Hands On With Lenovo’s ThinkPad and IdeaPad Tablets

Lenovo today became the latest computer maker to take the tablet plunge, introducing the ThinkPad Tablet and the IdeaPad K1--two tablets aimed at two very different audiences. In doing so, Lenovo reveals its tablet ambitions: It's the first to offer two distinct tablet designs for the same screen size.

With 10.1-inch 1280 by 800 pixel displays, Android 3.1, 1GHz NvidiaTegra 2, and 1GB of memory, the two models share some basic specs. But from the outside, they couldn't be more different. The ThinkPad Tablet (starting price $499 for 16GB) ascribes to the standard ThinkPad motif--boxy, in basic black--while the IdeaPad K1 (starting price $499 for 32GB, twice the capacity of the Apple iPad 2 at the same price) has a curved, red back. The IdeaPad starts shipping today, while the ThinkPad Tablet will ship in August.

A Tale of Two Tablets

The IdeaPad K1's look and feel is designed to fit in with other IdeaPad products. It felt good in-hand, with more inputs than most tablets, but not as many as its sibling ThinkPad tablet. The IdeaPad design favors a landscape orientation, with the micro-HDMI port, headphone jack, and docking port running along the bottom edge; power, volume buttons, screen-rotation lock and microSD card slot running along the left side. There's one central home button, to the right of the display if it's held horizontally, and a 2 megapixel front-facing camera and 5-megapixel rear-facing camera.

The IdeaPad weighs 1.65 pounds, which puts it up there among the heaviest Android tablets we've seen so far.

By contrast, the ThinkPad Tablet's optimized for portrait use. The 1.57-pound tablet has four physical navigation buttons running along the bottom bezel when holding the tablet in its natural portrait orientation. Lenovo said the inclusion of these buttons-which duplicate functionality you can achieve directly though the Android OS-was a way of intentionally providing redundancy, to make it easier to do some things. While that may be true, in my brief hands-on time, though, I found the buttons became bothersome and easy to accidentally depress if I was holding the tablet horizontally, in two hands. I'll report back on how well that works in practicality once I get to spend more time with the tablet.

Along the right side is a flap, concealing the SD Card slot and docking and microUSB ports. At the bottom edge sits a full-size USB port, which can be used with the impressive keyboard case (more on that in below). The docking station has a portrait orientation; it uses the USB port to connect directly to the tablet. Presumably, the idea here is that business users trying to generate documents will prefer the longer screen of a portrait perspective.

As if full-size SD Card and USB ports-a combination so far only found on the Toshiba Thrive-isn't enough to sway you, another big differentiator of the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet is its display's support for the Ntrig active pen digitizer. An unexpected touch: Lenovo even has a spot on-board to store the pen inside the tablet, a necessary feature if a stylus pen is ever to gain traction.

All About Software

The more I saw of the Lenovo tablets, the more clear two trends became. The first: Tablet makers are actively thinking about how to position a tablet and what goes into making a tablet good for specific audiences. The second trend: Tablet makers are starting to load up tablets with all sorts of software, just as has happened in the PC bloatware universe. Lenovo has taken some positive steps to customize its tablet software for its business and consumer audiences, but one has to wonder if every tablet maker really needs to do a social networking aggregator, for example.

Lenovo's tablet strategy points to a third trend:The sudden growth of customized stores. The idea isn't entirely bad-especially when you consider what a mess Google's own Android Market is for finding tablet-optimized apps, and when you factor businesses' ability to have their own custom stores for employees. Lenovo's App Shop, hosted by MobiHand, is customized to showcase tablet apps, and apps that have been scanned for malware; companies can also do custom shops set up on the MobiHand platform for a fee. Cisco's already announced plans for its Ciusapp store and Toshiba has its own stores preloaded to the Thrive tablet.

The IdeaPadK1 tablet has the Lenovo Launch Zone widget to provide shortcuts to frequently used apps. The apps are customizable and divided into four categories: Watch, e-mail, read, and listen. The Social Touch app was built for Lenovo and integrates Twitter, Facebook, mail, Gmail, and calendar access into a single timeline feed that you can view by contact, date, or time. Other widgets include shortcuts for screen lock, microphone mute, and speaker mute.

The ThinkPad Tablet comes with Documents To Go, Notes Mobile (which supports pen input for writing formulas and diagrams in freehand, as well as for recognizing handwriting) and includes preinstalled business-ready apps like Citrix receiver, Cisco AnyConnectVPN, and a USB copy utility (developed by Lenovo).

Lenovo ThinkPad Keyboard Case

While I'll need to spend more time with the individual tablets to gauge how the IdeaPad K1 and the ThinkPad Tablet fit into the current pantheon of tablets, the Keyboard Folio for the ThinkPad Tablet takes design a new level. The case has a bonafide ThinkPad keyboard inside, connects to the tablet via USB; and when paired with the tablet, it folds up into a nifty, well-integrated package that's thinner and lighter than the Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 when paired with its keyboard dock.

The Folio's keyboard felt solid and well-defined. Lenovo notes it's a modified keyboard from the key height perspective. The keys appear thinner and smaller in terms of finger travel, but they are at least a comfortable distanceapart. My touch-typist fingers flew over the keyboard and they felt very comfy. The keyboard buttons were redesigned to ditch the Microsoft and function keys in favor of adding menu, search, home settings, and screen lock, for example.

I was even more impressed, though, with the change made to Lenovo TrackPoint. Typically, the rubberized nub can, for some, be difficult to maneuver. Here, the Folio case incorporates an optical TrackPoint, using the same optical technology found in cell phone navigation. I found the optical TrackPoint a pleasure to use: My finger glided over it effortlessly, and it was easy to use to navigate the relatively small screen of the tablet. I'm definitely looking forward to using this $100 accessory some more.

Lenovo also announce a third tablet, the IdeaPad Tablet P1, due out this winter. This 10.1-inch model will run Windows 7 and use a 1.5-GHz Intel processor.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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