With the ThinkPad Tablet, Lenovo distinguishes itself as the first company with two tablets clearly aimed at two different markets. The company did a solid job with its consumer-focused IdeaPad K1, released in midsummer. The ThinkPad Tablet (starting at $499 for a 16GB model, price as of 9/23/2011), like its laptop brethren, has its sights set squarely on business users. And like the ThinkPad laptops, Lenovo largely succeeds in putting together a business-worthy package with its own design, features, and bundled software.
From the outside, the ThinkPad Tablet looks as if it would fit right in with Lenovo’s classic matte black case designs. The back is covered with a soft, slightly rubberized surface; the front bezel is finished off in a piano-black plastic.
The ThinkPad Tablet has a starkly different design from its IdeaPad sibling. It has four physical buttons on the front, situated along the bottom beneath the screen, and optimized for use in portrait orientation. Physical buttons like these are unusual for an Android 3.1 Honeycomb tablet such as this, since Android has all the buttons you need inside its interface.
However, Lenovo not only chose physical buttons for certain functions, but ones that are up front and easy-access, too: rotation lock, Web browser, back, and home. But I found only the home and back buttons of occasional convenience, and even then I didn’t like how my fingers had to work to depress them–they click inward, even though the buttons themselves run to the outer edge of the tablet. The inward click at least mitigates accidentally causing a button click, and soft-touch capacitive buttons are too easy to accidentally tap, but I still would have preferred the cleaner look of a button-free design.
Buttons aren’t the only thing that make this boxy model stand out. It’s also one of the thickest tablets we’ve seen, at a solid 0.57 inch thick. And it measures 10.3 inches long and 7.2 inches wide, making it one of the larger models we’ve seen. By comparison, the svelte Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 measures 10.1 by 6.9 by 0.34 inches. Not surprisingly, the larger dimensions contribute to the ThinkPad Tablet’s heavier weight: 1.64 pounds versus the Galaxy Tab’s 1.24 pounds. The weight difference is especially obvious when you hold the tablet in one hand and try to use it for anything longer than a minute or two at a time.
Inside the ThinkPad Tablet: Familiar Specs
The specs of the ThinkPad Tablet are familiar for an Android 3.1 Honeycomb tablet. It packs a 1GHz dual-core Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, 1GB of memory, and a choice of capacities for internal storage: 16GB ($499), 32GB ($569), or 64GB ($699).
The 10.1-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel IPS (In-Plane Switching) display looked very good in our hands-on. We’re still running our full slate of tests on the tablet, but on our test images, the display showed terrific detail and pleasing color balance. The overall photo-viewing experience compares favorably to the Apple iPad 2: Colors were bright but not oversaturated, and skin tones looked warmer and more natural than they have on other Android tablets we’ve tested. The screen had an impressive range of viewing angles, as you’d expect from IPS technology (Lenovo claims a range of 178 degrees), and it has Corning Gorilla Glass to prevent against accidental scratches and breakage.
Other familiar specs include Wi-Fi and 3G (all models have a SIM card slot, but 3G certification will be complete later this fall), a slew of sensors (accelerometer, gyroscope, assisted GPS, ambient light sensor), and dual cameras. The front-facing camera, positioned in the upper right corner when in portrait mode and in the upper left corner when in landscape mode, is a reasonable 2 megapixels (better than what’s on many other tablets); the rear-facing camera has 5 megapixels, but no flash.
One disappointment is the mono speaker, located at bottom in landscape (along the lower left side in portrait). The speaker was weak and tinny, and required volume to be pumped up to the max to get usable audio. It’ll be passable, perhaps, for listening to narrated audio or a quick YouTube fix, but don’t count on the speaker being satisfactory for listening to music while you work.
The volume buttons are clearly defined, and located at the top in portrait mode and along the left side in landscape mode. The power button is on the right side. A fun touch: The dot in the “i” of the ThinkPad logo on the back glows red when the unit is on.
As with its IdeaPad K1, Lenovo has made some tweaks to the stock Android Honeycomb interface to improve usability. It redesigned the three core home screen navigation buttons to be more cleanly defined; the recently-opened-apps scroll offers a way to kill apps; and the redesigned settings pop-up menu provides wider access to frequently changed settings than Android provides.
Lenovo also replaces the default Android keyboard with Lenovo’s FlexT9 keyboard. I didn’t like the position of the delete key—I kept mistaking it for a return key—but the keyboard was otherwise better than the default Android one, with predictive text options and the ability to handwrite with the pen if you tap on the spacebar.
ThinkPad: The Business Differentiators
The ThinkPad Tablet includes features that Lenovo counts on to appeal to business and IT users. Some of these, however, have appeal for consumers, too.
For starters, Lenovo is the first to bring a large-screen Android tablet to market with pen input; the company uses N-trig’s digitizer technology. Unlike other tablets that have pen input, the touch sensor grid was not immediately visible or distracting in use. One advantage to Lenovo’s implementation of digital ink is that you can use the pen with any app—something you can’t do with the HTC Flyer, for example. I liked that flexibility, though I also found the pen input a bit inconsistent. When it worked, it worked really well, with Vision Objects’ MyScript Notes Mobile app translating my chicken scrawl penmanship fairly well; the software also lets you keep your handwritten notes as is, and to share notes and sketches via e-mail, Facebook, and other cloud services.
But sometimes, particularly when using the pen instead of my fingers just to navigate the screen, the pen input appeared to lag behind what my fingers could do, requiring extra taps or motions. Perhaps it is something I’d adjust to over time; or perhaps the display could use a little more calibration to work with the pen. In addition to MyScript Notes, Lenovo says the pen works with Adobe Ideas Sketchbook and ezPDF Reader, among other apps.
At least Lenovo thoughtfully builds in a storage slot in for the optional pen (a reasonably priced $30 add-on, less than half the cost of the pen on the Flyer), and includes a lanyard loop for the pen on the tablet as well as the pen itself, so it won’t easily get lost.
Lenovo also packs the ThinkPad Tablet with ports. Along the lower left (portrait), or bottom edge (landscape), sits the full-size USB 2.0 port for use with USB devices like a flash drive or hard drive. I liked the sliding door cover for the port—the best port protector I’ve seen yet—but I found its placement a bit awkward, as a USB drive would point downward when attached, meaning I couldn’t rest the tablet’s bottom edge on the table. This positioning is on purpose, though: The ThinkPad Keyboard Folio case ($100) provides a wired keyboard that plugs into the USB port, includes a nifty, easy-glide optical TrackPoint mouse alternative, and folds up into a nifty carry-case combo that packs easily into a suitcase, and works well on the airplane tray table, too.
Other inputs onboard include a dock connector, a micro-USB port, and a Mini-HDMI connector along the bottom edge (right side in landscape mode). And beneath a sturdy flip-out door sits the full-size SDHC Card and SIM card slots.
Lenovo’s business-friendly tweaks go beyond the hardware. In addition to providing the Lenovo Launch Zone and the App Wheel—both handy, customizable home-screen app widgets first introduced with the IdeaPad K1—the company provides preloaded software apps aimed at business users.
These apps include the full version of DataViz Documents to Go for editing Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents and viewing Adobe Acrobat PDFs; MyScript Notes Mobile; Citrix Receiver; McAfee Mobile Security; and PrinterShare (a mobile printing app that requires you to set up a printer via your PC). A handful of leisure apps are also preloaded, including Netflix; the Hardwood Games Suite for card games and backgammon; Amazon MP3 and Amazon Kindle for Android; Zinio; Slacker Radio; and mSpot Movies and Music (the latter, oddly, replaces the stock Google Music player outright). Oh, and you can’t escape those Angry Birds—Lenovo thoughtfully provides Angry Birds HD, too.
Also included is Lenovo’s awkward app for transferring files via the USB port to the tablet, a Wi-Fi import/export app, and Lenovo’s SocialTouch app.
For the corporate IT market that Lenovo caters to with its ThinkPad brand, the tablet has a handful of custom features. Together with LANDesk, Lenovo offers a Mobility Manager for deploying the tablet in corporate environments and controlling usage policies, such as whether you want to encrypt user data and content on SD Cards; pushing custom apps and installations out to the device; and more. Lenovo partnered with Absolute Software so its Computrace technology can help lock down and trace a wayward device. And Lenovo provides custom imaging services, a custom app store, and secure email options via Good Technologies and Microsoft ActiveSync integration.
The Bottom Line
The ThinkPad Tablet looks and feels bulky, but it’s the first tablet to truly target business users with its configuration. The ThinkPad’s pen input is a benefit; its poor built-in speaker a deterrent, especially for presenters who need passable audio. Still, together with the Folio case, this tablet makes a compelling case for business users and even people like students who want to switch more of their day-to-day tasks to a tablet.