One day soon, you'll find a free tablet in every box of Cracker Jacks, but until then, $249 remains a decent price for a 7-inch Android slate. Unlike other bargain tablets that are loss-leaders for content services such as the Kindle Fire or creaky also-rans such as the Ainovo Novo7, the Lenovo IdeaPad A1 promises a complete Android experience from a reputable vendor. However, that experience includes too many compromises for many users, particularly when it comes to performance and usability.
In a market filled with uber-thin tablet designs, the 7.7 x 4.9 x 0.5 inch, 0.9-pound Lenovo IdeaPad A1 is on a par size-wise with competitors such as the Amazon Kindle Fire (7.5 x 4.7 x 0.45 inches, 0.9 pounds), and the Barnes & Noble Nook tablet (8 x 5 x 0.48 inches, 0.9 pounds). However, the glossy plastic bezel and bulbous plastic back and faux chrome sides give the IdeaPad A1 a less premium look than the Nook's styled gunmetal gray designs, the Fire's soft-touch back and sleek black front or the Toshiba Thrive 7-inch's textured backside.
Though the A1 doesn't look pricey, you can get it in your choice of back colors, including blue, white, black, and pink. At least the A1 doesn't creak in your hands like the Ainovo 7.
Ports and Buttons
As a 7-inch slate, the A1 doesn't have a lot of room for ports and buttons, but it does provide a little more than just the basics. On the bottom short side sits a microSD card slot and a microUSB port, which is used for charging when connected to a PC or the wall, a huge advantage over other tablets that require a proprietary docking connector. On the right long side, there's an orientation lock switch and a volume rocker, something noticeably absent from the Kindle Fire. The top houses the power button and a 3.5mm jack for headphones.
Miles behind its competitors in display quality, the IdeaPad A1's 7-inch, 1024 x 600 screen provided dull, grainy images and mediocre viewing angles in our tests. When we streamed an HD trailer of "The Avengers" from YouTube, the edges of objects looked pixilated and colors such as the orange fire in an explosion just didn't pop as much as they had on the Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet or Toshiba Thrive 7-inch.
Worse, when we angled the tablet away from our body, or twisted it left or right, colors started to really wash out. Perhaps we should not be surprised because, at full brightness, the IdeaPad A1's screen registered only 271 lux on our light meter, far less than the Kindle Fire's 460, the Nook Tablet's 392, or the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus's 326. All of the competitors offered far superior viewing angles, sharpness and color vibrancy.
We don't expect 7-inch tablets to provide strong audio, so the IdeaPad A1's mediocre sound is on a par with the rest of the industry. Its single speaker, which sits on the bottom short side of the tablet, delivers sound that's loud enough to fill a small room, but when we played a rock tune - Tragedy's "Staying Alive" - the music was monotone and very tinny. Users who like to hold the tablet in landscape mode may find themselves covering the speaker and thus muffling the sound.
The IdeaPad A1 comes with two virtual keyboards, neither of which is anything to type home about. As always, the stock Android 2.3 keyboard provides competent but unimpressive virtual QWERTY layouts in landscape or portrait modes. Lenovo's alternate Go keyboard lets you choose between a gray or orange color scheme, but doesn't offer anything else that's particularly unique or helpful. The IdeaPad A1 does not support haptic feedback at all, so neither its capacitive navigation buttons nor its keyboards provide the kind of tactile response that makes it easier to know what you've tapped.
Operating System and Interface
If you've used any recent Android tablet that has Android 3 or 4 or a custom version of Android such as the Kindle Fire's, the Lenovo IdeaPad A1's Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread OS feels like a trip back in time. Instead of the virtual buttons you'll find on Android 3.0 Honeycomb or 4.0 Gingerbread, the IdeaPad A1 has three capacitive buttons for Menu, Home and Back on the bottom of the bezel, with the home button confusingly shaped like a square, not a house.
The only customization Lenovo has made to the stock Android 2.3.4 interface is the addition of the Lenovo Launcher Widget on the center home screen. First appearing on the Lenovo IdeaPad K1 and later on the ThinkPad tablet, the Launcher has four block-shaped zone buttons with a globe icon in the middle. Each of these buttons represents one of five "zones," which are configurable shortcuts. By default, Watch zone goes to the gallery, Listen zone goes to the Android music player, Read zone launches a Kindle app, Email zone goes to the non-Gmail email client and the Globe launches the web browser. A shortcut to the settings menu appears to the right of the zones and a settings menu just for the zones themselves is on the left.
Where more recent Android tablets let you see and choose between tasks by taping a layers icon in the lower left corner of the screen, the only way to see open tasks on the A1 is to hold down the home button as you would on most Android smartphones. Rather than providing access to quick settings in the lower right of the screen as on Android 3 and above, users must go to the full settings menu either by using the menu button or by hitting a shortcut on the center home screen's launcher widget.
The IdeaPad A1 has three customizable home screens that can hold your widgets or shortcuts and a bland app menu with an all-black background and alphabetically listed apps. Neither the app menu nor the home screens rotate to landscape mode. At the bottom of each home screen sit three shortcut icons, which by default go to the Lenovo app store, the apps menu and the Web browser.
Lenovo includes a very basic collection of software on top of the stock Android 2.3 application set. Documents to Go 3 lets you edit or create Word, Excel, or Powerpoint compatible documents. eBuddy is a universal instant messaging program that works with Gtalk, AIM, MSN messenger and many other accounts. ES File Explorer lets you navigate through the device's file structure. Lenovo's App Shop Lets you purchase additional apps that have been vetted by Lenovo, but we prefer the larger selection of Google's Android Market, which is also available.
NavDroyd provides turn-by-turn directions, which are also available from Google Maps. mSpot Movies 2 lets you rent or buy films to watch. News and Weather provides headlines from some leading news services.
With its single-core 1-GHz CPU, the IdeaPad A1 is fast enough to play games and videos, but the tablet felt sluggish during our testing. Whether we were launching apps, typing on a virtual keyboard, or swiping through the home screens or other menus, the device suffered from a noticeable amount of lag. When we streamed a high-def video or played a round of the racing game "Raging Thunder Light," motion was smooth though images were a bit pixilated.
Synthetic benchmarks confirmed the IdeaPad A1's subpar performance. On Linpack, a benchmark that measures overall processing power, the A1 got a single-threaded score of 16.6, well below the 18.3 category average and miles behind the Kindle Fire (36.75), the Nook Tablet (42.57) and the Toshiba Thrive 7-inch (31.25), all of which have dual-core CPUs.
On the 3D graphics-oriented AN3DBench, the IdeaPad A1 scored 6,183, lower than the 6,266 tablet average and far behind the Kindle Fire (7,006), Nook Tablet (7,120) and Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (7,899). On FPS2D, which measures 2D graphics ability, the A1 got a respectable 59, just above the 56 tablet category average.
The 3-MP back-facing camera took colorful images when we shot stills of a city street. However, the edges of objects were not as crisp as we would have liked. The camera does not support HD video capture, but a 640 x 480 video of cars rolling down the street was sharp and vibrant.
The front-facing 0.3-MP camera shot blurry, pixilated images of our face with shadows covering our features under the fluorescent lights of our office. When we called a friend using Google Talk's video chat feature, the incoming video was smooth and sharp, but a picture of our face was jerky and appeared upside down on his end. With the front camera in the middle of the upper long side of the device, it was also hard to align our face with the camera while also looking at the screen in landscape mode.
The Lenovo IdeaPad A1's single-cell battery lasted a very-strong 8 hours and 2 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. That time is much longer than the 5:34 tablet category average and the 5:18 offered by the Toshiba Thrive 7-inch. The Kindle Fire was about half an hour behind at 7:34, and the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus lasted 7:18.
At $249, the IdeaPad A1 is one of the least expensive full-fledged Android tablets you can buy. The build quality is certainly better than other budget slates we've tested from Ainovo, Archos, and Pandigital--and the battery life is strong. However, in too many ways you get what you paid for with a dull screen, sluggish single-core performance, and an outdated OS. Hardware hackers looking to improve the experience by rooting the IdeaPad A1 and installing a more up-to-date version of Android may find this device a bargain, but most others would be better off with the less expensive Kindle Fire, similarly priced Nook Tablet, or pricier but more powerful Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus.