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Hands on with Lenovo's unique Yoga Book convertible tablet: Is it time for an Android laptop?

One of the best things about the Android and Windows ecosystems is the wide variety of innovative products brought to market. Many of them don’t survive for long, but some, like Microsoft’s Surface, persist and eventually thrive. Lenovo is hoping the same is true of its unique Yoga Book clamshell-style convertible; it’s a combination mini-laptop and tablet. Available with either Windows 10 ($549.99) or Android 6.01 ($499.99), the Yoga Book is a small, sleek tablet, with a permanently attached front side called a Create Pad.

I tested the Android version of the Yoga Book. The Create Pad half of the Yoga Book is first and foremost a well-implemented, pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet. As with most desktop tablets, you write or draw on the tablet and the result appears on the screen. That’s a different experience than writing directly on the screen, the way you do with a Microsoft Surface, Samsung Note, or Wacom Cintiq. You can use “Any Pen” mode to make the display sensitive to the included Real Pen stylus, but it isn’t pressure sensitive and tracks more slowly than when it is used on the intended Create Pad surface.

Otherwise, the display surface is touch-sensitive, like a typical tablet. Having the writing surface separate does have a couple of advantages. First, your hand doesn’t get in the way of what you are writing and drawing. Also, because the display doesn’t need the extra depth needed for Wacom integration, it can be very thin, avoiding the issue of parallax, and tracking your writing nearly perfectly.

The Halo Keyboard is cool tech, and unique, but isn't the easiest to useBeyond being a nicely integrated tablet, the Create Pad has two more tricks up its sleeve. First, a simple button press turns it into what Lenovo calls a Halo Keyboard. In that mode, outlines of all the keys are illuminated on the same Create Pad surface. The surface is still glass, though, so there is no key travel, and no way to know where to place your fingers without looking. The system does have strong haptic feedback, so you at least know when you’ve activated a key.

Unfortunately, not having physical keys makes it difficult to do more than hunt-and-peck typing on the keyboard. In my experience, this is a little faster than hunting and pecking on-screen — because the keyboard is lying flat — and has the advantage of not taking up real estate on the display. However, I didn’t find it any faster than using a “swipe-style” keyboard on Android. In short the Halo keyboard is certainly not a complete replacement for having a small Bluetooth keyboard for heavy-duty typists.

The Yoga Book comes with pads and ink refills for the stylusThe other trick of the Create Pad is that you can actually write on it using a paper overlay and ink — as long as you do it with an ink refill in the included Real Pen. In this mode, the tablet acts a lot like a Livescribe pen and notebook. You activate the pen capability, then write or draw whatever you want while it is digitized in real time. If you use the included Note Saver application, it is easy to save pages and create new ones. If you want to do this with another application like OneNote, you’ll have to do that for yourself using the software’s commands. The Note Saver app itself is a reasonably good note taking app. But it only exports raster images (JPG or PDF), and if it is like most other proprietary note-taking apps I’ve used, it’s likely not to last long enough to be a reliable archive for anything important. Personally, I’d much rather see tight integration with a couple of industry-leading options like OneNote and Evernote.

In a unique twist designed to make scribbling easier, Lenovo ships the Yoga Book with a magnetized pad that simply sticks to the Create Pad surface to make it easy to take paper notes. However, you can’t close the Yoga Book with the scratch pad inside, so you’ll have to store it somewhere else. More importantly, the tablet doesn’t offer a place to store its large stylus or its tiny ink refills. One bright spot is that the stylus can be magnetically attached to the Yoga Book itself. But it’s not a strong attachment, so you need to keep a careful eye on it.

To help it make its claim to being a multi-tasking workhorse, Lenovo has added a fairly straightforward multi-window capability. It centers around allowing apps to run in phone mode in a window, or in true tablet mode. It works pretty well, and in many ways is easier to use than Samsung’s clumsy version. It reminds me of Jide’s Remix OS. But it isn’t true multi-window, and now that Android Nougat is out, is really only a stop gap. Unfortunately, it sounds like it will be at least early 2017 before Lenovo puts Nougat on the Yoga Book, so in the meantime if you want to use multiple application windows, then expect the capability to be somewhat limited.

The Watch Band Hinge may be one of Lenovo's coolest inventions since the TrackPoint, back when it was an IBM DivisionFor a small tablet, the Yoga Book is awesome for multimedia. It starts with the rock-solid watchband hinge that makes it easy to view media at any convenient screen angle. The bright, clear screen is only 1080p, which is nothing special these days, but totally adequate for most videos and movies. For more resolution you can use the micro HDMI port to drive an external monitor at up to 4K. As far as sound, the unit features Dolby ATMOS, a very good headphone amplifier, and speakers that are quite good for such a small device. It came in handy on the airplane, and when I wanted to multi-task by streaming the World Series while I was supposed to be paying attention to a conference session.

To round out the media features, the unit accepts a microSD card. I loaded a 256GB 633x Lexar card up with a couple hundred gigs of music and movies, and it performed flawlessly. Unfortunately, the microSD slot relies on a tool to open it, and a tray to hold the card, so you’re unlikely to want to swap it very often.

The ideal customer for the Yoga Book is someone who wants flexibility in how they create — using a stylus, an ink pen, or a keyboard — in a small form factor, and who can live with a just-adequate keyboard. Along with that, you can excellent product build quality, a sleek design, and a surprisingly good multimedia experience. Keep in mind, though, that the unit doesn’t have any standard USB ports, so directly connecting flash drives, SD cards, or cameras isn’t possible.

If the Yoga Book sounds like a winner, you need to decide whether you you want the $500 Android version or the $550 Windows 10 version. Most of the differences are pretty obvious, but some are a little more subtle. For example, many applications that are available on both Windows and Android are more powerful on Windows. Adobe’s popular Lightroom has a variety of brushes that work well with a stylus on Windows (and Mac), but the Android version is more limited, with no support for brushes. Lenovo says the hardware is the same between the two, but so far there isn’t any known way to load Windows onto the Android version.

Now read: Best laptops for engineers and engineering students: When work requires a real workstation

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