IdeaPad U1 Hybrid and LePad Tablet: Lenovo's Voltron Re-forms

A few months ago, it looked like Lenovo's crazy-neat dual-processor U1 hybrid was pure vaporware. Turns out it just needed a little retooling. The U1 Hybrid is back, giving Lenovo's LePad Android tablet a Windows 7 dock. So what's new?

First and best, Lenovo's smartly ditched the proprietary interface that made the U1 Hybrid and Skylight smartbook untenable last year. In its place, the multitouch, (mercifully) 10.1-inch, 1280x800 LePad tablet will sport Android Froyo, with a Lenovo skin that loosely resembles their plans for a four-paned UI last year. Oh, and full Flash 10.1 support is planned as well.

Android 2.2 may put Lenovo a step behind competitors from Motorola, LG, Toshiba, and others who've embraced the tablet-friendly Honeycomb, but at least you'll have access to the Android Market. And who knows? Maybe Lenovo's custom spin on a tablet OS will come out ahead regardless of what it's built on.

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The LePad also upgrades to a wicked fast 1.3GHz Snapdragon processor, and comes with its own 1GB RAM and up to 32GB flash storage. That's complemented by the U1 base's 2GB DDR3 memory and 32GB HDD. And speaking of that keyboard shell: when the LePad docks with it, the power-sipping (but lightweight) 1.2GHz Intel CULV I5-540UM takes charge and the operating system instamagically clicks over to Windows 7. Lenovo's promising what they've called Hybrid Switch technology, which supports a "continuous web experience"—meaning you won't have to start from zero every time you dock or undock LePad.

The shell's by no means a perfect notebook; you've only got two ports (one USB and one HDMI), and that CPU isn't going to win many footraces. But if you think of it as a bonus, as access to a Windows 7 PC when you need to actually get a (very) little work done, it actually doesn't sound so bad.

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Of course, whether it's worth an extra $780 for what amounts to a Windows 7 PC accessory is a different story. The LePad goes on sale in China this quarter (no word yet on US availability) for the imminently reasonable $520, but the U1 Hybrid (LePad + Windows 7 shell) will be a $1300 gut punch. At that point, why not just get a LePad and a separate, much more powerful (and cheaper) Windows 7 laptop? Especially if, as it appears, web browsing is the only activity that transfers uninterrupted between tablet and PC mode.

We'll know more when we get some hands-on time with the U1 this week at CES. In the meantime, I'm just glad to see that one of 2010's most innovative products may also be one of 2011's.