Yoga Tablet 2 and Tablet 2 Pro review: Innovative but imperfect

Lenovo's new Android-based tablets have clever designs and unusual features, but there are some troubling flaws.

lenovo yoga tablet 2

You have to hand it to Lenovo: The company isn't afraid to do something different.

In a sea of indistinguishable rectangular slates, Lenovo's Android-based Yoga Tablets (first introduced last year) stand out with their unconventional approach to the tablet concept. Rather than joining the race to be the lightest or thinnest around, the devices offer an unusual form: A chunky cylinder serves as both a base and an adjustable multipurpose kickstand for the screen.

This year's new Yoga Tablets come in two models and three variations. There's the Yoga Tablet 2, which is currently available in an 8-in. size for $250 or a 10-in. size for $300, and there's the Yoga Tablet 2 Pro, which has a 13-in. screen with a built-in projector (yes, really!) and costs $500. (Unless you can catch any Cyber Monday sales.)

Getting to know the Yoga form

I've been using the 13-in. Tablet 2 Pro and the 10-in. version of the Tablet 2 for the past several days. Size aside, the two models are very similar in appearance: When you hold them in landscape orientation, you have a standard tablet screen at the top surrounded by a metallic silver frame and silver-colored plastic on the back. The slate gets gradually thicker as you move toward the bottom and eventually slopes out into the cylinder base.

The base, which also serves as a house for the battery, is about the size of a roll of nickels on the Tablet 2 and closer to a roll of quarters on the Tablet 2 Pro. It makes the devices somewhat heavy -- the Tablet 2 Pro is just under 2 lb. while the 10-in. Tablet 2 weighs 1.3 lb. -- but it also provides a natural grip for holding onto the tablets while you use them. And it creates a lopsided weight distribution in which the heaviest part of the device is always against your hand, which actually makes for quite a comfortable and sensible setup.

As I mentioned earlier, the base does much more than initially meets the eye. Twist it gently -- or in the case of the Pro tablet, press a small button to unhinge it -- and you'll uncover a thick metal plate that swivels around and props the screen up in a variety of angles. The plate even has a hole in it if you want to hang the tablet from a nail or a hook in the wall. It's a clever idea that adds a whole new range of possibilities to the ways you can use these devices.

lenovo yoga tablet 2 pro Lenovo

The base of the Yoga Tablet 2 can also be used to prop the screen up.

Both of the Yoga Tablet models feel sturdy and well constructed. The 13.3-in. Pro is quite a bit bigger than the 10-in. Tablet 2, as you'd expect -- 13.3 x 8.8 in. vs. 10.1 x 7.2 in. -- and there's a reason: It's designed explicitly to be a home entertainment unit as opposed to a more typical portable tablet that you'd throw into a bag and take out into the world.

Displays, speakers and that puzzling projector

And at first, it appears Lenovo has outfitted the Pro to fit that home entertainment purpose: The device's gigantic LCD screen has Quad HD resolution, which promises a stunning and pixel-packed display. When you compare the screen directly with other devices, however, you realize it's not quite as jaw-dropping as it sounds. Remember, resolution is all relative: While Quad HD is crisp and arguably even excessive on a smartphone-sized screen, that same number of pixels is spread out over a much larger surface area here.

As a result, the Yoga Tablet 2 Pro ends up with about 221 pixels per inch (ppi) -- a lower density than what you'll see on many current tablets. When I look at it next to the 323ppi second-gen Nexus 7, elements on the Tablet 2 Pro appear less crisp and sharp, especially in high-resolution images. The Pro's display also looks slightly washed out next to the Nexus 7's and its whites are much more grayish.

That's being picky, though. By itself, the Pro's screen looks pretty good, and for most purposes, it should be perfectly fine, if not exemplary.

The same can't be said for the 10-in. Tablet 2, unfortunately: Its 1920 x 1200 LCD screen is just flat-out disappointing. Text isn't particularly sharp, and images don't look crisp; all around, it's a significant step down from the status quo.

Both tablets do have front-facing stereo speakers, which is a nice touch -- though they're better described as "decent" than "spectacular." The 10-in. Tablet 2's speakers are reasonably loud but mediocre in quality; they're significantly more hollow and tinny-sounding than those on Google's recently released Nexus 9 tablet. The 13.3-in. Pro has an actual subwoofer on its back, which helps to fill out the sound -- but the impact is far subtler than you might expect, and the quality just still isn't great. In a side-by-side playoff, the Nexus 9 again sounds better.

So how about that built-in projector on the Tablet 2 Pro? Well, it works exactly as advertised: When you activate the feature through a menu on the device, an image shines out of the end of the tablet's cylinder base. You then point it at a wall and adjust a physical slider to manipulate the focus. The image quality is adequate; Lenovo says you can make the picture as large as 50 in., but even at small sizes, things are slightly fuzzy and not terribly vivid.

In fact, I'm a bit befuddled at the projector's inclusion: I'm just not sure when or why most people would want to use it. In most cases, you'd get a far more enjoyable experience by simply casting content wirelessly to a higher-quality TV screen using an inexpensive dongle like the $35 Chromecast. You could also plug the tablet directly into a TV via HDMI -- if either Yoga had HDMI-out capability, which they don't. The projector is certainly novel, but I would think including an HDMI-out port would have been a far more practical and desirable solution in this day and age.

In any case, if the idea of a projector appeals to you, the Pro tablet has it.

Performance, stamina and storage

Performance was a serious problem with the first-gen Yoga Tablet, and Lenovo has done little to address the issue in these second-generation devices. On both the regular Tablet 2 and the Tablet 2 Pro, animations are consistently jerky, scrolling on the Web is choppy and things just aren't terribly snappy anywhere in the system.

(If you're curious about specs, both models share the same internal configuration: a 1.86GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3745 processor with 2GB of RAM.)

Stamina, at least, is a strong point: The Tablet 2 is listed for 18 hours of active use per charge while the Tablet 2 Pro is at a very respectable 15 hours. Actual battery life is always going to vary depending on how you use a device, but based on my time with the tablets, I'd say those estimates should be quite attainable for most people.

Neither Yoga Tablet supports wireless charging, so you'll be plugging them in via regular USB adapters to power up. The tablets also lack support for near-field communication (NFC), which is an odd omission for Android devices in this class. Its absence probably won't be too big of a deal in most day-to-day use, but it does mean you won't be able to tap the tablets back-to-back with other Android devices to initiate wireless transfers of settings and files (as you can with most other current Android tablets).

As for storage, the regular Tablet 2 has a meager 16GB of internal space, only about 10GB of which is actually available for you to use. The Pro bumps things up to 32GB, with 24GB being available at first boot. Both systems have micro-SD card slots hidden beneath their stands that allow you to add up to 64GB of external space.

If you absolutely must take a photo with your tablet, both Yoga models have 8-megapixel rear-facing cameras. They also include 1.6-megapixel front-facing cameras for selfie snapping and video chatting.

The software

Lenovo's custom software, based loosely on Google's Android 4.4.2 KitKat operating system, may be the strangest thing about these devices. The user interface seems to be a weird attempt at mimicking an iOS-like environment within Android. Given the iPad's popularity, I guess I can see why Lenovo might think that'd be a good idea -- but the end result is a muddled mess that's clunky and confusing and feels like a step back in time.

To wit: Lenovo has eliminated the typical Android app drawer and instead created a setup in which all apps, shortcuts and widgets exist solely on the home screen itself. The system icons are designed to look like iOS icons. If you long-press an icon, you even get the iOS-like effect where the icons all wiggle and then have small x's in their corners that allow you to uninstall the corresponding apps.

lenovo yoga tablet 2 software JR Raphael

Lenovo has eliminated the typical Android app drawer and instead created a setup in which all apps, shortcuts and widgets exist solely on the home screen itself.

But then there are Android-style touches mixed in with that. Most non-system icons follow Android's design guidelines, for instance. Some icons even appear in different styles depending on where you look -- like the one for Chrome, which shows up with Google's standard Android icon on the home screen but is represented by an iOS-style icon elsewhere in the system. It's a mishmash of conflicting visuals that's like sandpaper on the eyes.

Other system elements are just plain bizarre -- like the legacy overflow-menu icon inserted next to the tablets' virtual buttons. That's the series of vertical dots that used to appear in Android back around 2011 to provide support for older apps that hadn't been updated past the Android 2.3 Gingerbread design standards. For some reason, Lenovo decided to make it a core part of its current software environment: It's present on the home screen and pops up periodically as a placeholder for hidden options elsewhere in the system, creating further inconsistency and confusion.

Android's top-of-screen notification panel is still present, meanwhile, though with a dated-looking design. And Lenovo has moved all the settings out of that area and into a separate (and equally dated-looking) bottom-of-screen panel that appears when you swipe up from the virtual Back, Home and Recent Apps buttons. Confounding things even more -- if you long-press the Home button, you'll see the standard Android shortcut to Google Now. Got all that?

I could go on, but you get the point. The Yoga Tablets' software feels like it was created in a vacuum with no awareness of current design trends or standards. Lenovo's attempt at creating an Android-iOS hybrid results in an amateurish and inelegant environment that's going to leave both Android and iOS users scratching their heads.

With Google's polished and cohesive new Android 5.0 Lollipop release now out in the wild and available on other tablets, this type of configuration seems particularly inexcusable.

Bottom line

When I reviewed last year's original Yoga Tablet, I said Lenovo had created an innovative and practical form but had failed the grasp the basics. I expressed hope that the company would revisit the form in the future with better components and more intuitive software, because it had a lot of untapped potential on its hands.

Here we are a year later -- and sadly, it's the same exact story: This year's Yoga Tablet 2 and Yoga Tablet 2 Pro are cool concepts that come up short. Despite their clever forms and commendable stamina, they suffer from underwhelming displays, subpar performance and one of the oddest and most confusing user interfaces I've ever encountered. No matter how much I want to like them, their deficiencies are just too foundational and the resulting user experience too poor to be forgiven.

So once again, I'll end by saying that Lenovo makes some fantastic hardware and has some wonderful ideas. If and when the company goes back to square one and gets the basics right, its Yoga Tablets will be nothing short of incredible.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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