Two months before Steve Jobs revealed the original iPad in 2010, Lenovo arrived at CES with a product called the IdeaPad U1. The U1 was a tablet with an innovative keyboard dock — the tablet itself ran a custom Linux interface (called Skylight) and when inserted into the dock it booted Windows 7. It was one of the most captivating products revealed that year, but like many gadgets shown at the mega tradeshow, it morphed into an entirely different go-to-market device. Before the year was up, the U1 had turned into the Lenovo LePad in China; the dock was sadly scrapped and the Skylight OS replaced with Android 2.2.
The 10.1-inch IdeaPad K1 is the US version of that same tablet that started as a tablet / laptop hybrid back in 2010. However, the K1 has more than just a new name — it’s been given a makeover with Honeycomb 3.1 and a slew of unique apps, including Netflix and Lenovo’s own Launch Zone Android 3.1 skin. It’s not as fancy as that original hybrid, but for $449 (for the 16GB) it’s got some redeeming qualities to set it apart from the other Honeycomb slates swarming about. So, how does the story of the IdeaPad K1 finally end? Not too well, I’m afraid. Read on below for the full review.
Hardware / design
The size and weight is all the evidence you need of the fact that the tablet was created almost two years ago
The K1′s size and weight is all the evidence you need of the fact that the tablet was created a year and a half ago to compete with the original iPad. At 10.3 x 7.4 x 0.5 inches, the K1 is almost identical in size to Apple’s original tablet, though Lenovo’s gone with an even thicker black bezel causing it to be slightly wider. Still, everyone from my little cousin to coworkers thought it was the iPad when I held it with the screen facing upwards. Of course that all means that in comparison to the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1, the K1 is just stocky. The chart below will give you the inch for inch details, but yes, those specs really do translate to a more cumbersome holding experience. To its credit, the K1′s angular back and curved edges give it a nice shape and allow it to rest nicely in hand.
Speaking of holding this thing in hand, the first thing almost everyone in the office noticed was how flimsy the plastic back cover feels. Sure, it’s nice that it comes in white, black, and red, but the glossy, fingerprint-loving cover itself is overly flexible. There’s a clear gap between the plastic and the innards, which gives it some serious bend. Pressing hard on both the back and the screen causes for serious flex and even causes screen discoloration. Bottom line: the tablet feels cheap, especially in comparison to the iPad 2 or the Galaxy Tab 10.1.
The plastic back has a serious amount of flex
Luckily, the edges are made of a tougher brushed aluminum and make room for a power button, volume rocker, orientation lock, Mini HDMI port, 3.5mm headphone jack, and a 30-pin dock connector. There’s also a MicroSD card slot, but it can only be popped open with a sharp object. And while Lenovo does include a paperclip-like tool, there’s no place to store it — yes, just like the Flyer’s stylus, I’ve misplaced it quite a few times in the last few weeks.
Screen and speakers
It’s definitely not as bright or crisp as the screens on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or the iPad 2
The 1280 x 800-resolution, 10.1-inch display may match that of other Honeycomb tablets on paper, but it’s definitely not as bright or crisp as the screens on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 or the iPad 2. Colors are washed out in comparison and the panel, like much of the chassis, is low quality. To Lenovo’s credit, the viewing angles are fairly wide and sharing the screen with others was no issue. The touchscreen itself is responsive (at least when the software is), as is the optical-based home button that lives on the right bezel (when held horizontally). Yep, this is one of the few Honeycomb tablets with a physical home button and the optical sensor buried inside it has been trained to perform some interesting tricks. Lightly swiping down functions as a back shortcut and swiping up launches an in-app menu. I can’t say I used those shortcuts all that much, but I did use the hold-down-to-take-screenshots feature quite a bit. The two speakers located on the bottom back lip of the tablet are actually fairly decent for a tablet — they’re not as loud as the ones on the iPad, but they were certainly loud enough to hear Amy Poehler’s dry voice while watching an episode of Parks and Recreation on Netflix.
There are only so many ways you can say a camera is crap
I’ll openly admit that I now dread writing this section of a tablet review — there are only so many ways you can say a camera is crap. So here goes…
The rear five megapixel shooter and its LED flash take typically grainy, foggy, and muted images. No matter what the setting — outdoors or indoors with plenty of natural light — shots were underwhelming. It also takes about three seconds for the autofocus to kick in, which caused a number of very blurry shots, as you will see in the gallery below. The same goes for the "720p video" — it was full of motion blur and the actual video really doesn’t look all that high-def. The front-facing two megapixel camera was fine for a video call in Google Chat and taking some shots of me and my little cousin. Isn’t she cute?
It’s pretty clear from the paragraphs above that Lenovo’s not really making much a mark in terms of hardware design and that software’s clearly been the focus. Unlike most of the Android tablets out there (save for Samsung’s new TWiz UX layer), Lenovo’s done some substantial tweaking on top of Google’s Honeycomb 3.1 — the major additions are bulleted below.
You see that large widget in the middle of the screen up there? That’s the Launch Zone and each of the "zones" — Watch, Email, Read, and Listen — can be customized to open different apps. You can’t actually change the name of those zones, however. Overall, it’s a pretty useful widget, but it’s not worth the lag it causes — more on that coming.
The biggest tweak comes with the addition of a persistent dialogue button on the bottom toolbar, which brings up Lenovo’s App wheel. The carousel, which houses thumbnails of select apps, can be customized, but overall, I’m not really sure that it adds much to the experience. It’s useful for switching to another app while in the browser or gallery, but you still have Honeycomb’s native app switcher on the left side. Speaking of that switcher, Lenovo’s added a small red X over the apps, so you can easily close ‘em. It’s hands-down the best addition — one I wish Google had integrated from the start.
What’s a Honeycomb tablet without a social application, right? Lenovo’s done a nice job of aggregating social network feeds and email in this one, but it’s too bad that the app itself is sluggish, buggy, and slow to update. As you will see in the video below, I still have not managed to add my Twitter account.
BUNDLED third-Party apps
Bundled third-party apps – Lenovo includes 30 apps with the tablet as well as its own Lenovo App Shop. To some, these apps will be useful, to others they will seem like crapware. Regardless, it seems to do a good job of hiding the fact that there aren’t many Honeycomb apps available. There are really too many to list here, but you’re looking at a selection of games (Angry Birds HD, Galaxy On Fire 2, NFS Shift, etc.), media (Netflix, mSpot movies, Movie Story), reading (Kindle, Zinio), and photo / drawing apps.
Obviously, the Netflix app is the standout addition here and, well, it works just as you would expect. There was some slight delays connecting, but once up and running streaming was smooth. It’s a bummer that it doesn’t support HD streaming, but I’ll take standard def video over nothing!
Performance and battery life
The most unstable Android Honeycomb tablet I’ve tested yet
You’ll notice that in the section above I never once mentioned that any of Lenovo’s software additions are snappy and perform well, and that’s because they take a serious hit on the tablet’s stability and general performance. The software may set the tablet apart from others, but they also make this slate the most unstable Android Honeycomb tablet I’ve tested yet. Despite its standard 1GHz Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of DDR3 RAM, apps frequently crash (including the browser and the Social Touch app) and transitions and homescreen swipes are noticeably laggy. The first review unit I received was overly buggy and I had a hard time just surfing the web. Lenovo sent me a second unit and while some of those issues have been mended, I’ve still encountered a number of force close alerts, like the one above. Removing the Launch Zone widget speeds up performance and stability somewhat, but even then it doesn’t feel as snappy as the iPad 2 or even the Galaxy Tab 10.1. There’s really not much more to say on the matter: Lenovo’s promising updates, but right now this feels like the most unstable Honeycomb tablet out there.
On a better note, the K1′s battery life is pretty admirable. The 27.4Wh battery lasted 7 hours and 12 minutes on our brand new battery test, which cycles through a series of Web sites and high resolution images with brightness set at 65 percent. That’s a few minutes longer than the Galaxy Tab 10.1, though not as long as the iPad 2. In terms of normal usage (and with two Google accounts synced), I was able to go about a day and a half without having to recharge.
The IdeaPad K1 has been in development in one form or another for a year and a half, yet it still isn’t ready. And even if it had hit the market a year ago, it wouldn’t have been good enough (at least in its current form) to go head-to-head with the original iPad. The K1′s hardware is chunky and cheap-feeling, its screen is washed out, and the software is unstable to the point of being unusable at times. It sounds harsh, but when you can pick up the iPad 2 or the Galaxy Tab 2 for just $499, the $50 you save by getting a K1 doesn’t seem close to worth it — unless, of course, you think there’s some value in buggy software. Yes, it has Netflix, some added storage space for the price, and the bundled apps hide the fact that Honeycomb’s app selection is seriously lacking, but those things aren’t going to be enough to make you forget that we are well into the second half of 2011 and that the iPad 2 and even tablets like the Galaxy Tab 10.1 have caught up with the times.