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Lenovo IdeaTab A2109 Review: The Name Is About As Good As The Tablet


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 7and 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 triangles 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.

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