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.

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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.

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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.