Let's do a roll call, shall we? Who doesn't have a Honeycomb tablet to shill in the states? Acer, ASUS, Motorola, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba all have something to their names, with Dell possibly bringing its China-only Dell Streak 10 Pro here too. Until now, Lenovo was one glaring exception. The company already had a head start selling the LePad tablet in China, but it was only last month that it announced not one, but two Honeycomb slates for the US market: the IdeaPad K1 for mainstream consumers, and the ThinkPad Tablet for business users (and a fair share of geeks, too). Now, we could easily roll our eyes at how saturated the market for Android tablets is becoming, but Lenovo isn't just any old OEM. The brand has won such an avid following that we bet the company could have essentially slapped its name on a plain-Jane black slab and waited for loyal fans to line up.
In fact, though, you're in for a bit more than name recognition. The K1 goes after mainstream consumers with a winsome design, sure, but also a software package designed to make Honeycomb easier to use, and to help ensure that flummoxed, low-tech users don't have to spend too much time downloading apps out of the box. What's more, it ships with Android 3.1 and has a two-cell battery that promises up to ten hours of battery life. Oh, and the 32GB model rings in $499, undercutting the 32GB iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 by $100. But is that enough for it to stand out? Let's see.
Even though this tablet falls under Lenovo's IdeaPad brand, which isn't nearly as iconic as ThinkPad, it still looks like something Lenovo would make, a distant cousin to all those laptops you know and love -- not to mention, the LePad. Although the K1 comes in basic black, it's also available in white and red (our personal favorite) -- a trio of colors that subconsciously invokes other Lenovo products. Though the body is made of matte aluminum, there's a glossy panel on the back that sits off center, taking up about three quarters of the back side. We didn't fully appreciate that multi-layered design when we first saw the tablet last month, but now that we think about it a bit more, the effect of seeing the glossy piece sitting atop the smooth metal is visually interesting in a way that's playful, but not tacky.
At 1.65 pounds (0.7kg), the K1 is heavier than most tablets, and on par with the 1.66-pound Toshiba Thrive and HP's 1.65-pound TouchPad. It's also chunky at 10.39 x 7.44 x 0.52 inches (264 x 189 x 13.3mm), though not as meaty as the Thrive, which measures .62 inches deep. In any case, it feels solid in the hands, and perhaps not as dense as you'd expect. Overall, the build quality is up to snuff, though it's not exactly premium either. We say that mainly because that back cover is a veritable fingerprint magnet, and your digits might well slip on the slick surface. As chintzy as the Thrive is, its textured back at least makes it easier to grip.
If you hold the K1 in landscape mode, you'll see the 2 megapixel front-facing camera sits discreetly in the upper bezel, while the 5 megapixel rear cam sits on the back side, tucked in a corner. That back camera has an ovular shape and a thin metal ring around it -- a combination that surely helps make the K1 look as sporty as it does (the ruby red paint doesn't hurt either). We found, too, that the camera is placed high enough on the back lid that you're unlikely to obscure the lens with your finger while shooting. If you keep imagining for a minute that you're cradling the tablet that way, you'll find a power button, twin volume keys, a screen lock switch, and a microSD slot on the left side. Annoyingly, the microSD slot comes with a metal cover that you can only pop out by inserting a paper clip into a tiny hole next to it -- that's right, just like a tray-loading optical drive. Quaint, huh?
On the bottom, meanwhile, there's a 30-pin docking connector, which you'll use to connect the tab to the bundled AC adapter or your PC via an included USB cable. (Or you can plug it into the compatible dock that Lenovo's selling separately for $45.) Also on the bottom, there's a micro-HDMI socket and a 3.5mm headphone jack. And, trippiest of all, Lenovo tossed in a home button on the right side of the bezel (that could below the screen, if you hold it in portrait mode). It's so blatantly iPad-esque, and frankly, it's something that most Android tablets have not borrowed from Steve Jobs' magical slate. And we can see why. If you're accustomed to Android, then you're most likely not used to pressing a physical button when you want to return to the home screen. As it is, Lenovo told us it's going after mainstream consumers by pre-installing lots of popular apps and adding a skin on top of Honeycomb that's supposed to make it more user-friendly. We have to wonder if there's a similar rationale behind the home button, if maybe it's meant to make iPhone users feel more at home with their first Android product. If that's the case, fair enough, though having a physical home button and a soft one onscreen feels redundant.
You can use that touch button as an optical trackpad for limited gestures, but it works so poorly that you can't fairly call it a shortcut. We were able to swipe between home screens, for instance, but the movement looked janky onscreen and it took us a few tries to pull the gesture off. (You'll know you're on the right track if two LED lights near the button start glowing white.) We had more luck swiping to the left to navigate backward in the browser, though be warned that you'll have to apply more pressure to the button than you would the display.
Then again, there's at least one practical use case for that home button. The K1 makes it easy to take screenshots -- normally, a big bowl of tedium for Android users. Similar to what you'd do with an iPhone or iPad, just press the home key and the volume down button at the same time to take a snapshot of what's on the screen. Not a huge selling point, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless.
Display and sound
The 10.1-inch (1280 x 800) display has viewing angles comparable to other tablets we've seen, which is to say you can get away with watching a movie from the side or with the tab face-up on a table, but the glare from the screen might make it a not-so-pleasant experience. And while the resolution is on par with pretty much any other 10-inch slate, the panel doesn't seem quite as bright as some others. The Galaxy Tab 10.1's screen, for instance, has the same size and resolution screen, but it's noticeably more vibrant. The K1's looks murky by comparison.
The small speakers, which sit on the back side of the device, deliver decently loud sound, though as you might expect, music has a tinny, metallic quality to it. Still, it's no worse than other tablets on the market (or some laptops, for that matter).
Performance and battery life
Like so many other Honeycomb tablets, the K1 packs a 1GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 SoC. Mainstream consumers might look at us cockeyed if we told them the performance could be zippier -- for those folks, the performance should be plenty fast. But more discerning techies will likely notice some lags when minimizing and opening apps. The screen was also often slow to switch orientations as we flipped from landscape mode to portrait and back, and more than once the display was unresponsive, leaving us tapping multiple times before the tablet did what we wanted it to. In general, we tend to say that all Tegra 2 tablets have some obvious performance limitations, but the K1 felt pokier than others we've tested. Indeed, its score of 1,448 in the Quadrant benchmark falls short of the 1,546 and 1,584 that the Thrive and 10.1 notched. And while we try not to put too much stock in benchmarks, we think these numbers are telling, given our anecdotal experience with the device.
Also, not to beat a dead horse, but at some point during our testing, we took a break to play with the 10.1, and immediately breathed a sigh of relief. It's hard to tell how much of that was the 10.1's solid-yet-lighter build, the bright display, or the quick performance, but boy, did we miss it. The 10.1 is markedly faster, and the difference becomes painfully obvious when you play with the two side by side. The 10.1 is quicker to respond to taps and swipes, its screen rotates faster, and it opens and minimizes apps more briskly.
32.77 MFLOPS (single thread) / 61.33 MFLOPS (multi-thread)
The K1 has a 2-cell, 7400mAh battery that promises up to ten hours of battery life -- the same claim made by the iPad 2. In our standard battery rundown test (movie looping, WiFi on), it lasted eight hours and twenty minutes, matching the Motorola Xoom and falling about ten minutes short of the TouchPad. But it doesn't approach the Galaxy Tab 10.1's ten hours nor the iPad 2's ten and a half, which seems like a problem given that the K1 is markedly chunkier. If a tablet's going to be bigger, we want it to make up for it with longer battery life and / or more robust performance. The K1 doesn't quite do that on the longevity front, though it did have a much better showing than the Thrive, which lasted just six and a half hours in the same test.
Lenovo IdeaPad K1
Apple iPad 2
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook
Samsung Galaxy Tab
ASUS EeePad Transformer
Ran a different test
The K1 has a 5 megapixel camera in the back and a 2 megapixel one on the front -- pretty standard fare for tablets these days. To tell the truth, we never have high hopes for tablet cameras -- they too often feel like an afterthought, and almost all of them struggle in dimly and harshly lit shooting conditions. The K1 is no exception, though we had a rougher time getting crisp images than with other tabs we've tested (in retrospect, we got pretty spoiled by the HTC Flyer / EVO View 4G). If you peek at our gallery of pics taken with the rear camera, you'll see that we sometimes had to try multiple times to get a usable macro shot. Even then, we couldn't get that close to our subject and the background was often blown out to heavenly whiteness, as you can see in that photo above. It's a shame, because the colors were fairly true-to-life, if sometimes lacking in punch.
The K1's 720p video isn't half bad. You can see some faint ghosting as cars and other moving objects hurdle across the screen, but the motion is actually fairly fluid.
The K1 comes with Android 3.1 on board, and though Lenovo has put its own spin on the OS, the customization is at least pretty moderate as far as skins go. The usual back and home icons are white, not blue, which looks alright by itself, but then you notice that the navigation bar doesn't match the clock in the lower right corner, which still glows blue.
Beyond that, the biggest cosmetic change is a five-way app launcher sitting smack dab in the middle of the home screen. By default, it includes shortcuts to email and the browser, along with more task-oriented icons labeled "Watch," "Listen," and "Read." Now, before you start getting resentful that Lenovo's trying to tell you what to do, know that you can customize those shortcuts so that "Watch" redirects to YouTube instead of, say, Gallery. Or, you can scrap those preset categories all together and add shortcuts to any other application instead. The concept kind of reminds us of what Dell was trying to accomplish with Dell Dock, which seems to assume that a row of larger, glossier icons is easier to use than the Start Menu, the traditional Windows desktop, or even pinned programs in Windows 7. In either case, that extra option isn't annoying so much as superfluous.
That centerpiece also includes a shortcut to the tablet's settings -- another design choice aimed at low-tech users who'd rather not dig around the apps menu. Some of us have parents who might prefer a dumbed-down tablet, though we're not convinced they'd know what to do in the settings once they got there, so this could be a moot point for some people. Regardless, Lenovo's skin is pretty harmless -- it's not like the company mucked around with the stock Honeycomb keyboard or loaded any widgets you can't remove. You can even delete that conspicuous launcher if you like, though you'll have to tap through an "are you sure?" dialog box first.
The launcher also offers the option of so-called Lenovo Messages, including tips for using the device and -- buzz word alert -- "special offers." Just heed our advice and don't enable them. What you'll see are ads, and who needs those in a product you are most certainly not getting for free?
By the way, when we talk about widgets, we mean AccuWeather, and also SocialTouch, an app created by Lenovo that at first glance looks like a skinned version of Google Calendar. Actually, though, it aggregates Facebook and Twitter updates, in addition to email and calendar entries. On the whole, it's nice to be able to scroll through it all at once, though we do have some suggestions: one, linking your Twitter account is probably a mistake -- at least if the luminaries you follow are as update-happy as the people in our circles. Also, SocialTouch has a demarcation indicating when you're crossing into emails / appointments / tweets / what-have-you from a different day, and at the top of each day's list there's a stack of calendar appointments. Since these appointments live in that specific place, you'll shove them off-screen as soon as you start scrolling. We think the software would have been smarter if the app kept these calendar entries locked in their own pane.
Look closer and you'll see a few more tweaks to garden-variety Honeycomb. For one thing, this take on the OS makes it easy to kill apps you forgot you had open. Lenovo added an "X" mark to the vertical, pop-up menu of open apps, allowing you to shutter them in a pinch. Also in that row, there's an icon that looks like a talk bubble but is actually yet another app launcher. This one presents a select few favorites in a carousel in the lower right corner of the screen -- a list that you can customize by dragging and dropping favorites.
Depending on your point of view, Lenovo either saddled this thing with bloatware or did you the thoughtful, generous favor of bundling apps you might actually find useful. Out of the box, you'll find AccuWeather, Amazon Kindle, Arcade by Kongregate, 4GB of free storage through ArcSync, the IM client eBuddy, Documents to Go 3.0, File Mgmt., Movie Story, Movie Studio, mSpot and mSpot Movies, Norton Security, ooVoo for video chats, PhotoStudio, PokeTalk, and a raft of games that includes Angry Birds HD, GOF2THD, backgammon, euchre, hearts, solitaire, spades, and NFS Shift. As Toshiba did with the Thrive, Lenovo also threw in the excellent PrinterShare for printing web pages, emails, and photos using a WiFi-enabled printer on the same network.
The tablet also comes with Netflix pre-installed, which lets you stream movies over WiFi, of course, as well as play them on a larger set via the HDMI connection. Alas, if you'll recall, a previous report that certain tablets would be able to store these movies offline as DRM-protected files was untrue.
And what tablet would be complete without its own proprietary app store? As it is, the K1 lets you install apps from unknown sources, but Lenovo has also bundled its aptly named Lenovo App Shop. What you'll find here is a curated experience, with selections dispersed across 13 broad categories (some, such as entertainment, have a bunch of subsections). As with other custom app stores, such as Toshiba's, the selection is limited, with just a single app in some categories. Still, the store is nicely designed, from a splashy home page with featured selections to a drop down menu of categories. The apps themselves look useful, too. A quick perusal brought us VLC Player and RpnCalc, a financial calculator. The thing is, you can download these in Android Market for the same price. The real benefit, as we see it, is that apps might be easier to discover in the App Shop -- a boon for people like our parents who don't have much experience researching and sizing up apps, and who might feel overwhelmed by Android Market's sprawling selection. Somehow, though, we don't think that describes the typical Engadget reader.
As an added twee touch, there's also a social component whereby you can see what your friends are buying, though in order for that to happen they'd also have to be happy Lenovo tablet owners with a penchant for monitoring other people's Golf Solitaire downloads. Womp womp.
Configurations and the competition
Although the K1 will soon ship with 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB of storage, as of this writing only that mid-range version is available. According to Lenovo, the 16GB and 64GB flavors will ship in three to four weeks for $449 and $599, respectively. The company's also been crystal clear that the K1 will eventually make its way to US carriers, though right now we don't know anything about pricing or availability.
And though we haven't reviewed it yet, we suspect the K1 will have some competition from none other than its big brother, the ThinkPad Tablet. This guy's more expensive, with a starting price of $479 for 16GB ($589 for 32GB), plus an extra $30 for the dual digitzer pen. Even so, geeks might prefer its more ThinkPad-y design, complete with a red-tipped stylus, as well as its full-sized USB port and accompanying case that has a USB-powered keyboard built in. Again, we'll reserve judgment for our full review -- for all we know, the ThinkPad Tablet could be a huge dud -- but if we're just talking hype, we can see diehard Lenovo fans getting more amped up about the ThinkPad. The K1 is a less expensive tablet more worthy of mainstream consumers, and according to conversations we've had with Lenovo, that's precisely the split the company was going for.
And then there's, you know, every other Android tab on the market. If Honeycomb is what you're after (and why wouldn't it be?) you'll certainly pay more for either the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, though you'll get longer battery life and slimmer, more compelling designs. The 10.1, if you'll recall, costs $599 for the 32GB model -- a $100 premium -- whereas the 32GB ASUS Eee Pad Transformer also costs $499 without the $150 docking station. (There's also a $399 16GB configuration.) If you're also considering an iPad -- and we suspect many mainstream consumers are -- you'll be making a similar trade-off as you would with the 10.1: it's $100 more expensive, but also offers battery life, along with more sex appeal.
But in addition to talking about our favorite tabs at the moment, we also feel the need to stack up the K1 against other relatively chunky models -- because admit it, you know you're curious. Long story short, the K1 does a half-hearted job of justifying its extra ounces. Its battery life is roughly on par with the HP TouchPad, another thick slate, which means both offer good-but-not-amazing longevity. It's not like either tablet is packing a battery so large it can surpass or even match the ten and a half hours we squeezed out of the iPad 2. Still, the K1's battery life is certainly an improvement over the Thrive's six and a half hours and its build quality is more solid, too. We still say the Thrive is mainly worth it for people who are either sold on the $429 starting price or the fact that it has full-sized HDMI and USB ports and an SD slot. Unless you're dead-set on them, these sockets don't fully make up for its shortcomings. At the same time, when we reviewed the TouchPad we dinged it, in part, for offering a buggy user experience. That simply wasn't the case with the K1, although the TouchPad has since received an update meant to boost both speed and performance.
The IdeaPad K1 is cute, (relatively) affordable, and easy to use, and we know it'll be a sensible choice for some shoppers. We're just not sure that's you, our dear, tech-savvy readers. See, the K1 has two big strengths: one, it's aggressively priced, starting at $449 for 16GB (granted, that version's not on sale, so if you buy today, it's going to be the $499 32GB model). The other major thing the K1 has going for it is simplicity. Lenovo's tweaked Android 3.1 so that settings are easier to find and apps are a cinch to kill. It also comes with an array of popular apps (or bloatware, if you're cynical). Factor in the attractive design, and we can recommend this, particularly for people with budget constraints, or those looking to give a techie gift to a not-so-techie person. Those things aside, the K1 is heavier than most tablets, and doesn't justify its heft with additional ports, extraordinary battery life or even zippy performance. If you didn't want ports anyway, and know your way around Honeycomb without Lenovo's help (thank you very much), why not just get something thinner, faster, and longer-lasting? Or, you know, at least stick around and see how Lenovo's geekier ThinkPad Tablet fares.