Friday, November 25, 2011

Ideapad K1 First Impressions (some updates)

I finally took the plunge and bought an Android tablet this week. It's a Lenovo Ideapad K1, which is essentially a "standard" (ie 10", 1280x800) Honeycomb tablet. As my regular readers know, I'm still unsure about the whole tablet thing, and to be quite honest with you, this device hasn't made me any more positive about the idea.

Lenovo problems

There are four issues with the tablet that are specifically to do with Lenovo's design decisions.

1. Update hell

The first is that the operating system that's pre-installed is horribly out of date, and is bug ridden. To upgrade it, you have to install every single system update that's ever been made. Each update installs, the system is rebooted, and then you repeat the process until you have Honeycomb 3.2. It's horrible, laborious, and completely unnecessary.

2. Unnecessary proprietary dock connector

Popularized by Apple, the proprietary dock connector is a single socket that's essentially a USB socket that's been made wider, uglier, and incompatible with standard USB accessories. Each manufacturer has their own design, and typically the proprietary dock connector is provided instead of, rather than in addition to, a regular USB connector.

It's a stupid, consumer-hostile, system that only exists so that the manufacturer can create, or license, overpriced accessories. You can't use a standard charger or USB cable, should you leave the official versions at home. The K1 has a proprietary dock connector, it has no standard USB connectors. Manufacturers who play these games are demonstrating clear contempt for their customers, and this is always an extremely good reason to avoid them.

3. No USB charging

Want to charge your smartphone? Like most devices that charge using a USB port, all you generally need is the USB cable, so you can plug it in to your computer. This also ensures you have a neat way to keep it around - plug it in, and while you have complete access to your files on your computer, the device is also kept fully charged.

But not the Lenovo K1. The K1 needs to be plugged into the power supply to charge. It will not be charged from your computer's USB port. And, because the same connector is used for USB and charging, this means you cannot charge it and access the files on it via USB at the same time. Well, there's probably an expensive accessory you can buy but...

4. Locked down

Android has a clear hierarchy of accessibility for system tinkerers who want to do advanced things on their devices.

The one that almost all devices support, and thankfully the K1 does too, is the ability to install any application from any source.

But there's a set of other levels too that are generally restricted, to some extent, because if you were to access them on a phone (that is, a device with an almost direct ability to pump out data onto a congested mobile phone network) you could, in theory, do stuff that would affect people other than yourself in a very negative way. These levels are:
  • Root - a level that allows users to install more advanced software
  • Firmware - a level that allows users to install version of Android that didn't come from the manufacturer, for example, CyanogenMod.
The K1 is a tablet. There's no reason for either of the above levels to be disabled on a tablet, any more than you'd expect them on a PC. A tablet is not a mobile phone - at least, this one isn't. But, in their infinite wisdom, Lenovo has, indeed, put in locks to make it harder to access these levels of security.

Which is not to say that people haven't found ways to bypass the above, but right now the process is ugly, and involves exploiting loopholes in the update process. Given Honeycomb is damaged goods - an OS always presented as a prototype version of Android, and whose design is so embarrassing that Google, while making it open source, have gone out of their way to make it difficult to build a real version of, the fact the ability to update the operating system to, say, Icecream Sandwich, without Lenovo's express involvement, has been made difficult is a big red flag.

Honeycomb problems

Honeycomb itself isn't a bad tablet environment. It's fairly open, it looks good, it's easy to use - well, once you get the hang of the buttons. But there are some major issues, and not all of them are going to be fixed in post-Honeycomb operating systems.

1. Poor support

The big argument for using the iPad is that Android doesn't have high quality support in the tablet space, and that's true. I found the following:
  • Most apps don't even bother to consider the tablet form factor. Twitter is a glaring example. It's a horrible app to use on a 1280x800 screen.
  • Many apps don't install at all. (Update: app previously mentioned here, Yahoo Mail, now works, albeit it's a "mobile app made full screen" thing.)
  • Many apps that support the form factor have been restricted from running on entirely compatible hardware. This includes half of Amazon's stuff, Hulu Plus, Qik (the video conferencing system T-Mobile and Sprint are popularizing), and many others. It's usually because of "exclusivity" agreements - but these agreements are often stupid. Qik, for example, depends upon network effects that can only be had via wide availability, so why the hell can it not be installed on any random Honeycomb tablet?
Websites that support a mobile view tend to load in that view, which is pretty ridiculous given the web browser has a larger screen than most Netbooks. And there's no way to tell the browser to pretend to be a non-mobile browser.

2. It's slow.

Honeycomb is chronically slow. Scrolling a web page typically results in chunks being rendered after you've stopped scrolling. Returning to the home screen often takes seconds. Sliding left and right typically causes the screen to move in a jerky fashion. The K1 is a pretty powerful device, it boasts a dual core Tegra, a device that can give most of the better Netbooks a run for their money. The fault has to lie with Honeycomb, either with Google's design or Lenovo's specific implementation.

Update: Just to prove the point, my testing with Grand Theft Auto 3 proved that there's a pretty spiffy CPU under there.  This is a full 3D game, and it's beautifully smooth, running at the K1's full resolution. So why's the web browser so awful? I used use a 233MHz Thinkpad with a 1024x768 screen and a really poor GPU back the early 2000s, and early Firefoxes on that could scroll without problems!

3. Printing

Lenovo has installed some third party support for printing on the K1, but it's not integrated with the operating system, and it's actually a demo - you have to register to make it work. The operating system itself contains no native printing support. Google offers an API called "Google Cloud Printing", supported by some of their apps, which essentially involves a ridiculous system whereby you... I'm not making this up... you run Google Chrome on a Windows PC or Mac on the network with the printer you want to access, go into Settings, select the Cloud Printing option, add a printer from your network, make sure you're online, and then select this printer on your tablet, which uploads the thing that needs to be printed to Google, which in turn sends it back to the web browser on the PC or Mac which then prints the page.

What. The. Hell?

There's nothing in theory to prevent the tablet from running something more like a standard operating system, where printers on your network are accessible, and you just select them and print with them, maybe with some kind of streamlined device driver system, but, well, no, Google wants you to upload anything that needs printing to them, because... because it's a cloud! Woohoo! Cloud computing leveraging synergies for Web 2.0 platforms, yeah!

If the tablet is supposed to be a standalone device that can be used for productivity, it needs a proper system for interfacing with printers. As far as I'm concerned Honeycomb doesn't have this.

4. Google Docs

The productivity side of Honeycomb is supposed to be Google Docs, and I like Google Docs... on a PC. On a tablet the app is almost identical to its mobile phone cousin. You can edit files, but it's a pain, you don't get to see any formatting, and it's not clear to me that any consideration was given to the form factor.

If the tablet is supposed to be the next generation of personal computing devices, you'd have expected Google's own office suite to at least be up to the task.


I hope Icecream Sandwich is better than this. All I can say right now though is that Windows 8 is probably going to take over the entire tablet space. Honeycomb is a prototype, but many of the decisions Google has made (such as Cloud Printing), and the fact even major groups like Twitter, Yahoo, and whoever writes Google Docs, isn't taking the platform seriously, makes me think that this isn't where the industry will ever go.

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