06
Oct
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This is part one of a two-part review of the IdeaTab A2109 and S2110. Part two (the S2110 review) will be published tomorrow.

There's no doubt the Android tablet market is heating up much like the phone market was a few years ago. Where before there were relatively few choices, manufacturers are now rolling out new models left and right - sometimes, it seems, with reckless abandon. It's almost like Newton's third law in action: for every great tablet released, an equal but opposite tablet is released. Not to spoil the reviews, but I'll tell you right up front: both the $300 9" A2109 and $400 10" S2110 fall under "the opposite" (i.e., they're bad).

Interestingly, what makes each one bad overall is remedied by the other. Where one has terrible performance, the other's is great. Yet the one with great performance also has a sub-par screen; inversely, the one with poor performance has a much better screen. Both devices are seemingly paradoxes of each other, as if Lenovo made one great device, then tore it apart and gave half the components to one device and half to another device, then filled in the gaps with whatever crap they had laying around.

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But enough vagaries; let's talk details, starting with the A2109. Expect the S2110 review tomorrow. (A tip to help you remember which is which: the A2109 is the 9" tablet, and the S2110 is the 10" tablet.)

IdeaTab A2109

The Specs

  • Price: $299
  • CPU: 1.2GHz quad-core Tegra 3 T30SL
  • RAM: 1GB
  • Storage: 16GB + microSD slot
  • Display: 9" 1280x800 LED twisted nematic (TN)
  • Battery: 6000 mAh
  • Cameras: 3.0MP rear, 1.3MP front
  • Speakers: Stereo, with SRS TrueMedia
  • Android: 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
  • Connectivity: MicroHDMI, microUSB, 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth
  • Dimensions: 4.8" x 7.6" x 0.5"
  • Weight: 1.3 lbs.

The Good

  • The 9" form factor is pretty awesome (though I very slightly prefer 8"). Don't get me wrong, I love 7" and 10" tablets, but 8-9" is a much better balance between portability and productivity.
  • Thanks to the aluminum, the thickness, and the weight, it feels fantastically solid.
  • Performance is mostly good, even with Lenovo's very heavy UI. Excluding the widgets, it's rare to see things stutter and most interactions are speedy.
  • I feel stupid just typing it out, but for some reason I can't explain, I like the UI. It's ridiculous, but I still enjoy it far more than any other manufacturer's UI in recent memory. The effects are fun and a bit different, and I actually dig the paper/envelope looks.
  • Good: it has stereo speakers. Better: they actually sound really good. Best: they have tiny feet next to them so that even when you're using the tablet with the back down, you can still hear it perfectly. That's amazing considering the speakers are almost always neglected on tablets.
  • Battery life is outstanding, especially during idle. I use my tablets a fair bit, but let's be honest: they spend more time at idle than they do being used. The A2109 positively sipped battery during idle - to the tune of about 7% used in 24 idle hours. Even in use, battery life was better than average. Expect to get at least 4 days of moderate use.

The Bad

  • The display is just incredibly god-awful. I've formally reviewed dozens of devices and played with dozens more since joining AP, and it has the worst display I've ever seen by a long shot. The image quality is poor, black levels suck, colors are mediocre, and crucially, viewing angles are so bad that there is no possible way to hold the tablet so that at least part of the image isn't distorted.
  • It's thick (again, about half an inch) and feels heavy. (For comparison, the Asus Transformer Prime has a larger 10" screen, is just .32" thick, and weighs the same amount.)
  • As I said above, performance is mostly good. Some UI effects are terrible; for example, using widgets (for example, weather or clock) opens up the corresponding window... at what seems like 5 frames per second. Double-swiping also causes some stuttering.
  • I just really need to reiterate how terrible the screen is. Everything else could be perfect about this tablet (which isn't the case), and it would still be unbuyable because of the screen.

Deep Dive

Build Quality

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There are very few bright spots with the IdeaTab, but the build quality is one of them. Everything from the screen to the aluminum sides and back feels fantastic. The design, too, seems well thought-out. So well thought-out, in fact, that it adds to just how great the tablet feels to hold (aside from the heft). The sides are all angular (a refreshing change of pace from the same-old rectangle/tapered rectangle design), so that there's an edge to grab on to the entire way around.

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There are tons of small details that just add to my love for the design, like the dual SRS speakers on the back, or the very small feet that work wonders by allowing sound to bounce around to the front when the '09 is on a flat surface, such as a desk or table. And oh my, the sound it puts out is fantastically loud and very, very good. No need for a Bluetooth speaker here.

A quick walk around: the power (top left) and volume buttons (upper right) are both firm and clicky. Above the volume rocker is a small switch that's so firm I thought it was stuck in place for the first few days, and a headphone jack. There's a small backplate along the top of the rear, behind which is the microSD slot. On the right are the microUSB and microHDMI slots.

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Not to say all is well in design land, though. I have two main complaints: first, the thickness, and second, the heft. At an even half an inch, the 09 is  thicker even than the rather portly Nexus 7 and embarrassingly thick compared to the plethora of tablets that check in at or below 0.35". It doesn't sound like a big difference, but that's 30% smaller. It's also much heavier than similar tablets - so much so that it's in the same class as dinosaurs like the Motorola Xoom (10", 1.6 lbs.) and LG G-Slate (8.9", 1.3 lbs.) Your hand will get tired of holding it after a while, because of both the thickness and weight (though mainly the latter).

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Display

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Over the past few days, I've been struggling to find a way to effectively describe just how terrible the screen is. I've written and rewritten this paragraph many times; I have yet to find a way to truly do it justice. Perhaps the best way is to give you a quick description of the display technology used in the A2109. Stick with me here - I promise that my quick-and-dirty explanation will make things a lot clearer.

Lenovo has opted to use a twisted nematic (TN) panel in the IdeaTab A2109. TN is widely used in monitors and TVs because it's fast and cheap. The reason it's fast and cheap, though, is that it's a simple, old technology. There are two major downsides to TN panels: the viewing angles tend to be poor, and they only display 18 bit color - or, natively, 262,144 colors. That sounds like a huge number, but it's actually only a small portion of the color gamut. In order to compensate, manufacturers rely on what's referred to as dithering - basically, if the display can't reproduce a certain color, it flips back and forth really quickly between two colors to give the appearance of that color. In-plane switching (IPS) displays, which are much more widely used in mobile devices than TN, can display 24-bit color, or 16,700,000 colors (100% of the color gamut), and provide far superior viewing angles.

To reiterate: TN = low price, 0.262 million colors, and bad viewing angles, IPS = slightly more expensive, 16.7 million colors, and good viewing angles.

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Pictured for comparison: the A2109 (TN) versus the S2110 (IPS).

With that in mind, I think you can understand my utter confusion over Lenovo's choice to use a TN panel on the A2109. Let's start with the smallest offenses: first, color reproduction is just terrible. Reds, blues, oranges, and yellows all lack warmth and distinction. Clarity is even worse; I initially thought perhaps the company had opted for a low-quality Pentile display before realizing that it was genuinely fuzzy, not just jagged.

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The viewing angles are 0. Not 0°, mind you. Just 0, as in there are none.

I'd love to comment on black levels, but viewing angles are so atrocious that I simply can't tell how the display is supposed to look. Holding it at about a 55° from your face at least provides a uniform (but still gamma-distorted) view. Hold it parallel (0°, as you normally would) and the entire screen is, at best, halfway to black, and the bottom status bar is almost entirely blacked out. In fact, it doesn't matter at what angle you hold it - portions of the screen will be unbelievably badly distorted. At no point is more than 20% of the screen undistorted in some way.

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Not one of these pictures doesn't show some distortion. Even the best (above, left) shows distortion, most obvious along the status bar.

Software

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I very rarely like custom UIs. Sense is bloated, TouchWiz is ugly and bloated, Optimus UI is an ugly TouchWiz rip-off... the list goes on and on. Lenovo's UI is perhaps the most bloated of them all, and yet... I dig it. I'm not sure why, since I tend to prefer simple, clean designs rather than image- and effect-heavy ones, and yet I simply do. Let me try to put a finger on why.

Screenshot_2012-10-02-22-01-45 Screenshot_2012-10-02-22-01-59

First, I just think it's nice to look at. As I said above, I find very, very few UIs attractive. As far as I'm concerned, stock Android is damn pretty and the less manufacturers try to cover it up, the better. Yet Lenovo's UI isn't just another clone of the same generic iPhone-ish UI. The stock background is a collection of mostly tan rocks, whereas stock Android tends to stick with abstract shapes and colors. The widgets are uniform rectangles with the top right and bottom left corners rounded - perhaps the consistency has something to do with why I like it. The folders are the exact same as widgets, but show as actual folders. I even like the swiping effect; rather than simply sliding to the side, the animation is of a rotating cube that has a slight bounce to it. It's rather charming.

Screenshot_2012-10-03-21-34-00 Screenshot_2012-10-03-21-34-16 Screenshot_2012-10-02-22-02-15

All that said, they certainly load it up with a ton of bloat: Accuweather, Amazon Kindle, App Shop, Documents To Go, ES File Explorer, Evernote, GameTanium, GO Keyboard, HW Backgammon SE, HW Euchre SE, HW Games  SE, HW Hearts SE, HW Solitaire SE, HW Spades SE, News Republic, Norton Security, ooVoo, Papaya Free, PrinterShare for lenovo, rara.com, Shazam, Skype, Sugarsync, TruMedia, UI intro, Vendetta Online, and Zinio. The thing to note there is that's an absolute @#*&ton. A few can be useful depending on your tastes, but 28 pre-installed apps? Ridiculous.

In short: it's pretty, it's uniform, and it's visually differentiated. It's also bloated (and poorly coded - see below) and has way too much crap installed on it out of the box. Yet for some reason, I still like it.

Performance & Battery Life

Performance is mostly good. Moving around is usually fine, but you can easily overwhelm the UI by trying to swipe twice - it just slows things to a crawl instantly, thinks for a second, then stutters two pages over. Worse, those widgets that are so beautifully uniform are also fantastically sluggish, though folders seem to almost be smooth. Otherwise, performance is smooth during the majority of use, though never especially snappy.

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Battery life is fantastic, though if I had to guess, that's because of Lenovo's very aggressive default power saving settings. For example, WiFi turns off when the screen does. As always, keeping polling (updates for weather, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so on) at a low level also certainly helps, and keeping everything at the default setting resulted in battery drain of about 7% per 24 hours of idle time. Even during use, battery life was impressive - possibly due to the use of a TN panel rather than IPS? Or maybe because of the relatively tame 1.2GHz Tegra 3 CPU's optimizations? It's hard to say, but the battery life is very good.

Conclusion

A budget product will always have some compromises - it's to be expected. With specs that are similar to the Nexus 7 and a fairly low price, though, you would expect the IdeaTab A2109 to be roughly equivalent. It's not. Though well built, it's too thick and heavy. Though it packs a capable CPU, performance is worse than what you'd see on similar Tegra 3-powered tablets; even cheaper alternatives like the Kindles outperform it. And worst of all, the screen is so low quality that it utterly fails to function as any screen should, especially for a mobile device.

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A budget device should have a few compromises, but fundamentally be sound. The IdeaTab A2109 is just the opposite: a few good spots, but for the most part, it's just a slab of bad decisions.

Aaron Gingrich
Aaron is a geek who has always had a passion for technology. When not working or writing, he can be found spending time with his family, playing a game, or watching a movie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/c4mendizabal Carlos Mendizabal

    What tablet would you recommend that is not 7-inch (No Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire)?

    • Tyler Brainerd

      I highly recommend the Sony xperia tablet.

    • AaronGingrich

      What size are you looking for? The Excite 7.7 is my favorite tablet of all (better, even, than the N7).

      • http://www.facebook.com/c4mendizabal Carlos Mendizabal

        I actually prefer 10.1 inches, but I did see your (I think it was yours) review on the Excite 7.7.

        • AaronGingrich

          Cameron and I double-teamed the Excite 7.7.

          If you want 10", I'd say the Infinity is still your best bet right now.

          • http://wave-france.blogspot.com Supercopter

            What about the Iconia A700 with its ICS update? Is the lag issue just a bad memory now? It has IMHO a huge advantage over the infinity: a USB port (tablet vs tablet, no dock involved).

          • AaronGingrich

            @supercopter:disqus You'd have to ask Cameron that. He owns one, I don't. I'll send him this way :)

          • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Cameron Summerson

            Actually, a bit of backstory there: when we posted about the A700 Jelly Bean update, I grabbed mine and there was a 230(ish) MB update available. Of course, knowing that JB was rolling, I assumed that it was the OTA. I was wrong.

            Once it was finished flashing, I hit the settings menu and it was still on 4.0.4. However, Acer has already done quite a bit to boost the tablet's performance, and the laggyness is far less noticeable as of that OTA. I'm still waiting to see how JB affects the tablet.

            With that said, as soon as mine gets JB, I plan on doing a write up comparing it to the pre-JB stutter. Hopefully that will be soon and help you with your decision.

            P.S. - The A700 only has a microUSB port, but it comes with an OTG cable.

  • Freak4Dell

    Those are the first triangles I've seen with 4 sides.

    • AaronGingrich

      It took me 4 hours to get that.

      Fixed, thanks!

  • Alvin Brinson

    I'm curious, is this a final production unit or engineering sample sent out for reviews prior to actual release? What are the chances Lenovo could change the screen?

    • AaronGingrich

      It's a production unit running the production screen. They wouldn't swap the entire screen technology. (Also, I had to ask what kind of screen they used because it was so appallingly bad.)

  • KB26

    Imagine if they merge the tablets together, but the combined tablet has the worst of both xD

  • Eye4Detail

    No Infinity killers here folks...move along.

    • AaronGingrich

      It's $200 cheaper and an inch smaller. Not meant to be an Infinity-killer :)

      • Eye4Detail

        I know. I've seen so many comments about low-end tablets that failed to dethrone the iPad, I decided to replace "iPad" with something equally ridiculous to compare it to.

        I was being "iRonical." ☺

  • Harrison King

    The e.g. in the beginning should be an i.e. E.g. is used to list an example, but i.e. is used to clarify. It was annoying me, just thought I'd point it out :P

    • AaronGingrich

      Thank you, you're right!

  • PINJ

    "Let's start with the smallest offenses: first, color reproduction is just terrible."
    Classic

  • dektoud

    Reminds me of my viewsonic gtablet.
    What were they thinking?

  • Andrew L.

    I played around with this tablet at Best Buy. While your points are valid, I didn't find the screen quality an issue. You're exaggerating a lot. It should work fine for casual tablet users. It runs games like a boss and is extremely nice-looking. And you get a bigger screen than the Nexus 7 for $50 more.

    • AaronGingrich

      I'm exaggerating? The photos clearly show it. How do you exaggerate when you have photographic evidence?

      • Don Boss

        Ummmm... Rodney King video, anyone...?? Pictures and video often make it easier to distort reality, not harder...

    • Lee L

      I agree with Andrew, this review seemed really bias towards the bad side of things. I own this tablet and love it, I have not had any stuttering or performance issues of any kind. The screen looks good to me, same as any other glossy screen device. I believe they are using a standard panel made by sharp, same as a bunch of other devices. I do not find the weight or thickness to be an issue either.

  • PM

    Latest news on Indian and International Android Smartphone/tablets, peep in and be the first to know the news.

    http://phonemaya.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001511187529 Satoru Mastershima

    SRS surround... the BEST sound quality of any tablet period.

  • http://profiles.google.com/psofroniou16 Phanos Sofroniou

    This why I come to Android Police good honest reviews, and not just blatant praise like some other Android sites.

  • barry

    Looked at it, but went with a Motorola zoom. I did something right last month! Lol

  • DontBeThatGuy

    First I'd like to mention that I own this tablet, which to some might be considered an entry point for bias. That being said, I consider this review to be one of vast exaggeration. Granted, screen quality is something to look at when considering any device which requires you to feast your eyes upon its graphics for every interaction. However, the screen is not, by any means, the best quality choice available, but I can attest that this does NOT mean that it is a grainy, hardly visible disappointment that requires odd angles and strained eyes to view. In fact, this screen is amazingly bright, full of fantastic detail and color, and is actually VERY impressive to the casual to moderate tablet user. These reviews frustrate me to wits end because reviewers who are 'tech savy' use terms and analysis that the casual to moderate tablet user doesn't understand and could give a darn about. I happen to be one of those tech savy folk who knows the technicalities and top of the line when I see it, but that doesn't mean I classify middle to upper middle class as bad. For example, everyone recognizes a corvette as a nice top of the line flashy looking automobile, but this is far from the first choice by the vast majority of people because they understand that buying big based on looks and everyone elses opinion is just as impractical as the corvette itself. These devices are actually the smartest of choices with fantastic, and I mean FANTASTIC, speed, responsiveness, build quality, sound, storage capacity, and support. All of these qualities are the true heros in my tablet experience, not the few extra degrees of freedom that I get by buying the top of the line display for a god awful price tag. So I would like to attest to the quality and reliability of these tablets and remind the reviewers that while you may be able to flex your pseudo-tech muscles in a shallow attempt to impress or persuade folks into considering your opinion please remember to consider your audience and don't blow things out of proportion.

  • Scarface

    I own this tablet as well and I too think this review is distorted far more than the screen itself. It is a $250 tablet. It fits its market base perfectly well and the tablet is very high quality overall for the price. The plus side that was never mentioned in this review is that you can plug it into your 1080p HDTV for a perfect 1080p output res! I use a 15' micro HDMI to HDMI cable when I do this.

  • Mike

    I just bought this at Best Buy and I am terrifically satisfied. The screen grading in this review is a bit harsh. The screen is NOT unusable. It is a solid performing screen. When I was playing with it in Best Buy, I really didn't notice that big of a difference compared to the other tablets that made me not buy the tablet.

    I own a monster gaming machine several Nooks and the new Samsung Smart Phones and this tablet was a good buy. It is a quality tablet, zippy, well built, and the battery life is fantastic.

  • r2d2

    I own this tablet and I know how it works and how it looks and to me it works great and looks great. Your review on the how the screen looks it absolutely inaccurate.

    • Tab_Searcher

      Looked at customer reviews: i.e of people who had actually purchased the product and were using on a day to day basis... Some were very critical of X, Y and Z but none mentioned the screen! Straaaaaaaaange (v.strange :) )

  • Tip

    I disagree. The screen is great, your review is exaggerated. It's fast and user friendly. You must work for a competitor.

    • beto_nl

      I tend to agree with you..
      Lot of BIAS out there

  • rodsky

    Wowww,,,,,,,,can't believed it,,,,,,I returned the Samsung gal note tablet and keep this a2109 Leno tab,,,,,no regretssssss:-)

  • xadon

    I too own this tablet. The screen sucks. I look like an elderly person in need of glasses trying to view the entire screen. It takes a little more than an arms length to keep the screen a consistent brightness from top to bottom. If you tilt the screen either the bottom or top will be either too dark or a faded gray. I will be returning this tablet. It was the only one I could find that had the options I wanted. Charge from non proprietary port, camera front and back, HDMI, >8 inch screen, tegra 3 quad or better. Guess I'll wait for the vizio tablet coming out, the specs look amazing.

  • http://www.zorromall.com/ annasui

    why not go with teclast P98 quad core tablet pc? I got one from http://www.androidzorro.com, performs so good

  • Igor

    my wife has this tablet, and the size is about perfect, the 10 inch units are a bit too big, as in you might as well just get a laptop with a 13inch screen and a real keyboard. The screen is bright and looks really nice, she does all of her online classes on it, and I used it a lot before I got my galaxy note 2 the review is overly critical. The weight of the tablet is 1.3 pounds if you get tired holding that, then you need to hit the gym, maybe see some daylight, get some fresh air, move out of your moms basement, just some options to fix the real problem.

  • tabtek4u

    I own this tab also, tech savvy to the max. Screen is not retina display , but delivers a visual experience a user can appreciate. The zippy-ness and features are great. This tablet is designed for one user at the obvious viewing angles, so go figure.

  • stealth94rt

    I disagree with most of this review, especially the part about the display. While the viewing angles are not as good as other costlier devices, it is definitely usable. I spend many hours per day working in front of a high-end computer monitor and I also use an iPhone 4S. I don't find the A2109 display to be grainy, distorted, or poor quality. Regarding the "warmth" of the colors, I just downloaded a free app from Google Play that lets me adjust the colors, contrast, and brightness to my taste. So I would say that problem is easily solved. The fact that I was able to get a tablet of this quality for $219 (new, not refurbished) makes it a great value. It may not have all the bells and whistles of the higher-priced tablets, but [I think] it blows away anything else at this price point.

    • Harish_r25

      Hi

      Could you please tell me about the app that adjusts the colors, contrast, etc.? How's the tablet for reading books? I'm planning to buy it for my father who may use it mainly for reading books. If the screen is unreadable,it'd be a waste of money.

      • stealth94rt

        The screen color app is called "Screen Adjuster" and it's available from Google Play.

        If your father just wants to read books then I would get him a dedicated ereader like Kobo, Kindle, or Nook. They are small, lightweight, and specifically designed for book reading. Although you can read on a tablet, and I have read on my a2109, it's not as nice as reading on a dedicated device. My wife has a Kobo -- she's the reader in the family; I like to surf the web and watch Netflix, so I have a tablet.

  • Ranabir

    Read your article with great interest and I wonder whether the particular tablet you tested was difective. I am using Lenovo IdeaTab A2109A for last couple of years, yes it is bit heavy and thick but the display is quite good no where near your description. I tried my best to double swipe as fast as I can, but could not make the tablet crawl as mentioned by you. Could you try a different unit and see whether your observations were accurate?

  • Stuart Young

    I have had this tablet since Nov 2012. When viewing in landscape it is more than adequate, but viewing in portrait, is terrible (to the point it hurts my eyes!!) so I agree in part with Aaron that a fairly nifty tablet has been spoiled by skimping somewhat on the screen. I also think that a newer more up to date Android version for this tablet would have been good (only one update was forthcoming.) It's almost as if Lenovo rushed this out to compete on the market, then decided to forget about developing it any further. That said, I do love my A2109.