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Fully Reviewed: Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet

November 29th, 2011

I declared a couple of months ago that Lenovo had marketed its ThinkPad Tablet to the wrong crowd. It’s 10″ screen and pressure sensitive stylus made it stick out as the first real contender for the title of Cintiq-on-the-cheap. Lucky me, someone at Lenovo read the post and offered up a review unit. Of course, I couldn’t pass that up. So… after a few couple of months using this thing as much as I could, I am walking away with mixed feelings about the device. Overall it’s a good piece of equipment, but depending on what you are looking for out of a tablet, it is either the solution you’ve been waiting for or yet another tease. Hit the jump for a full review.

Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet

Unlike the tech blogs who got their reviews of this thing out there after a week of use, I was evaluating the tablet specifically from a drawing perspective. I didn’t pay much attention to most of the packed-in Lenovo apps–and there are a good number of them–nor did I spend a lot of time using this as my only device. In this review, I do address some of the other aspects of the tablet, but if you want a review of it against its non-stylus competitors, I recommend you look elsewhere.

One last thing to note is that after having the ThinkPad Tablet for a couple of months, Autodesk released an update of Sketchbook Pro on Thanksgiving day that addressed some of the serious complaints I had. That means that I haven’t had nearly as long to get used to a couple of the features.

Price

While the MSRP pricing starts at $499 for a 16GB model sans stylus, you can find one on Amazon for $429. You still need to buy $39.99 stylus, but when all is said and done, it still comes right in around $500 for the package, including shipping. You can get up to a 64GB model, adding another $200 to the total.

Hardware/Specs

This thing has connection options out the wazoo (which I believe is the technical term for the sides of the tablet). It will take an full size SD card, a USB drive, has mini-HDMI out and a slot for a 3G SIM card (which I did not test). The screen is a very pretty 10.1″ IPS panel with 1280×800 resolution. The processor is a sufficient 1.0 GHz Tegra 2 dual-core with a healthy 1GB of RAM. It lacks for nothing in the specs department. Sure, there are faster tablets just getting to the market, but this tablet is spec’d well enough that it’s not worth trading the stylus for a little bump in the horsepower department.

There are front and rear-facing cameras (5 mexapixel in back, 2 up front), that do the trick, but weren’t so awesome that they compensate for the general awkward-ness of using a Tablet as a camera. Still, if they weren’t there, I’m sure I would complain about their absence, especially the back facing.

The 5.0 megapixel camera takes usable photos.

The 5.0 megapixel camera takes usable photos.

The front facing camera is in an odd spot in one of the corners, making it a little odd to take photos of oneself and for video conferencing, which is about all a front-facing camera is good for. Still, I have a phone to cover my vanity requirements, and no one likes to see me when we talk, so, through disuse, this was a non-issue. The rear facing camera in on the other side in the same corner, but the orientation doesn’t have the same impact since you’re not trying to capture yourself with it. The one thing that is missing is a flash, but it’s not a deal killer; I don’t use a flash to draw.

Self portrait with front camera, arms straight out, tablet centered.

Self portrait with front camera, arms straight out, tablet centered.

Design

In a previous life, I carried a (then IBM) Thinkpad laptop for work and the design of this tablet is pure nostalgia. The well crafted flat black soft touch case certainly won’t stick out as a style leader, but nor it it unattractive to look at. What works best for me it the big red end of the stylus sticking out at the corner, a blatant reference to the tablet’s heritage, accompanied by an LED lit dot on the “i” in the ThinkPad logo. The soft touch surface does show oil from your hands pretty easily, but it cleans up quickly and with little effort. Overall the ThinkPad Tablet has a clean look with a couple of well executed details, but it won’t be drawing comments from passers-by.

Yeah, it's thick than some of the competition, but it isn't huge.

Yeah, it's thick than some of the competition, but it isn't huge.

The size is a little bigger (mostly thicker at 14.5mm) than the competition, but that’s like calling a VW Golf large compared to a Mini Cooper. Both are a usable size and there are sacrifices that come with the smaller form factor. There would not be a place for the all of the ports on this thing if it was thinner. It still fits in the universal tablet bag that I carry my iPad in, so I believe that’s all that needs to be said. It’s 1.65 lb., which heavier than it could be, but light enough that the difference isn’t important.

The requisite comparison shots with "that other tablet." The ThinkPad is longer, but not as wide.

The requisite comparison shots with "that other tablet." The ThinkPad is longer, but not as wide.

There are four physical buttons on the front, oriented at the bottom if you are holding it in portrait mode. The outside of the buttons don’t depress, making them a little stiff to the touch, but that is just nit-picking. I’d rather have them too stiff to press than too easy to accidentally press.

OS

It should be noted that I am not an experienced Android user. This applies to all of Android and not just tablet versions. As such, I have chosen to not make this a review about the custom Honeycomb 3.1 that comes on this system.

Lenovo has made some tweaks, including a home screen quick launcher and the ability to kill apps quickly and easily. Most importantly, though, it has Netflix pre-installed, allowing me to avoid working more effectively than just about any other app. Since I really am a novice Android user, let’s suffice to say that it does the trick overall, though notably missing a screen-capture function and the ability to remove the system bar (soft buttons and clock) at the bottom of the screen. These are both Honeycomb limitation and not restricted to the ThinkPad Tablet. The lack of screen capture certainly inhibits my ability to illustrate this review.

Drawing

OK, OK! I know, you’ve already read all that other stuff long ago in other reviews. You’re reading this one because I promised to review this as a Cintiq-on-the-cheap.

The comparison I will be making to a Wacom Cintiq are specific to the 12WX model, since if you’re looking for a Cintiq-on-the-cheap, it’s the closest thing to your price range, coming in at around $950.

The Drawing Hardware

The obvious advantage of the ThinkPad Tablet over every other 10″ tablet on the market is the pressure sensitive stylus. It fits neatly inside of the Tablet, making sure you have it wherever you go. It uses N-trig’s tech, same as the HTC products, and it is sensitive to 256 levels of pressure. It was included for business exec that just can’t get the hang of a virtual keyboard, but thank goodness it was. If has a fine tip, unlike the finger-wide tips of all the capacitive styli on the market. It is THE reason to buy this tablet if you are and artist or designer.

The stylus has an aluminum body that gives it a solid feel without being too light. The tip/nib is replaceable if needed and there is a single button on the side that I never actually found a use for since I spent all of my time in Sketchbook Pro and not messing with the Lenovo Apps. Oh, and the back end is red with a similar texture and look as the nubs that distinguish ThinkPad computers from the competition. I don’t like that the thing takes a single AAAA battery, but it’s actually where part of the heft and balance come from and the size has become a little easier to find over the last few years. That’s just part of the N-Trig tech.

Perhaps a future version of Sketchpad Pro will use that little black button.

Perhaps a future version of Sketchpad Pro will use that little black button.

One important thing that this tablet offers as part of the input package–and the smallest Cintiq does not–is a multitouch screen. Sure, the Cintiq has touch strips on the side, but that isn’t nearly as natural as just grabbing, pinching and zooming. My hand quickly found a position that allowed me to hold the pen while still getting two fingers from that same hand on the screen to maneuver the drawing.

Another advantage offered by this tablet is its form-factor. The screen is a little smaller than the 12WX, but not so much as to put it in a different class. It’s still big enough to draw on without feeling too limited, especially if you use the ease of the multitouch zoom/pan to your advantage. Also, if you’re like me and actually spin the paper when you’re drawing old-school, the lack of cables tethering the ThinkPad Tablet to your computer and its smaller form make that a much easier proposition. The soft-touch flat black finish, on the other had, gives a lot of friction, but there are ways to overcome that pretty easily.

The feel of the stylus tip on the glass is very good, though not quite perfect. It’s a little too slick, but I’m guessing that’s a trade off between firmness and slide and I’d rather have a firm tip. I can’t stand the capacitive styli with the smushy tips. As mentioned, the button on the side of the stylus doesn’t have any programmable function in Sketchbook Pro, but the it’s barely noticeable, so it’s not like it rubs its inherent uselessness in your face.

Sketching

The first thing I did when I unboxed the tablet was to jump onto Android Marketplace and buy Sketchbook Pro. I’m guessing most of you already are somewhat familiar with the software, but to touch on it quickly, it’s a scaled-down version of the software for the desktop. It’s overall very usable, fairly feature-rich, and, best of all, very affordable. Alas, it’s currently on sale for $1.99, so I can’t tell you how much it costs regularly, but I believe it is under $7. For $7, you transform the ThinkPad Tablet into a pretty serious sketching machine.

The Good

Some time over the summer, without much fanfare, Autodesk updated Sketchbook Pro to utilize pressure sensitive styli if available. It works well. There are no setting for it, just a checkbox to turn sensitivity on and off. Only some of the tools take advantage of the pressure option, but this is where the ThinkPad Tablet and its stylus shine.

A representation of most of the tools that utilize pressure sensitivity in Sketchbook Pro.

A representation of most of the tools that utilize pressure sensitivity in Sketchbook Pro.

The Tablet has palm recognition, meaning that if you drop your palm on the screen and then start drawing with the stylus, it ignores your palm as input. Try that on ANY other tablet with a capacitive screen and you will be sorely disappointed. Still, it does take a little getting used to. If you place your palm on the screen and don’t pause long enough before drawing, you do get a line between your palm and the stylus. A little practice, though, and this happens less and less.

Sketchbook Pro has had a forked development for Android and iOS, something that isn’t readily apparent from screen shots of the two. iOS had pin-able color and tool palettes as well as a radial menu that made it infinitely easier to use while Android has had straight and circular drawing guides that you can drag on/off the screen without having to pull up a menu. It’s super-usable, though the pinned palettes and radial menu are better if you have to choose. Sketchbook 2.0 for Android suddenly adds in those pin-able palettes and a customizable radial menu (iOS’ menu is not customizable) while keeping the drawing guides.

After a day or two of sketching after the update, the radial menu is a definite winner. It allows you to add up to 8 tools, including different set-ups of the same tool. This makes it super easy to emulate the 3 line thickness drawing style that I do most rough sketches with. The radial menu is saved with the drawing. You do have to set up the menu again if you open a completely new drawing.

Between the pressure sensitive stylus and the additional features, the ThinkPad Tablet combined with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro is the best mobile sketching setup… but it isn’t perfect.

The Bad

The pressure necessary to make a line is a little higher than it should be. It takes a little practice to hit the lightest pressure just right. Quick double taps don’t typically register, either. As a result, it’s faster to use your finger to tap the hot spots for undo, redo, clear screen and expand.

While in general the tablet experience is pretty good, there is the occasional lag. It comes when you’re panning/zooming or transforming a layer. It’s inconsistent and I can’t guess as to why. It’s annoying, but you can work around it.

As mentioned, some of the biggest issues were addressed Thursday in a sneaky update from Autodesk. It’s great news, but I haven’t had the months with those fixes that I’ve had with everything else. I’ll explain the biggest issue that was plaguing this set-up, the way that Autodesk addressed it with yesterday’s update and my first impressions of the fix.

The most glaring issue that I came across while using this Tablet as a drawing tool came from a combination of limitations of Android and a poor design decision by Autodesk. While I’m sure you’re interested in this thing as a drawing tool, doubtless you’ll be able to resist using it for ANY other function, at which point you’ll hit this issue. Android has a limited “app life” and no save-states for apps. This means that if you are drawing and get distracted by an alert that pops up telling you that your mother emailed you (“Your father’s shooting at squirrels again!”) and you switch to GMail, you’ve pushed Sketchbook from being the prominent app.

If you take too long to get back, or if that email leads you off on a tangent and you open more apps, Android will stop giving any resources to Sketchbook. When you jump back into it, the apps loads from the beginning, losing any work that was done since you last saved. The easy solution is to make sure you save any time you leave the app, but Sketchbook makes that harder than it sounds. There is not a traditional way to save your work. The only ways to save it are to jump to the gallery or open a new document. You are then given the option to save, but after, you’re either in a new document or in your gallery, requiring you to re-open the drawing you were working on.

The 2.0 update introduces auto-save, which helps address this issue, though it leaves me scratching my head about why they still haven’t given a straight up Save feature. You know, like every piece of computer software has had since 1980-something? The problem is that you don’t know when the last auto-save was. When you’ve expired the app life of Sketchbook and return to it, it asks if you want to recover your last work. Hitting yes usually pulls things up as you’ve left them, but occasionally, it is missing the last few things you did. The 2.0 update feels like a band-aid where stitches would be appropriate. But at least it’s something, right?

As a side note, iOS has a “saved state” for apps, so when you come back to your work several days later, it is still how you left it. This only highlights how frustrating the Android issue is. For sketching, thought, I would still choose the ThinkPad Tablet setup.

The Ugly

Honeycomb introduced full time soft buttons at the bottom of the screen. While they don’t quite duplicate the function of the hard buttons on the ThinkPad Tablet, they aren’t always needed and are a major source of annoyance in Sketchbook. You simply can’t get rid of them. And while with most uses of the Tablet, that isn’t an issue, it is when you are drawing on what should be a full screen drawing app. The back button is very close to the default undo hot spot, in the lower left corner. The occasional, sloppy undo attempt turns up the Exit menu. Sure you can cancel it out, but it is a serious annoyance. Laying your palm on the clock brings up a systems menu. Lame. During movie playback, they gray out, which is good, but there is no way to just turn them off in Sketchbook or any other app.

There is no way to get rid of the bar at the bottom of the screen while using Sketchbook Pro.

There is no way to get rid of the bar at the bottom of the screen while using Sketchbook Pro.

Those dots at the bottom of the screen during Netflix playback are as hidden as the soft buttons get and they are still just as sensitive.

Those dots at the bottom of the screen during Netflix playback are as hidden as the soft buttons get and they are still just as sensitive.

Aside from the wonky app life/save and soft button issues, the ThinkPad Tablet’s greatest weakness (and Android’s greatest weakness) versus the Cintiq 12WX is the lack of apps for creativity. There are a few drawing apps, but that’s really it and I haven’t found one that offers a single compelling feature over Sketchbook. Sketchbook is a really good app, but it isn’t a full version, like you would have on your computer with a Cintiq. It only handles 6 layers and it has a cap on the resolution, though I can’t seem to find official numbers on what that is.

What I miss the most, though, is a proper vector graphics app. I never used Illustrator or its ilk much on my computer, but I’ve found that now that I’m doing a lot more work on an iPad, the intuitive input of a touchscreen has opened up vector graphics to me in a way that I would never have imagined. I’ll write it up soon, but I have even created usable data on an iPad and taken it almost directly to the CNC. As of this writing, there are still no vector graphics apps for Android.

If you need Photoshop abilities from your drawing tablet, Android is not the OS you are looking for. Until Adobe get’s it act together, this is a segment left sadly lacking.

Drawing Summary

To sum the creative experience on the Android Tablet; in a lot of ways, it feels like a breath of fresh air in a capacitive stylus world, on the second breath, you notice there is still the slightest odor. Still, there is plenty more to a tablet experience than just drawing. I’ll go over the rest of the tablet experience briefly and give my final thoughts.

Life with the ThinkPad Tablet

Please keep in mind that I do not have much experience with any other Android Tablet. The benchmark I used to rate the overall experience was the iPad, for better or worse.

The battery life is decent. Video Playback on wifi kills it off around the eight hour mark, which is perfectly respectable. Drawing seems to take a little bit out of it, but I never managed to draw long enough to hit the battery limit.

Overall, everything on the tablet seems just the slightest bit laggy. We’re not talking much and it is very hard to quantify. You hit the screen and sometimes there is just the slightest hesitation before you get a result. I am under the impression that this describes the Honeycomb experience, but again, I don’t know.

The browser is perfectly functional but laggy. I understand that Ice Cream Sandwich has made major browser improvements, but I do not know what Lenovo’s plans are for upgrading. It isn’t a deal killer, but it can be annoying. It takes some of the fun out of wandering your way across the web.

Netflix works like a champ and shows off the tablet’s very nice screen, but the Tablet’s single speaker is very quiet. The sound quality is fine, but you typically can’t hear it over any background noise. If you need sound for more than system alerts, plan on a headphone experience.

Reading on the tablet is a perfectly good experience. Zinio has the slightest stutter on page turns, but the Kindle app works flawlessly.

The Gmail app is good and supports multiple accounts very well, but, strangely, doesn’t have support for groups. This is a standard Android app.

The virtual keyboard is decent, with some sort of predictive text being available, but as you know, with Android, you can pick your own.

Lenovo did send me the Folio keyboard case. It has a very solid feel and the keys are big enough to type on and have a very good feel. It connects via the USB port on the Tablet so it doesn’t require it’s own battery, but it definitely drains the Tablet’s battery down. It also bars the use of a USB drive while docked, meaning you have to save your work either internally or to a SD card and transfer it later if you need. Fortunately, though, Lenovo left all of the other ports exposed while docked.

The Folio keyboard is a well made accessory that makes typing more than a few sentences way less painful.

The Folio keyboard is a well made accessory that makes typing more than a few sentences way less painful.

The interesting thing about the keyboard is that when docked, the Tablet gains a pointer, controlled by an optical nub in its traditional ThinkPad place between the g and h keys. It operates like your finger, though after some time, I gave up and just started using my finger again. For one thing, even on it’s fastest setting, a full swipe side to side only covers 80% of the horizontal real estate. It’s good to have the option, though, and some my prefer the feel and the improved accuracy over their blunt finger for cursor placement. The arrow keys are a welcome addition to the tablet writing experience as well.

The Folio keyboard definitely improves the writing experience over the virtual keyboard, but I would hesitate to say that it makes the ThinkPad Tablet a full-on laptop replacement. This is due to both how the OS handles the keyboard and the software available. Holding the delete key, for example enters repeated keystrokes faster than are reflected on the screen. When you let go, you typically are unpleasantly surprised by the delete process continuing further than you had intended.

Docs-to-Go is pre-installed on the ThinkPad Tablet and is a usable document editor, but it is far from refined. I wrote this entire post in Doc-to-Go… but I couldn’t bring myself to edit in it. Moving sections of text around is not easy and there is a glaring lack of spell check, let alone an active spell check. I didn’t realize how much a part of my writing process that played until I no longer had them available.

Still, if one buys a ThinkPad Tablet, the Folio keyboard case is a well spent $99. It brings a lot more functionality to the tablet, and feels better than any 3rd party travel keyboard I’ve used.

Conclusion

The ThinkPad Tablet is overall a cool piece of hardware and I could feel good about recommending it to users with specific needs. If your primary need is an affordable sketching tool with a pressure sensitive stylus and multitouch display, the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet is the best option, hands down. But if you need more from your tablet, it isn’t the best choice. If you use a multitude of applications and can afford to sacrifice the portability of an untethered tablet and multitouch input, you might want to save up for a Cintiq 12WX. If you want a portable device that can handle sketching and vector graphics, and are willing to give up the pressure sensitive stylus, I’d recommend and iPad. Of course, there’s a fourth option that opens up when you realize that the cost of an entry ThinkPad Tablet AND and entry level iPad come to almost the same as a Cintiq 12WX…

What’s clear, though, is that hardware is clearly no longer the limiting factor of the ever-lasting quest for the Cintiq-on-the-cheap. Lenovo has delivered a pretty solid product that has the necessary equipment, but is held back by both some issues with the Android operating system and with a lack of serious design software. It’s frustrating because this tablet wants so badly to be the perfect solution for the creative type. And if you just need a sketching tablet, it’s good.

As a final thought, I want to call out Wacom and Adobe for failing to jump on this market a long time ago. Wacom could deliver their own Android tablet using their technology and it would be snapped up in a heart beat by every designer out there. They have dabbled with software on the mobile side–with their half-hearted Bamboo drawing app for the iPad–and I’d love to see them take on software seriously.

Adobe, on the other hand, has even less of an excuse. We’ve been using versions of their creative suite apps on less powerful computers than these tablets for a couple of decades (well before the Creative Suite branding even existed). The Photoshop Express app they offer is useful, but that it bears the name Photoshop is almost a joke. They showed off a proper Photoshop at PhotoshopWorld 2011, but we have seen nothing since. Give us real apps to let a device like the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet meet its potential. Please!

Title Image Credit: Lenovo
Image Credit: Jeffrey Matthias unless otherwise noted

Filed under: REVIEWS TECH

  • David B

    Hi, thank you for that review. im searching for a tablet with stylus for sketching and working. the first idea was to buy a asus ep121 but im still not shure about that. it would be nice to make a comparison between all that possible devices. thx for that review

  • Mukund Kp

    hi, i am thinking to buy this tablet… i would like to know if you have tried the tablet with the new adobe apps.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lewandowski.alexander Alexander Lewandowski

    Thanks for a brilliant review, feels like the biggest issues are on the software side atleast, that is good rating for the Thinkpad. For those who are less limited by the issue of money there is a Samsung slate faster then Asus ep121 with up to 8h of battery.
    http://www.samsung.com/us/computer/tablet-pcs/XE700T1A-A03US expensive as hell but if portability is in focus this seems to be a nice product.

  • Jonathan Barker

    You did a marvolous review – Way better than others that didn’t uncover the creative use for this tablet. I am a huge lover of IBMs x41 tablet laptop (Before the laptop devision was sold to lenovo) I would have stayed with that laptop for alot longer but the recent updates to windows xp tablet edition KILLED pressure sensitivity!! The only way to get it back is to revert the system to its origional settings! And where the hell am i going to find CS2 xp tablet edition?

    Anyways, it was a good excuse to upgrade and this one suited my needs perfectly. I just have one question that a solution would blow my mind:

    Could i map the sketchbook pro colour picker to one of the buttons on the side of the machine?

  • Jonathan Barker

    also you mentioned that you’d like a vector app… until adobe gets their ass in gear you might like https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.write.Quill

    It is a vector doodling note taking program with full colour picker. Pretty nifty.