Windows 8.1 is in the throes of an identity crisis. The operating system meant to usher in the future of computing found itself mired in the present, installed on laptops and desktops where its hyper-connected, touch-friendly interface didn’t fit quite so well. Microsoft has steadily added back features it once removed, tweaking the operating system to satisfy the users not yet living in the Post-PC era we all figured would be here by now.
To one thing Microsoft has held firm, though: Windows 8 is an operating system for every device, every need, every person. It made the Surface to prove its point, and other hardware manufacturers have followed suit — nearly every Windows partner sells a device that takes the place of at least two others. Take the new Lenovo ThinkPad 8, a $399 slate that competes simultaneously with tablets (high-res screen, lots of media-friendly features) and laptops (a full version of Windows 8.1, lots of productivity-centric software). It’s the hardware expression of the Windows 8 ethos: everything to everyone.
Lenovo has made good Windows 8 devices more consistently than any other manufacturer, primarily with a lineup of laptops that offer extra-versatile hardware. This time it’s swung the other way, building an agile brain into a fairly standard tablet body. One of those options is the future, Microsoft says. But I’m starting to wonder.
More than a tablet
There’s no doubt in my mind that the iPad mini was on the minds of the ThinkPad 8’s design team. Even the device’s most useful accessory, a magnetized flip cover called the Quickshot Cover that turns the device on when it’s opened up, is a copy of the iPad’s Smart Cover with a clever folding corner that reveals the camera lens and automatically launches the app. Everywhere you look, Lenovo took the iPad formula and tweaked it. Most of the time, it works.
Shades of the iPad mini, in a good way
Lenovo’s ThinkPad brand communicates something much bigger than just black and rectangular (though the ThinkPad 8 is certainly both of those things), and this tablet does the name justice. Its rounded, gently tapered corners feel fantastic in my hand, and its aluminum body is sturdy and impressive. It’s comfortable enough to be held in one hand or two, and while it’s thicker and heavier than the iPad mini, the difference is meaningless in everyday use. All the places the iPad goes — the subway, the couch, the kitchen table, the dentist’s waiting room — the ThinkPad 8 fits in just as well.
In fact, the ThinkPad 8 stands out among Windows tablets mostly in its ability to keep up with the iPad. Its 8.3-inch, 1920 x 1200 display is tack-sharp and colorful, great for reading or for watching movies and viewable even in sunlight. It’s extremely responsive to touch, but there’s sadly no stylus support. Pen input would make a huge difference here, too: Windows 8.1’s tiled interface and apps work so well with a stylus, and without a small tip Desktop mode is all but unusable. My finger is bigger than most icons or buttons, and when I found myself in the system settings or the Control Panel, I’d wind up squinting at the screen and wondering if someday we’ll evolve to have thinner fingers so we can tap in these tiny boxes. There are a number of great drawing apps for Windows 8, and such great stylus support in the OS itself — I constantly missed having a stylus that worked.
For all other normal tablet things — reading, watching movies and TV, casually browsing the web — the ThinkPad 8 is as good as any device I’ve used. The screen alone makes it a better choice than the Dell Venue Pro 8, or any other 8-inch Windows tablet. But it’s $170 more than the Nexus 7 and the same price as the iPad mini (albeit with 64GB of storage, more than either competitor), and those two devices offer app stores and content options that still dwarf what’s in the Windows Store. They also both offer far better battery life: the ThinkPad 8 lasted 6 hours and 39 minutes on the Verge Battery test, roughly in line with the Surface 2 but not even close to what other tablets can do.
Not quite a PC
The ThinkPad 8 isn’t designed for people who want to play Threes!, though, or for those looking for first dibs at whatever comes next from the Ridiculous Fishing guys. It’s designed for people who want to read their Kindle books, watch Netflix, and then get to work. (It is a ThinkPad, after all.) The ThinkPad 8 runs Windows 8.1 Pro, and is powered by Intel’s Bay Trail processor; that means it’s compatible with just about any Windows application you throw at it. That’s not to say it runs them all well — any kind of gaming is impossible — but it’s wildly compatible in a way neither Android nor iOS will ever be. It had some infuriating trouble connecting to Wi-Fi networks, and a number of apps crashed and wouldn’t work again until I rebooted the device, but those are all problems I’ve had with Windows 8.1 before. And for most simple things, like Office or even the lightest touches in Photoshop, it works fine.
Of course, an 8-inch touchscreen is hardly the ideal way to power through a multi-sheet Excel document, and I’m not inclined to write much using the on-screen keyboard. When I use the tablet as a tablet, in my hands, anything in Desktop mode was basically unusable. So whenever I need to do those things, I connect a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth — there’s also a Micro USB 3.0 port, but you’re better off reserving that for charging — and plug a monitor into the ThinkPad 8’s Mini HDMI port. Then, for all intents and purposes, I’m using a (fairly underpowered) desktop computer. Windows 8.1’s multi-monitor support has improved vastly, and it doesn’t take much to get set up and working like I would on any other computer.
The ThinkPad 8 isn't for games, it's for work
This is the future Microsoft imagined all along. I’ve been thinking about it since Motorola first launched the Atrix, it’s why I’ve been so bullish on Asus and the Padfone. It holds that someday, in some blissful future, we’ll all have just one device. It’ll have all our apps, all our information, all our data, and with the right accessories — a keyboard here, a bigger screen there — it will become whatever device we need. Microsoft clearly believes in this vision, too: hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing the slogan “the one device for everything in your life” makes that abundantly clear.
The everything device
That’s what the ThinkPad 8 offers, and it makes a better case for its form factor than most. This device is first and foremost a tablet, and really only becomes something else with the right add-ons and accessories; it’s not a tweener device like the Surface 2 or the HP Split 13. Lenovo has always walked this line better than any other manufacturer, primarily by not walking it at all: the Yoga 2 Pro can be a tablet, but it’s mostly a laptop. And the ThinkPad 8 can be a desktop, but it’s mostly a tablet. By and large, with a couple of notable exceptions, a good one.
The most exciting future is the one where every device becomes my device
I don’t think this is the future anymore, though. We’re not heading toward a world where when I leave the office, I undock my tablet from mouse, keyboard, and 27-inch monitor, only to plug it into a keyboard dock or my television when I get home. Instead of hardware being situation-agnostic, our lives are becoming hardware-agnostic. When I first opened the ThinkPad 8, it took me three minutes to make it look exactly the way I wanted it to: I logged in, opened the Store, hit “Select all” and “Install,” and Windows took care of the rest. All my settings, all my data, even all my login information waits for me behind a single password.
As services like Dropbox and OneDrive have improved, and as we’ve adopted Google Drive and Gmail or Outlook.com and Office Online, the hardware we use is increasingly unimportant. I’m able to do all my work whether I’m on a Chromebook or a MacBook Air, on a Surface or a ThinkPad 8 or my parents’ 10-year-old Compaq desktop tower. So why, when it’s so easy to turn any device into my device, would I choose inherently compromised tools that do everything passably but nothing perfectly? When I use a tablet, I want the most apps, the best battery life; when I use a desktop I want all the power I can possibly find. I’m no longer looking forward to the future of having one device that becomes something different for every task. I’m more excited about finding the perfect device for the task at hand, and knowing that I’ll be up to speed in the time it takes me to sit down and enter my password. Soon my bag’s going to be empty when I leave work, not just lighter — that’s a future I can get behind.
Maybe I've been waiting for the wrong thing after all
Three things are true of the Lenovo ThinkPad 8. One, it’s the perfect size for a Windows 8 tablet: it’s easy to hold and use, and Windows 8’s live tiles just suit smaller screens better. Two, it’s easily the best of its kind: for $100 more than the Dell Venue Pro 8, it offers a better screen, more storage, and far superior build quality. For $50 less than the Surface 2, it’s a far better tablet and a more versatile device. If you’re buying a Windows tablet, to be used primarily as a tablet, buy this one.
The third thing: I’m not sure you should be buying a Windows tablet. If you want a device to play games, read, and watch movies, Android and iOS offer more options, better battery life, and in most cases lower prices. If you want a device for work, buy a hybrid that’s more laptop than tablet, like the Yoga 2 Pro or the Dell XPS 12. Anything else your device does — working on the iPad, playing games on the ThinkPad 8, using your laptop as a tablet — is extra. A device that does both equally well simply doesn’t exist yet. Use the right tool for the right task, not a $399 jack-of-all-trades that doesn’t do any single thing as well as its competitors. The dream of using a single device for everything is not only not yet achievable, it’s wrongheaded. My computer doesn’t have to be everything because every computer can be mine. That’s a much more exciting dream, and it’s already coming true.
Photography by Michael Shane