For you techie types, this might seem like an unusual pairing, but for those who don't know an Intel Atom Clovertrail from a Core i5 CPU both the Microsoft Surface Pro and Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 are simply highly portable Windows 8 tablets from trusted names. The ThinkPad Tablet 2 is for those of you who are looking for an extremely portable tablet that runs Windows 8 all day long on a charge, and don't plan to use it as a main machine. The Microsoft Surface Pro could be your main machine unless you have very heavy requirements better suited by a desktop or big laptop with dedicated graphics and full mobile CPUs rather than the Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) CPU used in Surface Pro and most Ultrabooks. But it weighs a bit more and offers half the battery life of the Lenovo. In a few more years we'll have tablets with the ThinkPad Tablet 2's stamina and the Surface Pro's computing power, but for now it's all about tradeoffs.
The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 sells for $679 for the 64 gig model with Wacom digitizer and pen. The Microsoft Surface Pro is $899 for the 64 gig and $999 for the 128 gig. The ThinkPad 2 is priced more like a tablet while the Surface Pro is priced like an Ultrabook. To be fair, the Lenovo is more like a tablet but the Surface Pro has the power of an Ultrabook. The 3G/4G LTE ThinkPad Tablet 2 is priced so high that probably only corporations will buy it: $949.
Horsepower and Performance
The ThinkPad Tablet 2 runs Windows 8 32 bit. It's also available with Windows 8 Pro 32 bit, and both versions are full versions of Windows that can run Windows 7 .exe programs like Photoshop. It has a 1.8GHz Intel Atom Clovertrail dual core CPU with Intel integrated graphics (PowerVR SGX545 graphics that Intel licenses from Imagination Technologies). Clovertrail is certainly faster than prior generation Atom CPUs used in netbooks of old, but it's still one third the speed of the Intel Core i5. It has 2 gigs of DDR2 RAM and a 64 gig flash storage drive (eMMC, similar to an internal MMC or SD card).
The ThinkPad Tablet 2 stacked on top of the MS Surface Pro
Intel Atom is a 32 bit CPU than can only address 2 gigs of RAM, and the chipset works with DDR2 rather than the faster DDR3 RAM. Why eMMC? Again, that's what Atom as well as ARM family CPUs used in mobile OS tablets like Android work with rather than the faster mSATA interface used with the Intel Core i5. While you can install Windows 7 games, don't expect anything beyond quite old games and casual games to run, along with games available in the Windows app store in Metro. You do not want to use this for video editing or if you routinely use development software, Photoshop and a web browser concurrently. But Photoshop by itself runs decently, and MS Office 2010 and 2013 run perfectly well.
The ThinkPad Tablet 2 on top of the MS Surface Pro
The Surface Pro has all the power of an Ultrabook in a 10.6", 2 pound tablet. Quite an accomplishment. It has 3 gigs of DDR3 RAM and a 64 or 128 gig mSATA SSD. It scores 4657 on PCMark07 vs. 1425 for the ThinkPad Tablet 2. It's as fast as any Core i5 Ultrabook and can multitask well, play less demanding PC 3D games and handle Photoshop well. You can use it to edit HD video and have MS Office, a web browser with several tabs, email and Photoshop running at once without lagging or crashing.
Winner: Microsoft Surface Pro
Battery Life, Cooling
So why would anyone buy the ThinkPad Tablet 2? Because it runs twice as long on a charge, and has a fanless design that's silent. Some folks need computing power, while others just want to use the web, stream HD video, do email and MS Office. And they want to do it for as long as possible without hunting for an AC outlet. They don't want fan noise nor do they want to worry about PC cooling. That's what makes the Lenovo a perfect mobile companion. It runs 9 hours on a charge, has no fans and gets no more than warm. It may not be bright enough to be your main PC, but it will be your faithful mobile companion that needs charging every few days instead of once or twice a day.
Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2
Both tablets have a bright and sharp IPS display with wide viewing angles. Both have capacitive multi-touch: 5 points for the ThinkPad Tablet 2, 10 points for the Surface Pro, but how many fingers do you use at once on a screen? Both have Wacom digitizers and a Wacom pen. The Surface Pro pen is larger and more like a real pen and it has an eraser, while the Lenovo's is skinny and shorter. The Lenovo pen has a silo in the tablet, while the Surface Pro's clips onto the magnetic charging port and is less secure and more easily forgotten when you remove it to charge the tablet. Both work with modern apps that use the Windows pen API, so apps like ArtRage, Outlook 2013 and Fresh Paint have pressure sensitivity. Neither currently has WinTab drivers for pressure sensitivity in Adobe Photoshop, Paint Tool SAI or Corel Painter. Microsoft and Wacom have said that WinTab drivers for the Surface Pro are coming soon, but we haven't heard from Lenovo (we expect they'll appear eventually, as they do for most Wacom-equipped Windows tablets).
The ThinkPad Tablet 2 keyboard on top of the MS Surface Pro Type Cover
The ThinkPad has a 10.1", 1366 x 768 display while the Surface Pro has a full HD 1920 x 1080 display. Clearly the Surface Pro wins on resolution. While the desktop experience is hard on the eyes until you set display scaling up to 125 or 150 percent (Microsoft ships the Surface at 150% scaling), everything looks sharper than the lower resolution Lenovo. That said, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 display looks clear, has excellent contrast and is easy on the eyes without scaling. But if you're accustomed to a Retina iPad or Nexus 10 tablet with monstrous resolution, you'll prefer the Surface Pro's full HD display.
When docked to their respective keyboards, both tablets have a fixed viewing angle, and both are geared more toward desk rather than lap use. The Lenovo is a bit more upright, and thus begs for a desk even more for best viewing angles.
Winner: Microsoft Surface Pro
Build Quality and Design
The Lenovo looks every bit a ThinkPad: solid, understated and well made. The Microsoft Surface Pro is a luxurious looking product with a magnesium alloy casing, modern design and lust-worthy good looks. It's extremely rigid and strong and looks every bit the near one thousand dollar product it is. The ThinkPad 2 is no slouch and looks respectable enough but it's not up to the Surface level. The soft touch black finish feels great in the hand, and there's just a tiny bit of flex when you press the back panel. It's extremely slim and crazy light a 1.3 pounds. But we have to give the Surface the win here.
You can use both tablets with external Bluetooth and USB keyboards. But we're focusing on the manufacturer's custom solutions here. Lenovo sells a $120 Bluetooth keyboard with stand for the ThinkPad Tablet 2. It works much like iPad Bluetooth keyboards with a slot for the tablet and plastic pop-up stand to hold the tablet. It's not terribly secure and we've managed to knock the tablet out of the stand a few times. You can use it on your lap, but don't bounce your legs or the tablet might fall out. As 10.1" keyboards go, this one is brilliant in terms of the typing experience. Mind you, it's still extremely small compared to even Ultrabook keyboards, so those with big hands probably won't like it, but the ThinkPad sculpted keys and good tactile feel are here. There's an optical version of the TrackPoint Eraser stick pointer with buttons and it's much better than the Sony Vaio Duo 11's dubious optical pointing device.
You can buy the $120 Microsoft Surface Touch Cover or the $130 Type Cover for Surface. Both do double duty as screen covers and latch on extremely securely to the magnetic keyboard connector on Surface's bottom edge. The 7.4 ounce Touch Cover is available 5 colors and it's a membrane cover (no moving parts), so you'll rely on the molded ridges around the keys to find your place and the click-clack sound from the tablet to let you know you've pressed a key. It works better than you'd think and is fine for casual text entry. Those who do a lot of typing will likely prefer the slightly thicker 7.7 ounce Type Cover with moving (err, normal) keys. It has a wrist rest area and a small trackpad and is very useable, though still small given the 10.6" diagonal constraint. To maximize key size, the keys sit edge to edge rather than using the popular island style with space between each key. I slightly prefer the Type Cover to the Lenovo keyboard thanks to the larger keys and wrist rest plus standard trackpad. But it's not a landslide win. And the Surface Pro with keyboard isn't lap friendly since the keyboard flaps about with no lock position.
Both tablets have dual band WiFi 802.11 b/g/n (not Intel and no WiDi wireless display). They both have Bluetooth 4.0 but not NFC. The Lenovo has a GPS and is available with 3G/4G LTE (LTE works with AT&T in the US) but that model costs a crazy $949, which seems a high price to pay for this feature. The Surface Pro's connection strength and transfer speeds are 10 percent higher, and some of that may have to do with the Atom architecture's bottlenecks along with the need for better drivers.
Here's our Microsoft Surface Pro vs. Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 Comparison Smackdown video.