Lenovo IdeaPad K1 Tablet Review: Rising Above the Android Tablet Fray
At a Glance
Lenovo IdeaPad Tablet K1 32GB (Wi-Fi)
The IdeaPad K1 makes a strong case for itself with its usability enhancements and snappy design. The inaccessibility of the microSD card slot, the poor speakers, and the tablet's relative heft are all...
The Lenovo IdeaPad K1 strives to be more than just another Android tablet. From its Honeycomb tweaks to its plethora of preloaded apps--many of which are actually useful--to its inclusion of Microsoft ReadyPlay DRM, Lenovo puts forth a tablet that stands out in the crowd (literally, if you opt for the white- or red-backed models). And it carries value, too: The IdeaPad K1 costs about $500 (price as of 7/29/2011) with 32GB of storage--twice the capacity of the Apple iPad 2 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 at the same price.
The IdeaPad K1 is one of two new tablets from Lenovo, each with the same processing guts and the same size of displays, but with very different physical designs. While the ThinkPad Tablet is boxy and in basic black, the IdeaPad is contoured, with metallic edges and your choice of a black, white, or red plastic back.
Inside, the IdeaPad packs features that have quickly become standard for Honeycomb tablets: Android version 3.1, a dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, and 1GB of memory. The front face is a 10.1-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display, with a generous black border around it.
The display looked good overall, on a par with the Toshiba Thrive's and the Motorola Xoom's (which are good but not outstanding), and I found that on some images, the IdeaPad had better color saturation. The viewing angle was actually a bit better than that of the Thrive, likely because the air gap between the display and the outer glass is smaller on the IdeaPad than it is on the Thrive. I did note the fine-line grid of the touch sensors, though, and found its presence distracting on many of this Lenovo unit's screens--particularly on white backgrounds. The grid looked identical to what I’ve seen on the Thrive and the Xoom, among others.
We’ll update this review with our full PCWorld Lab test results--including battery life and recharge times, and the performance and display tests--as soon as those results are ready.
IdeaPad: Design Maven
Outside, the IdeaPad has a stylish, distinctive design. It measures 10.4 by 7.4 by 0.5 inches, making it noticeably wider (by more than half an inch) than the Thrive, and about as wide as the Apple iPad 2 (which has a 4:3 aspect ratio, compared with the IdeaPad’s 16:10 ratio).
The tablet weighs 1.65 pounds, which puts it among the heaviest Android tablets we’ve seen so far. That weight slightly exceeds that of the Toshiba Thrive, which weighs 0.05 pound less, but the distribution of components inside the IdeaPad actually makes it feel lighter than the Thrive. Which is to say, it’s usable, but like other tablets topping 1.5 pounds, it’s too heavy to hold at length in one hand--even with the pleasing contours of the edges.
The IdeaPad’s design favors a landscape orientation. A 2-megapixel front-facing camera is centered atop the display; a micro-HDMI port, a headphone jack, and a docking port run along the bottom edge; and power and volume buttons, screen-rotation lock, and a microSD card slot run along the left side. This is a healthy number of inputs for a tablet--it's more than what we've seen on many others--but not as many as what's on the sibling ThinkPad tablet, or on the input-laden Thrive. One oblong, central home button is to the right of the display (if it’s held in landscape; at the bottom if held in portrait). At back, you’ll find the 5-megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash--an uncommon feature in tablets.
I liked how sturdy and distinct the buttons all felt; even the volume buttons reflected thoughtful design, with the volume-up button logically situated on top of the volume down button--if you’re holding the IdeaPad in landscape orientation. I also liked the natural and unobtrusive placement of the headphone jack (again, provided you’re using the tablet in landscape). But the microSD card slot is annoyingly designed: To open the flip-out door, you must use a paper clip or something similar to release the door. I appreciate the desire to keep a card from falling out accidentally, but requiring a pin to open the door is a bit much.
Another disappointment: Lenovo didn’t use its standard laptop-style AC adapter. The advantage of such an adapter is that one can use a single charger for both laptop and tablet, and just switch out the tips accordingly. Granted, this is not common among tablets today (the Toshiba Thrive is one example of a tablet that uses a more standard charger), but considering that Lenovo, like Toshiba, is a PC-centric company, I would have liked to see such a dual-use charger. As it stands, you charge via the docking port, using a wall charger (and you get a separate cable for connecting to your PC).
IdeaPad Makes Android Work Better
While tablets still have plenty of room to distinguish themselves in overall design, performance, and display quality, we’re increasingly seeing subtle, and not-so-subtle, fixes to the Android 3.x interface. So far, most manufacturers have stuck with the stock Android interface, opting for widgets (Acer Iconia Tab A500) to simplify access to specific apps, or making minor tweaks to the home screen buttons (as Asus did on the Eee Pad Transformer) to make them cleaner. Only Samsung plans a complex rework of the interface, with its TouchWiz overlay, due to roll out in August to the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
With the IdeaPad K1, Lenovo takes a middle-of-the-road approach. The company has clearly reimagined Android 3.x, through a mix of widgets and overlays. The result is very appealing, with useful and innovative tweaks.
Lenovo’s enhancements are evident from the moment you first boot up the tablet. Front and center on the main screen is the Lenovo Launcher, four big, finger-friendly buttons designed around the core features you’ll likely use your tablet for--watch, e-mail, listen, and read. At the center sits a globe for jumping into the Web browser.
Each of the four launcher buttons--or "zones," as Lenovo refers to them--can be customized to start the software of your choice. It comes preconfigured with some unusual choices (Slacker Radio as the default for Listen, instead of Google’s Music app?), but at least each of these can be changed to whatever you want. You can even change the browser launch in the middle to be a photo or slideshow--nifty, handy, and well-designed. And you can disable the pop-up Lenovo messages that give usage tips and promo software.
To the right of the Launcher is a handy shortcut that takes you directly to settings; having this icon placed here saves you from having to dig into the status bar below for the settings.
The default home screen also has plenty of other Lenovo customizations. You’ll find widget icons for screen lock you can put the device to sleep without hitting a physical button), and for muting sound and microphone with a single touch; a link to Lenovo’s App Shop (more on that in a moment); and an overhaul of Honeycomb's standard basic home navigation buttons.
Along the system bar at bottom, you’ll notice that Honeycomb's faint line-art buttons have been replaced by clear, deeply outlined buttons. The obtuse-looking native Honeycomb back button is now a clear back arrow (think of the “less than” symbol), and the "recent apps" button is sharper, and dubbed “layers” by Lenovo.
Go into layers, and you now have the ability to close a recently opened app--a terrific addition, given that Android 3.1 increased the number of recent items that appear from a set amount (dependent upon the tablet’s orientation) to a seemingly infinite number. Other changes include adding quick-access controls for additional oft-used settings like Bluetooth (a welcome addition), GPS, and e-mail sync; just tap the time/settings panel in the system bar, and the new pop-up appears.
In the middle of the bottom system bar is another Lenovo innovation--the App Wheel. You can add whatever apps you wish to this, and it provides super-easy visual access to your favorite apps, regardless of which home screen you’re on.
Speaking of home screens, Lenovo lets you choose which of the five screens is your default home screen, and gives additional custom controls over editing and rearranging screens.
In addition to its Launcher widget, Lenovo also has its own social networking hub. The Social Touch app, built for Lenovo, integrates Twitter, Facebook, mail, Gmail, and calendar access into a single timeline feed that you can view by contact, date, or time; the timeline can be further separated for work life, home life, and your commute time, no less. While one has to wonder if every tablet maker really needs to include a social networking aggregator (Samsung will have one, too), it’s nice to see Lenovo trying to innovate here, even if the result currently is visually uninspiring and crashes often. Not included is Google+, at least for now.
One reason IdeaPad users may gravitate to the Social Launcher: It’s an app designed for tablet use. While the inclusion of over 30 apps on the IdeaPad may seem as if bloatware from PCs is migrating to this new category, it’s actually a good thing for several reasons. For one, there are enough useful inclusions here--a full version of Documents to Go, a suite of ArcSoft imaging apps, a file manager, and Netflix--that a new owner can get started without having to start searching for apps first.
Google’s Android Market remains a murky, messy marsh that makes it next-to-impossible to find tablet-optimized apps. To create a better experience for users, Lenovo has its own App Shop; hosted by MobiHand, the App Shop showcases tablet apps, and apps that have been scanned for malware, two basic services that Android Market doesn’t provide. Lenovo also provides an App Shop icon, as well as a widget to keep you up-to-date on the latest entries, to make it easy to find what you’d like.
One thing with Lenovo’s gaggle of apps that I wasn’t keen on: I found a lot of duplication, without a clear understanding of similar apps' value. For example, I get why you’d want to have Google’s Music app along with Amazon MP3 (complete with access to the cloud service), mSpot ( a service for syncing up to 5GB of your music to the cloud), and even Slacker Radio. But why have another, unnamed Music app--whose purpose appears identical to Google’s own app?
That said, the software bundle impressed me. For productivity and utilities, Lenovo includes: ArcSoft Gallery, with image organizing capabilities and linkage to ArcSoft’s Workshop image editor; ArcSoft PhotoStudio Paint (one of the rare trial versions I encountered); AccuWeather.com; Drawing Pad; Documents to Go; PrinterShare; ArcSoft Movie Story; a file manager; and Norton Mobile Security (90-day trial). For entertainment, the featured apps are: Netflix--a first on tablets; mSpot Movies (for rentals); Zinio Reader; Amazon Kindle; an e-reader for viewing sideloaded books; and a video player. Games include Galaxy on Fire 2 THD, NFS Shift (trial version), Angry Birds HD, HW Solitaire SE (and several other HW game apps), Warships, Talking Tom, Arcade by Kongregate, and Vendetta Online (trial version).
While some of these require you to have a separate account to take advantage of the services, more often than not they were the full versions of the software--a pleasant change from the practice of loading up trialware onto Android tablets, as some manufacturers have done.
The IdeaPad supports Microsoft ReadyPlay DRM for both streaming and digital downloads; both Netflix and mSpot use it, as well as Acertrax. Lenovo says it will also support Google’s new DRM spec when possible.
I occasionally ran into "force close" requests from Android--not enough for me to say that the IdeaPad was unstable, but more than I encountered in casual use of several other recent tablets (and as many as in some early tablets). That, coupled with a glitch that kept me from copying some photos (the tablet was reporting itself as disconnected from my PC), marred my otherwise smooth experiences with the IdeaPad. Lenovo is looking into the copying glitch I encountered, but it didn’t have an answer as to why it occurred.
In a sea of Android tablets, the IdeaPad K1 stands out. It makes a strong case for itself with its usability enhancements and its snappy design. The inaccessibility of the microSD card slot, the poor speakers, and the unit's relative heft are all drawbacks, but they may be minor inconveniences, given the value you get with the useful preloaded apps and the 32GB of storage for about $500.