Terrific performance. Stylish, sturdy watchband-style kickstand hinges. Lenovo Active Pen is included.
Stand design precludes comfortable lap use. Relatively short battery life. Occasional fan noise.
- Bottom Line
Can't spring for a Surface Pro? The Lenovo IdeaPad Miix 520 is the best midrange Windows tablet you can buy right now, with excellent computing performance, a good keyboard, and an included stylus.
The Lenovo IdeaPad Miix 520 ($999) is gunning for the Microsoft Surface Pro, aiming to provide many of the features of this iconic Windows tablet at a fraction of the price. It's a difficult task, made even harder by the fact that many other PC makers are attempting to do the same thing. But there's no question that it's a worthwhile pursuit, since the the high price of a respectably configured Surface Pro is perhaps its most significant drawback. Lenovo succeeds on the most important fronts—a powerful eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor and a useful stylus, for instance—but fails to improve on some common tablet drawbacks, such as poor battery life and uncomfortable ergonomics for lap use. Still, the Miix 520 is clearly the best midrange Windows tablet you can buy right now.
The Miix 520 is minimally changed from its predecessor, last year's Miix 510. Both are Windows tablets with included smart keyboard covers. The cover protects the Miix 520's 12.2-inch, full HD (1,920 by 1,080) screen when you're not using it, and its Pogo-style connector magnetically detaches when you want to use the device in Tablet mode. The entire package is designed to compete as much with traditional laptops and 2-in-1s as with high-end tablets, especially the 12.9-inch Apple iPad Pro with its optional Smart Keyboard Cover.
With keyboard attached, the Miix 520 weighs 2.65 pounds and measures 0.6 by 11.8 by 8.1 inches (HWD). That's marginally slimmer and lighter than the Miix 510, which is 0.8 inches thick and weighs 2.71 pounds with its keyboard. While you would certainly consider these tablets to be thin and light, neither is as feathery as the lightest conventional notebooks, such as the 2.45-pound HP Spectre 13 or the 2-pound LG Gram 13. They also aren't as thin as conventional tablets; the iPad Pro is 0.27 inches thick, compared with the Miix 520's 0.4-inch thickness without the keyboard. Essentially, you are trading a bit of portability for a lot of flexibility.
And the Miix 520 certainly is flexible. Its keyboard has two magnetized areas, so you can use it flat on a table, or you can prop it up so the keys are positioned at a slight angle to the screen. It's much more versatile than the iPad's Smart Keyboard, for instance, which can only lay flat. Since the Miix 520's keyboard is so thin, you'll notice quite a bit of flex when it's angled, being that the table isn't supporting it, but the keys themselves are the same large, sturdy ones we've come to expect from Lenovo. They're even backlit.
Whether you're using the Miix 520 with or without the keyboard, you can extend the kickstand that's built into the back of the tablet. There are no detents on the attractive watchband-style hinges, which means that you can prop up the tablet at nearly any angle. It's sturdy, too—so sturdy that I noticed almost no screen bounce when I tapped the screen with my fingers or wrote on it using the included Lenovo Active Pen 2. Screen bounce is a common problem with conventional touch-screen laptops.
There is one major advantage of conventional laptops that the Miix 520 can't come close to matching, however: It doesn't comfortably fit on your lap. In fact, when I tried, the stand kept slipping off of my knees as I typed and moused around on the small but accurate multi-touch touchpad, and I had to grab the top of the tablet to keep it from sliding off my lap and onto the floor.
With laptop components and a stand built into a tablet-sized enclosure, it's no wonder that Lenovo had little room left over for ports. All you get is a USB 3.0 port, a USB-C port, an audio input/output jack, and a connector for the power cable. The audio port is located on the right edge, next to the power button and a volume rocker, while the other three ports are on the left edge. That side gets especially crowded when you use the holder for the included Active Pen 2, a plastic tab that plugs into the single USB 3.0 port. Not only must you give up access to the USB 3.0 port when the holder is installed, but when it's holding the pen, it also blocks the power jack and the USB-C port. It's a poor design that has us longing for the strong magnets that hold the Microsoft Surface Pen to the Surface Pro. That's too bad, because the pen itself works flawlessly for sketching and writing on the screen, and you can also use its buttons via a Bluetooth connection for basic navigation within apps.
The Miix 520 itself has both Bluetooth 4.1 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Our review unit, which is the only configuration you can purchase, also comes with a micro SIM card slot tucked beneath the kickstand, although it lacks a cellular modem to take advantage of it. Currently, cellular-equipped versions of the Miix 520 aren't for sale in the US.
The front- and rear-facing cameras on the Miix 520 work fine for casual Skype sessions with family members, although the fixed-focus 5MP front shooter requires you to hold the tablet a set distance from your face for the clearest picture. The speakers are on the lower-left and lower-right sides of the tablet, and deliver the so-so audio that you'd expect from a tablet. Music and voice tracks sound more rich on the iPad Pro.
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Lenovo includes a one-year warranty for the Miix 520.
Our review unit is well-equipped for a tablet. In addition to the eighth-generation Intel Core i5-8250U processor running at 1.6GHz, it also includes 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD. Other midrange and high-end tablets offer similar specs and prices; you can get a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with Apple's A10X processor and 256GB of storage for $899. The Surface Pro is a notable exception here—its $799 entry-level version comes with just 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and a Core m3 processor. A better-configured one is much more expensive; the Surface Pro we tested costs $2,199 and comes with an Intel Core i7-7660U processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD. So it's clear that with the Miix 520, Lenovo is attempting to compete with both Microsoft and Apple by offering more versatility than you can get from the iPad Pro and similar performance you'd expect from a Surface Pro.
Does it succeed? Unequivocally, yes. It outscored its main competitors on nearly all of our synthetic and real-world benchmarking tests. The Miix 520's score of 3,436 on the PCMark 8 benchmark, which spits out a proprietary score to compare videoconferencing, web browsing, and many other common PC tasks, shows just how much Intel's eighth-generation Core processor architecture has improved. It's leaps and bounds ahead of the sixth-gen Core i5 that powers the Miix 510 (2,820), the seventh-gen Core i7 that powers the HP Spectre x2 (2,865) and it's even faster than the Microsoft Surface Pro (3,032).
OK, you might be saying, but the Surface Pro is for professionals, so it probably performs better on specialized tasks such as image editing and video transcoding, right? Wrong. The Miix 520 significantly outscored the Surface Pro on our Handbrake video-encoding test (1 minute and 18 seconds vs. 2:16) and the Cinebench 3D rendering benchmark (606 vs. 407), and nearly matched it on our collection of Photoshop image-editing tasks (3:20 vs. 3:15). And don't forget that the Surface Pro configuration referenced here has double the memory and is more than $1,000 costlier than the Miix 520.
There are two minor downsides to the Miix 520's configuration (well, three, if you count its dismal gaming performance, but no Windows tablet offers acceptable gaming graphics performance). At 7 hours and 32 minutes, its battery life is much shorter than what you'd expect from conventional ultraportable laptops, some of which push 20 hours. That's a byproduct of putting high-powered components into a tablet; its competitors, including the Surface Pro, offer roughly the same battery life. Secondly, we noticed clearly audible fan noise when performing processor-intensive tasks, such as streaming video from a website. The fanless iPad Pro has a clear advantage here.
An Affordable Surface Alternative
With the IdeaPad Miix 520, Lenovo succeeds in its mission to offer an affordable Windows tablet that combines the best features of the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro. Not only is it a great midrange tablet, but if you can look past a few minor blemishes like fan noise and a clumsy pen, the Miix 520 could even be a better choice than the Surface Pro if you're a cost-conscious creative professional seeking a powerful, thin, and light design tool. If your budget allows, though, you can just as easily justify the Surface Pro's additional expense, especially if you appreciate Microsoft's excellent build quality and can make use of the company's superior pen.
About the Author
As a hardware analyst, Tom tests and reviews laptops, peripherals, and much more at PC Labs in New York City. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a news reporter for PCMag in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where he rode in several self-driving cars and witnessed the rise and fall of many startups. Before that, he worked for PCMag's sister site, Computer Shopper, where he occasionally dunked waterproof hard drives in glasses of water. In his spare time, he's written on topics as diverse as Borneo's rain forests, Middle Eastern airlines, and big data's role in presidential elections. A graduate of Middlebury College, Tom also has a master's degree in journalism and French Studies from New York University. Follow him on Twitter @branttom.
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