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Featured Review: Lenovo Tab 2 A8

July 6, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Being one of the biggest OEMs around has its advantages.  Most products will automatically garner a special place in people’s minds because of the inherent security and respect a large company can command.  This is the case with just about any price range said company’s products may fall under, from the biggest high-end names to the cheapest budget models, Lenovo more often than not delivers on the recognition their name has earned them worldwide.  So what about a tablet that comes in cheaper than almost anything new out there, one that’s less expensive than even Google’s lauded Nexus 7 series and a whole lot newer too?  Let’s see what the Tab 2 A8 brings to the table and whether or not the $130 price tag crosses the line of being too cheap or if Lenovo has used their expertise to cut just the right corners to keep a good experience.

Specs

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Tablets in the $100-150 segment don’t always have the best reputation, most of this comes from having to cut back so much on the specs because of the sheer raw materials needed to make a tablet.  Lenovo was able to skirt around most of that stigma with the specs listed here even though the Tab 2 A8 carries a mere $130 price tag.

  • 8.0-inch 1280 x 800 IPS Display
  • MediaTek MT8161 64-bit 1.3GHz Quad-Core Processor
  • Mali T760-MP2 GPU
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 16GB internal storage, microSD card support
  • 4,290mAh battery (non-removable)
  • Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • 5MP rear-facing camera, LED flash
  • 2MP front-facing camera
  • 210mm tall x 125mm wide x 8.9mm thick
  • 360g

In the Box

Paying $130 for a tablet is likely not going to grant a whole lot of extras in the box, and if you had that expectation then you’re not going to be surprised here.  Inside the box you’ll of course find the tablet along with a manual, warranty card, microUSB cable and a wall charging outlet with a USB port on it.  There’s nothing else to see here and that’s exactly what we would expect inside of the box of such an inexpensive tablet.

Display

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Tablets are inherently built for multimedia consumption, as their size and heft makes them more useful for certain applications over others.  Since the display is a major part of that equation it’s obviously going to be one of the most important parts of what makes the tablet good in the first place.  While the 1280 x 800 panel isn’t the highest resolution we’ve ever seen at a tablet this size, it doesn’t look bad by any means, just a bit on the soft side.  All the other measurements of what make a good screen are present, including things like great color accuracy, sufficient black levels and a fantastic refresh rate.  White balance is absolutely phenomenal and is easily one of the best calibrated screens I’ve seen on any mobile device in quite some time.  Whites are genuinely white, not a warm or cool version of the neutral color, and this makes the rest of the color palette more accurate too.

Viewing angles could use a little bit of work as they tend to dim when viewed at an angle, but there’s no visible black level dissipation or color changes when viewed at an angle.  Most of this is only seen when holding the tablet vertically anyway, which is not normally the way you would use a tablet when viewing things from the side.  For instance placing it down in landscape with other people looking at it wouldn’t result in the same issues, so it’s not likely this’ll be a complaint for most during normal use.  Brightness was fantastic but adjusting it seemed to be broken on the version of the software I’m running.  I had no problem seeing it in the day, even outside, but the tablet was more like a torch at night; something that will obviously be fixed in a future software update.

The digitizer works great for most applications, including playing games, scrolling through webpages and other media consumption.  What it doesn’t work all that great for is typing, which was a fairly frustrating experience in my use.  Chatting on the Tab 2 A8 wasn’t terrible but I wasn’t able to type nearly as fast as I could on a device with a better digitizer, meaning those who are used to hunting and pecking slowly or swiping to type won’t have issues, but someone like me who normally types super fast on a keyboard like Fleksy will definitely get frustrated here.  Tablets are awkward for typing fast anyway, especially at the 8 inch size, so it’s not likely that you’ll be composing entire reports or chatting a whole lot here anyway, however it needs to be noted.

Hardware and Build

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Like many tablets out there the Lenovo Tab 2 A8 features a very nice soft-touch plastic back that keeps the device light and cheap but gives it a good grippy feel.  Again at this size for media consumption you don’t want a material that’s going to easily slip out of your hands like metal or shiny plastic, so this sort of material is likely the best unless you’re going to put it in a case.  Most tablets feature sizable bezels around the edges of the screen for a design reason rather than a technical limitation, giving users more surface area to grip with their fingers instead of accidentally pressing things on the screen.  This is obviously a little bit different from a phone world where smaller bezels are more desirable, but that doesn’t mean the bezels on the Tab 2 A8 are big at all, quite the opposite for some other tablets out there.  Since there’s no hardware buttons on the device at all you’ll only find the Lenovo logo below the display as well as two front-facing speakers both above and below the display.

Moving onto other areas we find only a single camera lens on the back near the top left with no flash.  The right side of the device houses the volume rocker and power button, while the top holds the microUSB port and 3.5mm headset jack.  On the left side there’s a flap that reveals a microSD card and a SIM card slot for those looking to get cellular data and maybe even phone calls out of this tablet.  Overall the tablet is quite thin and doesn’t weigh a ton, but it’s got enough weight to it where you won’t want to be holding it for an entire viewing of a movie.  There’s really nothing to complain about with the design and plenty to be pleased about.

Performance and Memory

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Performance matters most when consuming media on a tablet, and in that regard I can hold no fault to the Tab 2 A8.  Playing HD videos (720p) runs absolutely perfectly with no hitches, either through YouTube, Netflix, Hulu or local video on the device.  Games and apps run very well once inside them however it usually takes a little while to switch between apps or get apps running for the first time.  MediaTek’s latest 64-bit processors do a great job of keeping up with even far more expensive tablets and phones when using apps, giving plenty of horsepower to run intensive games and apps that require it.  Memory speeds are right up there too, pushing well into more expensive memory speeds rather than what would be expected on a cheaper device.

Running our usual suite of benchmarks for reviews produced very favorable results, performing the same as flagship smartphones from 2013.  Multi-tasking leaves quite a bit to be desired, mostly because there’s only 1GB of RAM to work with here.  As such you’ll find that many apps have to reload when switching between, making the experience of running multiple apps one that’s not too great in general.  Music and YouTube played in the background without issue for me meaning there’s at least good RAM management when needed, so apps aren’t unnecessarily killed if they are supposed to be running in the background.

Battery Life

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As is expected a tablet gets much better battery life than a phone, and that’s for a few reasons.  Having a larger 4,290mAh battery inside versus a normal phone’s 2,500-3,000 or so, helps a lot when watching videos or playing games; tasks that often take a considerable amount of juice because the screen not only has to stay on the entire time the app is being used, but such tasks usually keep the CPU and GPU running faster than just playing music or web browsing would.  Screen-on time of well over 9 hours was a normal affair, watching videos for hours and listening to music while working using the excellent speakers on the Tab 2 A8.  Futuremark’s PCMark battery test backs these measurements up with its hard-hitting multi-hour test that puts the tablet through the paces of web browsing, video watching and other media consumption in an effort to see how long it’ll last.  Check out those results below as well as a measurement of how cool the device stays during the test.

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Software

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Lenovo advertises that they listened to users and kept the skin to a minimum this time around, eschewing the normal complete UI redesign that many manufacturers perform for a version of Android 5.0 Lollipop that’s faithful to Google’s vision and design.  The result is a UI that’s mostly tablet friendly and will feel familiar to anyone who’s used Lollipop on any device.  Pulling down from the top of the screen brings up the notification shade, while pulling down a second time reveals quick toggle buttons for oft-used tasks like WiFi and Bluetooth toggling.  The only additions to the stock quick toggles here are Audio Profiles and a Dolby Atmos toggle.

Lenovo has included plenty of useful tools and their own versions of standard software like the calculator, calendar, email and other apps.  Lenovo ID is included here and grants access to Lenovo’s cloud storage including syncing of pictures, contacts and memos.  Lenovo has also included a rather interesting app named ShareIt which makes it easy for users to share files in a variety of ways, whether it be through the Internet or via a local WiFi connection.  Outside of these there’s not a whole lot of notable software included, but that’s probably to be expected with a less expensive tablet anyway, and there’s always access to the Google Play Store with its over 1 billion apps too.

There don’t seem to be any additions to Android’s built-in security features or notification options.  As in stock Android users can control which apps give notifications, which can place them on the lock screen, and even when to only allow priority alerts through.  Android Lollipop came with a massive redesign to its sound and notification support via a brand new concept called Priority mode.  In this mode users can select a schedule that makes the most sense to them, such as a general time when sleeping that happens every day, to only make noise for notifications marked as priority.  This can be done on a per-contact basis, so if your significant other or a family member calls in the middle of the night, for example, you might want to let these calls come through whereas you might not care about a number not already in your contacts list.  Obviously the calls feature only applies if you place a SIM card in the tablet, but it can work for any other sort of notification as well.

Sound

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Sound is likely the only other factor when considering a tablet that’s as important as the display and performance.  This is obviously important since tablets are designed primarily for media consumption, and a media device with poor sound output simply doesn’t make any sense at all.  Lenovo has packed a high quality Dolby audio chipset within the Tab 2 A8 that is designed to deliver virtual surround sound via the front-facing stereo speakers, or most effectively through a pair of high quality headphones.  This Dolby Atmos technology, as it’s called, represents a big selling point for Lenovo and is easily one of my favorite features of the tablet as a whole.  Sound output from the Tab 2 A8 is beyond phenomenal, towering over most other devices on the market by providing sound that’s incredibly crisp, clear and full.

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The experience starts with the Dolby Atmos app which acts both as a graphical equalizer and a hub to find content that supports the technology.  As a brief explanation the Dolby Atmos technology relies on “sound objects” to audibly demonstrate 3D effects, for instance glass breaking creates a whooshing around above, below and around your head.  Each audio channel or even each object in a scene can be given a 3D spatial place to accurately demonstrate where the audio is supposed to be relative to the viewer’s position and creates an incredibly effective and believable virtual surround.  This is achieved both through the built-in speakers on the tablet as well as through headphones, and quite honestly I’m not sure which has the better effect.  Sitting in a chair with the tablet in front of me playing the demonstration video had bats flying around my head, tempting me to actually look around the room to see where they were flying.  It was an incredibly convincing experience that made me understand why tablets like the Tab 2 A8 are so good for watching videos and consuming other media.

Music playback was equally as fantastic, and with Google Play Music’s super high quality audio songs were not just crystal clear but sounded much more full than I would have expected them to.  Again this translates to both the built-in speakers just as well as a pair of headphones, and I found myself preferring listening to music through the Tab 2 A8’s speakers over the handful of Bluetooth speakers that I own.  Playback through a higher quality sound system was right there with the best output I’ve heard from any smart device, and granular control over the graphical equalizer as well as some great presets really help usher the user into the best audio experience possible.

Camera

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I’ve never been one to condone the use of a tablet as a camera, and I certainly wouldn’t change my mind here.  The camera on the Tab 2 A8 isn’t bad by any means, but it falls right in line with what you might expect from a tablet.  Sporting a 5-megapixel camera with no flash will only lend itself to take good pictures in some situations, and while the sensor used here is a great 5mp sensor it’s not going to be much good outside of the occasional social media post or something similar.  Taking pictures with a tablet is already incredibly awkward given its size and heft and often times I felt like the camera software was upside down from the direction it should be as the shutter button is on the left instead of the right when placing the camera sensor upward.  This meant I had to flip the tablet over, placing the camera sensor near the bottom and right next to my hand, often times leading me to get a finger in the picture if I wasn’t paying attention.

Overall picture quality could use a lot of help, often times overexposing the shot quite a bit and just severely lacking in any sort of detail at all.  Dynamic range was very low and I often times found parts of the picture completely overblown even lighting conditions that should have been favorable.  The camera app takes at least 4-5 seconds to start after clicking the app or launching it from the lockscreen, a crucial period of time that could mean the difference between getting the shot and just plain missing it.  The shutter is pretty slow in general and HDR takes quite a bit of time to process, however HDR shots are taken in quick succession and don’t suffer from the double imaging so often found on most devices in this price range.  The pictures and videos taken from the Tab 2 A8 will suffice if you’re not looking for any particular quality and just want a quick way to share, but it’s certainly not the most convenient way to take a picture and it’s far more likely that the smartphone you’re carrying will take considerably better shots than this.

Conclusion

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Despite the sluggish performance of the Tab 2 A8 when switching between apps or launching them, actual usage once within apps is more than acceptable and creates a very positive experience in the end.  The quality of the display, again despite being fairly low resolution, is phenomenal and is calibrated incredibly well.  One of the best features is sound output by far, which is powered by a Dolby Atmos chipset with an incredibly powerful built-in graphical equalizer that’s both easy to use for beginners and has lots of customization for those looking to dive deep into settings.  All the standard apps are included and are well designed, featuring a clear Lenovo styling but sticking pretty close to Google’s Material Design for Android Lollipop.  Speaking of Lollipop the Tab 2 A8 comes preloaded with Android 5.0 Lollipop and keeps to Google vision of what Android should look like, delivering a clean user experience that’s beautiful and functional at the same time. For $130 it’s going to be tough to consider any other tablet on the market, and Lenovo continues to defy expectations of what a device should look and feel like at such a low price point.