Over the past couple of weeks, it seems like not a day has gone by without another ‘iPad-killer’ Android tablet being announced. Even a comment by Google’s Hugo Barra (director of products for mobile) that Android 2.2 is not designed for tablets has failed to dampen the enthusiasm for these devices. I, for one, am most definitely enthused, and unfortunately for my bank account, I really want one. Also, since I’m quite impatient, I want one right now, please.
In a tragic twist, it would seem that the earliest we will be seeing many of them is early-to-mid October. The latest offerings by Archos are expected to be available at some point next month, and the massively hyped Samsung Galaxy Tab is slated for a November 1 release by Amazon UK. It looks like it’ll still be a while before we can get our hands on an Android-powered tablet.
That is, unless you look on eBay. It turns out that a whole smorgasbord of iPad-clones (of varying degrees of quality) have been available from China for months. I’ve been keeping my eye on these devices since April, but didn’t seriously consider getting one until fairly recently when I finally succumbed to the tablet craze. The majority have either a 7" or 10" resistive touchscreen, an ARM-compatible CPU of some kind, between 2-4GB of internal flash memory, and run Android 1.6 or 2.1. After a bit of looking around, I opted for one of the slightly higher-end 7" models, as it seemed to have decent build quality and looked reasonably fast and stable in the demo videos. I happily parted with £160 and a week later, it arrived in a black box, complete with USB, Micro-USB, HDMI, and power cables, a set of headphones, and a stylus. The tablet itself came with a book-cover-like leather case which is actually screwed into it at the back, though it can be easily removed.
The tablet, removed from it’s case, alongside my HTC Hero (and a random pen for scale purposes…)
Firstly, lets chew through the specs: The nitty-gritty details of this tablet, exactly as reported by the Android System Info app, are as follows:
- Model – HSG MIDX5A.
- OS Version – Android 2.1.
- CPU – 720 MHz Telechips TCC89/91/92XX (ARMv6-compatible chip).
- Memory – 148MB.
- Storage – 4MB internal flash. Expandable via SD card, up to 16GB.
- Display – 7" WGA (800x480) resistive touchscreen.
- Sensors – Telechips 3-axis accelerometer.
- Wifi – 802.11b/g.
- Ports – 1x USB, 1x Micro-USB, 1x HDMI output.
- Battery – 2 x 1300mA.
- Speaker + Microphone.
There are several things to note about these specs. The tablet was advertised as having an 800MHz CPU, though in reality it scales from between 36-720MHz depending on load. It was also advertised as having 256MB of RAM, though I’m not sure whether this is just is just plain false information, or whether it’s being reported incorrectly by Android System Info for whatever reason. The app also reports seeing an accelerometer, though as far as I can tell it does not work in software. Some sources claim that the accelerometer is not supported in the firmware yet, other sources claim it doesn’t actually have one at all. I suppose the point is moot anyway, as if it’s not working, it might as well not be there.
Another thing to note is that the tablet does seems to support USB mass storage and input devices (keyboards, mice), though apparently not much beyond that. I’ve personally tried a USB mouse and memory stick with it, and they work nicely (having a cursor in Android does feel a bit odd, however).
- Build quality is impressive, for the price. Overall it feels very solid, with a hard plastic case and metal trim around the edges. The only minor aesthetic qualms I have with it are that the power button is not uniformly flush with the trim, and the SD card needs to be pushed in quite hard for it to click in or out.
- The menu, home, and back hardware buttons at the right-hand side are very useful, though as they’re completely flush with the screen at all times, they lack any tactile responsiveness. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether you’ve actually pressed a button, or whether an app is simply being laggy.
- Performance is good, overall. The device feels pretty snappy for most tasks, though there is a bit of screen lag when scrolling through lists and such. The software itself seems very stable. It easily manages light web browsing and music playback simultaneously (though the built in music player has a tendancy to skip – try ‘Cubed’ media player instead). The on-screen keyboard can be a little laggy, though I can live with that when I’m just typing search terms into Google. Might not be ideal for things like word processing, however.
- Battery life is better than expected, managing about 5-6 hours of web browsing over wifi while listening to Last.fm.
- Android Market works out-of-the-box.
- The resistive touchscreen is not the most responsive, and takes a little getting used to after using a capacitive screen. Multi-touch is not supported, though this isn’t a massive issue. The screen itself is very bright, but also very reflective, making it hard to view under bright lighting.
- Sleep does not work. The power button at the side just seems to turn the screen off, the result being that the device eats battery life when it is not in use. It can, of course, be fully powered off, but the 45-second boot time makes this less than ideal.
- Screen orientation cannot be changed easily, and as the accelerometer is currently defunct-slash-nonexistent, rotating the device has no effect at all. The tablet is clearly designed to be used in landscape mode most of the time, and this is how most apps appear on it. However, certain apps (such as the aforementioned Android System Info) force the screen into portrait mode. It is annoying that when you then return to the home screen, it remains in portrait mode instead of switching back to landscape. I’ve found that disabling the automatic orientation switching setting reduces this problem, and apps that can display in landscape will tend to switch to landscape (though the home screen does not).
- No Win64 ADB USB drivers, at least that I’ve found. The manufacturer provides 32-bit drivers for Windows 2000, XP, and Vista/7 only. Considering I bought this device partly for development purposes, this is a bit of a bummer. It is possible to run ADB over TCP/IP, though this requires a USB connection to enable.
Thoughts on Android
The tablet runs no-frills Android 2.1, and although it has the same screen resolution as an HTC Desire or Samsung Galaxy, the extra 3 inches makes some things appear a little stretched. Most apps scale nicely, though in many ways it just feels like a big phone. This is hardly surprising, considering that, at the moment, the vast majority of apps (and as Google says, the OS itself) are designed for sub-4" displays. On the whole, however, I’m pleasantly surprised at how well things scale given no modifications, but I’m also looking forward to the time when my apps specifically take advantage of larger displays.
Screenshots of the home screen and BBC news website, in landscape mode.
It’s a nifty little device for casual web browsing from the couch, and listening to a bit of music, though it definitely has its quirks. For that reason, although I’m happy with the money I spent, I’m not sure I could recommend it to anyone without a huge disclaimer. If someone bought this expecting a flawless user experience like I’m sure the iPad provides, they would be sorely disappointed. The adage that you get what you pay for is certainly true here. I may or may not buy a Galaxy Tab yet.
It’s time to wrap up. Eventually I’ll get around to trying and writing about a couple of my own ideas for utilizing all 7" of screen space on Android, as it stands at the moment. In other news, I’m still excited by MonoDroid and I’m eagerly anticipating the finished product. Related to that, I’m also looking forward to the release of the first of the Windows Phone 7 devices and the resulting competition and innovation that another platform will bring to the scene. It’s an exciting time for mobile users and developers alike.