Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 Review
Sometimes a company creates a computer design that challenges convention. Lenovo does this often. A recent leak, for instance, showed a ThinkBook with a tablet installed alongside the keyboard. Sometimes designs ship, sometimes they do not. At CES in 2019, I saw a notebook computer in the Lenovo lounge with a built-in e-ink display on its lid. I immediately wanted one. Well, it took some time, but I have now spent the last month with the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2, a device I think, was built for writers, but it will take a Gen 3 to perfect the design.
What we like
The Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 does not offer the highest of speeds, the most ports, or the biggest screen. It does, however, offer a compelling value proposition for students and writers focused on writing, reading, and posting content. Unlike convertible laptops that permit scrawling across the main display, the Gen 2’s dual-screen configuration supports a full PC experience on its main display, with reading, and note-taking, and more, available when the lid is closed.
The ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 ships with a 13.3″ WQXGA (2560 x 1600) IPS, glossy, touchscreen with Dolby Vision™ sitting bright and clear above a comfortable, nearly edge-to-edge keyboard. At 400nits the screen is bright, and the colors vibrant.
Close the lid and you don’t get a nothing metal, logoed protective cover. No, the ThinkBook Gen 2 delivers a 12.0″ WQXGA (2560 x 1600) e-Ink, glossy, touchscreen that mimics the resolution of the internal display. This feature challenges assumptions about what people need to carry, or even own. With the ThinkBook Gen 2 it could be argued that this is enough computer to replace a companion tablet of any kind, be it an Apple iPad or an Amazon Kindle, or both.
The argument for Kindle certainly makes sense, as the display easily supports the Kindle Windows app, as it does a variety of PDF readers. And the pen interface supports various forms of annotation. But as you will read in the “What needs to be improved” section of this review, the display does not match the Kindle reading experience because of its lack of backlighting.
As for its positioning against the iPad, probably not for more. While the secondary display certainly supports use cases like taking notes and reading, it does offer a great experience when switching between those use cases.
The e-ink panel comes into play when the lid closes, offering three choices, putting the device to sleep, hibernating it, or using the-ink screen. In e-ink mode, customizable widgets offer portals into cloud and PC data, including Outlook, news, and other items. Tap an icon along the bottom of the display to invoke a drawing, reading, or note app. If the device enters sleep mode, a single button (a circle) at the top of the lid wakes the display and requires fingerprint authentication.
All authentication on the Gen 2 takes place via the fingerprint reader. The camera is not Windows “Hello”-compatible.
While I like the e-ink panel, it will only be a real boon to people who consider their use cases ahead of purchase. Writers and students appear the most likely candidates to figure out how to integrate the ThinkBook Gen 2 into their workflows.
With writers and students in mind, the keyboard is well-spaced for a small laptop. It brings good backlighting, though key travel is a bit shallow. I would have no issue typing on this device all day when traveling.
One of the features I really enjoyed testing was turning the e-ink panel into a graphics tablet for drawing, retouching, or whiteboarding. Close the lid and the e-ink display becomes a graphics tablet.
Sounds roll out via Dolby Atmos® on Harman Kardon® speakers. OK in a pinch, much better with headphones. I find very little use for internal speakers these days as Bluetooth headphones always offer a better sounding and more personal listening experience. And at home with three people working during the day, a necessity for staying out of each other’s acoustic space.
1th Gen Intel® Core™ processor enhanced by AI-based technology on the Intel® Evo™ platform power the Plus Gen 2. It also supports up to 16GB memory and ships with up to a 512GB PCIe Gen 4 SSD. Plenty of memory and storage for tasks matched to its CPU. The CPU clocks in at the lower end of the Tiger Lake family. I would not recommend the i5 version, but the i7 version will work fine for use cases best aligned with the device. Don’t throw graphics-intensive or high-end gaming at this machine or you will be disappointed.
A self-charging pen brings writing to the e-ink screen, or to the main display. I like the active pen, as it improves accuracy and allows for navigation above the screen. It is not, however, the best size for regular use.
The 2.58 pound ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 runs about a pound more than a 12 .9-inch iPad. But an iPad with a Magic Keyboard weighs almost the same. This is a pretty optimized device. 2 USB-C Thunderbolt ports offer enough connectivity for a device this size. The box also includes a HDMI/VGA dongle and a mouse.
What could be improved
It’s difficult to offer advice on an innovative design. I’m sure the design teams started examining their choices before the first unit shipped. I’ve been in those review rooms before. Here are the notes I would stick on the virtual whiteboard:
- The pen is too small.
- The pen needs to charge regardless of orientation or make it easier to insert in the correct orientation.
- The e-ink screen needs to respond faster.
- If Amazon can backlight an e-ink screen, so can we.
- We need better software for the e-ink experience.
- Upgrade the keyboard with a little more depth
- Full 1080p HD camera or better
- Too expensive for students
- Make it a convertible.
- Trade out the USB-C HDMI/VGA/USB-A dongle for HDMI/Ethernet/USB-A.
Unfortunately, Lenovo designed the G2 pen while thinking of a Samsung Galaxy Note. The Lenovo Pen runs almost the same size as the one that ships with Samsung’s Phablet. The stylus on most other laptops, including HP Elite Dragonfly and Spectre X360 14 are larger, offering the feel of a real pen or pencil in the hand.
Writing on e-ink quickly reveals the technology’s inherent latency. When using the native notes apps, or OneNote to take notes, it works OK, but using the pen as a stylus on Windows, requires users to slow down their thinking and reign in their expectations.
I struggled to place the pen into its enclosure for charging. It only goes in one way, and as my wife would say, I’m likely to open the bottom of a box 90% of the time even if the odds are 50-50. I found myself way too many times trying to figure out how to insert the stylus without looking, which often took, yeah, four tries and three rotations.
And while the e-ink works great in direct sunlight, it struggles in low-light situations where notetaking often occurs. I had to shine a light on the display more than once while reviewing to see what it said. My dim office lights don’t create the right atmosphere for use of the e-ink display for reading or working. The e-ink display needs backlighting in Gen 3.
I can imagine on an airplane the personal light would offer enough illumination, but I would worry about the focused nature of those lights reflecting off the display, which is glossy, not matt. Backlighting and non-glare is the right answer.
Although the software worked on the e-ink display, it is not the most elegant experience. I would like to see, for instance, a better default notes experience that automatically integrates OneNote given its inclusion in Windows. That said, the Lenovo notetaking app was the most responsive of the e-ink apps, likely because it was built with e-ink in mind—but they should have gone one level more and at least made the notes available in Windows without the need to either connect OneNote on e-ink or to export individual notes from within e-ink.
The e-ink display needs to minimize any configuration or interaction beyond certain features unless the user chooses to invoke full Windows, which will prove suboptimal at best. Isolating, the elevating e-ink experiences above Windows looks like it was the goal, but it was not fully realized, especially with third-party apps, like Kindle, which should have a default configuration to appear on the e-ink homepage.
And then there are the regular items that so many laptops need to fix, like the built-in camera. As I have written more than once, no pandemic era new device should ship without a good camera, and ideally, good software to support it—especially on a device this pricy. Owners of the ThinkBook Gen 2 deserve 1080p resolution, good low-light support, and ideally some software that will help track the user so they don’t need to sit front-and-center at all times (ala Apple’s Center Stage).
While a decent keyboard, it isn’t as good as the one on Lenovo’s X1 Carbon (well, most keyboards aren’t that good) but this slightly shallow keyboard does a disservice to what I see as a primary audience of professional content creators and students (I’ll come back to students in a moment).
The thin and light Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 should also be a convertible, able to flip backward into color tablet mode for video consumption. If you’re going to build a wildly flexible device, go all in.
The Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 is very well aligned with student needs. Reading textbooks, annotating PDFs, writing papers, and graphics good enough for page layout and some photo editing. But the cost of innovation remains high with the base unit running $2,429, which I would not recommend as I don’t see a need for underpowered computers as a good investment. To level up will cost $2,609.
But of course, no one pays list for a computer, and the higher-end device is currently selling on Lenovo’s site for $1,695, but that remains high for all but the most well-heeled students. 11-inch iPad Pros even with the best Apple Magic Keyboard run only about $1,100. This computer is just too expensive for its market, even at a discount.
Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2: The Bottom Line
I want to not just like the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2, I want to love it. It is exactly the kind of device that I want as a writer and researcher. I want to have Lenovo pry it from my cold, content crippled fingers as I draw a note or type one more quip—but I’m not going to argue as I place it back in the box to return it.
Even if I had it as a long-term loan, it would lose out to a laptop and iPad combination. Windows just isn’t as good as an iPad at being a tablet, and the e-ink feature is too generalized—and too slow. Unfortunately, my ideal computer appears to have been prematurely realized in the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2.
It’s almost there, though. When I’m typing these words, I’m aware that this is a perfect machine for writing my blogs, and everything else. It has enough CPU and memory to download images, manage my WordPress blog, manipulate an image or two. But it’s not going to replace my iPad for mind mapping, notetaking, reading, or consuming content. It does a fine job as a light, small form factor computer, but the e-ink experiences are not compelling enough to justify the extra cost of integration.
But good on Lenovo for trying. They make me want a Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2—unfortunately, they didn’t make me want to replace my existing menagerie of computing devices after spending time with it. For now, I’m sticking with a thin, light computer and an iPad Pro, with the iPad Pro as a utility business device, save for the hours of writing that take place on a Mac Mini or on a laptop connected to my 34-inch curved LG display. These words are being written on the Plus Gen 2, and it’s a pleasure. But once I close the lid, I need to figure out how to make purpose out of constraint, and the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 just costs too much to make owners spend time figuring out how they will use it. If you already know what to do with it, go get one. But even if it works for you, a number of enhancements would make it better, and most of them require more than a software tweak, so I’m going to wipe the drool from the corner of my mouth and see if some new device at CES 2022 will spark a new fantasy about the best computer, for me, ever.
Lenovo provided the Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 for review. Images courtesy of Lenovo.
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