Gadling gear review: Lenovo IdeaPad K1 tablet

Over the past two years, the introduction of tablet computers have had an unmistakable impact on how we travel. Smaller and lighter than laptops, yet with plenty of power and versatility, these devices allow us to stay connected, entertained, and productive, while on the go. Obviously, Apple’s iPad is the most well known of these products, but there are a host of other tablets available as well. Take for example the Lenovo IdeaPad K1, which is an affordable option for those looking for an alternative to the Apple hegemony.

Powered by an Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, and sporting 1GB of onboard RAM, the IdeaPad offers plenty of performance in a relatively small package. The tablet features 32GB of storage and has a built in SD card reader that allows users to expand that capacity even further. As you would expect, it features both WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, although there is no option for 3G or 4G service. The IdeaPad’s 10.1 inch widescreen display is adequate, if not exceptional, and like most tablets (iPad included), sound from the built in speakers is underwhelming. The IdeaPad has two webcams, a 2MP camera on the front and a 5MP on the rear, both of which best the iPad’s cameras by a considerable margin. I also liked that Lenovo’s included a built in HDMI port, which makes it easy to display content from the tablet on an HDTV.

Of course, all of that technology doesn’t mean much if the software that runs on the device isn’t up to par. The IdeaPad uses Google’s Android operating system (version 3.1 Honeycomb) to tie everything together, and that OS is both a strength and a weakness for the device. For instance, Android comes with a full featured app store, complete with every major app – or at the very least a worthy equivalent – to what you would find on the iPad. But the Android experience doesn’t feel quite as cohesive or intuitive to use as Apple’s iOS, and at times I had to search hard to find a particular app or setting.That isn’t to say that Android doesn’t bring plenty to the table to help distinguish itself from its biggest competitor. I love the desktop widgets that display weather, my personal calendar, and unread e-mail messages on screen at all times. The multitasking capabilities of the OS were also impressive, and I found it faster and easier to switch between running apps on the IdeaPad than on my iPad. I also came to appreciate the virtual home button and the ability to access installed apps from any screen, and the overall level of customization to the interface is greater than what you’ll find on iOS too. Android also happens to be compatible with Adobe’s Flash, although performance is a bit of a mixed bag, to say the least.

Despite those features however, I found that there was a general sluggishness to the IdeaPad that wasn’t common on Apple’s device. The K1 was slow to switch screen orientations when you flipped the device from portrait to landscape mode for example, and there were times when I’d end up tapping an icon twice because the OS was so slow to respond that I didn’t think that I got it right the first time. I’m told that the latest version of Android, code named Ice Cream Sandwich, addresses most of these issues however, and that update is expected to come to the IdeaPad in the semi-near future.

Other comparisons to the iPad are inevitable of course, starting with the physical aspects of the two devices. While the K1 doesn’t feel heavy in your hands, it is noticeably bulkier than Apple’s tablet – something that becomes more pronounced with extended use. It is also thicker than the iPad, although some may appreciate the added girth, which makes the device easier to hang on to for those of us with larger hands. The IdeaPad lags behind in battery life as well, clocking in at a bit over 8 hours in my tests. That’s far below Lenovo’s promised 10 hours, which is a mark that the iPad can hit easily.

To their credit, Lenovo ships the IdeaPad with quite a few good apps already installed, including NetFlix, Amazon Kindle, and even Angry Birds. They’ve also incorporated their own personalized launcher widget, that gives users quick access to the Chrome web browser, e-mail, music, movies, and more. It is a different approach than the dock that is found on the iPad, although I didn’t find it as useful since you had to be on a specific screen panel to access it.

So how does the IdeaPad fair as a travel companion? Overall, quite well. Despite a few nitpicks with performance and battery life, this is a solid device that will deliver everything you expect from a tablet. It offers movies, music, and games on the go, and serves as a good way to stay connected to friends and family while you’re away from home. The e-mail client is easy to configure and use, and the built in cameras work well with Skype too. Throw in the ability to read books and magazines on the device, and you’ve got everything you need for your next long international flight.

Better yet, Lenovo is selling the device at a very good price. With an MSRP of $399, the IdeaPad comes in at a hundred bucks less than the cheapest iPad, while still delivering twice the storage capacity. If you’re in the market for a tablet, but don’t want to pay the “Apple tax” or simply want to stay outside of their ecosystem, than the Lenovo IdeaPad K1 is a worthy alternative.