Lenovo IdeaPad Tablet A1 review: The ideal $200 work tablet

March 14, 2012
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Budget tablets are an interesting and tantalizing category for business use because the category contains an implicit question for would-be buyers, IT, individual, or otherwise.

The question revolves around trade-offs. Assuming that the iPad offers everything, what features are you willing to sacrifice in exchange for saving $300 or $400 dollars per device?

The universal truth about value tablets is that, at the $200 level, you’re almost certainly giving up 3 inches of screen real estate. And, unless you’re talking about RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook, Amazon’s Kindle Fire or B&N’s Nook Tablet, you’re probably giving up a superior-quality IPS (in-plane switching) display panel as well.

After screen quality the compromises vary wildly by device. Some value tablets scrimp on memory, others on processor, while still others remove cameras, ports, battery capacity, and/or protective glass. Of course, some tablets scrimp on all off the above.

The fact that so many tablets in the value category shave off so many features made me greatly appreciate Lenovo’s $200 IdeaPad Tablet A1. Simply put, this 7-inch Android 2.3 tablet does very little scrimping. Even the screen quality is surprisingly decent.

In fact, it’s the first tablet I’ve seen in this category that is a workable solution for businesses and productivity on an everyday basis.

Lenovo IdeaPad A1 first impressions: Small, attractive, fast

The IdeaPad measures 7.67 inches tall by 4.92 inches wide, with a thickness of just under a half-inch. It’s more or less the same size as the Kindle Fire and the BlackBerry PlayBook, although it’s a little smaller. At 0.925 pounds, it’s also a little lighter.

Holding the IdeaPad A1 while working with it is comfortable enough. The tablet does have a shiny backside, but thankfully it’s not too slippery. However, after spending time with the PlayBook, I find myself craving rubberized grips as a default texture for the backs of tablets. I bet that IT buyers do also.

The fact that you can buy the IdeaPad in black, pink, powder blue, and white make it pretty clear that it’s not designed exclusively for business. As such, the tablet lacks the hardware-level encryption that the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet had.

Aside from this however, it’s certainly business-ready. I greatly appreciated the presence of two cameras (3MP on back, 0.3MP on the front) as well as the presence of a microSD slot, which allows you to expand the internal storage in the default version of the IdeaPad A1 from 2GB to 16GB. (The A1 also has 512MB of system memory.)

One other unique touch that some users will greatly appreciate is the presence of offline GPS functions. This allows users to utilize GPS navigation without a wireless network signal of any kind. What a boon for delivery- and service-oriented deployments.

While the A1 lacks Corning’s Gorilla glass, it does have a sturdy magnesium alloy roll-cage to protect its innards.

Performance is surprisingly snappy

Part of the reason Lenovo is able to get the price of the IdeaPad A1 down to the $200 price point must be the single-core 1GHz Cortex A8 processor, which offers surprisingly snappy performance for almost all tablet tasks.

The truth is that for Google’s 2.3 Gingerbread variation of the Android operating system, this processor is plenty. In all aspects of navigating through the OS, downloading apps/data, and working with the AI tablet, I experienced very little lag—no more so than I would on any other Android tablet.

The other upside of the older CPU architecture and the 1.0GHz clock speed is that the battery life is solid. Lenovo rates the IdeaPad at 5 hours of battery life, but when I used it for non-CPU intensive tasks like email and web browsing, I saw closer to 7 hours of life.

Much like Lenovo’s ThinkPad Tablet, the IdeaPad A1 uses an oversized quick launch navigational element that allows you to quickly access key functions such as email, the web, books, and more. It’s also customizable.

As an aside, how interesting is that Android 2.3 Gingerbread appears to have infinite legs as a tablet operating system? It’s beginning to make me realize that Android Honeycomb is kind of like the Windows Vista of the Android OS line. It’s an awkward stop-gap between the very stable and usable Android 2.3 and 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

IdeaPad A1 display quality is solid

In stores and during testing, whenever I turn on a value tablet for the first time, I find myself unconsciously wincing and squinting a little. Classic conditioning has taught my brain that, in most cases, the displays on lower-end devices are tough on the eyeballs.

It’s unfortunate, true and, given the high profit margins on tablet displays, probably not avoidable. But maybe Lenovo’s A1 tablet is a sign that these circumstances are about to change?

To be clear: the IdeaPad A1’s screen does not compare to the BlackBerry PlayBook or iPad. Whether you’re talking tablets or desktop displays, there’s simply no way, technologically-speaking, that a TN (twisted neumatic) panel can hold its own when compared to and IPS (in-plane switching) display. IPS provides a much more crisp viewing experience, with far better viewing at indirect angles.

This said, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality levels of the IdeaPad A1’s screen for several reasons. First, and most importantly, you can actually read text on it for an hour without feeling like your eyes are on fire.

Second, the 1024 x 600 resolution (16:9 aspect ratio) is greater than most tablets in this range. And the 170 pixels per inch is actually greater than that of the iPad 2 and equal to the Kindle Fire.

Third, the display is extremely bright, which means that it’s usable in outdoor and daylight conditions.

Additionally, the IdeaPad uses a capacitive touch screen, as opposed to the common resistive touch technology found in most other value tabs. The end result is a more responsive touch screen for fingers.

Unfortunately, the one drawback to a TN screen is that when you’re not looking directly at the screen at a 90-degree angle, the image quality deteriorates pretty rapidly.

Final thoughts: IdeaPad A1 offers tremendous value

The bottom line on Lenovo’s IdeaPad Tablet A1 is that that, toe-to-toe, it holds its own with other “premium” value tablets like the Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, and PlayBook.

(I use the word premium, because in the case of the Kindle Fire and the PlayBook, Amazon and RIM are absorbing a loss on each device. It’s not clear if this is the case with the A1, but the decision to eschew a more expensive IPS display at least makes it clear that Lenovo is trying to turn a profit vs. focusing solely on winning market share.)

The big difference, of course, is that of these three tablets, the Nook and Kindle Fire have limited app availability for businesses and general productivity. This and the lack of cameras make them unsuitable for business use.

And while the PlayBook does have cameras as well as a brilliant display, the OS just doesn’t have that many apps right now.

This means that, by my count at least, for a small business or organization looking for low-cost Android tablet that doesn’t cut too many corners, the IdeaPad is the only tablet in town.

One final thought: Even if you’re not interested in this tablet or the value category as a whole, it’s an encouraging sign for the category as a whole. In the PC and laptop sectors, hardware manufacturers learned a long time ago that they can use yesterday’s technology to power today’s low-end.

On the Android platform, tablet makers are beginning to do the same. That’s a great development for businesses because it will allow organizations to get more tablets into more people’s hands.

Lenovo IdeaPad A1

Pros: Very fast performance; numerous bells and whistles for price point
Cons: Display quality is decent, but inferior to PlayBook, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet

$200, http://www.lenovo.com/
CPU: 1.0 GHz TI OMAP 3622 (ARM Cortex A8)
System RAM: 512MB
Storage RAM: 2GB (16GB also available)
Operating System: Android 2.3.4
Size: 4.92 x 7.67 x 0.47 inches (H x W x D)
Weight: 0.925 pounds
Display: 7-inch capacitive 1024 x 600 TN screen


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