When Lenovo announced a pair of Android tablets this summer, we didn't even pretend it was the IdeaPad K1 we were most jazzed about. Sure, it was exciting to see Lenovo enter the Android tablet market on any terms, but it was the ThinkPad Tablet that set our curious minds rolling. There was the design, for one -- an obvious homage to those black, red-nubbed laptops with the same name. It has personality, one that's inextricably tied to Lenovo's laptop know-how. It offers a full-sized USB port, an SD slot, 1080p output, a 3G SIM and a slew of accessories that includes a dock, pen and keyboard folio case. It's the kind of tablet we don't review all that often: one that might actually make for some painless productivity on the road.

As you can imagine, we've been waiting months to learn more, and if your tweets, comments and emails are any indication, so have you. Well, wait no more, friends. We've been spending almost a week with one and have oh-so much to say. So what are you waiting for? Meet us past the break, won't you?
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Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet review

Lenovo

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet

Pros

  • Full-sized USB port and SD slot, 1080p output
  • Offers remote control features for IT managers
  • Accepts pen input -- a rarity for Android tablets

Cons

  • Bulky design, display isn't always responsive
  • Sluggish performance, long boot time
  • Handwriting recognition software isn't very precise
Summary

The ThinkPad Tablet's pen input, port selection and security features don't quite make up for its poky performance and not-so-responsive display.


Look and feel


The first time we saw the ThinkPad Tablet, back in July, we were struck by its odd proportions. It wasn't just that this thing was on the plump side (after all, most slates with a full-sized USB port are). No, this tablet was simply... outsized. At 10. 3 x 7.2 x 0.6 inches (260.4 x 181.7 x 14mm), it's both taller and wider than the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (it measures 10.1 x 6.9 x .34 inches). On paper, that gulf might seem trivial, but the unusual shape was the first thing we noticed. Check the comparison above if you don't believe us!

That, and its heft. At 1.58 pounds (715 grams), the ThinkPad Tablet feels like the serious productivity slate it claims to be. Because of the extra width, we found ourselves making an effort not to type in portrait mode, since the weight distribution felt particularly imbalanced. Fortunately, even though we felt some stretch in our thumbs while typing in landscape mode, we were still able to do so with relative ease, and discovered that holding the tablet that way made way more sense ergonomically.

This tablet's heft is also offset, in part, by the fact that it's generally a well made device. And if you're the kind of person who already finds ThinkPads' red nubs and boxy chassis endearing, you might even call it handsome. The back side has a nice, soft finish -- one of many ways in which the ThinkPad Tablet borrows design elements from the laptops with the same name. The lid's also stamped with not one, but two logos -- metal Lenovo and ThinkPad insignias, placed catty-corner to each other. As an added flourish, the "i" in "ThinkPad" glows red when the tablet is powered on.


Yet another thing that makes this tablet visually striking: a row of four physical buttons, which line the bottom of the screen when you holding the tablet in portrait mode with the front-facing camera up top. These include one to lock the screen orientation, a browser launcher, a backward navigation key and your requisite home button. Alas, they're stiff -- very hard to press -- and we eventually gave up on our efforts to get used to them and simply stuck with the touchscreen. It's a shame, really, since that tactile experience could have been yet another way for Lenovo to hearken back to the experience of using a ThinkPad laptop.

Taking a tour around the device, you'll also find a plethora of ports sitting just below that row of physical buttons. These include a door covering an SD reader and a 3G SIM card slot, along with an exposed docking connector, micro-USB port, mini-HDMI socket (1080p capable) and a headphone jack. On the opposite end (the other short edge), you'll find a volume rocker, along with a slot for the optional pen (much more on that in a moment). Moving along to the long edges, you've got a lone USB 2.0 port on one side, hidden behind a neat little sliding door, with a power / lock button rounding out the opposite side.

Pen input


Like the HTC Flyer, the ThinkPad Tablet uses N-Trig's DuoSense digitizer to allow for both pen and touch input. Also like the Flyer, the pen is sold separately, though in this case it comes for a slightly (keyword: slightly) less insulting price of $30. In a cute touch, Lenovo topped off the pen with a red cap -- a loving throwback to the signature pointing stick you'll find on any ThinkPad notebook. Inside the box, you'll also find two replaceable tips, so tiny you could easily toss them out with the packaging if you're not careful. It also includes a single AAAA battery, which you insert by screwing off the red top. Rounding out the lot, there's a thin string you can use to tether it to the tablet.

As far as pre-installed apps go, there's not much you can do with the pen beyond the native note-taking app, aptly named Notes Mobile. You can also mark up PDFs and download drawing and alternative note-taking apps in Android Market, but it's best if you know what to look for, since key words such as "notes" yield results that include apps designed for the general pool of Android tablets in general, and not just ones with N-Trig DuoSense displays. (Lenovo's own App Shop, which we'll discuss more in a bit, misses an opportunity to curate a selection of pen-optimized apps.)

When you launch Notes Mobile, the first thing you'll see are a selection of different notebooks. One of them is merely a tutorial, but you can, if you wish, add books as you please, designating a new one for each client you meet, or conference call you have to take.


The display responds smoothly to pen input, so you won't have to bear down as you're writing. Keep in mind that it's not a pressure-sensitive pen, either, so gripping the pen tightly and applying lots of pressure isn't going to change your signature in the slightest. In many ways, too, the software works intuitively. You can circle passages to either delete them or export them as text or an image. (Alas, you can't change the font or text color that way, though there are icons at the top of the screen that let you adjust these settings before you start writing new text.) You can erase words by scribbling through them, though you can also tap on an eraser icon at the top of the screen and just wipe that over the page. Helpfully, there are also undo and redo buttons up top, along with a new page button on the bottom.

The problem is, the handwriting recognition software just isn't precise enough. Even when we printed large, carefully written letters, the app misconstrued our words. We wrote "Go Home," it came back with "bottom." Two attempts at "Stop it" resulted in "Stop tt" and "Siip lt." To get the best results, we had to make a concerted effort to write legibly, either in printed letters or the kind of meticulous penmanship we honed back in elementary school -- which, you know, is totally how our writing looks as we're scrambling to keep up with speakers during meetings and lectures. Anyhow, hopefully this is something Lenovo can remedy through an update.

Display and sound


We'll elaborate on this more in a bit, but the ThinkPad Tablet's 10.1-inch (1280 x 800) IPS, Gorilla Glass display isn't the most responsive in the land. But in the meantime, how does it look? Indeed, we enjoyed comfortable viewing angles from the sides and also with the tablet placed on a tablet in front of us -- and this was with an overhead light shining above, mind you. Still, even with the brightness pumped to the max, we weren't able to make out much while squinting at the screen outside on a cloudy day (not an unlikely scenario, especially if you hold out for one of the 3G-enabled versions). By the by, when it comes to media playback, you can play files off of SD cards and USB drives.

As for that lone speaker, the sound quality is pleasant, though expect it to sound faint even with the volume cranked to its top setting.

Cameras


We know, we know. Tablet cameras are almost always disappointing and it feels like every time we review a new model, we proclaim its set of lenses to be the worst we've ever seen. So forgive us if we sound like a broken record, but the ThinkPad Tablet's five megapixel rear-facing cam is particularly bad. It just can't seem to do anything right. Even when we an our subjects were still and we chose relatively easy lighting conditions, our shots almost never looked sharp. Throughout our gallery, you'll notice a softness in the image quality -- not just in low light, but in pics taken on a slightly cloudy day. In some cases, the background is sharper than our intended subjects in the foreground. As for two megapixel camera tucked on the front side, we thought our shots were respectable, considering the lens' low resolution, but thanks to clumsy ergonomics there's no reason to use the front camera instead of your smartphone for stills.
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ThinkPad Tablet sample shots (rear-facing camera)

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ThinkPad Tablet sample shots (front-facing camera)


When you flip from still photos to 720p video, it's more of the same: not-exactly-sharp footage with some visible ghosting as cars and other fast-moving objects rumble on by.


Performance

Quadrant Nenamark 1 /2
Linpack (single thread / multi thread)
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 1,635 42.2 fps / 19.1 fps 32.28 MFLOPS / 61.76 MFLOPS
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 1,448 30.1 fps / 19.6 fps 32.77 MFLOPS / 61.33 MFLOPS
Acer Iconia Tab A100 Would not run 57 fps / 24.5 fps 28.38 MFLOPS / 55.36 MFLOPS

If you recall, we ended our time with the IdeaPad K1 feeling underwhelmed. The performance courtesy of NVIDIA's Tegra 2 SoC was poky and the display didn't always respond to our taps and swipes (to say nothing of the bulky, toy-like design). We hoped that as a higher-end product -- you know, the one carrying the storied ThinkPad name -- this one would be different, more polished. In retrospect, that was a stretch: Either Lenovo knows how to make a tablet or it doesn't. It might not surprise you, then, to know that we experienced similar issues this time around. Once again, the display screen wasn't always responsive, and we often found ourselves tapping multiple times before anything happened. In general, too, the tablet felt slow to open and minimize apps, regardless of whether we tapped the screen or pressed the physical buttons lining the lower bezel. Other times, the tablet simply wouldn't flip its screen orientation, even as we rotated the tablet in our hands. It's glitches like these that make the tablet feel buggy, unfinished.

For the sake of consistency, we ran our usual raft of Android benchmarks, but alas, it's near-impossible to draw a firm conclusion from these numbers alone. In general, we're quick to point out that benchmarks don't tell the whole story, but in this case, the numbers just aren't consistent. Its score of 1,635 in Quadrant bests other Tegra 2-packing tablets such as the Toshiba Thrive and the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which notched scores of 1,584 and 1,546, respectively. On the other hand, its score of 948 in Vellamo, the mobile browsing test, was lower than what we've seen, while its Linpack and Nenamark results were either impressive or lackluster, depending on the comparison. Meanwhile, it took a full minute to cold boot -- something that takes other Tegra 2 tabs such as the Thrive and 10.1 about 20 seconds (Lenovo says this normal, and not an aberration on the part of our test unit). However you parse these motley numbers, what we do know is that thanks to the unresponsive display and wonky accelorometer alone, the experience just isn't as smooth as what you'll enjoy on other slates.

Battery Life
Tablet Battery Life
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad 9:33
HP TouchPad 8:33
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Archos 101 7:20
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
Toshiba Thrive 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Acer Iconia Tab A100 4:54

The ThinkPad tablet packs a 3,250mAh battery promising up to 8.7 hours of juice on WiFi. Indeed, it lasted eight hours on the mark in our battery test (movie looping, WiFi on) before powering down. That's on the lower end of average for a 10-incher, if you look at our chart above, though it's at least a good hour and a half longer than the Toshiba Thrive. Particularly given that the Xoom, K1 and TouchPad all beat it by about half an hour or less, the ThinkPad Tablet's runtime seems respectable, though not great.

Also! The ThinkPad Tablet charges via USB. Once we realized we could charge using a spare USB 2.0 port on our laptop, that immediately rose to become one of our singular favorite features about the tablet. The best part is that you can do it with a regular 'ole micro-USB cable, unlike the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which requires a proprietary cable to charge via USB.

Software


The software experience on the ThinkPad Tablet is exactly the same as on the IdeaPad K1 -- meaning, it's Android 3.1 with mild skinning and a not-so-modest collection of widgets. For starters, Lenovo took the back, home and open windows buttons in the lower left corner of the screen and painted them an opaque white. The effect is somewhat cartoonish but more importantly, it clashes with the stock Honeycomb clock in the lower right corner, which still glows blue. We still say it's not something that needed fixing, but at least all of the other software tweaks you'll see here are reversible.

Also, for what it's worth, Lenovo tweaked that row of icons so that in addition to being able to tap to see what apps you have open, you can hit an "X" mark to close them. If most of the software tweaks you'll see here are gimmicks, this built-in task killer, at least, is one we think even seasoned Honeycomb users have to appreciate.

From here on out, it's widgets, widgets, widgets. Namely, the huge one taking up a good swath of the main home screen. This guy, dubbed Lenovo Launch Zone, has four so-called zones, better described as customizable shortcuts. By default, these zones include ones for watching, reading, listening and checking email, and there's also a browser shortcut tucked there, too. From this widget, you can also jump to system settings, along with another settings menu governing the zones themselves. Here, you can change the color scheme of the widget, as well as change the shortcuts. In the case of "Read" and those other task-oriented ones, it means changing what app is tied to it, so you don't have to go straight into Amazon Kindle if you don't want to.
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Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet (screenshots)


Want some more shortcuts with your shortcuts? Well, there's also a carousel of six favorites at the bottom of the screen (this would be the icon that looks like a talk bubble). Once you open the carousel, it'll pop up in the low right corner of the screen. These, too, are easy to customize -- just tap the settings icon to start dragging and dropping your favorite apps into the list. To be honest, we prefer this to Launch Zone, just because it's less obtrusive. It's only in the way when we're actively scrolling through favorites. When we're not, it's nothing more than an icon at the button of the screen. As it is, you'll be greeted by both when you turn on the tablet for the first time. It's a cluttered setup, to be sure, and we're less forgiving of it now that we're reviewing the ThinkPad Tablet -- a slate for bona fide techies. Anyone buying this knows his or her way around Honeycomb, and will likely find this kind of hand-holding patronizing, unnecessary. It doesn't work here, even though we can see why Lenovo decided to slap it on the K1, a tablet that's decidedly more consumery. In any case, if you're as annoyed as we are, you can just drag and drop the whole launcher into the trash bin and call it a day.

Moving along, Lenovo also included its SocialTouch app, which aggregates friends' Facebook and Twitter updates, along with your email and calendar appointments. It's a neat idea in theory, except that there's no way to jump from day to day, so it's essentially like reading your emails and meeting reminders in the form of a Twitter timeline. Expect the important stuff to get lost in the morass.

Apps


Like the K1 before it, the ThinkPad Tablet comes with a boatload of apps pre-installed -- a list that includes Absolute, AccuWeather, Amazon Kindle, Angry Birds HD, ArcSync (along with 2GB of free storage), Docs to Go, the IM client eBuddy, five card games, a 30-day trial of McAfee Security, Movie Studio, Netflix, ooVoo, Places, PokeTalk, PrinterShare and. Sound Recorder.

As a treat for the beleaguered IT guy, Lenovo also threw in Citrix Receiver, allowing users to access virtualized desktops and company-required apps. Meanwhile, Lenovo's own Mobility Manager app gives the IT department a fair amount of control, letting it remotely wipe the data, set up data encryption change the password and monitor failed log-in attempts. On top of all that, Lenovo included its own "USB File Copy" app for trading files among the internal flash storage, an external memory card or a PC or hard drive connected via USB. That file manager is welcome, and worked just fine to copy a movie from our SD card to the tablet's internal memory. Intuitively, it'll launch automatically when you insert a SB drive or SD card, or when you connect the keyboard folio case (more on that later), which saves you the trouble of digging through the app menu to open it.

In addition to the apps it bundled and the troves you'll find in Android Market, Lenovo's also pushing its own storefront, dubbed Lenovo App Shop. The selection hasn't gotten much beefier since we reviewed the K1 almost two months ago but more importantly, there's nothing here that you can't also find in Android Market. For low-tech users considering the K1, perhaps, that kind of curated experience could be a relief. But again, anyone considering pulling the trigger on a ThinkPad Tablet can navigate Android Market just fine, and probably know what they're looking for anyway. Still, IT managers can customize the store so that it only shows corporate-approved apps, so companies, at least, might appreciate a curated experience, even if end users don't.

Configuration options and accessories


For the purposes of this review, we checked out the $569 32GB model, though you can also opt for a 16GB version ($499) or a 64GB number ($699). Lenovo's also selling a $60 dock with USB 2.0, micro-USB, HDMI, headphone and line-out ports, along with that $30 pen we've been using to practice our cursive.

If you've been following along, though, you know the most intriguing add-on of them all is the $100 keyboard folio case. It is what it sounds like, folks, and it's awesome. What you have is a fold-out case with a built-in, USB-powered keyboard. What can we say? The keys are just delicious to type on, and really do evoke the experience of tying on a ThinkPad (a ThinkPad Edge with a chiclet keyboard, perhaps, but a ThinkPad just the same). There's also a red optical trackpad in the center designed to take the place of Lenovo's signature nub, and it, too, is a pleasure to use. That feature alone transformed the way we interacted with the tablet; particularly since it's so reliable and comfortable to use, it's worlds better than combining some third-party keyboard with a standalone mouse. It wasn't until we wanted to scroll down through webpages that the spell broke slightly, as we needed to take our finger off the trackpad and either use the down arrow key or reach up and touch the screen.

One last note before we stop gushing: as far as cases go, this one's notably well made. It has three incline settings, and we love how the tablet locks into each with a satisfying click (ditto for the way you can fold the case's latch underneath itself so that it doesn't flop around in front of the screen). In a smart move, Lenovo left the ports exposed so that you can charge the tablet without removing it from the folio (the door covering the SD slot will be obscured, though). It's ironic, really, what's going on here: Lenovo managed to craft a nearly perfect accessory for a decidedly imperfect tablet. It just goes to show that Lenovo's at its best when it makes traditional computers -- or, at least, things that make for a computer-like experience. Whether you get the ThinkPad Tablet is a question you'll have to answer for yourself, but if you do, we highly recommend ponying up for the case -- it'll add value in a way the pen doesn't necessarily.
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Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet review (keyboard folio case)


As for that SIM slot next to the SD card reader, Lenovo has yet to announce a subsidized version here in the states, though it assures us it'll be announced next month for AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. At some later date, you'll also be able to buy a 3G-ready version with a Gobi radio and roll with whatever SIM cards you already happen to have. If you buy today, though, yours most certainly won't have that inside, even though the SIM card slot will still be there, hanging out next to the SD reader.

The competition

If you've been feeling tempted by the ThinkPad Tablet, we'd assume at least one of the following two things about you: one, you're a ThinkPad fanboy (or maybe even a fangirl). Secondly, you're digging that full-sized USB port, SD slot and 1080p output. Further, we're going to assume you don't want an iPad 2 or even a Galaxy Tab 10.1. Why? Because they've been out for ages and you would have pulled the trigger by now if it were really right for you. We're also betting you're aware of the various Win 7 slates on the market, and already decided to pass. Oh, and one more point: if having full-sized ports weren't so appealing, you might well have opted for a thinner, lighter tablet with longer battery life. With us so far? Alright.

And if it's those full-sized ports you're really after, you've once again got precious few options. There is, of course, the Transformer, which lacks the SD card slot (and the obnoxious software load). Of course, it too, has the keyboard thing covered, thanks to a dock that does triple duty, extending battery life by seven hours and adding an SD slot and two USB 2.0 sockets. Oh, and the 16GB tablet costs just $399, meaning even with the dock ($150 MSRP; $120 on Amazon) it costs little more than the bare-bones ThinkPad Tablet. All things considered, then, we'd rather have a Transformer, though we'd still recommend the ThinkPad Tablet to folks who see the pen as non-negotiable.

There's also the Toshiba Thrive, which is aggressively priced with a starting price of $429 (that's the 8GB version). It, too, has a full-sized USB port and SD slot, though it does the ThinkPad Tablet one better by adding a full-sized HDMI socket. It's even decently fast and has a more responsive screen than the ThinkPad Tablet, which makes the choice not-so clear-cut. Then again, the ThinkPad Tablet offers superior build quality and almost two extra hours of runtime. It's a tough call, though for what it's worth, we'd sooner pick the Transformer over the Thrive, too.

Lastly, let's not forget about the Acer Iconia Tab A500, which also packs a USB port, but not a full-sized SD slot. It's arguably sleeker than the ThinkPad Tablet, but it's hardly pinch-thin, and its battery life is lackluster. This wouldn't be our first choice either.

Wrap-up


Back when we reviewed the IdeaPad K1, we came away feeling disappointed. Our verdict, in a sentence, was that the tablet was okay, but we'd rather see what the geekier, more fully featured ThinkPad Tablet had to offer. If anything, though, reviewing it brought on a serious case of déjà vu. Again, we were confronted with a not-so-responsive display, sluggish performance and the same hit-or-miss software tweaks. After testing Lenovo's first two Android tablets, it seems clear that the problem isn't a saturated market, where decent Honeycomb slates can go unappreciated. No, the problem is that right now, at least, Lenovo just doesn't make tablets with the same panache that it does computers.

That's not to say the ThinkPad Tablet is a failure. It lasts through eight hours of video playback, offers full-sized ports, packs a high-quality IPS display and supports pen input (however imperfect the experience actually is) -- all while paying homage to the ThinkPad line's storied design. It also offers lots of options for IT managers and is offered with a pitch-perfect keyboard case -- two ways in which the tablet makes good use of Lenovo's ThinkPad know-how. Particularly if you've been looking for something with a stylus, it's tough to argue with it, as the flawed writing experience still beats having none at all. And we can see where businesses might be willing to overlook the ho-hum performance in favor of those remote control features. But if it's just the SD slot and USB port you're after, you could easily get the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer and dock and spend about $50 less than you would on the ThinkPad Tablet-plus-keyboard-case combo. And if you don't even care about the ports, well, there's not enough reason to plunk your hard-earned greenbacks down on something this poky.