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Lenovo IdeaPad A1 review: Lenovo IdeaPad A1

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The Good The Lenovo IdeaPad A1 includes front and rear cameras, Bluetooth, memory expansion, and a full-fledged Android experience, at a great price.

The Bad The screen has a bad viewing angle, the design is chunky, and the Android OS isn't the latest and greatest.

The Bottom Line The Lenovo A1 is a classic Android tablet, at an attractive price, but its subpar screen gives the competition an edge.

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7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6

Review Sections

The tablet market is quickly dividing into two camps: those competing against the iPad on the high end, and budget-minded products that compete with the Amazon Kindle Fire.

Priced as low as $199, the Lenovo IdeaPad A1 tablet clearly falls in the latter category. In fact, the spec sheet on this 7-inch tablet reads like the antidote to every complaint against the Kindle Fire. Lenovo's tablet packs more storage, more features, and offers a larger app store than any other tablet we've seen at this price.

So, is the Lenovo A1 the new king of budget tablets?

Design
The Lenovo A1 looks and feels an awful lot like the original Samsung Galaxy Tab from 2010. The paperback book-size tablet measures just under a half-inch thick and weighs 14 ounces.

Aside from the chimed Lenovo logo staring you in the face at the top of the screen, there's really not much to visually distinguish this tablet from any other 7-inch slate made in the last two years. The back is covered in a glossy black plastic that scuffs at the slightest provocation. Also, the backlit Android navigation buttons at the bottom of the screen only seem to light up after you touch them, somewhat defeating the purpose of lighting them up at all.

Another annoyance with the A1 is that Lenovo has locked the home screen orientation to portrait mode. It's not a big dilemma, but it can be annoying when you exit a landscape-designed app and are forced to reorient the tablet in order to navigate around.

For all of my peeves, Lenovo did make some great design choices on the A1. Just like the Apple iPad, the A1 employs a physical volume rocker and screen orientation lock switch on its left edge. As basic as that might sound, it's a feature you will not find on the Kindle Fire. Another convenience is the microSD memory expansion slot on the bottom edge, alongside the Micro-USB charging port and an integrated speaker.

Features and software
The Lenovo A1 does what the Kindle Fire doesn't. It can shoot pictures and video with its front and rear cameras (meager though they are). It can connect to wireless speakers over Bluetooth. It can find you on a map with its integrated GPS. And after filling the A1 up with all of your music and video files, you can simply buy a microSD card to give yourself more room. In many ways, the Lenovo A1 offers the features of a $200 Android 2.3 smartphone, on a $200 7-inch tablet.

But all is not as sweet as it seems. In particular, Lenovo's take on Android 2.3 is a bit maddening. The company's plopped two customized launchers on the home screen--one in the center of the screen, and the other in the dock. Neither of these customizations can be deleted. The central launcher can be personalized, at least, and defaults to useful apps for videos, e-mail, music, reading, and Web browsing. The dock launcher, unfortunately, lacks any customization options, offers a redundant link out to the Web browser, and acts as a home to Lenovo's own app store. For a platform that prides itself on its customization, Lenovo's permanent fixtures on the home screen are an unwelcome addition.

Performance
The screen quality on the Lenovo IdeaPad A1 tablet isn't great. In a world without the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, and their gorgeous IPS displays, it would be easier to forgive a bad viewing angle in light of a low price. Unfortunately, the competition has already proven that display quality matters to consumers, even at the expense of cameras, GPS, Bluetooth, and even storage capacity.

Now, in spite of one hellacious viewing angle, the A1's screen isn't bad. Its brightness can be cranked to an impressive level, and the native 600x1,024-pixel resolution is no better or worse than the Kindle Fire's. Even e-books fare rather well on the A1's screen. Really, it's videos, photos, games, and image-heavy Web browsing that run up against the screen's viewing-angle issue. If your main purpose for the A1 is e-mail or reading, then it's a fine fit.

The A1's overall system performance is perfectly adequate. During my limited time with the device I experienced no crashes, and app launch time never tested my patience. Intense games such as Riptide GP ran with no issue, though the graphic quality was obviously scaled down compared with the experience on something like a quad-core Asus Transformer Prime.

Lenovo rates the A1 for approximately 7 hours of normal use, which is in the ballpark of the Kindle Fire, but less than the 9 hours you'll pull from a Nook Tablet. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)
Lenovo IdeaPad A1 4

Final thoughts
The Lenovo IdeaPad A1 is for all of those Android fans who were drawn to the Amazon Kindle Fire's $199 price tag, but couldn't take the plunge without a few more basic tablet features thrown in, not to mention a more conventional Android software experience. If you can look past the mediocre screen quality, the Lenovo IdeaPad A1 is one of the best tablet values around.

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