Lenovo A1 Hands On: Both a Brand-Name and Budget Android Tablet

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Lenovo this week gave glimpses of its upcoming IdeaPad Tablet A1 tablet, a budget-friendly consumer device — priced starting at $199 and outfitted with a feature called “offline GPS” — aimed at giving the company a competitive boost against other makers of Android tablets, and maybe even Apple.

Lenovo’s future seven-inch tablet is geared to consumers who might not bother to buy a tablet at a higher price point, and also at those who won’t mind spending a couple of hundred bucks for a “companion device” to complement their existing notebook and desktop PCs, Lenovo officials said, during a series of sneak peeks to the media.

 

Lenovo A1 tablet

While a PC is a better platform for content creation, a small and lightweight tablet makes sense for consuming entertainment — and GPS directions — while on the go, said Nick Reynolds, executive director for Lenovo’s product group, in a Webcast on Tuesday.

During a live meeting and hands-on demo with TabletPCReview in New York City later that day, Stephen Miller, a Lenovo ambassador, mentioned kids as another potential target for the A1.

With its small form factor, the A1 will be easy for children to handle, he reasoned. On top of that, the tablet incorporates a magnesium alloy roll cage design and a screen made of Gorilla glass in efforts to protect the inner workings from knocks and drops.

Gingerbread, a G Sensor and Dual Webcams
Standing one-half-inch high and weighing in at 400 grams, the A1 will run Android OS 2.3 (“Gingerbread”). Other tech specs will include a seven-inch LED IP multitouch display with 1024-by-600 resolution; dual Webcams; a built-in G sensor; WiFi and Bluetooth Wireless; and MicroSD and MiniUSB ports. Battery life is touted as seven hours.

Lenovo A1 tabletAt the demo in Manhattan, Lenovo showed units numbered from around 19 to 23, literally representing their chronological order in leaving the preliminary production line. The units were embellished with covers in black, white, a dark purplish tone, and a blue hue — not yet given an official name by Lenovo — which might be described as a deep robin’s egg blue.

The IdeaPad A1 Tablet– which might now get a formal rollout sometime over the next two years — will join a Lenovo tablet crew that already includes three 10-inch tablets: the enterprise-class ThinkPad Tablet; the IdeaPad Tablet P1, for SMBs; and the IndeaPad Tablet K1, a “premium consumer” gadget.

On the user interface (UI) side, the A1 will come with two features — somewhat reminiscent of Samsung’s Social Hub and Media Hub — that first appeared in the Lenovo’s K1.

One of these is Lenovo Social Touch, for communications through e-mail, calendars, instant messaging (IM), and Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, all in the same place.

The other is Lenovo Launch Zone, a set of customizable panels for easy access to frequently used apps for e-reading, music, and photos, for instance.

Why Not Honeycomb?
“We’re seeing there’s a big demand for lower cost devices,” Reynolds said during the Webcast. A starting pricetag of $199 consistitutes a “very acceptable price point” to consumers, he contended.

For the A1, Lenovo decided on Gingerbread rather than Honeycomb (Android OS 3.0) because Honeycomb is “optimized for 10-inch tablets,” according to Reynolds.

Will Lenovo stand a better chance of making headway into Android tablets with a seven-incher, a category currently not addressed by Apple’s iOS-enabled iPad?

“Mr. [Steve] Jobs did not want to do a seven-inch tablet. We’ll see what Mr. [Tim] Cook wants to do,” Miller answered, during the demo in New York.

It’s Still Seven Inches
In a bit of hands-on time in Manhattan with the A1, I tried to envision who might actually use this tablet, and how the A1 might (or might not) support their needs.

The tablet certainly seemed small and light enough in my hands to be used by a small child. Despite Lenovo’s protective technologies, a kid might manage to damage the PC in some way. Yet for a lot of families, the breakage of a $200 device wouldn’t constitute absolute financial heartbreak.

Lenovo A1 tabletLenovo’s built-in Launch Zone would make it easy for anyone in the family to access apps simply through touch, Launch Zone, though, requires customization, for linking “Read” to the Kindle e-reading app, for instance. Depending on the skill level of the child, a grown-up might need to do this. 

However, I’m still on the fence about the A1’s usefulness as an on-the-go companion for adults. In spite of its bargain-basement price, the A1 still seems to offer tons of versatility. It will run apps in the Android market, along with about 200 apps in the New Lenovo App market that have been especially “vetted” to work with Lenovo devices.

The A1 seemed quite responsive enough to the touch. Still, seven-inch screens aren’t as easy to read as larger ones. Also, although Lenovo is hailing the resolution of its screen as the highest available on any seven-incher, display capabilities seemed a bit uneven during the demos. While some apps, such as YouTube and the black-and-white Kindle reader, showed up very well, colors seemed rather washed out in displays of the Launch Pad.

Moreover, since the A1 lacks 3G/4G capabilities, you’ll need to link it up through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for any purposes other than satellite-based GPS.

‘Offline GPS’ Still a Question Mark
It seems to me that this offline GPS could come in handy if you know that you’ll be a place where cellular connectivity is absent or challenged, such as a cabin in the mountains, a desert, or a ship or airplane. Yet you’d need to plan ahead for that. 

Also during the demo, Jason Berger, consumer product manager for Idea, observed that you’ll need to have maps in place for the offline GPS to work. More specifically, a Lenovo partner called Navdroyd supplies a country map. If you need additional maps, you’ll be able to buy them from Lenovo’s online store.

Lenovo, however, didn’t have the offline GPS up and running on the prototypes shown at the demos, so I cannot attest to how well this feature might perform.

The units I played with were only prototypes, though. Lenovo doesn’t plan to ship the product until several months from now — hopefully, by the holiday season — and some fine-tuning still seems to loom ahead.

Still, the A1 could potentially usher in a new era of sub-$200 tablets from major manufacturers. Lenovo is already looking at producing a second generation of seven-inch consumer tablets in the first or second quarter of next year, according to Lenovo’s Reynolds. This second batch will run Android 4.0 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”), he noted.

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