Review: Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet – the First Professional Grade Android Tablet?

This Android Tablet means business...

The tablet market is in a peculiar situation right now – according to sales figures it is basically Apple’s iPad and then everyone else. This is however not because of a lack of choice. In fact, there is a multitude of Android tablets out there from a variety of manufacturers in all shapes and sizes. The danger with this situation is that the Android tablet market is becoming somewhat commoditized, and there is not really a lot of them out there that are truly unique.
So we have been looking forward to trying the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet, which really does seem a bit different from the rest, and not *Just Another Android Tablet*. Yes, it is called the “Thinkpad Tablet” despite Lenovo making a variety of tablets on a number of operating systems. So why is this one different? First off, it carries the Thinkpad name, so it should have good performance and be built well. Right? And secondly, the Thinkpad Tablet has a decent stylus included (at least the one I reviewed) for handwriting recognition and notes. But we will get to that later.
Our current favourite Android tablet is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (see our review here), but the Thinkpad might just take that crown. So how does it do?

Design and Build
This is the one area we expected the Thinkpad Tablet to shine – and it did not disappoint. While we have been partial to the aluminium design of the iPad 2, the Thinkpad Tablet does look like it will be able to take a few knocks. The casing is built from rubberized plastic similiar to the Thinkpad laptops we all know. The great thing about this type of plastic is that it provides superior grip, and it does not easily scuff up like the aluminium body of the iPad. It is indeed very solid – there is no amount of flex in the casing, and the included stylus feels decent as well. On the front there are a few physical buttons which is new on a Android tablet. This is quite welcome – we have not always been fans of Honeycomb’s eradication of buttons. They are adequately stiff in order to not press them by mistake.

The rear of the device is quite sparse. Just high quality plastic with a telltale “Thinkpad” logo. And the dot in that “i” glows red when the device is on. When the stylus is in its slot it has a bright red cap to draw your eye, and its easy enough to remove and replace. It also comes with a long string to attach to the Thinkpad body. Which I quickly removed.

What we did not expect however was the size of this tablet. While by no means big, it is quite a bit fatter than something like the Galaxy Tab 10.1. But then it must be pointed out that this tablet has a number of ports which the other Android tablets do not have. Most importantly, a full USB port, HDMI, full size SD card slot etc. The USB port can be used to access flash disks, something that not many tablets can do right now. Using the onboard USB File Copy app means you can quickly copy files between USB storage and on board storage.
But you know what? The extra size did not bother us in the least. Just like most Thinkpad machines, the little bit of extra heft does give a more substantial, quality feel to the tablet. Rather that than a plasticky super thin device.
Display and Touch (and Pen)

The 10.1 inch display is pretty great. Viewing angles are great, and the colours really pop due to a IPS LCD panel. Resolution is standard fare for Honeycomb tablets – 1280 by 800 pixels, and brightness is decent as well. Touch sensitivity works well, and the display reacts properly – while not quite on the same level as the iPad 2, the capacitative touch panel does its job. But this tablet is all about the stylus – while you might use touch predominantly, the stylus really does add some great functionality to the fairly generic tablet market. Reactivity and accuracy of the stylus is first rate, and it does feel very natural to write. While placing your hand on the device to write might cause the display to react, once you start writing, additional touches seem to be ignored well enough. Too bad that the stylus seems to be let down by the software stack – but we will get there.
Innards, Battery Life
The Thinkpad Tablet runs on a dual core 1GHz processor based on the Nvidia Tegra 2 system on a chip. Despite carrying the Nvidia name, performance did not really blow us away. While it can be blamed on the software, the occasional dropped frames in everyday operation made us wonder whether this Thinkpad Tablet was perhaps a little underpowered. But then again a dual core 1GHz is nothing to sneeze at, so the issues might be with software implementation. If you have used a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (not the 10.1v), expect similiar performance. Inside the Thinkpad Tablet also has 1GB of RAM, and our test unit had 32GB of storage.
Battery life was good – while not quite 10+ hours like the iPad, you can reasonably expect around 7 to 8 hours. But that brings us to something we also like about the Thinkpad Tablet – this device can be charged using a standard Micro-USB plug connected to your laptop’s USB port. This is a much better implementation than Samsung’s fake-iPod dock connector (Samsung we will keep berating you about this). You are also much more likely to get a Micro USB cable somewhere in a pinch. Good decision Lenovo.
This is a tablet, so you should not care too much about the cameras on board. It is not meant to replace your phone camera. But the Thinkpad Tablet’s cameras really just proves that tablet’s cameras are not decent. The colours are dull, and the images just are not decent. Everything had a look like the lens is smudged. In bright sunlight images looked fine however. Personally I will not use the 5 megapixel camera for anything more than the occasional whiteboard pics in a meeting. Video recording was first rate – the 720p resolution makes for some great videos.
The front camera works well enough with a 2 megapixel resolution. They looked better than the iPad 2 front camera images, but once again this camera will be primarily used for video conferencing. (See our review of the iPad 2 here)
Honeycomb / Software
And here we get to the important part. I am not going to dive into a whole Android vs iPad debate, so I will just compare the Thinkpad Tablet to other Android tablets. Overall there is not a lot wrong with it, but if you do not like Android tablets, the Thinkpad Tablet will not change your mind. If you are a fan of Honeycomb, you ought to find the Thinkpad Tablet a joy to use. Lenovo did not mess around too much with it – the skin is not too influential, and they do supply a few widgets which seem to make little sense. The most ridiculous being the “Lenovo Launch Zone” which takes up way to much space on the home screen. It provides access to 4 very important functions: Email, Read, Listen and Watch. Keep in mind this a “professional grade tablet” meant for business users… There is also a quick link to settings (which can also just be done with the actual Honeycomb supplied settings button on the bottom right). Launch Zone is pretty easy to remove however, which is good. There are also some changes to the Task Manager which uses a carousel-like wheel instead of the standard Honeycomb method.
On board there is some extra software like a trial of Mcafee Mobile Security Software and Documents to Go which seems to go with the intended audience. You will also find the Note Taking app which works works remarkably well. While very slow on launch for some reason, the handwriting recognition really is first rate. It recognized about 95% of what we threw at it – only truly horrible scribes were rejected. This I suspect might be the best reason to get the Thinkpad Tablet. If you like using your Windows tablet with OneNote just for the handwriting recognition, this might be the only tablet for you.
Lenovo also throws in its own appstore (in addition to the Google Marketplace) and a few oddities like the SocialTouch app.
But this brings us to our only major problem with the Thinkpad tablet. For quite some time, “Thinkpad” has been one of the most respected technology brandnames out there. It is synomous with no compromise, reliable, business class portable solutions. This means you expect something bearing the Thinkpad name to keep to that credibility it is supposed to carry. And this is where the Thinkpad Tablet fails. Why on earth would Lenovo ship a “professional class” tablet with nonsense like Angry Birds and a whole stack of silly card games? Sure, some apps fit the profile, like Documents and Citrix Receiver, but why would I want card games, “PokeTalk” and NetFlix preinstalled on a Thinkpad device? And sure, some business users might want some time off – but rather give them the option to go download that themselves.
It almost feels as if there was a lack of cohesiveness with this device – not with the hardware, but with the software bundle. It is as if the hardware and software guys did not sit in the same strategy session. For example: the first time you launch the Lenovo Appstore, it refuses to launch, because the app is “untrusted”. It tells you it needs to be set up to run untrusted apps, and no, there is no explanation how to do this. Now this is nothing new for Android techies out there, but keep in mind the intended audience of the device. So in order to download apps from the official device’s appstore, you first have to set the the device in an unsecure mode. Not great in my opinion.
Final Points
There is a number of Android tablets on the market, and certain manufacturers go out and flood it with devices of all shapes and sizes. The Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet is a comparative breath of fresh air due to first class build quality and stylus based handwriting recognition. When held side by side with our previous favourite Android tablet, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, one can easily see that not everything in the tablet world comes down to being light and thin. A little bit of extra weight is a great trade off for a device with this level of build quality.
Unfortunately we were let down by the software side of things. While relatively simple in terms of a customized skin, Lenovo’s strange choice of included software makes us really wonder if the Thinkpad brandname is not somewhat diluted with a lack of focus. But at the end of the day you are free to remove and install whatever apps you want, so it might not be as bad as I make it out to be.
Overall the Thinkpad Tablet is blessed with first rate hardware and brilliant connectivity options. Despite some strange software choices,  this is our new favourite Android tablet.
Build: 9.5/10
Display: 8/10
Performance: 7/10
Connectivity: 10/10
Software: 6/10
Overall: 7.5/10
Pros: Great build quality, Excellent handwriting recognition. Great connectivity options.
Cons: Poor choice of included software.
Current Pricing in SA is still vague, but expect pricing higher than the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. But it is also a lot more tablet…