Click picture to see more images of ThinkPad Tablet in my Technology album
I like iPads a lot, but there are already two guys in our office who can support iPads. So I opted for an Android Honeycomb tablet to broaden the range of devices we can support. I had handled a Motorola Xoom and liked it very much, but after learning about the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet (TPT) at a Lenovo roadmap meeting (roast beef sandwich, cookie, chips, Diet Coke) decided to order one. Then from mid-August to the end of September got updates on why the damn thing hadn’t shipped already.
Now that it has arrived, all is forgiven. It’s a good fit for the industrial style that I prefer in IT hardware (I’ve used ThinkPads for years). It feels super-sturdy, with great connectivity options – HDMI, SD and mini-SD, USB and mini-USB, headphone, microphone and 2 cameras. And a stylus. It’s a premium device and feels like it will be in use long after it is ludicrously obsolete.
I’m new to tablets and also new to Android (which was the whole point after all) so this was a good test case of how intuitive (or not) it was. The first thing it did when I turned it on was ask to log in to my Google account and synch to it. I had a moment of; “Huh! Good choice!” because I already use Gmail, Google Reader, Google Documents, Google Calendar, G+, and Picasa. This might be a bit of a conceptual hurdle for people accustomed to drive letters and Microsoft Office, however.
The calendar displays my Exchange and Google Calendar items in the same screen, color-coded so I know which is which. When I try to email something, it asks me if I want to send it with my Gmail account or my Exchange account. It also came with Documents To Go for handling Microsoft Office docs, and a utility for reading a jump drive. This last got LOTS of attention from others but since it’s really a cloud device, I’m not sure how useful a USB connection really is. For that matter, I only use Microsoft Office at gunpoint so Google integration is more important to me.
It took me quite a while to figure out how to install apps, move icons around and get rid of the sillier ones. For instance I have no interest in ill-tempered birds but really need Evernote, Twitter, Google Docs, etc. The initial hangup was that the Lenovo AppShop simply didn’t work. And to buy anything in the regular Android marketplace, Lenovo made me agree that any terrible applications I loaded would be my own damn fault, and they wouldn’t be held responsible. OK, fine (rolls eyes).
For the Android “desktop” I chose a picture from my Picasa albums, of a Kanon vernier caliper, in keeping with the industrial esthetic of the device. It downloaded the picture (which is high-res), asked how I wanted it cropped, thought for a moment, and – the picture was in place. Pretty slick.
I don’t think the screen is quite as good as that of an iPad, but it’s Gorilla Glass, which fits my bicycle-centric lifestyle. Also because of the durable glass and the rubberized back, I didn’t bother getting a case for it; I just slip it in my shoulder bag with whatever papers, books etc. Without a case, it is about the same thickness as an iPad with a case. All the corners and edges are rounded for comfortable handling.
The cameras are for record-keeping and video conferencing purposes – the forward camera takes way too long to focus for any sort of action capture. But image quality is OK for a camera the size of a pencil eraser. It maintains an internal album and makes uploading to Picasa easy too.
Where the iPad has one button, the ThinkPad Tablet has four across the bottom of the vertical screen: Rotation-lock (Yea!), Web, Return and Screen Home button. These buttons, along with the rim around the tablet, seem to be enameled metal, and the back of the tablet has the trademark rubberized black surface characteristic of ThinkPads. The buttons pivot around a horizontal axis along the outer edge of the tablet, which is super-smart design. Certain actions cause a brief internal vibration in the tablet, as a tactile feedback.
Polyester number sticker affixed to make home button easier to find
Black is great; I like black. But when your eyes are adjusted for the screen, you can’t really see the row of buttons, and they’re marked with icons that are printed in dark gray ink (on black, remember). I put a silver sticker on the Home button so I could find the damn thing. It’s a polyester film-processing sticker from a roll I acquired working in a photo lab thirty years ago. Interesting to contemplate the changes in technology that have taken place since that sticker was made.
The TPT does a great job of finding and connecting to wireless networks, including the rather complex authentication on campus. Setting up Exchange mail was really easy once I figured out what icon to use; all I had to do was put in the server name and my email address, then my password, and it was ready to go.
The Nvidia Tegra processor seems not to be too power hungry, so I’ve had no battery life issues. But then, I’m not prone to watching movies on portable devices. At the end of the day, it has about 60 or 70 percent battery life left.
Lenovo TPT stylus docks in the upper-left corner of the tablet when held in vertical position. Only the red button at top remains visible. It does not have a push-eject, so there's no tendency for it to eject accidentally. Simply pull it out to activate.
The stylus allows interacting with more precision-input applications, and the device seems to read my handwriting correctly. I can also input sketches, and it is very helpful when accessing websites that have very tightly-grouped links as well.
There’s a button on the stylus – powered by an AAAA battery – whose function I have not really figured out yet. And figuring out is the operative word because the user manual is an impenetrable 111-page black-and-white PDF written in jargon. Surely Lenovo could make something more interactive but it’s their first-generation device.
By Friday of the first week I was using it routinely for email, calendar, web interaction and note-keeping. I’m pretty sure I’ve just scratched the surface of what it can do but that isn’t bad for just a few days with a new kind of device, running an Operating System that I’ve never handled before. (I do have an iPod Touch that I use as a shirt-pocket computer, so an iPad couldn’t really be that unfamiliar).
Also, I took it to a meeting full of iPad users; it was like introducing a powerful magnet in a room full of iron filings. Everyone wanted (in the words of Stephen Fry, describing the iPad just 15 months ago) to see it, touch it, handle it, fondle it, and lick it. So the race is on, but Apple has about a thousand-mile head start. The winner, of course, is you and me; we’re using science-fiction devices in our daily lives now. It’s like a bicycle for the mind.
STUFF TACKED ON AT THE END:
- In case you want some less-disorganized blathering about the device, with actual facts and stuff in it, here’s ZDnet’s ThinkPad Tablet: Ready for the board room
- Update March 2012 – the power button is broken, tablet is in for repair. No idea when i’ll get it back. And the iPad III just came out. Or whatever they’re calling it.