Lenovo Yoga Book review: old’s cool, or just old school?

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This week’s review comes to you the hard way. On the slow boat from China, so to speak.

What you are reading now I first wrote longhand, with a real pen and with real paper, using Lenovo’s new note-taking convertible computer, the Yoga Book.

Then, because I am using the Windows 10 version of the Yoga Book, and not the Android version that apparently comes with a handwriting recognition app, I had to type the whole thing again, using the very unusual keyboard that, together with the pen and paper, forms the backbone of the Yoga Book experience.

I can’t decide whether the whole process is a marvellous re-invention of the old-school way of doing things, or whether it’s just a cumbersome solution to a problem that no longer exists.

Lenovo Yoga Book in tablet mode and laptop mode
Lenovo Yoga Book in tablet mode and laptop mode supplied

There is a lot to be said for handwriting things first, and then typing them up – I can’t think of a better way to write a second draft of a document – but there is also a lot to be said for writing directly into a machine in the first place.

Chiefly, speed: this Yoga Book is a lot of very good things, but one thing it is not is fast.

It’s not a fast computer, technically; the keyboard is not fast to type on; and the whole process that Lenovo has envisaged for the Yoga Book, where you use a mix of handwriting, drawing and typing, is not fast either.

The device is a fairly radical re-invention of the notebook that converts into a tablet. (Or, in the case of the Android version, a tablet that converts into a notebook.)

The thing is astonishingly small and light: it’s just 8.3 mm thick at the front and 10.4 mm thick at the back, counting the keyboard, and weighs 684 grams. A 9.7-inch iPad Pro tablet, by way of comparison, is 12.5/8.3 mm thick front and back with its keyboard attached, and weighs 667 grams.

 First you write it longhand, then you type it in . . .
First you write it longhand, then you type it in . . . John Davidson

A Microsoft Surface 4, meanwhile, is 14.3 mm thick front and back counting the keyboard, and weighs 1.1 kilograms.

So, in terms of size and weight, the Yoga Book is more like an iPad, except the iPad runs a mobile phone/tablet operating system and is most definitely a tablet that can kind of convert into a notebook-ish device, whereas the Yoga Book that I’m using runs the full, desktop version of Windows 10, just like the Surface Pro and most definitely is a notebook.

It’s not the fastest notebook on the planet – it’s based around Intel’s low-powered Atom processor – but a notebook it most definitely is.

The trick to the Yoga Book is its “Halo” keyboard. Attached to the computer’s 10.1-inch screen is Lenovo’s unique, brilliant watchband hinge, which is rock-steady but still lets the screen rotate almost 360 degrees, allowing the screen to close like a notebook screen or open up completely like a tablet.

Attached to the other side of that hinge is the Halo keyboard, which isn’t so much a keyboard as a blank digitising surface on which, when the surface is lit up, keys appear.

The surface can also be used as a Wacom-style digitiser, using the unusual pen that comes with the Yoga Book, but more on that anon.

All of this means that, when you have the screen opened up like a notebook, you’re not typing on a regular keyboard with regular keys, but on a completely flat surface on which keys have magically appeared.

lt’s an experience halfway between using a real keyboard, and using the on-screen keyboard on a tablet.

It’s surprisingly fast to type on. I’ve typed this whole review out using the Halo keyboard (indeed I’ve been using it off and on for ten days now) and, in terms of speed, it seems you don’t need real buttons after all.

What you do need real keys for, though, is accuracy.

It’s no accident that the largest virtual key on the Halo keyboard is the backspace key. You can type fast on it, but boy do you make a lot of errors.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve hit the “\” key when I’ve  gone to hold down the “shift” key. Handwriting most of this review was slow enough in the first place, but typing it up is driving me nuts. I’ve already missed my usual deadline and I’ve still got a long way to go.

So yes, the handwriting.

There’s a little (virtual) button on the Halo keyboard, that turns off the keyboard mode and puts it into digitiser mode, allowing you to use the pen for applications like Photoshop (which runs OK on the Atom processor, but not brilliantly).

That’s a slightly odd experience: we’re so used to on-screen digitisers nowadays, it’s hard to use the pen off-screen, on the blank surface that used to be the keyboard.

You can work with it quite accurately, but I challenge anyone to resist the temptation to use the pen directly on the screen.

Mid-Photoshopping, for instance, I’m constantly reaching up with the pen to select a different tool from the on-screen toolbar, though of course that action doesn’t work because there’s no digitiser in the screen.

In order to keep the Yoga Book as thin as it is, there’s only the one digitiser, in the keyboard area.

As well as feeling like a slight throwback, to the old days of Wacom styluses, that also had the frustrating limitation that you can’t use the pen when the keyboard is folded around behind the screen and the device is in tablet mode.

But it’s the other application of the pen that’s the real throwback. You can pull out the plastic, electronic-stylus nib from the pen, and replace it with a ballpoint pen nib that writes just like any ballpoint pen.

Then, laying the Yoga Book flat and sideways, with the digitiser surface beside the screen, you can place a sheet of paper over the digitiser, write or draw on it, and lo and behold! Whatever you write or draw gets duplicated in the screen, so you end up with two copies: the hard copy, and the copy in Microsoft OneNote (which comes with the Windows version of the Yoga Book) or whatever other Windows Ink-enabled  application you’re running on the computer at the time.

Yes, you can do those things, which I have done to write this week’s review,  but before you do them you need to ask yourself an important question.

Why?