(Editor: This is a first-look review of the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet. Click here for the full review.)
To date, attempts to market a mobile tablet to the enterprise have proven unsuccessful, as RIM and its paltry PlayBook shipment numbers illustrate. While HP, Fujitsu, and others have carved out a niche with Windows 7 machines, the Apple iPad is still the most popular tablet amongst business users.
So when Lenovo extended the vaunted ThinkPad brand to include an Android tablet, I was both curious and skeptical. After spending some hands-on time with the ThinkPad Android tablet earlier this summer, my skepticism waned a bit, thanks in part to active pen support, including a handwriting-to-text application, as well as a full-sized SD card slot and USB port.
But my time was spent with a preproduction unit and while under the watchful eye of Lenovo reps. Now, I finally have an evaluation unit in house, and while I am not ready to offer my full review just yet, I do have some initial thoughts to share on this business tablet.
ThinkPad and IdeaPad
The Lenovo ThinkPad tablet shares many of the same features as the IdeaPad K1 I recently reviewed, especially on the software side. The ThinkPad tablet features Lenovo Social Touch, which aggregates email, calendar, Facebook and Twitter updates, and is a lot more stable on the ThinkPad than it was on the IdeaPad during my review, as well as Netflix. The ThinkPad also has the Honeycomb tweaks I liked on the IdeaPad, including the recent apps list that allows users to actually close out programs.
Build and Design
The ThinkPad sports a starkly different design than the IdeaPad however, and is relatively thick and heavy compared to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the other ultra-thin mobile tablets. In fact, at 1.66 pounds, it weighs more than the Toshiba Thrive, and at .57-inches, is nearly as thick.
With all that thickness comes great port selection, including the full-sized inputs described above, and a dock for its N-trig pen, which is a feature not common with mobile tablets, including the HTC Flyer, and Windows 7 tablet PCs like the Samsung Series 7 Slate and Fujitsu Stylistic Q550.
The ThinkPad has a nice rubberized back panel, which is certainly preferable to sheer plastic in terms of grip, though I’m not so sure about the four physical keys running along the right-hand short side. They are crafted from the same glossy plastic that frames the display and are reminiscent of a budget tablet or last-generation device. They also suggest the tablet is built for portrait mode, when the landscape mode is typically preferable, at least for my general use.
I guess since the ThinkPad is intended as a business device, aesthetics take a backseat to function, and the buttons, which include a web launcher and orientation lock, in addition to back and home shortcuts, are quite useful. And the ThinkPad does have at least some style. In a nice design touch, the ThinkPad Honeycomb Android tablet features the familiar ThinkPad logo on its back panel, complete with the red “i” dot that doubles as a power light.
So far, so good. I’ve been using the ThinkPad for a full day, and have experienced no crashes or freezes. It’s stable and snappy, which is borne out by the numbers. I ran both the Sunspider browser performance benchmark and the Quadrant general performance benchmark a handful of times. The Lenovo ThinkPad scored 2065.1 and 1901.25 respectively, putting it right in the middle of other Honeycomb tablets in terms of score, and marginally better than the Toshiba Thrive and IdeaPad tablet.
Apps and Pen
(Update 9/23/2011: A previous version of this article claimed the handwriting-to-text recognition was limited to the Note Mobile app. This is not the case. The ThinkPad’s FlexT9 keyboard also supports the feature.)
The ThinkPad tablet comes preloaded with many of the same apps as the IdeaPad, which I complained in my review had too much bloatware preinstalled. Still, there are a few diamonds in the rough, including the full version of the Documents to Go Office app, and the Notes Mobile app.
Handwriting recognition in Notes Mobile is impressive so far, as it as interpreted my chicken scratch with about 99% accuracy. The N-trig pen is similar to the DuoSense unit associated with the HTC Flyer and EVO View 4G, and is powered by a single AAA battery. It’s comfortable to hold, with good balance and weight, but there are a couple drawbacks, however. First, the app only launches in portrait mode and cannot be reoriented to landscape, and two, while text can be exported to Gmail or a printer via PrinterShare, it can’t be exported to Documents to Go.
The tablet also features the FlexT9 keyboard, which brings handwriting-to-text to other apps, including the web browser. This input method can be used with Document to Go, though is still a bit clunky. The keyboard only recognizes one word at a time, and it often misread my admittedly lousy handwriting. Spaces between words must be manually entered with a tap of the virtual space bar, which can ruin the flow of vigorous note taking.
When HTC brought active pen and Android together for the Flyer and EVO View 4G, I was impressed as pen input can potentially turn mobile tablets into more productive machines, perhaps productive enough to make a dent in the enterprise market. But the fact that it didn’t have a handwriting-to text app was disappointing, to say the least. Now, Lenovo has introduced an Android tablet with active pen support and a true note-taking app, but it still pales in comparison to the pen support found on Windows tablet PCs.
At least the devices are moving in the right direction, and with that in mind, I’ve enjoyed my time with the ThinkPad tablet so far. Check back soon for my full and in-depth review and find out if those positive early impressions remain after I spend some real time with the Lenovo ThinkPad tablet.