Personal Tech: Lenovo takes ThinkPad to tablets

— -- Persuading people to embrace a tablet that's not an Apple iPad compels rivals to come at buyers from a different angle. Lenovo's angle is to market a tablet at mobile professionals and students for office or classroom use. As the Chinese computer maker behind the ThinkPad-branded notebooks that are popular in business, Lenovo would appear to have the chops to pull it off.

The result is the ThinkPad Tablet that went on sale recently. I've appreciated many ThinkPad notebooks dating back to the IBM days — Lenovo snagged the ThinkPad franchise from IBM more than six years ago — so I was curious how Lenovo's tablet would measure up. Well, Lenovo has produced a solid machine — one that in the end I liked but didn't love.

Though the design and use of a tablet obviously differ from a laptop, you get the sense that the device was meant to evoke warm feelings from fans of ThinkPad notebooks. It costs $499 for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage, $569 for 32 GB and $669 for 64 GB. All are Wi-Fi-only; Lenovo hasn't announced specifics for versions with cellular connectivity, though a SIM slot is on board.

The tablet fuses business needs with entertainment and runs Android version 3.1 Honeycomb. It's about an inch taller than an iPad 2 and thicker. At 1.65 pounds, it's got some girth — providing space for a full-size USB 2.0 port that is concealed behind a sliding door. (Apple iPad has no USB.) There's also a microUSB port (you can use for charging) and a miniHDMI port for connecting to a high-definition television (at 1080p) and microSD card reader. There are front- and rear-facing cameras but no flash.

ThinkPad has a 10.1-inch multitouch display protected by Corning's Gorilla Glass. The screen didn't wow me. The home screens are a combination of icons, widgets, a carousel app wheel and a so-called Lenovo Launcher for quick access to frequently used apps, but I found the overall software interface to be cluttered and a little confusing. I rarely used the four physical buttons at the bottom of the screen (in portrait mode) for locking the screen, browsing, returning to a previous screen, and returning to the home screen.

As with the iPad, you can browse the Web (including Adobe Flash video, unlike iPad), fire slingshots on Angry Birds or watch a flick via Netflix. Those are among the preloaded apps, joining an app collection that includes Amazon's Kindle app, Amazon MP3, Slacker radio and the Zinio magazine reader. You can, of course, tap into the Android Market to fetch additional apps or browse through a modest selection in Lenovo's own App Shop, a nod to IT managers who might be concerned about viruses turning up on apps purchased elsewhere.

Still, you are drawn to this machine for its serious side. Along those lines, Lenovo supplies free Documents To Go software that lets you create and edit Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files — an app that otherwise costs $14.99 in the Android market. The machine has security and remote access tools aimed at keeping the IT manager at your company happy. A USB file manager app lets you easily drag and organize files from a USB drive onto the tablet.

What stood out for me, though: a pair of optional accessories. For starters, ThinkPad is one of the few modern tablets to take advantage of a pressure-sensitive digitizer pen that you can use to draw, doodle or capture notes in a lecture hall or meeting room. The pen costs $30 at Too bad the company didn't include it gratis.

One place to use the pen is in MyScript's Notes Mobile app. You can leave notes in a notebook just as you wrote them or convert your scribbles into text, with more misses than hits in my test. You can also use the pen in Documents To Go.

The other accessory is a $100 keyboard folio that lets you prop up the tablet to use with a physical qwerty keyboard. When you're done, you leave the tablet inside and fold the whole thing up into a neat cover. It's a fine mobile keyboard, even if it doesn't measure up to the ones on ThinkPad notebooks. I was less pleased with the finicky optical Trackpoint that made me long for its eraser-head counterpart on Lenovo notebooks. Lenovo says the machine will last 8.7 hours off a single charge with Wi-Fi turned on. But I got only a little more than six hours in an informal battery test with brightness turned up to the max and a heavy dose of streaming video. The machine should do better under less-taxing conditions.

If you're looking for a tablet that mixes business and pleasure, ThinkPad fits the bill.

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