The big breakthrough was the iPad: a flat, thin, beautiful, nearly buttonless computer, all touch screen. But that was three years ago.
Ever since then, Apple’s rivals have churned out iPad clones in different sizes. Ten inches diagonal? How about 11? How about nine? Or seven? Or five? In Samsung’s line alone, you can buy a tablet that matches almost any shoe size.
But the size variations don’t do much more than nudge the needle along the convenience spectrum. A little bigger means greater screen area; a little smaller means better portability.
The Lenovo Horizon ($1,500 from Best Buy later this month), however, doesn’t just nudge the needle — it snaps off the needle and teleports it. This tablet’s screen measures 27 inches diagonally.
Now, at this point, Lenovo’s rivals probably have cartoon steam exploding from their ears. “Twenty-seven inches? That’s not a tablet, you idiot — that’s an all-in-one PC!”
And it is true that the Horizon is, if you look at it one way, a one-piece computer like the iMac. A stand on the back props it up at any angle. It comes with a cordless mouse and keyboard. It runs Windows 8 — the real version, the one that runs any of the four million standard Windows programs. It has two USB jacks, four nicely powerful speakers, a webcam in the top margin, a 1-terabyte hard drive, a memory card reader, headphone and microphone jacks, 8 gigabytes of memory and an HDMI input jack so that you can use the Horizon as a TV.
There’s an Intel processor: the i5 chip, the same one found in many laptops. For $200 more, you can have the faster i7 chip. (You can also buy these machines directly from Lenovo, if you’re crazy. Lenovo’s prices are $200 higher than Best Buy’s.)
So far, this must sound like any other one-piece Windows 8 PC, like those from Vizio, Dell or Hewlett-Packard. But then the Horizon ducks into a phone booth and emerges as … supertablet.
You push gently down on the top edge, as though urging a child to go back to sleep. The Horizon complies, folding down, down, down, until it’s completely flat on the table.
You’ve just witnessed this machine’s most impressive hardware feature: its hinge. It has enough friction to hold a 19-pound computer solidly in place at any angle, yet enough give to collapse away to nothing when you push down on it.
In any case, once the tablet is lying flat on the table, a light suddenly dawns: this upright PC converts into a huge, tabletop tablet. (What shall we call this new computer category? Table-top? Tablet-op?)
In this Horizon-tal position, Windows 8 fades away. In its place is a new software world called Aura, written by Lenovo, especially tailored for tabletop computing. (When you bring the tablet upright again, it offers to restart Windows 8. You can also switch between Aura and Windows 8 manually.)
This environment displays a silvery gray disc, an Aura wheel, in the center of the screen. With your fingers, you can turn it or move it or tap its edges to produce spokes. Each spoke of the wheel represents a category of tabletop-tailored programs.
One displays your photos and videos. Exactly as in the old Microsoft Surface Table concept videos of 2008, you can drag photos around the screen, enlarge them by dragging opposite corners, pass them to friends or spin them around. Several people can be fooling with these photos, playing little movies or even playing games, simultaneously. Clearly, this is not your father’s iPad.