Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 Review

Posted on December 13, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10, Windows 11 with 9 Comments

OK, this one is a little weird. The Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 is a fairly typical 13.3-inch laptop, with Intel Evo innards, a minimal assortment of ports, and the expected high-quality Lenovo components and features. But it also features a major differentiator when compared to other laptops: there’s a 12-inch e-ink display on the outside of the display panel. And this e-ink display can be used for both consumption activities—like reading—and interactively, using a provided stylus. It kind of reminds me of the classic Peanut Butter Cup ad, except this time Lenovo put an e-ink display in my laptop.

Design

If you can overlook the e-ink weirdness on the outside of its display panel, the ThinkBook Plus is all business, with a high-quality magnesium-aluminum alloy chassis and a Storm Gray finish that differentiates this product line from ThinkPad.

It’s very similar to other ThinkBook and Lenovo products and, as always, I really like the subtle but distinctive use of the rectangular Lenovo branding on the outer edges of the wrist rest and exterior of the display lid. It looks classy.

Display

The primary—dare I say, normal—ThinkBook Plus display is a winner: it’s 13.3-inch WQXGA (2560 x 1600 pixel) with multitouch and smartpen capabilities, Dolby Vision HDR, and TUV low blue light certification, and it offers a reasonable 400 nits of brightness.

I’d personally prefer a 14-inch panel, but 13.3 inches is the most common size, and I can’t complain too much about the smallish bezels.

I also like that the display lies flat. This is useful when you want to enjoy videos in a cramped coach seat while flying: you can stand it up on your knees for a great view.

There is one weirdness: the top display bezel has a small bump to accommodate the top-mounted webcam, which is just a lowly 720p unit and doesn’t even support Windows Hello facial recognition. I’m not sure what’s going on there.

Internal components

As a fairly esoteric PC, we shouldn’t be surprised that Lenovo doesn’t offer many configuration options for the ThinkBook Plus. But its internal components are at least quite modern: it can be had with an 11th-generation Intel Core i5-1130G7 or i7-1160G7 processor with Intel Iris Xe Graphics, but there are no RAM or choices: you get 16 GB of LPDDR4x RAM and 512 GB of PCIe SSD Gen 4 storage with either processor choice.

Not surprisingly, the performance has been exemplary, but the fan noise can be noticeable while performing certain tasks, like system updates. The system never got particularly hot.

Connectivity

Connectivity is fairly standard for a late 2021 laptop, with Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2. But there’s no cellular data option.

Ports and expansion

The ThinkBook Plus ships with a minimal allotment of ports: there are two Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports on the left side next to a combo headphone/mic jack and … well, that’s it.

On the right, you’ll find the pen slot, as Lenovo calls it—it’s more of a stylus—and the power button, which features an integrated fingerprint reader.

This is inadequate for a PC in this price class. At the very least, I’d prefer to see the USB-C ports split between each side of the PC.

Audio and video

With support for Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos spatial sound via its Harmon Kardon speakers, the ThinkBook Plus provides an exceptional multimedia experience. Lenovo supplies apps for both Dolby capabilities, which lets you customize them as desired, but I found the default settings—Dolby Vision Bright for video and Dynamic for audio—to work wonderfully.

For video conferencing, the 720p webcam is nothing special, but Lenovo does a manual webcam shutter and there are 4 microphones for reasonable clear audio.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

Lenovo generally makes very good keyboards, and I like the quiet, scalloped, and full-sized backlit keyboard for the most part. It’s not quite as tight as the best keyboards from HP or Microsoft, but it is spill-resistant and I got used to typing with its slightly bouncier keys.

The touchpad is excellent and what I’d call right-sized—not too small and not too big—but I still had to disable three- and four-finger gestures to get the accuracy I’m looking for. This is not atypical.

The bundled Lenovo Pen is really a stylus, and it’s small enough to be garaged inside a hole in the right side of the PC.

I like that, and that it works with both the internal display and the external E-Ink display, though the performance is terrible on the E-Ink display. I find the stylus too small to hold comfortably for long periods of time.

It has two small configurable buttons on its barrel, which are likewise hard to find and press. You can set either to display a radial menu, which provides access to 8 configurable functions—many related to media playback—instead of just a single action like Erase, Paste, or whatever. That’s a great idea. I wish it was in a bigger pen.

Portability

With its low 2.55-pound curb weight, the ThinkBook Plus is appropriately light, and it makes for a desirable travel companion. And travel with it I did, twice—to Reading, Pennsylvania and then to Washington D.C.—though both trips were by car. But the battery life was unimpressive at just under 6 hours overall.

Security

The ThinkBook Plus supports Windows Hello fingerprint recognition via its power button, which is mounted on the right side of the device so that you can access it when the lid is closed. Despite the button’s small size, I found that it worked quickly and reliably. There are no facial recognition capabilities, which is odd given the camera bump at the top of the display lid.

Unique hardware features

Well, I’ve put this off long enough. We need to address the E-Ink display that’s found on the outside of the ThinkBook Plus. As you might have guessed, it’s a bit complicated. So complicated, in fact, that it needs instruction. I’m not sure if this is available in the retail configurations, but the review unit included a shortcut to a Demo Video folder that includes several videos showing you how to make sense of this unusual feature.

But as weird as this design may seem, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t represent the first time that Lenovo has added an E-Ink display to a laptop: the “Gen 2” in its name is the first clue. But there were even weirder designs in the past, too: the Lenovo Yoga Book, for example, used an E-Ink screen in place of the keyboard, if you can believe that.

With the ThinkBook Plus Gen 2, the display is at least in the “right” place, if there is such a place. And at 12-inches, it’s bigger than that used by its predecessors. Interestingly, it closely mimics the interior display with a 16:10 aspect ratio and the same WQXGA (2560 x 1600) resolution. That’s by design, because one of the crazier things this E-Ink display can do is act like a very slow and very monochrome display for Windows.

Of course, it is an E-Ink display, so has the same pros and cons as other E-Ink displays. In the good news department, it doesn’t use any power at all when it’s not refreshing, and even when it is, it still uses a lot less power than a traditional display. And its interactive, so you can touch it with your fingers or use the bundled stylus to write and draw on it. The bad news should be familiar to any E-Ink fan, however. The E-Ink display is slow—like, really slow—and works better for reading than it does for interactive tasks. There’s no backlighting, so it needs to be lit by external sources. And on-screen images tend to ghost on the display, meaning you can see previous displays vaguely under the current display, sort of like an Etch-A-Sketch.

By default, the E-Ink display will show a wallpaper, which you can customize. But if you press and hold on the external display’s home button—a circle in the middle of one of its large bezels—the E-Ink Homepage will appear. (You can also press and hold for over 5 seconds to refresh the E-Ink display, which I found myself having to do regularly.)

This homepage supports several widgets, for things like Calendar (Outlook), Weather, Sticky Notes, and so on, which appear as rectangular windows. And you can switch to E-Ink applications like Note, Reader, and Drawing Board as well. Each is fairly obvious, but it’s worth noting that Note syncs with OneNote, Reader is compatible with EPUB, MOBI, and PDF file types, and Drawing Board can be used as a Wacom-style tablet with an external display.

If you want to use the E-Ink display for Windows, just power on the device with the lid closed: if you’ve configured the power button-based fingerprint reader, the system will boot right into a slow, monochrome version of your Windows desktop so you can run your apps. (In the future, when Android app compatibility comes to Windows 11, you should be able to use it with the Android version of the Kindle app, which could be interesting.)

Some of the E-Ink display’s interactive elements, like Note, work with the bundled stylus, though I find it small and uncomfortable in my large hands, and the performance is too terrible to bother. Even if it worked well, I wouldn’t be able to use it to take notes for an extended period of time. Given the terrible performance, the E-Ink experience is perhaps best used for reading tasks. Assuming you have enough exterior light, that is: the display seems really dim in what I’d call normal lighting conditions. (I’m reminded of those little clip-on reading lights one could add to the early Kindle e-readers.)

Finally, I find it interesting that the ThinkBook Plus is a dual-display laptop, but it is unique, and odd, that you can only use one of those displays at a time. You’re either using the computer normally, like a laptop, or you’re using what looks like the world’s largest Kindle—anyone else remember the Kindle DX?—in tablet mode. But overall, this feature just doesn’t impress me. It’s too slow, if replacing a dedicated e-ink reader if that’s what you’re looking for, and its non-reading functions are even more limited.

Software

Because the ThinkBook Plus shipped around the same time as Windows 11, the review unit came with Windows 10. But it was offered the Windows 11 upgrade, and I upgraded without issue.

Lenovo has generally done a better job than most PC makers when it comes to bundling crapware, meaning that it errs on the side of less rather than more. And this PC does ship with mostly-useful utilities like Lenovo Vantage (drivers updates, support), Lenovo Pen Settings, and Lenovo Hotkeys, all of which are fine. But there are a few minor backsteps here, too.

The most obvious is the addition of McAfee LiveSafe and Alexa, both of which are pinned to the taskbar alongside Lenovo Vantage, which is used for support. And while I usually like Lenovo Vantage, this app no longer lets you skip its personality-based customization configuration. Instead, it is mandatory to explain how—work, personal, gaming, or education—you’ll be using your PC. That’s just weird.

Also, the ThinkBook Plus ships with an app called Lenovo Smart Appearance that provides the kinds of video effects—blurring or changing the background, softening your skin, and even editing a wide range of facial features (from eye size to face shape, mouth, chin length, and more)—that, quite frankly, should be addressed by video apps like Zoom and Teams. I mean, I get it. But it’s weird.

Beyond the Lenovo-branded stuff, there’s nothing all that off-putting. You’ll find Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision apps, plus Glance by Mirametrix (used to lock the display if you walk away from the PC), Realtek Audio Console, Smart Microphone Settings, and Thunderbolt Control Center.

Pricing and configurations

Thanks in large part to its dual displays, the ThinkBook Plus is a lot more expensive than other ThinkBook models, and with a starting price of $2429 for a Core i5 version—about $1578 as I write this, during one of Lenovo’s perpetual sales—it’s edging into ThinkPad X1 territory. Oddly, the Core i7 model costs about the same, at $2609, or $1575 on sale.

You can have the ThinkBook Plus in any color as long as that color is Storm Gray.

Recommendations and conclusions

Despite its thin and light design, terrific display, and other solid attributes, it’s hard to recommend the ThinkBook Plus. It’s far too expensive, offers limited expandability, and has middling battery life. But the star of the show, the external E-Ink display, isn’t worth spending extra for because of its horrible performance and questionable utility. Lenovo makes plenty of better computers in this price range and build class, including other ThinkBook laptops, which are much less expensive.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Thin, light
  • Terrific display
  • Attractive, professional design
  • Nice keyboard and touchpad

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Middling battery life
  • E-Ink display isn’t usable, the bundled pen is tiny
  • Limited expansion with just two ports

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Comments (9)

9 responses to “Lenovo ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 Review”

  1. zself

    As a writer, I'm intrigued. After spending the last 35+ years of my life in front of a computer screen, I'm going back to paper and pen for as much work as I can reasonably do. My eyes are screen-tired. I like the idea of having a screen that isn't "bright." Eye strain is one reason why I am currently enamored with typewriters. I can't tell if this solves a problem or not, but it seems an interesting approach to what has to be a niche use-case. For that Lenovo deserves my respect and approbation.


    I wonder how many writers people would benefit from a paper-white screen with which to work?

    • jimchamplin

      I wonder if now could be a good time to introduce a premium word processor device. Like the classic units by Brother and Olivetti back in the day.


      A keyboard, an e-ink display, and just enough software to create documents. Save them to a thumb drive or SD media. No connectivity to create distraction.


      A device designed for deep work.

    • Paul Thurrott

      This screen doesn't solve that problem.

    • jra166

      I purchased it for this very reason. I too am a writer. I turned it around and connected my Thinkpad Bluetooth Keyboard (I have to have my Trackpoint), and I thought I had found my dream machine. However, there is a software/firmware issue at the moment. Within a minute or two the screen would freeze. EVERY time. The typing would still occur, it just doesn't show it, because the moment you touch the screen, everything shows up. Seems to be an idling/screen off issue to save battery, but because it is e-ink, it just remembers the last image rather than going to black. very frustrating.

  2. angusmatheson

    I think there is a typo:  it’s important to remember that it doesn’t represent the firm time that Lenovo has added an E-Ink display to a laptop: - I think it is supposed to be “first time”

  3. andyoneall

    Thank you Paul for listing all the pertinent specific details and for being so thorough. I've being battling these manufacturers over the PCIe Gen 3 to 4 issue in regard to the new NVMe drives for most of this year. To get them to disclose that up front with the specs would be an easy enough detail to include in the info but it seems to be a difficult thing to ask of them. Consequently it makes shopping for Gen 4 PCIe systems extremely frustrating.

    Although the Gen 4 won't help this configured eInk reader the overall wait times for daily functioning of the system the Gen 4 effectively doubles the speed of the drives in the system. Especially when the drive is swappable. You don't include that detail or pictures of the under belly.


    Would you happen to know if the NVMe drive is services able from the exterior?

    Thanks again.