Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 Review (Take Two!)

Revisions – Sometimes I issue them.

Almost a week ago I put up a review which was largely negative about the ThinkPad Tablet 2. I criticised the inconsistent performance and general low power of the device, even for an Atom tablet. Since then I’ve played with it some more and decided to reissue the review. It occurs to me that I’m approaching the tablet from the wrong perspective – this isn’t a laptop replacement, nor should it be considered as one. It will not replace your desktop. But when stacked up against an iPad or Android tablet, or the now-laughable Surface RT, my opinion changes somewhat. Hence in retrospect I’ve decided to reissue the review and clarify a few things. I still have complaints… but less than I once did.

What is it?

Perfect size!
Perfect size!

The ThinkPad Tablet 2 is Lenovo’s second attempt at a tablet, directed more at the enterprise market. It’s an Intel Atom dual-core powered tablet running at 1.8ghz, with 2GB of RAM. Yes, that makes it an x86 tablet. The 10.1” display has a resolution of 1366×768 (720p). All configuration options come with a USB 2.0 port, micro SD card slot, and Wifi. The low end has a 32GB eMMC storage unit while the higher end ones come with 64GB, with about 36GB usable out of that 64GB (due to a recovery partition, the 32GB one uses a recovery USB because Lenovo clearly realised that not being able to use most of that 32GB makes it useless). Of course with a micro SD slot you can keep expanding, but with only a USB 2.0 port HDD connectivity will be a bit slow. It also charges by micro USB.

The high end range also comes with a bundle of connectivity options, including 3G, NFC, and GPS radios. There are two cameras (one front, one rear, neither anything to write home about) and two speakers, which surprisingly are fairly loud and not bad for tablet speakers. To cap it all off, the higher end model comes with a digitiser with a pen. The tablet doesn’t run at 1080p for a screen res so that might not be such an issue but a digitiser is still a much welcomed addition. We’ll get to that in a bit. Video out is handled by a mini HDMI port. Not micro, but mini.

Lenovo bundle a bit of software but it’s not a significant amount. They load on Kindle, Evernote and Skitch, along with Skype and rara.com (and I have no idea what that is). Their own software includes a Settings applet to configure a few things, a Companion app to tell you how great Lenovo and Windows 8 is, a Support app (for getting help), some sort of security app from Norton, and a tool to allow you to take screenshots with the pen. They also bundle Lenovo Cloud Storage (powered by Sugar Sync) and a trial of Office 2010. There’s a few other driver-related apps plus a trial of Nitro PDF Pro. Thankfully, general bloat has been kept to a minimum – most of those (including the Security app) are Metro apps.

The Good

The pen works. Yeah, slow caption day.
The pen works. Yeah, slow caption day.

The primary benefit of the TPT2 is that it’s an x86 tablet in a light and manageable form factor. The Core i5 tablets aren’t comfortable to hold in one hand. This thing is. Hypothetically if you wanted to read an ebook while taking a dump, you can manage it just fine with this. There are no distracting fans either, it’s silent. It’s quite thin and although 64GB isn’t a lot of space, the option to add in a micro SD card solves that little issue. It also has fairly decent battery life – I’d estimate about 8 hours of average use, which is under the 10 hours claimed by Lenovo, with half screen brightness. Turn on all the radios in the high end model and battery life isn’t good. Standby battery life (“sleep” mode, though unlike some i5 tablets apps like Mail still run in the background) is quite good too – you won’t lose a lot of charge on standby mode.

The Atom tablet hasn’t changed significantly from the netbook era but it’s capable enough to manage most tasks. Metro apps are far, far faster than on the Surface RT, to the point where ARM tablets might as well be obsolete in the Windows sector. Desktop app performance isn’t quite so stellar as we’ll see in a moment, but for running Office or most general apps it’s sufficient. Photostop, AutoCAD? Forget it. Technically you can run them but the experience won’t be pleasant, you’ll need a beefier Core i5 tablet for that.

Media performance in general is okay – I could play 1080p movies through Windows Media Player or the Metro UI media player just fine. VLC on the other hand would drop frames and wouldn’t work well at all. It’s a similar story with Chrome – while IE10 in Metro mode runs fine, Chrome is sluggish (even in Windows 8 mode). That said Chrome’s tablet support is still horrible, so despite all things telling me not to say this, I’d recommend IE10 for tablets. At least for now.

The digitiser is another useful addition – it actually offers a bit of pressure sensitivity and it works fairly well, with a button to provide for a right-click. It seems to get inaccurate around the edges of the screen. For taking notes in OneNote or maybe for some general sketching it’s definitely not bad. Note that the basic model does not come with a digitiser, even though you can (stupidly) order a pen along with it.

The Bad

W700 seen on the bottom, TPT2 set on top.
W700 seen on the bottom, TPT2 set on top.

Initially I said that performance was quite poor but in retrospect I was probably expecting a little too much, and after playing with the tablet some more it seems that my previous criticisms aren’t quite so bad. My original review stated that Youtube and Hulu (for example) were unusable – they would drop frames and lag like hell, but they initially started out fine. Under IE10 in Metro mode these problems are largely gone on Youtube. Hulu still shows a few dropped frames (regardless of quality) and sometimes it becomes quite noticeable, but it doesn’t get to the point where it’s completely unwatchable. I’m still not happy with streaming media performance, but it’ll do when required.

Performance issues appear when the tablet heats up in the right corner. It seems like Lenovo have some sort of overzealous throttling enabled, and there’s no way to turn it off. Good news is that if that’s the case a BIOS update or other driver update should be able to solve it. Bad news is that it might also reflect a design flaw, in which case there is no fix.

Build quality is sort of… mixed. Initially I thought it was great but on closer inspection (and in reading the forums) there seem to be some issues. I’ve seen reports of screens separating from the casing and a major bug with the wireless antenna which causes poor wireless performance. My tablet came with a small mark on the left bezel, and pushing on the tablet’s back plate can cause screen distortion in some places. It feels solid but I wouldn’t want to drop it.

Another issue is price – the base model isn’t cheap at near $800 AUD, with the high end model reviewed here at nearly $1000! We’re approaching Core i5 tablet range with those prices, which can be more capable than the Atom CPU reviewed here. It makes it a bit harder to recommend this thing when the price is so high. Honestly, getting the base model is a waste of money – if there’s no digitiser, it’s not worth picking up.

Overall: Good (With caveats)

First and foremost – this will not replace your laptop or your desktop. A Core i5 tablet would replace a laptop. This device (in fact any Atom tablet) lacks the power under the hood to compete.  It won’t do very well with Photoshop. It’s not going to edit videos. It’s not going to play games (that said I did test Total Annihilation and had no issues, but that’s quite an old game). But it does have one significant advantage over the Core i5 tablets: it actually works as a tablet. The Core i5 tablets are quite heavy and often come with noisy fans, which is what happens when you have a high end CPU inside. They don’t work very well as tablets – they feel more like ultrabooks without a keyboard. The ThinkPad Tablet 2, with its light weight, has all the portability of an iPad or Android tablet, while also being a full x86 computer. It runs a full version of Office, or Quicken, or that ECG Analysis app.

There are issues and bugs, but Lenovo are listening to community feedback and they are out to fix problems. The performance concerns I’ve listed seem like they can be fixed. If they are fixed then it’s honestly had for me to recommend any Android tablet over this thing. Held up against an iPad or an Android tablet, this is way more capable. Any Atom tablet is. You might accept an iPad if you’re an Apple fan but I don’t know why anyone would want an Android tablet instead of an Atom-powered Windows 8 tablet. This thing is what I’d expect from a tablet where a tablet is what we’re seeing from iPads and Android tabs, not the “new wave” Core i5 tablets. The Core i5 tabs aren’t going to get much thinner or quieter without performance compromises, and they’re not great as tablets. Coming from this perspective, the ThinkPad Tablet 2 is a good product.

But I have a big issue – the price. Lenovo have never been cheap – Lenovo is to Enterprise as Apple is to Hipster, and there might be cheaper tablets out there. The base WiFi model isn’t worth buying, but the high end one is uncomfortably expensive. It’s a great tab, but is it that great? I’m not 100% sure. I got mine at a significant discount, but if I’d paid the full price for it might not be so convinced.

In short if you’re looking to replace your laptop, and you rely on your laptop to do heavy jobs like Photostop, lots of streaming media, or video encoding, this tablet won’t suit you. But if you need a companion for editing documents, general internet browsing, and something that actually works as a tablet, then add it to your shortlist. Just explore your options.

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