In the current world of tablets two camps have emerged; in one, you have the companies that are directly trying to compete with the iPad.  These are your Samsung Galaxy Tabs, your Acer Iconia Tabs, and your Asus Transformers.  In the other group are the tablets that are on the budget side – not quite as robust as the iPad, but still useful.  Just look at my review of the Archos G9 for a great example of this tablet.  While there might be a big profit margin on the larger, more powerful tablets with each one sold, it is these budget models that are the “bread and butter” of some companies because of just how many people will buy them – after all it is easier to convince someone to drop $199 on a tablet if they are an average user, rather than hoping they bankroll your $500 tablet with no real reason.  With the IdeaPad A1, Lenovo has chosen to enter that budget conscious market, but in the world where the Kindle Fire is the king of the hill, can it compete?

Unfortunately the answer might not be what the world’s second biggest computer manufacturer would hope.

One of the big problems with the IdeaPad A1 is the OS that it runs – while Gingerbread 2.3 is a fully competent OS in its own right, with Ice Cream Sandwich coming out on so many devices stock (and others easily upgradeable to it), it is a travesty to see something so new running something so old.  It would be the equivalent of building a nice computer for productivity and then putting Windows 98 on it for no other reason that “just because”.  Yes, other tablets DO successfully run Gingerbread, including the much lauded Kindle fire, bu these other tablets generally run heavily modified versions of the OS.  Lenovo has made extremely minor UI changes on the Gingerbread they are packing though, equating to a home page app launcher and a shortcut to the Lenovo App Store.  The Lenovo storefront has the problems that other company specific stores have, where it is hard to tell if an app is for tablets or phones.  This might not be a problem for the A1 as the 7 inch screen scales properly, but on a larger model I could see it being a real issue.

I wouldn’t expect one of the leaders in the computer market to use old or aging components in their tablet offering, but that is exactly what Lenovo chose to do here.  Maybe that explains why they stuck with Gingerbread 2.3 tough, because it ran with more stability on the platform they chose to use than any other OS.  The IdeaPad A1 is sporting a single core processor – a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 – along with 512 megs of RAM, and 16 GB of internal storage.  This wasn’t enough to give it a score on Antutu better than 2,401, which is very unimpressive to say the least – especially when compared to the Kindle Fire, which reportedly scores more than double on the same test (I say reportedly as I have not reviewed the Fire).  On top of that, if you look at the lineup of tablets coming out later this year, it is easy to see that the A1 will unfortunately feel old before its time.

If it wasn’t for the underpowered hardware inside, the IdeaPad A1 might actually have been something really special, and you can see this in some of the design aspects.  Lenovo chose to use a physical rocker switch for volume control, something I have seen that the Fire does not employ.  If you have used an iPad for any period of time you are sure to be thankful for this (some other tablets chose not to use this, and it baffles me at to why not).  The A1 also has expandable storage thanks to a micro-SD card slot – something I have wished for countless times on my Verizon Samsung Galaxy.  Another great feature is that unlike the Toshiba Thrive, you can charge the A1 with a simple micro USB connection.  This is really a convenience thing, but anyone who has followed some of my other reviews will know how much I despise when companies decide to use proprietary cables for charging their things, as losing one (or having a puppy chew off the end) can be disastrous.

The cameras (front and rear) on the A1 might not be anything to write home about, but the fact that Lenovo decided to even include them when the Fire does not have any cameras is at least a bonus for them.  Only slightly though, because the quality leaves much to be desired.  You could basically equivocate the technology of the cameras to the rest of the technology in the A1 – dated.  Maybe they would seem better if the screen wasn’t so crappy on the A1, but trying to use them for much is somewhat difficult.  The rear camera can take video at 480p, however it comes out pretty choppy (like a dated web cam almost), and I can not see any instance where it would be useful to have.  Maybe if you were in desperate need of a short video and you had no smartphone, but even then using it would be questionable.  The IdeaPad A1 has a decent GPS system on it (it locked on as fast as my iPhone 4S, and faster than my aforementioned Galaxy Tab), but being WiFi only it wouldn’t do you any good when traveling.

Had Lenovo made a deal with a cell provider, the A1 would have at least been a bit more useful, but as it stands, the A1 is a very hard sell.  Not only is the Kindle Fire cheaper, but the screen resolution is so much better (from the time I spent with a friend’s) that unless you were a die hard Lenovo fan you would easily pass the A1 up.  The thing is though that the IdeaPad A1 isn’t a bad system.  This is where reviewing tablets causes problems; yes, it has issues, and using underpowered and dated hardware is a poor choice on Lenovo’s part, but if you ignore that and look at what it does have you will see that it isn’t all bad.  The screen might be bad, but you can crank the brightness up enough that it is easily viewable even in full daylight.  During my entire time testing the A1, I didn’t experience a single crash – something I can’t say about my Galaxy, my wife’s Iconia, or my daughter’s EVO.  Yes, this is attributed to the older OS being more stable, but I also have to give Lenovo credit for doing their part.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Fair

The Bottom Line:  While the IdeaPad A1 isn’t a horrible system, it also doesn’t do anything to set it apart from the growing crowd of other low end tablets – that and the fact that it is $50 more expensive than the more impressive Kindle Fire makes it a very hard sell.

Pros:

  • Unlike the Fire, the A1 comes with both front and rear facing cameras
  • Expandable memory through the micro SD slot is a huge boon
  • The battery life is pretty good, lasting about six hours when being constantly used at full brightness

Cons:

  • The screen is not good at all, and it has bad viewing angles
  • Dated software running on dated hardware makes the experience feel “meh”
  • Overall design feels clunky at best

You can pick up an IdeaPad A1 by Lenovo from Lenovo’s site for $199

 



Staff