I wanted to review one of Lenovo's unique tablet-with-a-kinda-sorta-keyboard-touchpad models as soon as I saw them. My Android Police colleagues thought the core idea behind the Yoga A12 was dumb, saddling the flexibility of a tablet with the extra size and weight of a laptop while taking away its greatest advantage, a full keyboard. So I asked Lenovo for a review unit. They told me no. That probably should have been a second hint that this wasn't going to be an especially impressive product.

But I was determined, and thankfully the folks at B&H Photo and Video were kind enough to send over a loaner unit for me to review. If you want to buy a Lenovo Yoga A12, consider buying it from them. But then, you really don't want to buy a Yoga A12. Here's why.

The Good

Price No matter how you slice it, $300 for a 12-inch Android tablet from a major brand is quite competitive.
Software skin I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lenovo's first-party Android skin has been completely overhauled. It's not amazing, but at least it's no longer an iPad ripoff.
Battery life The large laptop-style body lets the A12 house a relatively huge 10,500mAh battery.
Body The slim body panels are all aluminum.

The Not So Good

Keyboard There's no getting around this: the digital keyboard in this Yoga design is awful. It's worse than any on-screen keyboard, completely defeating the purpose of the laptop-style form factor.
Corners cut Low-res screen. No watchband-style Yoga hinge. No stylus or digital pad functionality. No 5GHz Wi-Fi, for cryin' out loud. I get that this is a budget tablet, but it feels like something out of 2012.
Android 6.0 One of the big selling points of the A12 is that it can run multiple app windows on screen at once. Which, you know, Android 7.0 was doing six months ago. When it came out.
Ergonomics Odd, completely unhelpful choices were made for the simple operation of this thing. A recessed power button in between two volume buttons? Ugh.

Design

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The A12 is, basically, an Android-powered laptop. Technically it's a convertible, since the screen can fold back on itself and form a more conventional slate, but if what you want is a tablet without a giant and permanent keyboard-slash-kickstand attachment, there are easier ways to get it. And so this brings us to:

Bad idea #1: An Android-powered laptop.

Now, one might be forgiven for thinking there's a certain charm and novelty to running Android in a laptop form factor. It's been done before, from tiny whitebox Chinese resellers to (arguably) Samsung and Google with their elaborate and expensive custom-made keyboard docks for the Galaxy Tab S and Nexus/Pixel tablets, respectively. But you'd have to strain pretty hard to make an argument for Android as a laptop OS versus something like Windows, or even Chrome, which incidentally can already run Android apps on most new machines. There's simply no reason to go in this direction - even Lenovo already makes both a Windows-powered version of this very design (which is far more capable thanks to differences in hardware, see below), and Chromebooks with fold-back touchscreens that run Android apps. Why? Why does this thing exist?

On to the second most distinctive feature of the A12: the "Halo" keyboard. And let's just get right to it:

Bad idea #2: A touch-only keyboard.

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The Halo keyboard is fully touch-enabled, with no physical feedback except the vibration motors. It is awful. In every way, shape, and form, it is both a terrible idea and a poor execution.

Have you ever tried out typing on one of those laser keyboards, where your fingers tap on an illuminated grid on an otherwise flat desktop? Or one of those glass keyboards that look like they've been stolen from a Star Trek set, but still manage to feel like you're banging your fingers on, well, glass? The Halo keyboard has exactly the same problems: a rigid, inflexible typing surface, no tactile feedback, no way to feel out the differences in the keys. There isn't even a sticker or ridge on the surface so that you can feel the borders of the keyboard - those little indents on the F and J keys aren't actually indented. I tried to type this review on the A12, just for the sake of experience, and gave up after 30 minutes and five paragraphs full of typos and errors.

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This all-flat surface might have been more practical, and perhaps it is on the more expensive Yoga Book models. In those 10-inch designs, the keyboard area doubles as both a gigantic touchpad (only the laptop-style "mouse area" box on the A12 can do that) and a graphics tablet, like a Wacom pad permanently affixed to the screen. This makes sense, especially with the included digital stylus - a niche sense, almost exclusively for digital artists, but sense. Here on the A12, the keyboard doubles as nothing but a fold-back stand for the screen and a place to stick a big battery. There is no stylus. There is, in fact, no point. Lenovo could have saved a few bucks, added a few millimeters, and put in a real keyboard with keys, and made this thing so, so much more useful.

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This is the only reason you might want a touch keyboard, and the A12 doesn't do it.

And speaking of the fold-back screen: I wanted to love it. I really did. I use my Pixel C in a tablet stand as a sort of permanent email monitor on my desktop, and I thought the A12's convertible design and big screen would be good for that very specific purpose. But between the low-res screen (see below) and the wobbly, shaky way that the hinge reacts to every touch and tap, it just isn't very good at it. This in turn makes it harder to read and to tap on just about everything on the screen.

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Aside from the awful keyboard and the touchscreen, the only other input is the volume and power cluster. And it is a cluster: the volume down, power, and volume up buttons are combined into a sort of stepped arrangement. Oh, before I forget:

Bad idea #3: a tiny power-volume cluster.

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The buttons are so tiny and thin that trying to adjust the volume (which, you know, you want to do with volume buttons on a tablet) means inevitably turning the screen off. Trying to turn the screen off intentionally usually results in accidentally taking a screenshot. Aside from looking nice and fitting in with the ultra-thin aesthetic, there's nothing good at all about the button setup on this thing... and that's a damning statement, since there are only three buttons. The side-firing speakers are nothing to brag about, but strangely with all the other corners cut in the hardware, the tablet charges with a USB-C port.

The one nice thing about the design aspect of the A12 is that it's thin. Very thin, at least compared to most laptops, at only 8mm. That's thinner than my Microsoft Surface, without the keyboard. But man, I would so, so rather use the Surface, with or without the keyboard. And possibly with a broken finger or two.

Hardware

The A12 has a 12.2-inch LCD screen with a 1280x800 resolution. You read that right. And even given that this is a budget device (a couple of hundred bucks cheaper than the 10-inch version of the Yoga book with a 1920x1200 panel), it seems like a pretty awful choice given the poor density that results from such a large panel. Android apps simply aren't made with such a low pixel density in mind, and it shows. My plan to use the A12 as a desktop-based email monitor was severely curtailed by this lack of pixels. At least the screen is bright and without any obvious failings.

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Underneath is a quad-core Intel Atom X5-Z8550 processor, with a maximum speed of 2.4GHz. The x86 version of Android has come along well since the early days, and I never noticed any performance hits that were obviously straining the processor. I wish I could say the same about the paltry 2GB of RAM, but that's pretty much expected at this price point. Storage is just 16GB (ditto) with a MicroSD card slot, and the 720p front-facing camera is the only one you're getting on this gadget - there's no rear-facing camera, no matter which way you fold it. I'm actually okay with that, since using a tablet to take still photos or non-conference video is both a bad idea and a nerdy faux pas.

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The battery is a roomy 10,500mAh, and it is perhaps the only bright spot on the spec list. Again, I suspect that Lenovo was able to cram that big old juicebox in there thanks to the laptop form factor - assuming that the touch-only keyboard uses less vertical space than a standard touchscreen, it has a huge amount of physical room to cram lithium-polymer cells. This thing regularly lasted me for days and days of casual use, and I could easily go through three Netflix movies on a single charge. On that low-resolution screen, of course, which was less than ideal.

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And that's assuming that I could keep a connection to the local Wi-Fi router. See, a lack of a mobile connection in a tablet doesn't bother me, it's basically expected for American releases. And the Bluetooth chip in the A12 uses 4.1 - not the latest, but not restrictive. But on the Wi-Fi front, the A12 fails hard, because it's the first mobile gadget I've seen in literally years that isn't compatible with 5GHz Wi-Fi. Excuse me for a second....

Bad idea #4: Releasing a tablet in 2017 without 5GHz Wi-Fi support.

You know how I discovered that this tablet doesn't support 5GHz Wi-Fi? Because my house runs on the stuff. Every desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, set-top box, Chromecast - even my cheap-ass TCL television that I bought on closeout from Walmart uses 5GHz Wi-Fi. It's gotten to the point that, in order to clear up the otherwise crowded 2.4GHz spectrum used for things like wireless mice and gaming headsets, I've actually disabled the 2.4GHz band in my router. It took me ten minutes to realize why the Lenovo A12 couldn't see my home network, because it honestly never occurred to me that Lenovo would made a new product with such a lamentable omission.

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What the hell, man.

In Lenovo's defense, the fit and finish of the tablet-laptop-thing is quite nice. If you can get over the fact that you're using what looks like a poorly-thought-out SyFy Channel prop, the light weight and metal body are satisfying. I'd like it much better if it had a real keyboard, but now I'm repeating myself.

Software

The Lenovo Yoga A12 runs Android 6.0.1. And right off the bat, let's get it out of the way:

Bad idea #5: Releasing an Android tablet-laptop with Marshmallow.

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Now, this might not seem like that big of a deal. Yes, it's been six months since Nougat was available, and releasing a new product without it does no favors for any expectations of software support. But this is a budget device, right? You have to expect some compromises, like a low-res screen or paltry RAM or a Wi-Fi chip from the 90s. But keep going, dear reader, and you'll discover why having Android 6 instead of Android 7 is such an insulting choice here.

Desktop mode

See, the A12 is being marketed as (and here I quote from Lenovo's promotional page) "Productivity reimagined in an Android tablet." Also mentioned is the phrase "Multitask Effortlessly on Android." To that end, the company has basically tried to make Android into a full desktop operating system, the better to use in laptop mode with that built-in keyboard. Setting aside the fact that the awfulness of the Halo keyboard undermines this at every turn, they actually did a surprisingly okay job here.

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Lenovo's build of Marshmallow takes a lot of design inspiration from Jide's Remix OS. The Back, Home, and App Switch buttons are all on the left side of the lower bar. Applications show up on the taksbar, Windows-style, the better to be switched at any time, and important apps can be pinned there. The modified default home page even has a tiny little app drawer button done in desktop fashion. If you squint a bit and ignore the built-in Google apps, you might be able to convince yourself that you're using some kind of ultra-simple Linux distro.

To further drive home the multitasking intention of the A12, each app can be run in full screen mode or windowed mode. Double-tap on the notification bar in any application, and it will be shrunk down into a tiny phone-sized window. These windows can be moved around (but not resized), again, just like they're on a full desktop.

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So, given that so much time and effort has been put into making Android behave sort of like Windows... why the hell wouldn't you just load the thing up with Android 7.0? Nougat already includes a multi-window feature. It's one of the headlining additions of the new software, and it even works quite a lot like the dual-window mode in Windows 10! Why would you go to all the trouble of putting in this multiple window system when Google already made one for you?

And aside from the novel aspect of having three or four apps visible on screen at once, this feature doesn't work particularly well. It's not a case of simply making fullscreen tablet apps act like smaller phone-formatted apps. Going from fullscreen to windowed mode often destroys the basic formatting, making elements of the app (especially things like intro pages and login screens) break. Chrome, for example, keeps its tablet-style full tabs even in windowed mode, making switching between them an utter pain... and then will sometimes launch in "mobile mode" where the tabs aren't visible in fullscreen. Some apps, even built-in Google apps that work fine in Nougat's multi-window mode, are rather arbitrarily barred from entry here.

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Add on to that the fact that while the formatting of the desktop interface is fine, actually controlling it is not. Trying to use Android as if it were Windows creates odd disconnects - left-clicking is often broken or interpreted as a double-click, and keyboard shortcuts (such as they are) rarely register. At this point I honestly can't tell if it's because the touch-only keyboard is incredibly awkward to use with more than one key at a time, or if Lenovo simply couldn't be bothered to implement keyboard shortcuts correctly.

Tablet mode

And all this is a tragedy. A tragedy, I say. Because once you fold back the keyboard and use this thing as a tablet, or alternately put it in "tent" mode on a table to give it some stability, it's actually a pretty good touchscreen experience. Lenovo has improved its software skin tenfold since that time they pretended that a giant plastic tablet-kickstand-projector thing that ran on hope and Subway sandwich credit was an iPad. (Yes, that really happened!)

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Compared to previous "Yoga" Android devices, the software in the A12 is quite good-looking and usable. The desktop touches don't distract from Android's core visual dynamics, and all the standard stuff (like the notification and Quick Settings area) is where you'd expect it to be. Even with relatively low-power guts and a low-res screen, I often found myself actually enjoying using the A12 as a tablet, not a laptop. Even Lenovo's pack-in apps are much improved, generally being minimal and non-invasive to the user experience. Aside from a few tutorials, a file browser, an image browser, and syncing items, the only non-Google app is McAfee anti-virus.

It's a damn shame. If this big, $300 tablet came without the delusion that it was a competitor to a laptop or a Chromebook, I might be tempted to buy it.

Value

It's surprisingly hard to find an Android tablet larger than 10 inches... because it's getting pretty hard to find Android tablets in general. The last time I can personally remember seeing anything in this size range from a large manufacturer was, well, the Lenovo Yoga Tab 2 Pro, of Burger King-sandwich-credit-for-unverified-Android-games infamy. Before that Samsung was up to the challenge with its Galaxy Tab/Note 12.2 way back in 2014. There have been some odd outliers, like the Surface-style Jide Remix tablet at 11.6 inches. But the only real competition for the Yoga A12 is its own smaller and paradoxically more expensive brother, the Android version of the 10-inch Yoga Book.

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The Yoga Book is $200 more than the $300 A12, and comes with the more modern "watch band" Yoga hinge, a full Wacom touchscreen where the Halo keyboard disappears, a stylus, a higher-res but smaller screen, more RAM and storage, and basically the same software. But even if for some reason you're enamored with this weird laptop-with-a-virtual-keyboard design and you have the nigh superhuman capacity to use it as intended, I don't think there's any way I can recommend either model, even sight unseen of the smaller one. There's just so much extra stuff here that you don't need. If you want an Android tablet that can do desktop-style work, try something with Remix OS. If that doesn't appeal... wait for something that isn't the A12.

Conclusion

I wanted to like the Yoga A12, even with the fairly obvious design flaws that stem from its core concept. But I couldn't. As completely serviceable as it is as a standard tablet, there's so much extra stuff here that it simply isn't worth the effort - the multi-window system that's worse than stock Nougat, the outdated software, the poor ergonomics, the shaky hinge, and of course, the keyboard that's sure to go down as a legendary failure of basic input design.

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I might see just one potential group of buyers: Android fans who want a new 12-inch tablet, with low specs and a relatively low price for the size, who can ignore all of the ill-advised extras that Lenovo has tacked on in the name of "productivity." Everyone else, avoid the Yoga A12 like the disaster that it is.

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Once again, thanks to B&H Photo and Video for providing us with this review unit. You shouldn't buy the Yoga A12, but if you're going to ignore the last 3000 words and do it anyway, buy it from them.