NEW YORK — 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 9? Or 7? Or 5? 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) 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 4 million standard Windows programs. It has two USB jacks, four nicely powerful speakers, a Web cam 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.
In this position, Windows 8 fades away. In its place is a new software world called Aura, written by Lenovo, especially tailored for tabletop computing.
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.
For example, there’s an air hockey game. Lenovo supplies two or four small plastic handles, which you’re supposed to place on the glass and slide around like regular air hockey paddles. Because the puck is virtual, displayed only on the screen, it can perform stunts like emitting a fiery trail as it ricochets.
And that’s the secret to the Horizon’s appeal. It’s so big, two or four people can gather around it. (Let’s see you try that with an iPad Mini!)
The Monopoly app is good old Monopoly, except that the software does all the math for you, draws cards for you, and even moves your game piece around the board for you. You may consider that automation a horrifying step into laziness, or you may call it a relief from Monopoly monotony.
You also get a pair of small plastic suction-cup joystick handles. You stick them directly onto the indicated spots on the glass when playing certain games, like the very, very odd “shoot a net at the fish” game. Rather slick engineering, that.
In all, there are nine preinstalled games, each chosen for its ability to exploit the huge touch screen and multiple-player setup. In the roulette game, for example, you spin the wheel with your finger. In Texas hold ’em poker, you can peel up a corner of one of your facedown cards to peek at it.
Another spoke of the Aura wheel contains educational activities for young children, like coloring book apps and number writing apps. There’s something called StageLight, a sequencing program that lets you build up chunks of music, layer by layer.
That’s just the iceberg tip, however. There’s a fledgling Lenovo app store. Even more intriguingly, a converter program called BlueStackslets you download and install any of thousands of apps made for Android phones and tablets.
Bottom line: You won’t be hurting for software to run.
So what is the Horizon? A PC or a tablet? The argument could go on all night.
One thing the Horizon certainly is, though, is novel. The concept really is fresh. And it neatly dispenses with the common refrain that electronic entertainment encourages isolation and represents a step down from the olden days, when families gathered around the coffee table for game nights.
Sadly, game nights around the Horizon may not become as much of a tradition as the old board games made of wood or cardboard. First, because as clever as the Aura world is, the games are a little laggy. You can get a little frustrated playing the air hockey game. It’s just not as responsive as you’d like. Often, that sluggishness really saps some of the joy.
Second, because even if it acts like a huge tablet, the Horizon isn’t portable like a tablet. Your children won’t want to play with this thing in the back seat for long car rides, unless they’re sumo wrestlers.
Fortunately, if the tabletop novelty ever does wear off, the Horizon is always happy to pop back up into its original form as a perfectly adequate Windows PC. And it doesn’t cost much more than its upright-only rivals. So if you were considering one of those all-in-ones, buying the Horizon instead is almost a no-brainer.