When I worked in the bowels of the corporate beast, my life was governed by laptop. Even though a lot of my hardware and applications were web-driven, I had to take my laptop everywhere I went just so I could get access to a web browser and figure out what was going on. Eventually I got my hands on a Compaq TC1000 tablet PC, and my life suddenly took an upturn. Though this thing was the size and weight of an accounts ledger, it allowed me to roam around my server room and remote into any of the machines there with a few taps of my stylus. Granted it was running Windows XP at the time and the wireless range on it wasn’t the greatest, but it meant that I could finally leave my accursed laptop at my desk if I needed to check up on something.
That of course was many moons ago, and tablets have certainly come a long way since then. They’re thinner, faster, swankier, and can fling birds through the air (not literally of course). So I was intrigued when I got to check out the IBM ThinkPad tablet this week – a tablet that is supposedly geared at the business community but can be used by the average consumer as well.
Build Quality & Design
From the first glance, the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet is an instant homage to IBM’s ThinkPad laptops. The familiar black look and feel found on the laptops is mirrored to perfection here, and the red top of the stylus pen is a nod to the iconic pointer found embedded in the middle of ThinkPad laptops. The device weighs in at just under 750g, so it’s certainly a bit on the chunky side for a tablet. Under the hood is a Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 1.0GHz processor, 1GB of DDR2 RAM, and 16, 32, or 64GB of internal storage. The tablet sports a 10.1” 1280 x 800 screen with a very durable glass front – I’ll talk about the screen in more detail a bit later on, but this display certainly can take a fair share of bruises. Taking a tour around the device you have the power button, a slot for the stylus, the volume rocker, and a range of connectivity ports at the bottom. There’s a mini-HDMI port, a micro-USB port for charging, SD card reader, SIM card slot, and even a USB 2.0 port on the side for connecting devices or accessing content on a USB stick.
A curious thing about this tablet though is that it has four buttons at the bottom – one to lock the screen rotation, one to launch the web browser, one function as the ‘Back’ option, and the last one is to return to the Home screen. Oddly enough these buttons aren’t the same size, and are very stiff to press – you have to press almost close to the screen to activate them and they aren’t backlit, so finding them in the dark is a fun activity.
Applications and Interface
Powering all of this is Android 3.1 with a sprinkling of Lenovo’s own apps and software. The strangest thing I found about this tablet is how many Lenovo widgets it came bundled with – everything from a calendar to social alerts, to a large Launcher widget that sits in the middle of your screen. This Launcher has four icons that you can tap to watch videos, listen to music, read books, browse the web or launch email. Essentially though, these are just direct shortcuts to various apps on your tablet, and you can configure each shortcut individually to launch a different program – for example you can choose to launch the Video player or YouTube when you hit the ‘Watch’ shortcut.
In attempt to make life even easier, Lenovo has included a speech-bubble shortcut at the bottom of the screen that allows you to mark up to six apps as your favorites. Tapping this bubble brings up a selection ring where you can scroll through and launch your most-required apps. Though quirky, it’s much better to use and configure than the somewhat oversized Launcher widget – you simply drag across which apps you want to earmark, and that’s it. The in-built task manager has also had a slight tweak, and allows you to close running apps by tapping the small ‘X’ next to them.
Apart from Lenovo’s widgets, there are a ton of other applications that came bundled on my tablet. There’s Lenovo App Shop, which has a selection of free and paid apps that you can download for tablets, with some of them exclusively design for the ThinkPad Tablet. Funnily enough, you need to sign up with a separate account for the Lenovo App store, even though a lot of the apps on there can be found just as easily through the regular Android market. I also had access to Amazon Kindle and Music apps, along with a few video apps and games.
There are a few apps on there that require a bit more detail, which I’ll dive into now. The first one is the Notes Mobile app, which allows you to use the included stylus to take down handwritten notes, which are then converted into text. This was by far the most fun I had with the tablet – you can choose to convert your writing to text instantly, or convert it later. I opted to convert it after I was finished writing, so I took the tablet to a meeting and casually started taking down notes, including drawing diagrams. When I was back at the office I was able to draw around my paragraphs of writing and the program nimbly converted it into text. I could then export the entire page as text into an email, or as an image. The app also allows you to move text and diagrams on the page, so it really does use the stylus’ abilities well. Even with my palm resting on the screen as I wrote, there were little to no problems recognizing text, even with my somewhat abysmal handwriting. On the down side though, this handwriting recognition is only limited to this app and not spread around the OS, which is a shame – one of the many freedoms of my Windows tablet was the ability to write on screen in any program and have it instantly converted to text. Still, the Notes Mobile app is quite nifty to have and for the most part is able to recognize handwriting quite well.
The tablet also came with the PrinterShare app, which lets you print directly from the tablet to nearby Wi-fi and Bluetooth printers. It’s a handy app to have if you need to quickly print out an email attachment or web page, and it had no problem printing to my nearby Wi-Fi HP printer. Another app worth mentioning is the USB File Copy app, which lets you quickly move or copy items from a USB drive onto your tablet or vice-versa. The interface is easy to use and tag files, though I did note that the tablet wasn’t able to recognize all of the USB drives that I connected to it. I also had a trial version of McAfee Security installed, which allows me to secure the tablet from malicious programs as well as track and remotely wipe the tablet if need be.
Lastly for the IT-savvy business users, there is a Citrix Receiver app which lets you connect to Citrix servers in your company or try out some o the demo Citrix sessions available in the app. As far as connectivity goes, I was able to connect a Citrix farm on my network and log in to a Windows 2008 server, but using the app itself was a nightmare due to the extremely laggy screen (more in the next section). Even when using the stylus for more precise actions, I wasn’t able to select icons properly or map the mouse cursor to my movements. My experience on Citrix was much better on the iPad, so sadly the app falls short on the Tablet.
Screen and Camera
This beings me to one of my biggest problems with this tablet. I can live with the slightly bulky size. I can hide away the clutter of apps. But I cannot in any way forgive the appalling response time of the touchscreen. This has to be one of the slowest and worst performing screens I have ever seen. From hitting the power button to wake the device to actually swiping to unlock it, it takes at least three seconds for the tablet to realize that I’ve been furiously swiping across in an attempt to unlock it. Even when exiting an app and returning to the home screen, the tablet takes a good few seconds to quit the app and then redraw my icons. All of this happens even from a complete reboot of the device, so it wasn’t that I had a plethora of apps running in the background to slow me down. Moving from landscape to portrait view also took at least two seconds to pull off each time, which was frustrating the more time I spent with the tablet. Even swiping screens at times can be a chore, with the tablet either refusing to recognize my swipes or just finally (and casually) moving from one screen to the next. While you thankfully have a good range of viewing angles of the screen, it becomes next to impossible to read the screen when outdoors, even when there’s no directly sunlight and the brightness set to maximum.
Like most other tablets, the camera on the Lenovo ThinkPad tablet is quite average. The rear 5 megapixel camera wasn’t able to focus on most objects properly, and I love how every time I tapped the button to snap the photo, the app crashed completely, so no sample images I’m afraid. The front-facing camera is also average, and just barely passable for video calls.
Continuing on with the mediocre elements of the tablet, I was really surprised by how poor the lone speaker on this device was. Situated at the lower right of the device next to the USB 2.0 port, this tiny speaker is only good if you’re sitting in a near-quiet place or have locked yourself in a cupboard. So if you’re looking to prop up your tablet and watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory while you reinstall your servers, think again. The only way you’ll get proper audio out of this device is by using external speakers or headphones. I understand that this tablet isn’t being touted as a media consumption device, but is it too hard to at least include a decent speaker?
The battery on the ThinkPad Tablet is supposed to last a little over eight and a half hours of use, and I was able to get about seven hours non-stop usage from it before whittling down the battery to about 5%. This was with Wi-fi always on, watching a few movies, copying music from a USB drive and listening on the device, and with brightness at about 80%. Thankfully, the tablet can be charged via micro-USB or when plugged into the optional dock. Speaking of which, you can purchase a very nifty folio case for he ThinkPad Tablet which includes a nice keyboard and track pointer, effectively turning your Tablet into a kind of ThinkPad laptop. You can also purchase a desktop docking station that props up your tablet for use in portrait mode so that your tablet is always juiced and ready to go.
In the grand scheme of things, it would be harsh to completely dismiss the ThinkPad Tablet. While it does have the signature ThinkPad styling that many of us love, there’s sadly no excuse for the poor response time when trying to get any actual work done on the device. Even if Lenovo pushed out ICS to this tablet, I doubt that it would make much of a difference, thanks in part to the unresponsive screen. But on the flip side, it does pack a decent battery life and has a good selection of ports unlike its rivals, not to mention plenty of apps that can cater to the needs of IT Managers and the like. Though the use of the stylus outside of the writing apps is relegated only to navigation, it’s still a worthy contender if paired with a dock or the keyboard folio. But if you’re looking for a tablet purely for its multimedia use, then you might want to give this one a miss.