Apparently, the whole world's gone crazy for tablets (or, at least one of them). A tablet makes the perfect ultraportable companion for browsing the Web, checking e-mail, and watching movies on the go. But if tablets represent the future of portable computing, they'll need to become robust business machines, as well.
Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet isn't the thinnest or prettiest tablet out there, and its $499 (16GB) base price doesn't make it a bargain, but it fills a niche with business users that no iPad or Honeycomb slate has been able to claim.
Editors note: For details on the advantages Android 4.0 offers over Honeycomb, check the Android 4.0 section of the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime review.
The ThinkPad Tablet feels like a coffee table book. It's a big, tough tablet, and for some professionals that's probably a selling point. Held in portrait orientation (the preferred view, judging by the direction of the logos and labels), it measures 10.2 inches tall, 7.2 inches wide, and 0.5 inch thick. A front-facing 2-megapixel camera sits in the top-right corner, with a 5-megapixel camera on the flip side. The back is covered in a nonslip matte finish tastefully emblazoned with the Lenovo and ThinkPad logos.
When it comes to distinguishing details, the first thing we noticed are the four tactile navigation buttons located on the bottom of the screen, including buttons for screen rotation lock, Web browser, back, and home. For better or worse, there are also onscreen navigation buttons above them, which are represented as back, home, recent apps, and app wheel (a Lenovo customization). We'll cut Lenovo a little slack on the oddly redundant buttons since we can imagine some professional situations in which having tactile controls is a necessity, such as a construction site or hospital, where gloves might make the screen unresponsive.
Another detail you'll notice about the ThinkPad Tablet is that it looks as if someone drilled a hole in its side. Lenovo has smartly integrated a cubbyhole into the side of the tablet for holding its optional digital pen accessory. What's more, there are holes on both the pen and the tablet that allow you to attach the pricey pen ($39.99) for safekeeping. It's the best design we've seen yet for those who need regular access to a pen digitizer. If you don't plan on using the ThinkPad Tablet with a stylus, Lenovo includes a plastic cover that plugs the hole.
Lenovo's spin on Android
Android tablet makers are in a tough position. Android purists are always quick to criticize when a manufacturer monkeys with Google's code or bundles in unnecessary software. But without these idiosyncrasies, it's nearly impossible to make a Honeycomb tablet that can stand out and showcase a company's brand.
For better or worse, the Android 3.1 installed on the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet is not for purists. It comes with more than 30 applications preinstalled, ranging from big names like Netflix and Kindle to in-house productions, like SocialTouch (a messaging aggregator) and Lenovo App Shop.
The best of Android 3.1 is still here, though. You get the official Android Market, along with Google's mobile apps for Maps, Gmail, Navigation, Books, and Google Talk. The celebrated Honeycomb Web browser is located literally front and center on the ThinkPad Tablet's home screen, housed within an editable dashboard of common actions (watch videos, read e-mail, listen to music, and read books). Lenovo calls this central dashboard the Lenovo Launcher, and though we thought it was a useful addition, you have the freedom to delete it if you choose.
Unfortunately, there is one Lenovo customization you can't change. On the bottom of the screen, positioned at the center of the navigation bar, is an odd speech-bubble icon that launches an overlay of your favorite apps. Lenovo calls this feature the App Wheel, and as the name implies, you navigate through these apps by spinning through the overlay like a Lazy Susan. An additional icon at the center of the wheel allows you to add or delete apps from this quick list. We like the concept, but it ultimately ends up creating more clutter and confusion. With the standard app drawer accessible from the upper-right corner, and recently used apps accessible from the lower-left corner, Honeycomb has no need for a third app menu in a third corner.
We don't see the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet as the kind of tablet most consumers would order for themselves. No, like many ThinkPads, this is more likely to be the sort of thing your company orders for you.
Lenovo has deep ties with corporate IT and enterprise customers, and a tradition of providing customized packages and reliable support. In that same tradition, the ThinkPad Tablet software can be completely tailored, down to customized app stores.