) IPS (400 nits)
  • Hard disk: 180GB SSD (128GB and 256GB also available)
  • Audio: Dolby Home Theater 4.0 with 3.5mm combo audio jack
  • Network: integrated Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet via supplied USB dongle, Ericsson C5621 TFF (with GPS), Bluetooth, NFC and optional 3G broadband
  • Other: one USB 2.0, mini DisplayPort, and SIM card in tablet; two USB 3.0 and mini DisplayPort in keyboard dock
  • Keyboard: integrated 83-key keyboard
  • Pointing device: 10-point multitouch, ThinkPad digitizer pen, five-button Clickpad
  • Warranty: one year

Mobile Workstations Compared

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix


(1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U dual-core CPU, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 4GB RAM)

Eurocom Panther 4.0

mobile workstation (3.1GHz Intel Xeon E5-2867W 8-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K5000M, 16GB RAM)

Lenovo ThinkPad W530

mobile workstation (2.90GHz Intel Core i7-3920XM quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro K2000M, 16GB RAM)

HP EliteBook 8560w

mobile workstation (2.30GHz Intel Core i7-2820QM quad-core CPU, NVIDIA Quadro 2000M, 16GB RAM)

Price as tested $1,609 $6,800 $2,592 $4,063
Date tested 9/10/13 4/20/13 12/29/12 5/1/12
Operating System Windows 8 Windows 7 Windows 7 Windows 7
SPECview 11 higher
catia-03 n/a 65.87 34.82 27.49
ensight-04 1.33 61.01 18.40 18.46
lightwave-01 8.68 65.85 62.75 48.21
maya-03 8.78 102.18 62.04 58.12
proe-5 1.00 13.82 15.58 9.77
sw-02 4.90 55.06 39.48 35.85
tcvis-02 1.37 59.28 30.63 23.12
snx-01 0.82 64.62 25.14 19.85
SPECapc SolidWorks 2013 Higher
Graphics Composite n/a 2.26 2.06 n/a
RealView Graphics Composite n/a 2.42 2.18 n/a
Shadows Composite n/a 2.42 2.18 n/a
Ambient Occlusion Composite n/a 5.14 3.76 n/a
Shaded Mode Composite n/a 2.41 2.13 n/a
Shaded With Edges Mode Composite n/a 2.12 2.00 n/a
RealView Disabled Composite n/a 1.72 1.65 n/a
CPU Composite n/a 3.72 3.59 n/a
Autodesk Render Test Lower
Time Seconds 244.16 57.33 62.00 89.83
Battery Test Higher
Time Hours:min 6:18 1:14 6:09 2:37

Numbers in blue indicate best recorded results. Numbers in red indicate worst recorded results. Results are shown separately for the ultrabook and mobile workstation classes.

About David Cohn

David Cohn has been using AutoCAD for more than 25 years and is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. He’s the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies, a contributing editor to Digital Engineering, and also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA. Watch for his latest CADLearning eBooks on AutoCAD 2015 on the Apple iBookstore, at Amazon, and on the CADLearning website. You can contact him via email at david@dscohn.com or visit his website at www.dscohn.com.