Perhaps it's due to the overwhelming volume of gadgets I've got clattering around the SurfaceProArtist labs or just my advancing old age, but it's getting increasingly difficult to remember all the gear that I've reviewed and exactly when I reviewed it. Fortunately, despite the somewhat awkward design of the Squarespace template behind this site, everything I've ever posted here is only a keyword search away.

So as the year draws to a close, I thought it would be fun to revisit my last twelve months of reviews and see if my conclusions then have withstood the test of time.

In many cases, the time I invested while writing the review was about as much as I ended up spending with the device for the entire year, so I'll try to distinguish between the gear that I've really put through its paces and the stuff I only ever skimmed.

January
N-Trig DuoSensePen2
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/3/n-trig-now-selling-replacement-pens- The first of a couple of products on this list that disappeared shortly after their release, these replacement pens were N-Trig's first foray into standalone consumer products. It was nice to see an option in case your Surface Pro 3 or Sony VAIO pen went missing, but I didn't care for the short body. When Microsoft bought N-Trig's pen technology later in 2015, the pens vanished.

Monoprice 22" HD SmartTouch Drawing Display http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/10/review-new-monoprice-pen-display-puts-multi-touch-within-reach - This touch capable drawing display was Monoprice's second attempt to entire the Wacom - Huion - Yiynova fray, but it also disappeared unceremoniously shortly after release. I still use it occasionally, as its attached to my second desktop. It's really not a bad value and I hope that Monoprice and its anonymous Chinese suppliers take another stab at it in 2016. UPDATE 12/24/15: In the comments section below, reader Vachel Shannon informed me that the Smarttouch pen display has resurfaced on Monoprice's website. You can find it here: http://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=12077

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Toshiba 8" Encore 2 Write http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/31/massive-guest-post-8-toshiba-encore-2-write-impressions - TabletPCReview member Precurve did a great job capturing the virtues of the 8-inch version of what was the best pen computing value of the year.

February
Lenovo Thinkpad Helix 2
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2014/11/28/keyboard-hinders-helix-2 -
I expected to love the Helix 2, but I didn't, thanks to its high pricetag and crappy keyboard. Had it been discounted a couple hundred bucks, I might feel otherwise. When the Ultrabook Pro keyboard was ultimately released, it cost a ridiculous $400.

March
HP Pro x2 612 G1
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/3/1/hp-pro-x2-612-g1-review - Because I reviewed it so closely to the pricey Helix 2, I probably ended up inflating my rating of this tablet. I admit I grade on a curve for lower cost devices, but there's something about this ugly duckling tablet that reminds me of the Surface Pro 1 that got this blog started. UPDATE 12/24/15 : Vachel Shannon also let me know that refurbished i5/8/256 HP Pro x2 612 G1s are on sale over at Woot! for only $399 until supplies last. This is an exceptional value. http://computers.woot.com/offers/hp-pro-x2-612-12-5-intel-i5-tablet-7?ref=cp_cnt_wp_2_9

Toshiba 10" Encore 2 Write http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/3/1/guest-post-10-toshiba-encore-2-write-review- I never got around to writing my own review of the TE2W, but Eric Merced did the honors here. The TE2W is the first Wacom ActiveES tablet I owned and it's an exceptional value.

Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/2/20/wacom-companion-2 - I'll admit I haven't gotten as much use out of the CC2 has I had imagined/hoped when I first purchased it. I'm spoiled by having so many other options at my disposal and I consider the CC2 too large and loud to use outside of the office. But performance is fantastic and it's still the one to buy if art is your foremost concern.

June
Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/6/26/thinkpad-yoga-14-sneaks-into-best-buy- My credit cards were able to take a break during April and May, and they were taxed a little more lightly by this Best Buy-exclusive offer. The laptop is my daily driver at the office. I've changed out the slow 1TB HDD for a much more responsive 512 GB SSD. You won't need to make that additional expense if you purchase the latest model, which has been updated several times since I purchased it. The TPY14 offers the best price-performance ratio on the market. It's not a style champion, but the Skylake version is essentially an i5 dGPU Surface Book for half the price.

July
Lenovo Thinkpad Active Capacitive Pen
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/7/7/lenovos-elusive-thinkpad-active-capacitive-pen-arrives - The pen that accompanies Lenovo's Wacom ActiveES devices has since been rebranded as the Lenovo Thinkpad Pen Pro. But it remains a must-have for anyone buying one of the new penabled devices, as the bundled rechargeable pen is too small for serious artists.

October
VAIO Z Canvas
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/10/26/vaio-z-canvas-is-windows-tablet-performance-champ - I was a reluctant buyer but the performance of the VAIO Z Canvas really won me over. It's been discounted $500 in recent weeks and is really hard to pass up at that price.

November
Microsoft Surface Pen
http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/11/5/man-sets-out-to-review-surface-book-settles-for-pen-instead - A must-have for any Surface Pro 3 or 4 owner. The new pen and softer nibs are a huge improvement over their predecessors.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/11/7/entry-level-surface-pro-4-is-the-only-ipad-pro-youll-ever-need - I purposely decided to review the low end m3 SP4 because I was looking for a fanless option. I love it and find I'm using my i5 SP3 less and less often. This is the perfect digital sketchbook Sorry Apple.

Miscrosoft Surface Book http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/12/5/surface-book-is-great-but-artists-should-stay-with-the-surface-pro - Early growing pains have almost been resolved. This is a beautiful prestige device, but I think it's a less than ideal form factor for digital artists.

December
Apple iPad Pro & Apple Pencil - Coming soon. Trying to take my time so I don't come off like an Apple hater or Microsoft fanboy.

So that's it. Funny doesn't seem like so many gadgets when you put them all on one page. I don't know how many I'll get to review in 2016. You guys were great the first couple of days I began my appeal for donations, but that's all died down now and revenue is no where near where it needs to be to pay for this site. So if you haven't yet, please consider a small contribution or click on as many ads as you can. Also, remember to begin your Amazon shopping sessions with a click on one of our Amazon links and we'll receive a small kickback.

So what was your favorite gadget of 2015? What are you most looking forward to in 2016? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

 

UPDATE: Lenovo has finally placed the Ultrabook Pro Keyboard on its website and the price is downright shocking. Yes, it's got a built-in battery that extends power for up to 12 hours, but for $399 more? No thanks Lenovo. Read it and weep

ORIGINAL POST: Just in time for your holiday shopping consideration, Lenovo has released the Wacom-penabled Thinkpad Helix 2, the first Intel Core M device I've had the chance to test.

The Helix 2 comes in two flavors: a $1049 5Y10 model with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB SSD and the $1499 5Y70 model with 8 GB and 256 GB storage. Both versions have an 11.6" FHD IPS LED display with a resolution of 1920x1080 and feature Intel HD Graphics 5300.

Although the last thing I need is another Windows tablet, I couldn't resist the temptation and decided to purchase the low end version to see how it compared with the Surface Pro 3 and other devices in the SurfaceProArtist labs.

The Helix 2 ships with the Ultrabook Keyboard, a cover that doubles as a stand but lacks a hinge mechanism. The typing experience on the keyboard is far superior to keyboard covers like the Surface Pro's, but the lack of a hinge, backlighting or Bluetooth severely limits the keyboard's functionality. The screen rests at only one angle that may be awkward to use in a cramped environment (see image above). And you have to be careful to dock and undock the screen just right to use the keyboard as a cover. You can't just fold and unfold it as you'd expect from any other keyboard.

An Ultrabook Pro Keyboard will be available early next year. Lenovo doesn't offer a way to purchase the tablet separately, which adds an unnecessary expense to an already pricey purchase.

REVIEW CONTINUES AFTER THE UNBOXING IMAGES BELOW

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As unboxings go, the Lenovo Thinkpad Helix 2 unveiling is pretty unmemorable. The tablet ships in a plain cardboard box, with no attention paid to first impressions. Contents are very sparse: the tablet, keyboard, power adapter and cord. I almost threw away the packaging before discovering that the pen was packed loosely in the very bottom of the box.

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The keyboard features a USB output (left). Also visible on the tablet is the power connector. 

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The top of the tablet has a power switch (right) and an auto-rotation lock.

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The right side of the tablet includes (from right to left) a micro HDMI output, covered USB and SD ports, the volume button and headphone jacks. The opening in the keyboard is the pen silo.

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Although its screen is only 11.6-inches vs. the Surface Pro 3's 12.5 (above, bottom and below, right), the physical dimensions of the Helix 2 are nearly identical.

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The screen size of the Helix 2 is significantly roomier than the Surface Pro 2 (above), and it's also thinner and lighter (below).

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I was expecting another Lenovo stylus like the one included with the Thinkpad Yoga (above top), but I was pleased to find that the Helix 2 includes a full-sized pen comparable to the Surface Pro 2 pen (third from top). The barrel is a bit narrower than I prefer, but it's very adequate for most uses. It ships with one Wacom flex nib, such as is found on the Fujitsu T-5000.

The digitizer on my Helix 2 works exceptionally well. I can draw all the way to the edges, I have no problem accessing the corner menus or the close gadgets and the pen-cursor alignment is uniform throughout the screen. This is the first Wacom Windows tablet I've owned that has worked so well out of the box. My Helix 2 shipped with driver version 7.1.3-9 installed and I've decided not to update it until offered the option directly by Lenovo (if that ever happens). The latest driver on the Wacom US site is 7.2.0-10, but if it's not broken, why fix it?

Drawing on the tablet is a wonderful experience. Unlike my Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga, the Helix 2 screen does not have a screen protector, but the pen's Flex nib offers all the grip that I need. Of course, the Helix 2 is compatible with all Wacom Tablet PC pens and I tested mine with the Bamboo Stylus Feel, Fujitsu T-5000 and many others with equally excellent results.

Pressure response is outstanding. (Sorry N-Trig/Microsoft, but there is still a recognizable improvement moving from a 256-level device to 1024 or beyond.)

I've tested the Helix 2 with the desktop applications Clip Studio Paint, Photoshop CC 2014 and Sketchbook Pro 7 and the apps Fresh Paint and Sketchable. The lower-end 5Y10 processor never broke a sweat. A major advantage of the Core M (formerly known as Broadwell) generation of chips is that they allow fanless designs. My Helix 2 has never heated up even while running graphics intensive benchmarks and the silent operation is welcome too.

If you've been waiting for a Wacom-equipped successor to the Surface Pro 2, the Helix 2 comes very close to being that device. It certainly offers more of a true tablet form factor than the SP2. It's significantly thinner and lighter and doesn't throw off heat.

On the other hand, there's something cheap-feeling about the Lenovo. The back is smooth and cool to the touch, but there are a few unsightly stickers and an unidentifiable protuberance by the SD slot that can be uncomfortable to hold. The hardware controls like the volume button are too close to the body and shallow, making them very difficult to distinguish from the USB and SD port covers. There is a sharp edge all around the tablet where the front panel comes in contact with the rest of the body that is less than ideal. The docking holes at the bottom of the display are also uncomfortable to the grip.

The docking mechanism itself is somewhat finicky. You have to align the tablet "just so" for it to send power to the keyboard. It's also very easy for the screen to detach from the keyboard if you attempt to carry the Helix 2 while in the laptop mode.

Lenovo should offer a standalone version of the Helix 2 priced around $800 to compete more directly with the Surface Pro 3 i3 model. Although the 11.6-inch, 16:9 HD display is not as nice as the SP3's 12.5-inch, 3:2 high-res display, it's close enough that Wacom aficionados would want to carefully consider the Helix 2.

But for now, the Helix 2 is simply over-priced. My advice is to wait until the new year when the Ultrabook Pro Keyboard is available and run the price/performance comparison again.

Of course by then, the Surface Pro 4 may be in the offing...

Posted
AuthorRick Rodriguez
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