Lenovo ThinkPad Stack Accessories Review: Wireless Router, Bluetooth Speaker, Power Bank, and 1TB Hard Drive

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P1390312_1920Announced in 2015, the ThinkPad Stack Accessories consists of four devices: a Bluetooth speaker, power bank portable charging station, a wireless router, and 1TB hard drive. They literally stack together to save desk and travel space. Although designed to complement Lenovo’s ThinkPad notebooks, they can work with any modern Windows computer. There are also apps for most smartphones, including iOS and Android. The devices can be purchased separately, though the hard drive and wireless router are only sold together. The latter combo allows you to take portable wireless storage wherever you go. The power bank can power the entire stack, and is also capable of charging up to two devices simultaneously.

ThinkPad Stack Assistant Software

The ThinkPad Stack Assistant software is available on Lenovo’s support site for download. It’s required to set up and interact with the wireless router. It’s not required if you’re using any of the other Stack accessories we’re reviewing here, though it can be used to interact with them on a limited basis.

A ThinkPad Stack app for iOS and Android is available, which provide the same functionality as the Windows-based Stack Assistant software we tested.

We’ll discuss the software as it pertains to each of the devices as we go through them.

P1390293_1920Bluetooth Speaker

Bluetooth speakers are as common as they come these days, but the only one that will fit into the rest of the ThinkPad Stack is the ThinkPad Stack Bluetooth Speaker. This $89.99 device provides stereo sound and a microphone.

The Stack Bluetooth speaker measures 5.25 by 3 inches, and is an inch tall. It weighs 9 ounces by itself, making it fairly compact and lightweight for travel. It easily slips into a notebook bag.

The speaker conveniently includes a 3.5mm input jack on its left side. This allows you to connect another source as auxiliary input. Also on the left is the micro-USB input for charging standalone; a USB cable is included for this purpose. The other method for charging is to stack the speaker with the Stack power bank, which we’ll talk about momentarily.

P1390311_1920On the speaker’s front, you’ll find the volume rocker, microphone mute, and play/pause button. The green LED-lit power button is on the right. Although the grille wraps around the front and sides of the speaker, the sound only actually comes from the front.

Connecting the speaker is straightforward. The ThinkPad Stack Assistant software is not required to connect the speaker – as a matter of fact, it has no settings at all to this effect. Turn the speaker on by pressing the power button once, and then hold down the power button for three seconds. The speaker emits a two-tone beep to indicate it’s in pairing mode, and is then visible to other devices. We connected our Windows 10 laptop and an iPhone 6 to it within minutes. To our disappointment, this speaker doesn’t support buddy streaming – it can only be connected to one device at a time. That said, not once did we experience any connectivity or pairing issues, even when putting our test notebook to sleep and waking it up again.

TPSA_Software4Through the ThinkPad Stack Assistant software, you can control the speaker’s volume, but nothing else.

We can tell the Stack speaker is geared toward an office environment, as its sound quality is unexciting. The Stack speaker certainly has more bass than typical notebook speakers – especially those on ThinkPads – but it’s flat next to consumer Bluetooth speakers like the JBL Flip series. The mids and highs also sound flat and slightly recessed, though aren’t tinny by any means. We noticed distortion only after 90 percent volume in most tracks. It’s hard to classify the sound as loud even with the volume maxed out. This speaker barely has enough volume for one or two people to watch a movie. We actually think the sound quality on some upper-tier notebooks with name-brand audio solutions, like Lenovo’s own IdeaPad line and their JBL speakers, is superior.

We have no complaints about using this speaker to take Skype calls; voices are clear, and others had no issues picking up what we were saying.

In terms of battery life, Lenovo states up to 8 hours of runtime on the speaker’s internal battery, and up to 48 hours when paired with the Stack power bank. These numbers were likely achieved using the minimum volume level. We had to turn the sound up to at least 80 percent to watch a movie. You can get most of the way through a full-length movie on the speaker’s internal battery.

Aside from its ability to stack with the other Stack accessories, we have a hard time justifying the Stack Bluetooth speaker’s asking price. Significantly better sound quality can be had in a consumer-grade speaker for around the same price – you’ll just miss out on its ability to stack.

Pros:

  • Relatively light and compact design
  • Line-in jack
  • Can be stacked with the power bank for long runtime

Cons:

  • Mediocre sound quality
  • Buddy streaming not supported
  • Expensive for what you get

Wireless Router

The Stack wireless router isn’t the smallest portable router we’ve seen, but it’s still compact. It measures the same 5.25 by 3 inches as the other Stack accessories, though it’s only 0.6 inches tall. It’s 4.9 ounces by itself. Note there is no internal battery, so you’ll have to have it either plugged in via USB or connected to the Stack power bank.

TPSA_Software1The ThinkPad Stack Assistant software is required to set up and interact with the router’s settings. To start the setup, you’ll first need to connect the wireless router to a power source, and then turn it on by pressing its front-mounted power button. It has 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz channels, which is configurable in the software. The wireless network will initially be open (non-encrypted). Connecting to it is the same as connecting to any other wireless network. The setup wizard in the software will recognize once the router is connected. Setting up network security is straightforward. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes, end-to-end.

In the software, you can view all users connected to the router in the Users tab (as shown in the image below). Users can be blocked, unblocked, and have their bandwidth capped. Wi-Fi Protected Sharing (WPS) is supported.

TPSA_Software5

An Ethernet port on the back of the Stack wireless router allows you to connect it to a wired network. You can also connect it wirelessly to another wireless network. The router can function as a traditional wireless router, a Wi-Fi bridge, or as a 3G/4G/LTE connection hotspot. We had no trouble using it as a Wi-Fi bridge or as a wireless router. The software allows you to switch between the modes with relative ease.

The standard Ethernet port on the back of the router.

The standard Ethernet port on the back of the router.

The range of this wireless router is limited in comparison to a traditional non-portable wireless router, as expected. Using a ThinkPad notebook, we just barely had a signal at 44 feet away, with a single glass door between us and the router. Our notebook struggled to load web pages at that range. Windows showed half signal strength at about 25 feet away, where we had no trouble loading web pages or streaming video. In a way, the limited range adds a layer of security, since you do need to be reasonably close to get a connection. Expect to use this router in the same room where it’s located.

To test wireless file transfer when paired with the Stack hard drive, we placed the router 10 feet from our test notebook with no obstacles between it and the notebook, running in the 5GHz band with WPA2 security enabled. It took over five minutes to transfer a 1GB video file, fluctuating between 700kb/s and 2MB/s. If you’re trying to stream an HD video off the drive, you may experience some buffering issues. There should be no issue for general file access, however.

The Stack wireless router overall works as expected, though it’s a pricey combo, only sold in conjunction with the Stack hard drive for $199.99. Shopping around, we were able to find portable wireless routers for well under $100. Granted, none of them stacked with a hard drive. That’s the value of this device; we can’t see spending this kind of money unless you’re planning to take advantage of the wireless file access.

Pros:

  • Straightforward network security setup
  • Light and portable
  • Integrates with the Stack hard drive for wireless file access

Cons:

  • Limited range – 50 feet maximum
  • Slow file transfers with the Stack hard drive
  • Expensive; only sold with the Stack hard drive

P1390307_1920Hard Drive

The Stack 1TB hard drive is sold in conjunction with the Stack wireless router, which together go for $199.99 as noted. You can actually stack a second 1TB drive with it, one on either side of the router.

The hard drive is the same size as the Stack wireless router, though it weighs a bit less at 7.5 ounces. It’s physically in line with most portable 2.5-inch hard drives.

The included USB cable is capable of powering the hard drive. Transfer speeds when connected using USB 3.0 are fast, about 70-80MB/s for large files, peaking around 90MB/s. We transferred a 1GB video file in about 24 seconds. As we explained earlier, you’ll experience much slower speeds when transferring files through the Stack wireless router; it took us over five minutes to transfer the same file.

When coupled in the stack with the Stack wireless router, you’ll see the hard drive show up in the ThinkPad Stack Assistant software. The file browser is rudimentary at best. You can drag and drop files, create folders, and otherwise manage files, though it’s far less intuitive than doing it through Windows Explorer.

TPSA_Software2TPSA_WindowsExplorerHDD

We noticed the Stack hard drive automatically showed up as a network Z: drive on our test notebook when connected through the router.

Purely as a hard drive, the Stack hard drive offers practically no advantages over other portable 2.5-inch hard drives. Its real value is its ability to stack with the Stack wireless router, allowing portable wireless file access. We think there’s limited value in this, unless multiple people need to access files on the drive at the same time. Otherwise, it’s faster and easier to just connect using the USB cable. The asking price for the combo is steep, considering portable 2.5-inch 1TB drives can be had for a little over $50. As the Stack hard drive and wireless router are sold together, it’s a $199.99 all or nothing deal.

Pros:

  • Fast wired file transfers
  • Compact design

Cons:

  • Expensive; only sold with the Stack wireless router
  • Only available in 1TB capacity

Power Bank

The Stack power bank goes for $49.99. It’s capable of powering the entire stack, or used standalone as a charging station for up to two devices. It has two USB connectors on its left side. A 10W wall charger is included.

P1390296_1920P1390298_1920

The power bank measures the same width and depth as the Bluetooth speaker, but is only 0.6 inches tall. It weighs 8.9 ounces. The power button is on the right side of the front edge; on the left, you’ll find the battery indicator, which has four LEDs to indicate how much remains.

The ThinkPad Stack Assistant software is unnecessary to use the power bank. This is a “dumb” device, in the sense that it has no other purpose than to supply power. The software only shows the device’s charging state, though oddly doesn’t provide a percentage remaining on the battery.

For our testing, we charged an iPhone 6 from 50 percent to full charge. The power bank supplied plenty of power, as our iPhone appeared to charge as fast as it would from a wall outlet. Charging the iPhone didn’t take our fully-charged power bank below four out of four bars on its power indicator, though we suspect it was close to turning three bars. At most, just less than 25 of the capacity was used. We’d hazard it could probably charge two phones fully, if not a third, depending on the size of the batteries in the phones.

Internally, the power bank has a relatively high capacity 10,000mAh battery. This is right around the capacity we’d expect at its price point. Overall, it’s a solid pick for a portable charger.

Pros:

  • Reasonably priced
  • Charges two devices simultaneously
  • Fast charging
  • 10,000mAh capacity allows it to fully charge multiple devices

Using the Stack

The stack accessories magnetically clamp to one another. On the top of each accessory, there are holes at the corners where the small rubber feet from another accessory will fit. It’s all but impossible to stack accessories in the wrong orientation, as the polarity of the magnets used to clamp them together physically prevents them from staying together. When all four devices are stacked together, you can pick up the whole stack by just the top-mounted accessory, and it will still stay together – not that we recommend picking it up that way, of course.

The ideal arrangement of the ThinkPad Stack.

The ideal arrangement of the ThinkPad Stack.

Should you buy multiple Stack accessories, keep in mind there’s a particular order in which to stack them for optimal performance. Lenovo states to stack them in the order our photo depicts, from top to bottom:

  1. Bluetooth speaker
  2. Power bank
  3. Hard drive
  4. Router

A maximum of five devices are supported in the stack at any given time. You could, as we noted, purchase a second hard drive to go in your Stack (assuming you can find it sold separately). If so, the hard drives must be stacked on either side of the router. Two hard drives is the maximum.

Note the Stack as a whole is incapable of being powered by your notebook’s USB ports; it must be connected to the power bank, which can power it standalone on its battery, or can do so through its included 10W wall charger.

The red dot in the “I” of the ThinkPad logo on each of the Stack accessories is actually an LED indicator. When stacked, the indicator of the device on top occasionally blinks to indicate the power status of the entire stack.

We did notice the Stack became almost hot to the touch after extended periods, mostly due to heat from the wireless router and hard drive. We experienced no performance problems as a result, though.

Conclusion

The ThinkPad Stack accessories are best viewed as being greater than the sum of the parts. None of the accessories are groundbreaking, as they’re all commonly sold in one form or another. Walk into any electronics store, and you’ll see an endless array of Bluetooth speakers, portable hard drives, and portable chargers. Portable wireless routers are readily available as well.

The downside of purchasing them all from different companies is that they won’t stack together. In other words, you’ll be taking up quite a bit of desk or bag space unless you go with the ThinkPad Stack accessories.

The Stack accessories – that’s the Bluetooth speaker, power bank, wireless router, and 1TB hard drive – all stack on top of one another into an impressively compact 1.9 pound, 3 x 3 x 5.25 inch package. All the accessories are capable of being powered by the power bank, which can itself charge up to two devices simultaneously. We found the $49.99 power bank to be the best value out of them all. It works well as a charging station. Its large 10,000mAh battery means you can fully charge at least two phones.

P1390307_1920We had mixed thoughts on the $199.99 wireless router and 1TB hard drive combo. The router is easy enough to set up and use, though its range is limited. The hard drive stacks with it for portable wireless storage. The ThinkPad Stack Assistant software integration is clunky at best, especially when it comes to file management. We’d like to see a smoother approach to file access. It’s a tough sell unless the wireless file access is of value to you. File transfers are much faster when connecting the hard drive via its included cable. Otherwise, both devices can be had for considerably less on their own.

The $89.99 Bluetooth speaker is another item we’d pass up. It’s compact and good for conference calls, but has lackluster sound quality for entertainment purposes, and doesn’t get loud enough. Its redeeming quality is that it stacks with the rest of the Stack accessories.

For a portable, self-powered wireless hotspot with its own network storage, the ThinkPad Stack Accessories have merit. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more seamlessly integrated solution, at least from a physical standpoint. We’d like to see improved software before giving a blanket recommendation.


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