Here is a very interesting alternative. Really! In fact, you’ll get two for the price of one..
For the past six months, tech journalists have been drooling over the long-rumored, but unannounced, Apple tablet. However, Lenovo’s IdeaPad U1 Hybrid was on display today at CES and, if our hands-on experience is any indication of what’s to come, we suggest the pundits start spilling some serious saliva.
The Hybrid, due in Q2 with a starting price around a thousand dollars, offers something truly unique: a full-featured Windows notebook with a screen that just happens to pop off and turn into a really powerful tablet. By day, the U1 Hybrid is an 11.6-inch ultraportable notebook with a Core 2 Duo ULV CPU, 1366×768 screen, Windows 7 ($74.99) Home Premium, and a hard drive or SSD. By night, its removable screen turns into an 11-inch tablet with a gorgeous custom Linux OS (more on that later).
The Notebook Side of the IdeaPad Hybrid U1
In our hands-on time with a pre-production U1 Hybrid, we first took note of the comfortable, rubberized deck, the silver trim around the edges, and high-tech red translucent lid. We didn’t get to do any serious typing on the keyboard, but it looked like a typical IdeaPad keyboard, nothing particularly new or extraordinary. We wish Lenovo would use the same island-style, highly tactile keyboard it now has on the ThinkPad Edge, ThinkPad X100E, and Skylight smartbook, but this is a minor quibble.
We didn’t get to do any performance testing, but the sample unit we saw had a 128GB SSD and Core 2 Duo processor so it should have plenty of power. Lenovo reps told us that units with hard drives and newer-gen Intel processors would likely be available in the future.
The Detachable Screen
Once you slide the screen latch into unlocked position, the tablet pops out easily and starts working right away, with no boot up required. What’s really interesting is that the notebook itself remains a viable Windows computer, even with its screen detached. Lenovo reps told us that, using the HDMI port and an external display, a user could operate the notebook while another person enjoys the tablet. Imagine a family livingroom where one family member works on the notebook (with an LCD monitor attached), while another sits on the couch reading eBooks or watching movies on the tablet.
The tablet has its own battery, own Wi-Fi card, 3G connectivity, 16GB of flash storage, and a webcam. It almost goes without saying that there’s an onscreen keyboard for typing. An accelerometer changes the orientation of the picture when you rotate the tablet from landscape to portrait.
The 11.6-inch screen is attractive, but viewing angles were a bit limited on the unit we saw; you definitely had to look at it head on to get a bright, vibrant image. Touchscreen afficianados know that capacitive screens are usually much more responsive than their less-expensive cousins with resistive touch technology. The U1 Hybrid uses resistive technology, but does support two-finger multitouch gestures like pinch to zoom. Lenovo reps said that this particular resistive screen is highly responsive and it seemed to respond well to single touches. We had difficulty rotating a photo with multitouch gestures, but we only had a moment to try and it was hard to tell whether our difficulty was user error, beta software, or the screen itself.
The Skylight UI
Rather than using Google Android or the upcoming Chrome OS, Lenovo opted to create its own unique user interface for the U1 Hybrid’s tablet. Dubbed “Lenovo Skylight,” the gadget-based OS is built on top of a Linux kernel but has a completely unique look and feel.
The Skylight desktop is covered in tiny gadgets (aka apps) that show updates or thumbnails relative to that application. There’s a movie gadget that lets you scroll through and play your videos. There’s a photo gadget that lets you scroll through thumbnails of your photos and open them. There are gadgets for Twitter and Facebook. There’s an eReader gadget. It almost goes without saying that there’s a Firefox gadget. You can interact with these gadgets in their smaller form or make them take up the whole screen.
We were incredibly impressed with the clean, high-tech look of the gadgets and surrounding UI. Lenovo is also using this Skylight UI on its upcoming Skylight smartbook and it was equally impressive when used on that device.
Right now, you are limited to the 18 built-in gadgets that come with the OS, but Lenovo reps told us they will be releasing an SDK and they want third party app developers to help them build the Skylight platform. Some day, there may even be an app store.
One huge challenge Lenovo faces is dealing with copy protected media. Skylight does support Flash 10 out of the box so it should be able to stream video on demand from sites like Amazon unbox. However, there’s no support yet for downloadable copyrighted material. The built-in eBook reader only supports .txt and .pdf files, not ePub or any protected book format. Reps told us they are looking for video, music, and book partners for launch.
Data Sharing Between Tablet and Base
One of the most impressive things about the U1 Hybrid is its ability to share information about the user session on the tablet with the base. Right now that means that, if you are surfing the Web on the tablet and then reattach it to the base, Windows will open a browser with the same Web page or pages (in the case of multiple tabs) you had open in Skylight OS. In Windows there is also a share program that makes it easy for users to copy media from the notebook base to the tablet.
Lenovo’s reps also told us they are working on more ways to make the two devices share information seamlessly. Perhaps in the future other apps besides the browser will sync up. We can imagine e-mail, media player, Twitter, or IM windows that carry over from Skylight to Windows when you reattach the screen.
A lot can happen between now and the estimated Q2 launch date of the IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, but we’re very impressed with what we’ve seen so far. The success of this product really hinges on the answers to two questions.
- How good is the IdeaPad U1 Hybrid when used as a notebook? Users are going to want this device if they plan to use the U1 as a primary computer. If the notebook itself underperforms, it’s not going to be a very compelling buy. So far, we have every reason to believe it’s going to be a solid performer, but its build quality has to be outstanding, particularly with a screen that keeps getting pulled out and put back on.
- Will other tablets capture the public’s imagination before the U1 Hybrid starts shipping? This year’s CES seems to be all about tablets and, for better or worse, everyone is waiting with baited breath for Apple’s offering. Will Apple’s cachet and first-mover advantage hurt Lenovo’s chances or building a strong Skylight developer and user base?
We’ll see how these questions are answered over the next few months. In the mean time, check out our video below to see the IdeaPad U1 Hybrid in action.