Note: If you’re looking for the product teardown, head on over to here.
If you were in the market for a tablet of some kind, but didn’t want to get an iPad for whatever reason, then there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news first: There are an absolute bucketload of Android tablet choices are there. So many in fact, that it’s no longer a good point, it now works against you. If you thought the choice of Android handsets was confusing, now this is even worse – and it’s hard to distinguish them. The good news is that with all the competition occurring, the pace at which these tablets are progressing is astounding, so much so that you can in fact pickup something half decent for cheap right now, today. But just how half decent, and just how cheap? Read on to find out how much one can get away with.
OK, at this point you might be asking, what is a tablet good for? I used to be of the mind that everything could be covered in between a smartphone and a laptop. But it turns out, there’s just a little bit too small of an overlap in that Venn diagram. Maybe you don’t want to lug a laptop around just to do menial tasks, and maybe you’re tired of squinting to read text on a phone. I’ve begun to become accustomed to browsing web pages, reading slabs of text and even watching some media on my 4″ Samsung Galaxy S, so this was more of an exercise of convenience rather than necessity, but a bit of extra screen space never hurts.
First: A primer – We already know that Android runs on a ton of different devices. We also know that the OS is free (without the proprietary Google apps like Market/GMail/Maps/GTalk – which require signing a Google partnership agreement). This means that any manufacturer can create a piece of hardware, make slight adjustments to the readily-available Android OS and slap it on. As you can imagine, the flood of products coming from China (many of which are iPad knockoffs, such as this) can be confusing, as there are so many hardware configurations -with substantial performance differences, mind you-, at various price points, and somehow they all look like mutated iPads, so it can be unnerving, even to the seasoned.
Of course, there are alternatives now: there are companies out there creating genuinely unique and innovative products based on cutting edge hardware. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab (around $700), Notion Ink’s Adam (around $450), Archos’s 70 and 101 (around $400) all deploy original concepts and are currently in production. Apart from economies of scale, they do offer a solution to consumers that rises above the cheap and nasty end of the tablet market. Unfortunately, some of them also exceed the iPad’s price (around $600 for the 16GB model), although motivations may lie outside of cost.
Speaking of the low end of the tablet market, if you wanted to get your hands dirty, have a look through Merimobiles. The choice is staggering, with some recognisable names (Herotab / Zenithink / Witstech / Gome) buried amongst the more generic brands. The trends do emerge however, where there are common platforms on which these tablets are built. Long-gone are the scaled down bulky notebooks with a poor touchscreen tacked on, the burgeoning tablet market is ruled by scaled up smartphone components.
The earlier models (circa late 2009/early 2010) were generally based on ARM9 (ARMv5) processors, such as the VIA WM8505 (350mhz) and Rockchip RK2808 (600mhz), these offered poor performance which was more frustrating than anything else (think G1). Examples include Archos 7/8 and the Flytouch. Then the next wave arrived on the back of ARM11 (ARMv6) processors such as the Telechips TCC8902 and IMAPX210. These generally ran from 600mhz-1ghz, offering basic GPU acceleration and the ability for devices to run Android 2.1 onwards. Examples include the Barnes and Noble Nook, Gentouch, Wiipad and Zenithink ZT-180 (of which there is a huge community).
The more recent models are based around Cortex A8 (ARMv7) core’s, such as the Freescale IMX515 (of which this review is centered around), and the TI OMAP 35/34/36 range. Examples of devices based on ARMv7’s are iPhone 3GS, Huawei S7 amd Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250 devices (such as the Nexus One / Evo 4G / Desire HD). The next trend appears to Cortex A9 devices, such as those based on the dual-core Tegra 2 (such as the Adam), although availability is still scarce.
OK so now we know where this tablet fits in. It’s performance, CPU-wise is somewhere around a Nexus One / iPhone 3GS, which is well within ‘usable’ bounds. This particular example is based on the Freescale IMX515 chip, a low-power 800mhz Cortex A8-based processor with OpenGL ES2.0 acceleration and 720p decoding. It’s used in a variety of other low-power devices and offers decent performance for the price/power use.
Generic Tablet Specs and Availability – Link CPU – Freescale IMX515 Cortex A8 800mhz LCD – 8″ LCD Touchscreen (Resistive Single-Touch) – 800×600 (4:3) RAM – 512MB DDR2 Storage – 4GB NAND Flash OS – Android 2.2 3G – Optional via USB Wifi – Wireless 802.11b/g Battery – 4000mah Audio – 2 x 0.5w Speakers / Microphone Weight – 450g Dimensions – 209mmx161mmx14mm Keyboard – Optional via USB Mouse – Optional via USB Ports & Switches – Multifunction (charging/USB), Volume rocker, Power On/off, Home, Reset, Headphone out, MicroSD Slot
So far it looks promising: Decent CPU, backed up with substantial amount of RAM, adequate storage and supporting the latest version of Android. Notable exceptions include Bluetooth of any kind, any cameras, multiple USB ports (there is only a single port), and a proper array of Android buttons (which would later turn out to be a big problem) as well as multi-touch. Apart from that, it’s got a chunky battery (on paper at least), is lightweight, compact and supports optional MicroSD card. These devices can be found as Herotab M802 or Apad IMX515 on eBay around the $240 mark. I was lucky enough to find a brand new one for $200 that also had a local warranty. Note that due to the odd size, cases may be hard to find, as with screen protectors (although it’s easy enough to cut iPad ones down to size). For such a bargain price, it’s tempting to crack it open to have a look inside, but will write on that later.
At the time I picked this unit up, the seller also two other Android tablets nearby so I was able to compare them all head to head quickly. The X220 (based on ARM11/ARMv6) is a 10″ based device, it has things which this tablet misses, such as GPS, and the screen was vibrant and colorful although the screen sensitivity was poorer than the IMX515. The Zenithink ZT-180 10″ was also handy, and both the screen sensitivity and the picture quality was poor.
The first thing that should be pointed out, and this is probably the biggest drawback of the device is the touch sensor on the screen is of the resistive kind. Resistive screens are cheaper but less sensitive than the now common capacitive screens as seen in many touch phones. There’s a reason why even the champion of resistive screens, Nokia, has since began to move to capacitive screens: even though they are cheap and can be pressed with inanimate objects (ie. pens and stylii), they do require more force to register a touch and are generally less precise. Having said that, resistive technology has advanced, and the screen we see here is one of the later models which is actually not terrible to use with fingers (no stylus is supplied), although it’s highly unlikely you’ll be hammering out your next novel on this beast. The brunt of it is the screen is still finicky and imprecise, as most resistive screens are, though for button pressing it’s fine, just don’t attempt to do any precision drawings on it. However, I did try plugging a USB Keyboard and USB Mouse into this device and they worked fine. So maybe carry a roll up flexible USB keyboard around with you for typing long e-mails.
The unit itself is also fairly compact, I can hold it in one hand without much issue, though I question the stated 450g weight: it feels heavier. One trend that tablets are been moving towards is a fairly wide aspect ratio (16:10), to conform with the defacto Android standard WVGA resolutions (800×480 or 1024×600). This is great for watching movies, but for landscape browsing or e-book reading, it can seem a bit too ‘tall’. This is possibly the reason why the iPad employs a 4:3 (1024×768) resolution, creating a more ‘squarish/A4’ appearance more suitable to TV shows or books/magazines. This tablet also does the same, with a 800×600 resolution, spread over an 8″ viewable display. The screen itself is nothing spectacular, displaying adequate brightness and mediocre contrast ratio. There is also a distinct lack of an ambient light sensor. All in all though, the extra screen space is a luxury, making the transition back to a small phone screen somewhat comical. It’s interesting to note the choice of an 8″ screen, addressing concerns that 10″ screens are too unwieldy for extended use and 7″ screens are not much bigger than some phones these days. After some use, I believe that 8″ presents a viable alternative (especially if your laptop is quite large). The bad news is with 8″ and a 4:3 ratio, this thing is definitely not pocketable (like the Galaxy Tab).
Note that the diagonal distance of screens can be misleading. Take for example the Galaxy S phone (4″ screen), vs this tablet’s 8″ screen. Some might think it would barely be more than double the size, however you actually get more than 4.3x the screen area! (192 square cm vs. 44.5 square cm). This, as you can imagine, leads to more screen real estate to use. Unfortunately the resolution barely increases, though the in-built anti-aliasing does allay this somewhat.
The good news is that there is a 3-way accelerometer implemented (as well as two speakers and a microphone), allowing nearly all apps to rotate 3 ways. For some obscure reason, the 4th side is not supported, plus there are a small number of apps (Laputa and Paperdroid for example), which do not properly support the relatively unusual 800×600 resolution. As a result about 1/3 of the screen is filler area as the app scales up to suit. Nearly all of the other apps work fine without issues, and there were no crashes or instability as the price tag might imply. As you can imagine, with a shiny black plastic finish (also available in silver and white), fingerprints are a big issue.
The tablet is pre-loaded with a customised version of Android 2.2 (FRF85B), running version 2.6.31 of the Linux kernel. It appears that the build is suitable to all devices running the IMX515 chipset, so there’s a possibility that there will be community development on this unit. The unit also has a built-in 3E recovery environment, which can be accessed by holding rocker down + home + power.
Speaking of buttons, here’s where things get confusing. In their relentless pursuit of making look-alike iPads, the chinese manufacturers (in this case by Shanzai) have nearly always stuck to the single ‘Home’ button in the middle, ala iPad style. Unfortunately, Android generally requires at least 3 buttons to access the main functions (home/menu/back – the search is optional). In this case, and the case of many similar units, they then have to find alternatives to squeeze these buttons in. As a result, the home button is mapped to BACK, the volume up is mapped to MENU and the volume down is mapped to HOME. The power switch still acts like a power switch, although if you switch it into the OFF position, then cancel the ‘shutdown’ dialog that appears, the unit still keeps on functioning like normal. Which brings me to believe that this power switch may have been better served as a button instead of a toggle.
So what does that mean? Most of the time you’ll be pressing back anyway to go back one step, so having the main button mapped that way is fine. However, it does take some getting used to. To control the volume, they have implemented soft volume up/down buttons in the notification area, as can be seen in screenshots. It’s less than ideal and a floating button system as seen on the Archos units would have been a more elegant solution. This also means that during full-screen games if you want to change the volume, you have to jump back out, since the volume rocker .. is actually not a volume rocker. In addition, there is actually no ‘sleep’ button as you would expect on a smartphone, the device just stays on constantly and then eventually activates the screen saver after 30 seconds like normal (or as specified). This means that week-long instant-on standby times are not possible, it would be better to power the unit off when not in use (then wait around 20 seconds for it to power back on). Quite an oversight, although I’m sure this is a button limitation, rather than software.
The obsession with ripping off iPad’s continues, as this device also employs an Apple style proprietary connector on the bottom. This single port is where it gets charged (via the supplied 1500ma 9V adapter – USB charging is not available), as well as where the USB is connector (via the supplied convertor cable). This may have been done either in the name of mimicry, or to conserve space, but either way it’s a silly decision, as charging AND copying files to the unit is impossible to do at the same time, unless you employ the wifi network. I would have much preferred multiple USB ports and a separate charging port (or even better dual USB ports for charging via a Y-cable).
Now onto the good news, which is that as a tablet, it works quite well. Browsing web pages is a joy with the added screen space, and the independent customisability of the 2.2 browser means that you can tweak the size of the fonts / page to your liking, plus there is also flash support in webpages, providing a very rich web experience. Performance of these embedded objects was good, although slight stuttering occurred playing embedded 720p Youtube videos. The unit also had a file explorer, e-book reader, QuickOffice, Skype and some other generic software. As mentioned above, it does NOT include official Google applications, though these can be loaded via installing the APK’s located here. An alternative market -AndAppStore- was also pre-loaded, though it did not have the same selection as the official market. Screen rotation happens quickly and flawlessly, and the unit even scored well in the Quadrant benchmark, despite the slow DDR2 RAM. Reading PDF magazines and e-books is much more pleasant on this than a small phone screen or bulky laptop.
Playback of 720p movies worked well, although some strange file formats required either VPlayer or Rockplayer to playback correctly. Even streaming movies over Wifi worked faultlessly, there is no shortage of grunt here. Interestingly enough, the spec sheet states HDMI output, although I cannot see how this is possible, unless there is a special proprietary cable which is purchased separately. Full screen video via Youtube and map browsing via Google Maps also worked smoothly and efficiently.
First things first, I loaded the Google Apps onto the device, a quick sign-in and GMail, Contacts, GTalk and Calendar were all working as they should be. Market implementation was still flaky (though it still worked). Gaining root access to the device is very straightforward, either by installing root.apk (located on Merimobiles site), or by using RyanZA’s Z4Root one-click root application (which is the method I successfully used). Removal of non-essential applications was then easy, as was installing alternative keyboards and launchers. For reference, ADW and LauncherPro are excellent on tablets, as they allow customisation of the number of rows/columns on the home screen, so you can squeeze more apps into a single page. I also found Smart Keyboard Pro to be the best option for a pecking keyboard (although the HTC and Motorola Droid X keyboards are also very good). Swype failed to install correctly, although I suspect the imprecision of the resistive screen and scale of the tablet would lead to less than desirable results with Swype.
As for performance, Angry Birds played smoothly and without any anomalies, as did Speed Forge, albeit not as smoothly as the Galaxy S (to be expected). There were no noticeable slowdowns or bugs with performance, leading me to believe the IMX515 is a solid contender for this task. Battery life of the device is stated at 6 hours, but I would say with maximum brightness and multimedia playback, you could use it up in around 4 hours. With low brightness and network connections off, I would estimate no less than 8-10 hours of use.
There are also quirks, for example at times the Home button just drops out completely while the unit runs fine. The clock also seems to have a mind of it’s own. At other times, random bursts of sound continue to play for a short time even when games are exited. In addition, the wireless network always starts in the off position when you boot the unit, it doesn’t remember the last state so you need to switch it on. They are annoyances, rather than show-stopped, I would guess these are early software issues, as the IMX515 has only been in use in Android tablets for a very short time, and in such early revisions and firmware, there are bound to be issues which are later worked out, either by the manufacturer or by the community (see Zenithink ZT-180).
If you’re after a device that just works, with a responsive interface that your fingers can dance on, then you should save up and look for an iPad, it truly is a joy to use. If, on the other hand, you want a device which you would take much less seriously, or you have your own reasons, and want the easy media consumption and alleviation of the problems of a small screen, then take an adventurous look at one of these tablets. It does a staggering amount of tasks thanks to the flexible nature of Android, many of them quite well, but marred with a few drawbacks, they could be quite a viable option. At $200, or roughly 1/4 the cost of a Galaxy S, and grunty performance, it’s a unit that will also most likely see some use on the road, but one that you won’t be too fussed gets damaged or thrown around.
*All prices are in $AUD