Rewriting the tablet
How Lenovo brought a dream design to life
By Dan Seifert | Photography by Sean O'Kane
Tablets were supposed to be the future. They were supposed to get us off the desk and away from the laptop, and usher us into a touch-enabled world of productivity and entertainment. A dream of computing where our devices seamlessly blend between activities and go wherever we need them to. But the tablets we know, the iPads and Surfaces of the world, haven’t really lived up to that dream, whether it’s because doing actual work on them is harder than it should be, or because they are barely different than the PCs we’ve used for years.
Really, what we’ve always wanted is the thing that Microsoft never made: the Courier. It was the perfect vessel for our hopes: thin, light, and adaptable to whatever we needed it to do. You could touch it, you could write on it, you could fold it, just like a book. But the Courier never made it out of Microsoft’s labs, never got past the concept stages, and never fulfilled the dream it laid out. What we imagine is often better than what we get.
But now, seven years later, Lenovo is introducing a new take on the tablet computer. No, Lenovo didn’t make a Courier, but its new Yoga Book might inspire the same reactions. It’s about the size and shape of a hardcover children’s book, has two panels attached by a hinge, and can be used with your fingers or with its included pen. It even does some tricks with the pen that we’ve never seen before, like letting you write with real ink and have it all digitized. Lenovo didn’t set out to build just another tablet with the Yoga Book — it wanted to make something that was better for getting work done than what is already out there.
But in the process, it made a computer that’s both futuristic and relatable at the same time, just like the original Courier concept. I wanted to use the Yoga Book from the first time I laid eyes on it, and if you’re anything like me, you will, too. And unlike the Courier, you will actually be able to buy the Yoga Book.
Lenovo’s entire brand has been built around "productivity," anchored by workhorses like the storied ThinkPad line of business laptops. But the company acknowledges that "productivity as it’s been defined historically is changing." So says Jeff Meredith, vice president of Lenovo’s Android Chrome Computing Business Group, who set out with the goal to think about how tablets could be more productive in the way that phones are instead of the way PCs are. "We tried to flip that on its head a little bit," he says, "We find many people doing more on their phones than on their PC. So the comfort level with a touch-based keyboard and a more mobile mindset should not be perceived as not appropriate for productivity." If people are using phones more, Meredith argues, then tablets should act more like them. "I hesitate to even call [the Yoga Book] a tablet, because we really think it’s something else," he says.
"I had this idea of a book; we ended up calling it the Yoga Book, but for the longest time we just called it ‘The Book.’ We really wanted to hit a form factor that folded, and when you were carrying it, it looked like a book. And not a big beefy novel, but a thin magazine-almost type of form factor," he says. One of his favorite ways to describe the Yoga Book is to liken it to a children’s book, specifically, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. "We were very adamant about staying true to this concept of almost ridiculously thin and light, and that’s the characteristic that we wanted to deliver," he says
It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that Lenovo takes a research-driven approach to product development. Where Apple sometimes gives the impression that all of its products come from a singular genius (Steve Jobs, then later Jony Ive), Meredith is up front about Lenovo’s use of research. Development on the Yoga Book started nearly three years ago in a brainstorm, but Lenovo tested every idea it had through user research.
The company learned that younger people were already using tablets for productivity, even though many tablets weren’t designed expressly for that purpose. "We went and looked at college campuses and about 30-40% of students that we observed in a lecture hall were taking notes or interacting — a lot of them were actually using a tablet, typing on the tablet, and taking notes on the tablet."
That guided Lenovo on how to build its own spin on a productivity tablet, and it was not to just build a laptop that also had a touchscreen. "We wanted to find an angle that came from [a mobile] direction as opposed to being a straight PC replacement," says Meredith, alluding to the PC-like approaches that other tablet makers have used. He didn’t say it so I will: Lenovo didn’t want to just build another Surface clone — the company already makes one of those, after all.
Half of the Yoga Book is what you’d expect from a modern tablet: it has a 10.1-inch, 1080p touchscreen display, 8-megapixel camera, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a microSD card slot. Some markets will get an LTE option in addition to the Wi-Fi-only model. All of that is encased in a slim metal frame that could pass for any generic tablet in 2016. About the only surprising thing about the specs is the Intel Atom processor, a rarity among tablets in 2016 — it’s a small reminder that Lenovo has been working on the Yoga Book for a long time.
But it’s the other half of the Yoga Book that makes it special and different from the many tablets already out there. Where you might expect there to be a physical keyboard or even a second screen, instead Lenovo opted for a specialized, touch-sensitive panel. Open up the Yoga Book, and you’ll see a flat, black expanse. Dimly glowing lights outline a keyboard and trackpad, or you can tap a button and it switches into a pen-recognition mode, powered by Wacom technology. Because it’s a Wacom surface, you can even put a stack of paper on top of the panel and write notes with real ink that are instantly digitized. The panel is attached to the screen with a hinge comprised of 130 different pieces and can be rotated behind the display entirely, similar to how the keyboard on Lenovo’s Yoga laptop line works.
When the panel is folded back behind the display, the Yoga Book is still thin and light enough to be easily used for reading, gaming, watching video, or doing other entertainment activities that are commonly associated with tablets. When closed, the whole thing is under 10mm thick, putting it much closer to the realm of a smartphone or tablet without a keyboard than a laptop. When you carry it around, closed, it feels much smaller than it has any right to. It isn’t quite the Dr. Seuss book Meredith talks about, but it’s close enough.
Typing on the Yoga Book’s "Halo" Keyboard is much closer to typing directly on a touchscreen than using a traditional keyboard. It replaces physical keys with some haptic feedback, but because it’s just a touch panel, Lenovo can build smartphone tricks into it. It supports autocorrect, and word suggestions, of course. And also like many smartphone virtual keyboards, the Yoga Book can adapt to your typing style over time and adjust the size of tap targets accordingly.
It wasn’t this way from the start, though. One of the original Yoga Book concepts featured two screens, just like the Courier. But two full touchscreens made the device too heavy and compromised battery life. "We certainly wanted to have the keyboard, and to achieve the thinness that we wanted in the panel, the keyboard panel, we looked at an array of different options and settled on this touch based keyboard," says Meredith. "Truthfully, this is where we’ve iterated the most on this product."
Lenovo spent a year and a half tuning the performance and experience of the keyboard, utilizing various teams across the world to determine how it worked with various languages and character sets. That led to different developments in features such as word suggestions, which are presented differently for Asian languages than Latin-based ones.
"We did a lot of usage testing and we found that a person 25 and younger can adapt fully to the keyboard and be typing at speeds consistent with what they type on a traditional keyboard within 40 minutes to 60 minutes," Meredith claims. "But somebody who’s 35 and up, they take a couple of hours [before] they’re getting a consistent kind of error rate and speed." Sorry, Gen-Xers.
But perhaps the older among us might like the Yoga Book’s other feature: the ability to automatically digitize notes you take on any pad of paper. The decision to find a way to work with good old paper came, again, from user research instead of divine inspiration: "If you look at a lot of the devices that have pen capability on them today, where … you’re writing on glass," says Meredith, "the percentage of people … that actually use it is quite low."
The solution Lenovo came up with for note-taking is as unique as the keyboard. The same panel that can act as a full keyboard and trackpad can also become a writing surface. The Yoga Book comes with an ink insert for its stylus and a stack of note paper that magnetically attaches to the touch panel. Anything you write on the paper pad will be captured digitally, even when the screen is off. There’s no scanning or taking pictures of your notes to save them digitally, and switching between writing and typing is as simple as tapping a button. It’s Lenovo’s way of letting you have the best of both worlds: a familiar ink and paper writing experience and the archival capabilities of digital notes. And if you prefer a different pad of paper, virtually anything that’s less than an inch thick should work.
Or, forget the paper, switch the pen back to a stylus (the process is fiddly), and you can take notes or draw directly on the panel. The stylus is pressure-sensitive (up to 2,048 levels) and Lenovo included apps that can record your notes, even with the screen off and flipped around the back.
It all might sound like a little much, but the clean design of the hardware sort of guides your understanding of what you can do on the device. As long as the software lives up to the promise of the hardware, it could be a really good experience. But software, as always, is the hard part.
Originally, the Yoga Book was designed to work with Android, but a few months into development, Lenovo decided to also make a Windows 10 version. The hardware between the two versions is the same, with minor tweaks to the keyboard layout for each platform.
Building two versions of the Yoga Book muddies the "mobile first" message a bit, especially since Windows 10 has a more traditional desktop feel than Android. It’s one of the few points in the Yoga Book’s development where it seems that a business position (Lenovo makes a lot of Windows computers and its research showed certain markets prefer Windows over Android) took precedence over the best product decision.
Either way, building a Windows model didn’t seem to require a lot of effort: aside from customizing the keyboard layout, Lenovo didn’t tailor the Windows version to fit the Yoga Book’s hardware much at all, as the software pieces were largely already there. The pen’s note-taking features work with Microsoft’s OneNote, and the keyboard, trackpad, and touchscreen work just as you would expect them to on any Windows 10 laptop.
But Android is a different beast, and Lenovo did add a number of things to it in order to take advantage of the Yoga Book’s hardware. The Yoga Book will be launching with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which doesn’t offer any sort of split-screen multitasking, so Lenovo rolled its own multi-window feature. (Android 7 is on the roadmap for next spring, and Lenovo says it will deliver security updates as Google provides them.)
The approach Lenovo used to handle multitasking seems smart, though. If an app comes with both a phone and tablet layout, you can shrink its window down to the phone version and move it around the display wherever you want. Meredith says that about 60 to 70 percent of Android tablet apps work with the feature. Lenovo built its own note-taking app for capturing handwritten notes with the Yoga Book’s stylus. The company also added a Windows-style task bar to the bottom to make it easier to switch between apps and a handful of gestures to manage the multi-window features.
Software is where Lenovo faces its biggest challenge with the Yoga Book, especially since it is relying on platforms made by other companies. Not only does Lenovo have to make sure the Yoga Book’s software experience matches its unique hardware, it also has to get people to buy an Android or Windows tablet in a flattening market that’s been dominated by the iPad. Those are hurdles that even the most successful smartphone companies have not been able to jump with their tablets.
The Yoga Book’s pricing could help a bit. The Android version will start at $499, while the Windows 10 model will be about $50 more when the device hits shelves this October. That’s expensive for an Android tablet these days, but then nobody’s made a huge effort create an innovative Android tablet since Google’s Pixel C (and even then, you could argue, the effort was half-hearted). The pen, paper, and keyboard (of course) are all included, which is different from the Apple’s iPad Pro, which is more expensive and doesn’t include any of those productivity accessories.
Lenovo also understands that this won’t be the device for everybody, and that it’s attempting to hit a particular niche. "For certain, some people will say ‘I’m a heavy user of the Office suite’ or ‘I need Adobe’ this won’t be the device for them," says Meredith. "The lion’s share of people that do relatively light productivity but also want something that has all of the entertainment capability, I think this’ll be a good fit."
Software challenges aside, Lenovo has managed to create a computer that doesn’t feel derivative — instead it seems like a genuinely new kind of thing. It looks and feels like a book in a way that no other computer or tablet device I’ve tried has ever managed to pull off.
It also managed to stick to its original concept, even though its development period was significantly longer than most of the company’s products. "We tried our best to stay dialed into what we initially set as our objective and worked hard to get there," says Meredith. It’s remarkable how much the end product resembles the original prototypes and development models.
This Yoga Book is just the first in a family of products Lenovo plans to roll out, and other versions with various screen sizes will be released. The company started with the 10-inch model because that’s the most popular tablet size, but Meredith says that future versions will stay true to the touch keyboard, writing capabilities, and thin and light design pioneered by the first model.
I can’t say whether Lenovo was able to nail the software on the Yoga Book — we’ll need to actually review it before I can do that. But if the software is great — and that’s a big if — it could mean that we have a new kind of device that nestles in between phones and traditional tablets. A device that’s personal and capable, entertaining and productive, entirely new, yet familiar at the same time. It surely won’t live up to the fantasies the Courier inspired, but the Courier was never really real. The Yoga Book is.
Produced by Frank Bi
Design by James Bareham
Edited by Dieter Bohn
Video by: Phil Esposito, Mark Linsangan, and Andrew Marino