Lenovo ThinkPad Stack Review - Portable Router, HDD, Battery and Speaker
It's like Legos for the working man
Way back in January of 2015 at CES we were shown a new line of accessories from Lenovo called ThinkPad Stack. The company is targeting the professional user on the go with a collection of four devices that can be used together in a stackable form that offers up some impressive capability and function in a small package, though it does come with a business-user markup.
Last week Lenovo sent us a full set of the ThinkPad Stack devices including a portable router, external USB 3.0 hard drive, Bluetooth speaker and external battery. With a price tag totaling nearly $400 for the entire set, there is a pretty high expectation for functionality, build quality and usability that Lenovo needs to hit, and they do a better job than I expected (honestly) to hit it. You don't have to buy all of the available Stack accessories, and that is part of the charm of the new product line - you can customize them to your own needs.
Though it's not for everyone, I do find myself enjoying the idea of Lenovo's ThinkPad Stack products and how it enables the mobile professional. Let's take a look at what it is, how it works and if it's something you need.
There are a total of four different components for the ThinkPad Stack line though I believe that if these have any kind of success you may see that expanded upon for next year. The Stack router and hard drive are sold together, as a bundle, while the battery and speaker are sold individually. I'm going to walk through the devices separately to detail the function and features of them, then wrap up with a discussion on cost and recommendations.
Portable Wireless Router
The ThinkPad Stack Wireless Router is a portable device meant to enable users to create or bridge wireless networks on the go. If you travel often and have to use hotel wireless from time to time you understand how frustrating (and slow) it can be and sometimes you are asked to pay for EACH mobile device you want to connect. A portable router allows you to either use a hard wired connection (which can have better connectivity) or a wireless WAN connection to create your own local network to share with your own devices.
The ThinkPad Stack router supports both 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz connections which is great when you are in a crowded location in terms of wireless signals. Many portable routers on the market today just offer 2.4 GHz. One downside to this router is that it does not offer a battery of it its own, you'll have to keep it juiced with another external battery (like the one detailed below) or through the micro USB port along the side.
You can also use the device to bridge a wired PC to a wireless network in a pinch - have a demo PC that doesn't have integrated WiFi that needs to get on a WiFi network? Just change the mode in the router software and you are good to go.
We tested the ThinkPad Stack Wireless Router in our office with no issues - functionality was just as expected though obviously range is going to be less than your normal consumer router.
The router has another connection type as well - the proprietary ThinkPad Stack connector that enables both power and data delivery between devices. Combining the router with the hard drive shows the value of that immediately.
External USB 3.0 1TB Hard Drive
Bundled with the router is the ThinkPad Stack 1TB hard drive, a simplistic device in and of itself. It has an internal 1TB 2.5-in hard drive and a micro USB 3.0 connection to the outside world. Performance on the external drive gets as high as 110 MB/s read and write when the drive is empty and it drops to about half of that when the drive fills up. That's pretty typical of what we expect on modern 2.5-in drives.
Other than using this as your standard external hard drive that you can use the included USB 3.0 cable to connect to your PC or notebook, stacking the hard drive with the router creates an interesting combo.
When placed together, the Stack connector creates a USB connection between the router and the hard drive. This essentially makes the drive a network attached storage device and any PC or notebook or mobile device that is on the networks created by the router will have access to the data on the hard drive. This allows for quick and easy sharing of data between users or to move data between devices when necessary. All of this takes place without the need for cables connected between the devices and the result is an impressively clean design to recreate a standard solution.
Bluetooth Speaker and Microphone
The ThinkPad Stack Bluetooth Speaker is a surprisingly high quality audio device that allows you to wirelessly playback music from your PC or mobile devices. Just as with any other Bluetooth speaker, you pair with it, pick your audio tracks, and boom, you're off and running. All three people in this office were impressed by the quality of the sound coming from such a small device - I had fairly low expectations going in and was surprised at how good it was. It's not going to replace your desktop speakers, but it’s definitely better than most laptop speakers I have heard.
It also includes a microphone to enable voice or Skype calls through the speaker - something that many other non-business oriented Bluetooth speakers lack. If you want to hard wire your input to the speaker it does include an auxiliary input along the side too.
This device includes its own internal battery and doesn't require external connections, except to charge, obviously. Lenovo claims it will last up to 8 hours with standard audio playback but I haven't been able to verify it. There are front panel buttons for volume control, play/pause as well as mute for your microphone if you happen to be on a conference call.
10,000 mAh External Battery
Finally, we come to the ThinkPad Stack 10,000 mAh external battery - a device that does exactly as the name would imply. It has a sizeable battery in it and can charge multiple devices through the two included USB connections (up to 2A each) as well as through the ThinkPad Stack interface. Not only can you charge your phone or tablet with the battery pack, but everything that is connected in the stack of ThinkPad Stack devices is powered by the external battery as well.
(One side note: I do wish the battery pack had support for some kind of quick charge capability - getting a 10,000 mAh device back up to 100% through a 5V/2A charging rate is time consuming!)
The result of adding in the ThinkPad Stack battery to the mix of all of the devices listed above is a completely self-contained collection of accessories to enable the mobile power user. You now have the ability to create your own wireless network with attached storage while hosting a conference call or listening to music and charging your phone or tablet along the way. The stacking of these devices isn't necessary but it definitely makes the whole package cleaner and easier to keep together in your carry-on luggage or bag. Without the need for cables (except to recharge the battery pack) you can keep your desk clean and the vertical design of the kit makes the footprint of the devices easy to deal with.
ThinkPad Stack Assistant Software
Though setup of the devices is not necessary for anything other than the router (the rest are ready to go out of the box), the method to install and configure the router is pretty impressive. You will need to download the ThinkPad Stack Assistant software for Windows, iOS or Android that then connects to the router network and walks the user through the configuration process. It's quite easy and I have to admit I was impressed by the quality of the interface and software for the app and for the router. You can configure the router through the browser in subsequent sessions if you enable advanced mode the first time through.
The software also allows you to monitor and control the other devices in the stack. You can adjust the volume of the speaker, check the charge level or status of the battery pack and even move files to and from the 1TB hard drive through the app.
Pricing and Conclusions
Despite all the impressive build quality and functionality of the ThinkPad Stack products, there is a pretty strong negative that goes along with them: price. As I mentioned at the beginning the total of all of these components is nearly $400.
- Wireless Router and 1TB HDD Combo - $219
- Bluetooth Speaker - $99
- 10,000 mAh Power Bank - $69
- Total: $387
The Bluetooth speaker is probably only about $20 more expensive than a device like the Jawbone Jambox Mini, somewhat comparable in performance and features. You can pick up a 10,000 mAh external battery on Amazon for as little as $30, so the $69 price point seems too high, even with the proprietary Stack connection. Finally, the router and hard drive combo can be emulated for about $100 if you select separate components from online retailers as well. All told, I think the total for all four Stack devices is probably $100-140 over priced.
Now, that being said, the Lenovo Stack products have advantages that a hodgepodge collection won't offer. You have that incredibly slick Stack connection between devices, allowing for power and data deliver between the devices in any order! Technologically it's a cool thing to see work and we haven't really run into any issues with the removal or swapping of products. The footprint of these four devices is essentially equal to just a single unit. You could try to stack off-brand routers, batteries and speakers on to one another...but it wouldn't be nearly as stable.
Mobile professionals will find a lot to like with the Lenovo Stack products though I think your average consumer will be just fine buying separate devices from different vendors and saving quite a bit of cash. I'm hopeful that Lenovo will be able to drop prices some from the MSRPs they are currently offered at and I also think that additional Stack products could make the original premise of stackable, customizable accessories, even more intriguing.
You can find more information and pricing on Lenovo's Stack product website.