IdeaPad U1 Hybrid Hands-On: Meet Voltron

IdeaPad U1 Hybrid Hands-On: Meet Voltron

Let’s clarify two things right away: First, the Ideapad U1 hybrid notebook tablet is still in the very rough stages of development. Second, it’s going to be awesome – if it can live up to its potential.

Let’s review the concept quickly before we get into the details. The U1 is literally two separate devices, joined together and made to play nice. One is a multitouch tablet that runs Linux and has a speedily efficient Qualcomm ARM 1Ghz Snapdragon processor running the show. The other is a Windows 7 notebook with an Intel Core 2 Duo SU 4100 processor.

The build is like Lenovo’s other IdeaPads, except for the translucent red top that houses the tablet. When the base and the slate are linked up, the latter acts as an 11.6-inch, 720p (1366×768) monitor that looked crisp despite being saddled with Intel’s integrated graphics. The (non-chiclet) keyboard is based on the current lineup of IdeaPads, and both it and the touchpad worked smoothly. The U1 we saw wasn’t set up to do much other than web browse, and pages loaded smoothly. The notebook has built-in Wi-Fi, but can also run off of the tablet’s 3G connection, which I can see being a pretty great benefit for times when wireless isn’t readily accessible.

The fun part, though, is unclasping the tablet from its shell. It’s firmly latched in, which is more reassuring than frustrating. Once removed from the notebook, there’s a 2-3 second lag before the Snapdragon processor kicks in. It’s not seamless, but it’s close enough. Tablet mode greets you with a six-panel screen of apps similar to that of Lenovo’s Skylight smartbook. The selection is limited for now, but Lenovo will be opening up the SDK to developers to give you more to play with than the standard YouTube, Gmail and Facebook-type options.

You can also enter a type of content mode, which divides up your stored files between music, video, images and documents. With the multitouch interface, you can quickly jump among all four and adjust how much of the screen is devoted to each. The resistive screen was good, but not great – it at times took some pretty insistent pressing to get the response I was looking for. The viewing angles could also use work; unless you’re looking nearly dead-on at the display, you’re pretty much out of luck.

I was impressed by the sound quality – not excellent by any means, but better than I expected from a tablet device. One immediately obvious downside is the total absence of ports on the tablet other than the docking – there’s not even a headphone jack. It’s configured for Bluetooth, but I’d still like the option to plug in. The tablet also currently lacks an accelerometer, so there’s no way to orient documents or images based on its position. This is hopefully something that will be addressed before its release.

I said the two devices are totally separate, and I meant it. There are advantages and disadvantages to this set-up. On the plus side, while the tablet is undocked, you can hook the base up to a monitor and get full functionality. If you remove it during web browsing, the tablet remembers which site you were on and places you there automatically (and vice versa).

The down side is that right now, web pages are the only things that are transferable this way. If I were working on a document in notebook mode, there’s no on-the-fly transition once I pop out the tablet. You can drag and drop, but a more seamless transfer would be helpful. It would also be nice to be able to control the tablet remotely with the base, but once they’ve separated there’s no interaction between the two. Again, these are things that may or may not be addressed by the time the U1 comes out in the second half of this year.

About that release: it’s up in the air right now as to when you can get your hands on one of these, because of all of the tweaks that need to be made. It will also be crucial for Lenovo to be able to build up a decent store of apps for the U1 and the Skylight if these are going to have any functionality beyond very basic web browsing and media playback. And for an estimated retail price of $US999 – minus whatever subsidy they’re able to get from a partner carrier – that functionality had better be there.

All in all, the U1 is a slick device, if a little undercooked. If nothing else, I’m excited to see how far they can take this concept once they put it in production. But no rush, Lenovo. If you take the time to get it right, it’ll be something special.