Who would have thought that, rather than hybrid laptops or Windows 8 tablets, the most interesting new hardware trend in computers for 2013 would be tabletop PCs? That's an unofficial term I use to describe the growing number of systems that straddle the line between all-in-one desktops, megatablets, and home furnishings.
The latest, and my favorite to date, is the Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon 27. No points for guessing from the name that it's built around a 27-inch display. Sure, it functions perfectly well as a desktop all-in-one, as long as you don't mind the screen's bottom edge being so close to your desk, but to see where it really shines, push the spring-loaded hinge down and lay the system flat on your table, desk, or even floor.
We've seen other variations on this theme since the launch of Windows 8 last year, and there are more still to come. But so far the tabletop PCs we've tested have had smaller screens. There's the Sony Vaio Tap 20, which has a 20-inch display and looks the most similar to the Horizon. Then there's the Asus Transformer AIO, with an 18-inch screen that detaches from a docking stand -- only to switch over into Android mode because the Intel CPU is inexplicably inside the base. Finally, there's the 18-inch Dell XPS 18, which has a very thin, light screen that pulls easily off its weighted display stand and is the most conveniently portable of the bunch.
All of those previous tabletop PCs have an element of easy portability the Horizon lacks. It may not be entirely ergonomically correct, but they can all be passed around the living room or meeting room, especially the lightweight Dell XPS 18. But that also means their lie-flat modes are best viewed by one or two people. Think of them as platforms for small-form sharing.
The Horizon, in contrast, feels like it's meant to be semipermanently anchored flat on your desk or coffee table. In fact, when we first saw the Horizon at CES 2013, Lenovo showed it off mounted inside a custom-built coffee table that opened up to allow access to the screen. Sadly, there's no such accessory available yet, although if tabletop PCs take off, I'm sure you'll find several on Kickstarter in short order. Instead, Lenovo says a simpler rolling cart will be available later in the year.
One can argue whether a PC with an Intel Core i5/i7 CPU, a 1TB, 5,400rpm hard drive, 8GB of RAM, and an entry-level Nvidia GeForce 620M graphics card is worth $1,600 or more, depending on the exact configuration, and I've certainly criticized high-end laptops before for having the same components one can find in less expensive systems. But in this case, the Horizon, much like the Dell XPS 18, is a product that comes off better in person than on paper. It reimagines how you use a Windows PC, giving mundane tasks such as reading online news or watching videos a new twist, and is -- most importantly -- just plain fun to use.
Part of that comes from Aura, a touch-centric operating-system overlay that switches on automatically when you fold the kickstand in and lay the system down flat. A collection of several custom apps and games is available in this mode, including the requisite air hockey (seemingly the first app everyone thinks to install on a tabletop PC), Texas Hold 'Em poker, and Monopoly.
Some of the apps work better than others, and the entire Aura overlay has just a hint of lag that makes twitch gaming annoying, but it works fine for slower-paced games and apps or manipulating photo and video files. Even with our Core i7 CPU, Aura felt sluggish compared with the standard Windows 8 interface.
Much like Google Glass, Ouya, or the Pebble Watch, the Horizon's tabletop mode is very cool, but doesn't yet have the level of polish or software support to be truly mainstream. Still, it's great fun to use and always attracted a crowd when I wheeled it around the CNET offices on a makeshift rolling cart. Its saving grace is that it works perfectly well as a touch-screen Windows 8 all-in-one, with decent specs and a big 27-inch 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution display. A comparable 27-inch all-in-one from another PC maker might cost you a few hundred dollars less right now, but I predict within a year or so most all-in-one PCs will be tabletop models with either fold-down hinges or removable screens.
Note that right now, the Core i5 configuration of the Horizon (as reviewed here) is $1,699, and the Core i7 configuration is $1,849, and both come with a set of air hockey paddles and suction cup joysticks, and a clever wireless six-sided die (in case you were wondering about gaming being the big selling point here).
The tabletop software is still a generation away from being ready for prime time, and while I like the Horizon a lot, at those prices it gets a qualified recommendation, depending on how much you like the idea of a coffee table PC.
But, there's an important twist: starting in June, we're told that Best Buy will stock similar Core i5 and i7 configurations for $1,499 and $1,599, at which point the Horizon 27 becomes a very valid alternative to standard all-in-one desktops, with a cool tabletop mode you can use as often (or not) as you like. If that price cut indeed happens, we'll revisit the rating for this review in a few weeks.
|Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon 27||Asus Transformer AIO||Sony Vaio Tap 20||Dell Inspiron One 2330||Dell XPS 18|
|Display size/pixel resolution||27-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||18.4-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||20-inch, 1,600x900 touch screen||23-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||18-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U||3.1GHz Intel Core i5-3350P||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3330S||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U|
|PC memory||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||2GB Nvidia GeForce GT620M||2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 730M||64MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||32MB Intel HD Graphics 2500||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000|
|Storage||1TB, 5,400rpm hard drive||1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive||750GB, 5,400rpm hard drive||1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive||1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive|
|Optical drive||None||dual-layer DVD burner||None||dual-layer DVD burner||None|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 Pro (64-bit)|
Design and features
The 18.6-pound Horizon 27 is just plain big. Unlike some other 27-inch all-in-one systems such as the Dell XPS One 27 and the Apple iMac, it has no separate base for connections or an adjustable arm -- everything is built right into the main unit, including a heavy-duty kickstand.
Unlike the kickstands in similar systems, this one feels spring-loaded -- you won't be pulling it out and pushing it in with one hand while adjusting the screen angle with the other. When used exactly as intended, it works well. That means that with the Horizon sitting upright, you gently but firmly push down and back on the top edge, and the kickstand folds in and lowers the system until it's lying flat, a move that also launches the built-in Aura tabletop software. Lifting the Horizon up by the same edge deploys the spring-loaded kickstand, and you can stop at any angle along the way, up to about 85 degrees, and the system will stay perfectly still.
But, when you try to move or adjust the system outside of those narrow parameters, the hinge and kickstand can be a hassle. Even lifting the Horizon slightly up from the table to move it over ends up deploying the kickstand, which you can't fold back down without great difficulty.
Several times I've had the included game accessories sitting on top of the screen, then the kickstand popped out a bit while I tried to move the system ever so slightly. In those cases, I had to remove all the accessories, allow the kickstand to fully unfold (which popped us out of the Aura interface and back into Windows 8), then fold everything back down again. The main issue seems to be that the kickstand is held in place in tabletop mode by the system's weight, and not any kind of docking mechanism.
With the Horizon down in tabletop mode, the Aura interface gives you access to Lenovo's video and music players and basic photo display software. Littering the tabletop surface with photo and video file windows is easy; dismissing them requires a multifinger spread on the screen. While it's fun to rotate and resize a video clip with two fingers while it's playing, I suspect most of your multimedia use will remain within the Windows apps, iTunes, Netflix, and so on.
The built-in games are the real appeal here. The air hockey game is fun, and uses the included paddles (little plastic sticks with felt bottoms) to good effect -- still the control isn't exactly one-to-one real-time, there's a bit of lag, which we've seen in every similar game on other Windows 8 touch-screen PCs.
Other games, such as a roulette wheel and a poker table, are fun once you get past the anime-style graphics and music, clearly not designed for the American market. I'd love to see a more relaxed, sophisticated poker game. However, even the odd Lenovo version is something of a killer app for the system.
Players get their hole cards dealt face down (the screen is big enough for four players to gather around, but just barely), and then cup one hand over the virtual cards and use the index finger of the other hand to bend the corners of the cards up, revealing their value. There's also an Android app that can display your cards in private, but that's somehow less fun than the onscreen peek move.
A decent version of Monopoly is also included, along with a few other games that you'll probably try once and never launch again. More games and apps are available in the Lenovo App Store, which is exactly what it sounds like. It requires you to register, and most apps cost as much as or more than they would from other sources. The few free apps I downloaded ended up on the regular Windows 8 menu screen, not in the Aura list of apps -- there may be some way to add them, but I have yet to find it. An app called BlueStacks is also included, and it acts as an Android emulator, making it possible to use many Android apps, though your mileage may vary.