Editor's Note 11/7/11:
This review has been updated to reflect the launch of Netflix for Android 3.x devices.
Listen to the market analysts, and they'll tell you that tablets are the next device to sweep the enterprise. In fact, a survey of stakeholders by Model Metrics found that 22% of businesses had already deployed tablets, while the rest, 78%, plan to do so by 2013.
Despite the coming tablet wave, the enterprise has been a difficult nut for tablet makers to crack. Just ask RIM, which is sitting on a huge pile of unsold PlayBooks. And while Windows 7 tablets have found their niche inside certain vertical segments like insurance and real estate, and Windows 8 will shake things up in 2012, the Apple iPad is still the most popular tablet amongst the business sect.
Lenovo is hoping to change that and is expanding its respected ThinkPad brand to include an Android Honeycomb tablet. The aptly named "ThinkPad Tablet" sports similar specs as a half dozen other 10.1-inch Honeycomb tablets, but Lenovo differentiates its offering with N-trig active pen support and full-sized ports. Will that be enough for the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet to make it in the business world?
BUILD & DESIGN
Just like Toshiba with the Thrive before it, Lenovo eschewed the recent trend toward thin and light tablets, and instead settled on 'relatively thick and sturdy' for the ThinkPad. At 1.66 pounds and .57-inches thick, it's still mobile, but has a solid build and feels especially sturdy. Any business device should be built to last, and the ThinkPad certainly leaves that impression.
In addition to the full-sized USB, HDMI and SD Card inputs, Lenovo added two features that make the ThinkPad unique compared with similar Honeycomb tablets. First is the docking pen. The ThinkPad Tablet is the only Honeycomb tablet to support pen input at launch (the HTC Flyer and EVO View 4G both run Gingerbread), and it's one of, if not the, only mobile tablet to feature a pen dock on the device.
Second, where most new tablets rely on one button or softkeys for navigation, the Lenovo ThinkPad four large physical buttons on the display side of the device. They are composed of the same glossy plastic that frames the display, and what they lack in aesthetics (they resemble the buttons on first-generation or budget Android tablet), they make up for in function. The home and back buttons simply duplicate the ever-present Honeycomb softkeys, but I found the orientation lock and quick web launcher to be especially handy. Also, there is something satisfying in pushing an actual button and hearing an audible click. It's typically preferable to pecking away at softkeys, for my money.
The four buttons are on the bottom short side of the device (or right side, if held in landscape), with icons implying the ThinkPad tablet is built for primarily portrait orientation. The front-facing webcam is on the top right-hand corner, with the 10.1-inch glossy display and border filling up the rest of the space.
The back panel is rubberized, which is good for general ruggedness and shrugs off fingerprints well, but I wish Lenovo would have put a bit of texture to aid in gripping. In a very neat design touch, the "i" in the ThinkPad logo doubles as the power indicator light. The mic input and rear-facing webcam is on the same corner, opposite the front-facing camera.
Along the sides, Lenovo included some full-sized goodies, including a real USB 2.0 port next to the speaker on the bottom long side. The power button sits on the top.
Along the short side, just under the buttons, are the 3.5mm audio jack, miniUSB input, miniHDMI input, and a proprietary docking input, as well as a SIM card slot and full-sized SD card input underneath a secure latch. The pen dock, pen tether latch, and volume rocker are on the opposite side.
I praised the Thrive for its full-sized USB input, and I'll do the same with the Lenovo ThinkPad. Its Honeycomb operating system supports USB hosting, meaning you can plug in any USB keyboard, gamepad, or mouse, and it will work with the ThinkPad (you can't do that with an iPad!). In fact, the Lenovo ThinkPad is the only brand-name non-Windows 7 tablet in recent memory that supports pen, USB keyboard and touch.
I do wish Lenovo went deeper with the enterprise features and included a removable battery. The Thrive has one, and I'm sure it's a big consideration for business buyers looking to eventually extend the life of their mobile devices.
Display and Speakers
The ThinkPad and every 10.1-inch Honeycomb tablet released prior to the ThinkPad has a 1280 x 800 display. With the exception of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, those displays have looked awful next to the Apple iPad 2 screen (9.7-inches, 1024 x 768).
While the Lenovo ThinkPad display still pales in comparison to the iPad screen, it's not nearly as bad as the Thrive's or IdeaPad K1's. The ThinkPad display is not as bright as the iPad's, and the imaging is not as crisp when zoomed out. Pinch and zoom in, and the ThinkPad looks a bit better owing to its higher resolution, but there is a steady green-blue hue that is not as pleasant as the iPad's warmer tones.
The ThinkPad speaker is also nothing special. In fact, it's lousy. First of all, it's horribly placed on the back tapered edge, where it directs sound away from the user (a common design flaw on most tablets). Second, it's just not loud enough at max volume. In fact, it's a struggle to make out lyrics and movie dialogue, which makes it impossible to comment on the fidelity. My advice is to stick with headphones, where the volume and fidelity are much better.
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet specs:
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