Sunday, April 14, 2013

ThinkPad quality, tablet-style: Lenovo’s ThinkPad Tablet 2 reviewed The best an Intel Atom-powered tablet can be, at least until later this year.

The ThinkPad Tablet 2 in its keyboard stand.

Any tablet based on Intel's Clover Trail Atom platform is going to have the same strengths and weaknesses. They'll run all of your Windows desktop applications in a thin, light, and power-efficient package, but they only really run them well if said applications are relatively lightweight. This is simply the cost of using a 1.8GHz dual-core Atom CPU, 2GB of memory, and a slower storage interface rather than the full-blown Ultrabook guts of a tablet like Acer's Iconia W700. If you can look past those issues (as well as lackluster graphics performance), Clover Trail enables full Windows 8 tablets that aren't hampered by an inability to run third-party desktop applications.
The insides of Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet 2 are largely identical to those of the Acer Iconia W510 we reviewed recently. They share the same processor, amount and type of RAM, and storage interface. What Lenovo's Clover Trail tablet brings to the table is the ThinkPad name, which many PC buyers still swear by. Lenovo's entry packs most of the ThinkPad line's virtues into a tablet-sized package, which makes it compelling if you can get past Clover Trail's performance.

Very much a ThinkPad

The ThinkPad Tablet 2: a rectangle with a screen.

SCREEN1366x768 10.1" (155 ppi), 5-point capacitive touchscreen
OSWindows 8 Pro (32-bit)
CPUDual-core 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2670
RAM2GB DDR2 (non-upgradeable)
GPUImagination Technologies PowerVR SGX545
HDD64 solid-state drive (about 35GB available on 64GB drive after updates)
NETWORKING802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
PORTSMicro USB 2.0 for charging, full-size USB 2.0 for accessories, Micro HDMI, MicroSD card slot.
SIZE10.1” x 6.9” x 0.34” (262.6 x 164.6 x 9.8mm)
WEIGHT1.29 lbs (585g)
BATTERY30WHr lithium-polymer
OTHER PERKSActive digitizer and pen (in some configurations), optional keyboard stand accessory, optional VGA dongle, and optional dock accessory.
The ThinkPad lineup is known for having good build quality, and that's what the ThinkPad Tablet 2 brings to the table. The bulk of the tablet's casing is still made of plastic, but it's the same sturdy plastic that ThinkPad laptops use. The plastic has a slightly soft feel, similar (but not quite the same as) the rubbery coating used on the lids of the laptop ThinkPads. The Tablet 2 is to the iPad as ThinkPad laptops are to MacBooks—Lenovo favors plastic to metal, but their devices don't feel cheap and they're nice to use.
Looking at the back of the tablet, you can see that its edges aren't quite uniform. The top, bottom, and left edges are sloped, while the right edge is rounded. This makes the tablet more pleasant to hold in one's left hand, but more importantly provides a rounded compartment in which to hide the tablet's digitizer pen. The front of the tablet is made similarly asymmetrical by the pen receptacle and the bezel is narrower on the left side than the right.
Speaking of screens, the ThinkPad Tablet 2's 1366×768 IPS display is definitely good, though its pixel density can't compare with that of tablets like the Nexus 10 or full-sized iPad. As you'd expect from an IPS panel, the colors are bright and the viewing angles are good, though the screen does take on a slightly bluish cast when viewed from certain angles. The biggest problem if you're used to a high-density phone or tablet screen might be that the text is slightly fuzzy by comparison, but it doesn't really hurt the tablet's usability.
At 1.25 pounds, the Wi-Fi-only base model is slightly lighter than the full-size iPads, though adding the pen, digitizer, and cellular connectivity options increases this to 1.3 pounds. As with any widescreen tablet, using it one-handed for extended periods is a bit uncomfortable, but the weight is in line with other tablets of this size. It feels good in two hands and carrying it around in a bag is no problem.

 The top, bottom, and right (if you're looking at the front of the tablet) edges have a sharp taper, while the left edge is rounded. The rounded edge is a bit more pleasant to hold, and also stores the digitizer pen
The Tablet 2 has a physical Windows button rather than a capacitive one.
 The Tablet 2 stacked on top of a fourth-generation iPad. The tablet has a micro USB port for charging on its left side, as well as a full-size USB 2.0 port for accessories. The full-size USB port is hidden under a small flap.
On the top of the tablet, you'll find its power button and a compartment for a SIM and microSD card. Also note the red circle—that's the top of the pen.
On the right is a headphone jack, volume buttons, and a screen orientation lock button.
The bottom of the tablet houses the mini HDMI port and dock connector.

The Tablet 2 has two small stereo speakers that sound like you'd expect tablet speakers to sound: serviceable but tinny. Finally, the tablet includes both front- and rear-facing cameras. The 2MP front shooter is acceptable for video chatting but is pretty grainy in low-light, a common complaint with these webcams. The 8MP rear shooter is acceptable in cases where the Tablet 2 is the proverbial "camera you have with you" but most modern smartphones and point-and-shoots are going to give you superior image quality.

The ThinkPad Tablet 2's camera takes pictures with passable detail and color, for a tablet.
A picture taken in similar lighting with the fourth-generation iPad is a bit brighter and crisper.

All these inputs

Our review unit included two input devices, not counting the tablet's touchscreen: the digitizer pen and a Bluetooth keyboard that doubles as a stand. The pen is stored in a small compartment on the tablet's left side, and because it has a digitizer (rather than being capacitive) it's pretty accurate. Hovering the pen about an inch above the screen makes a cursor appear, making it easier to see exactly where the pen is going to land when you tap the screen. It complements the capacitive touchscreen nicely, especially in those (still too-common) occurrences when Windows 8 kicks you out of the Start screen environment to run this or that application or adjust this or that setting.

The Tablet 2's digitizer pen in all its glory.
The pen slides into and out of a compartment on the tablet's left side.
 Hover the pen above the tablet's screen, and a small cursor will appear to let you know exactly where you're tapping.

The keyboard stand is a little more interesting. Note that this isn't a keyboard dock in the sense of the Iconia W510 or some of the other Windows 8 and Windows RT convertibles we've seen—the two don't physically connect to one another, and the stand adds no additional ports and has its own separate battery (which is charged via micro USB). The tablet can't fold down over top of the stand to approximate a laptop. Rather, a small kickstand above the keyboard folds up, and the tablet is rested against it.
The tablet is stable when in this stand despite the lack of a retention mechanism, both when on a solid, flat surface like a desk, or a less-stable surface like a lap. The main issue is that, like other kickstand-using tablets, the screen's angle can't be adjusted. I found it to be most comfortable when resting on a desk, but I had to lean back slightly farther than I normally would to use the computer when it was in my lap. This will be a bit more difficult to negotiate when on a plane or in some other environment where you don't have a lot of control over how you sit.

The keyboard stand by itself. Note the "optical TrackPoint" in its center. Most of the keys here are full-size, but many on the left and right sides are narrower horizontally than on full-size ThinkPads.
 A kickstand folds out of the keyboard to prop the tablet up.
When in the stand, the screen's viewing angle is fixed, which may or may not cause problems for you

The keyboard itself isn't our favorite, but it has its virtues. Build quality and key travel are good, and it will be familiar to anyone who has used a ThinkPad keyboard recently. The main keys and the row of function keys are full-size and are in the same layout as something like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.Many of the other keys (shift, tab, ctrl, and its ilk) are horizontally narrower than they are on a standard ThinkPad keyboard. After breaking it in, we didn't have significant issues with typing problems, but your experience may vary.
The other difference between this dock and a standard ThinkPad is that it lacks a palm rest or touchpad, which does take some getting used to. The keyboard's "nub" is also different from the standard ThinkPad TrackPoint. Lenovo calls it an "optical TrackPoint," and it doesn't physically move in response to user input. Rather, you move your finger around on the TrackPoint's surface to move the cursor. Think of it as the world's tiniest touchpad.
I eventually got used to the way this TrackPoint works, but I feel confident in saying it trades accuracy and comfort for compactness. The cursor tends to go in the direction you want it to, but it can be a little jumpy. We'd recommend that you pack a Bluetooth mouse to go along with it unless you absolutely don't have the space for one.

The Tablet 2 in its dock accessory, which wasn't included with our review unit.

The Tablet 2 also has a few other accessories that weren't included with our review unit: there's a VGA adapter for use with monitors and projectors and a custom carrying case that can fit both the tablet and the keyboard stand. There's also a full-on dock, complete with an Ethernet jack, HDMI port, and extra USB ports that can be used to plug the tablet in at your desk. These docks tend to be popular in businesses, and though the Tablet 2's speed is a pretty far cry from a desktop (or even a docked laptop), it's an option that many other tablets don't offer.

Internals, performance, and battery life

The insides of the ThinkPad Tablet 2 are largely identical to those of Acer's Iconia W510: a dual-core 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2670 with an Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX545 GPU, 2GB of RAM, 64GB of storage (about 35 of which is usable out-of-the-box), Bluetooth 4.0, and dual-band Wi-Fi. We'll point you to that review for more detailed observations and benchmarks, but suffice it to say that Intel's Clover Trail platform provides CPU performance similar to ARM-based tablets, but can still run most of your x86 Windows applications.
As in the W510, the Tablet 2's GPU performance is on the slow side, which manifests in occasional user interface jerkiness and subpar performance in all but the simplest games. Disk performance also takes a significant hit, since the tablet uses an ARM-esque MMC interface rather than the SATA interface that is more traditional for PCs. The end result, as with the W510, is something that can run all of your Windows apps, but you won't want to use it for very heavy lifting.
These internals are slow, but they're slow for a reason. Like the Iconia W510, the Tablet 2 gets exceptional battery life for an Intel-powered computer. With the screen at 50 percent brightness, the tablet lasted for seven hours and 38 minutes while browsing, playing music, and other general usage tasks, almost exactly the same as the W510's seven hours and 28 minutes. However, unlike the W510 and some other convertibles, there's no second battery in the keyboard to extend the tablet's useful life. Keep that in mind if battery life is your number one concern.

The best Clover Trail can be

The ThinkPad Tablet 2 melds the ThinkPad name with a tablet form factor with a fair degree of success.

Our conclusions about Intel's Clover Trail platform remain the same as they were when we reviewed the Iconia W510: it's just a little slow (especially for GPU-intensive tasks) and tablets that use it are just a little expensive compared to similarly specced Android or iOS tablets. If you prefer the Windows 8 and Windows RT experience, or if you need to be able to run desktop Windows applications (Outlook is the killer app here), Clover Trail still provides a workable experience in a package that doesn't require the fans or thickness or weight of an Ivy Bridge-based tablet.
Provided that you're comfortable with Windows 8 and with Clover Trail's limitations, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is the best option on the market right now. The build quality is good, the digitizer and stylus helps in the cases where the seams between the Start screen and the desktop environment show through, and the battery life is in the same general arena as competing tablets. We have our concerns about the keyboard stand—in particular, it would be nice if it allowed for multiple viewing angles, and if it connected to the tablet to extend its battery life—but the tablet itself comes pretty close to delivering a good touch experience and a good desktop experience, at least for business users with no interest in gaming.
That said, if you can afford to wait, the next big thing is always right around the corner. In Intel's case, the next big thing is called "Bay Trail," and it should provide substantial boosts to both CPU and GPU performance when it hits tablets at the end of this year. If you're willing to be patient, this platform should ameliorate many of our biggest issues with Clover Trail. If not, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is the best option we've seen.

The good

  • Clover Trail runs all of your desktop apps without making the tablet too large, heavy, or hot
  • Build quality
  • Digitizer and pen provide a secondary, more accurate input option for heavy desktop users
  • Good battery life
  • Decent array of ports and expansion slots, given the size
  • 1366×768 IPS display is a good match for the screen size, though it has a low pixel density compared to competing iOS and Android tablets

The bad

  • Keyboard layout itself is good, but dock doesn't allow for multiple screen angles and doesn't extend the tablet's battery life
  • "Optical TrackPad" works well enough, but isn't our favorite input method
  • 2GB of RAM and Clover Trail's relatively slow performance may limit what you can get done

The ugly

  • Higher starting price than iOS or Android tablets, though not awful given the 64GB of expandable storage

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