Say what you will about Apple’s iPad tablet computer, it has certainly livened up the computer market. Every manufacturer seems to be falling over themselves to hang onto Apple’s coat tails – and the resulting mess of designs, operating systems, hardware specs and prices is becoming thoroughly confusing for consumers. Is it a phone? Is it a PC? Is it fodder for next year’s car boot sales? While it’s entertaining to watch, if you’re one of those brave souls spending real money on these products, it helps to have a bit of friendly advice.
ViewSonic has jumped in with two tablet devices – a 7in mega-smartphone based Android 2.2 (Froyo), and the 10in dual-boot tablet without phone capabilities reviewed here. This comes with the latest Windows 7 Home Premium OS installed – but, on the Android side, you’re stuck with the rather-long-in-the-tooth version 1.6. Both run from a 16GB solid-state disk (SSD).
In the box, the ViewPad 10 comes with a charger for the 3200mAh Li-polymer battery, plus two CDs containing the drivers and user guide. A quick-start poster explains basic functions such as the three hardware buttons next to the display – but confusingly, it also talks about 3G mobile connectivity, which is not enabled in this model (despite it having a 3G SIM card slot at the top). It does have 150Mbps 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, though.
The ViewPad 10 is pretty chunky, with its 14.5mm thickness accommodating the twin USB ports, headphone jack, a mini-VGA port, microSD card slot and power connector at one end of the device. It’s about 150g heavier than the iPad, making it less comfortable to hold for long periods.
The brushed aluminium back of the device is classy, but the loud creaks our sample emitted when we held it near the end with the ports somewhat spoiled the quality feel. There’s a cooling vent on the back, plus vents for the two tiny speakers. There’s another vent on the top edge for the fan that cools the 1.66GHz N455 Intel Atom CPU – this is definitely noticeable, but not too annoying.
Power, Home and Enter buttons are located next to the screen, with three small blue status LEDs above it. Android started in 17 seconds, and even Windows took just 36 seconds to load from cold. Of the two, Android gives by far the best touch-screen user experience, with a huge keyboard and snappy response. But it still thinks it’s a little phone, so the menus are huge and you tend to get stuck with the mobile versions of web sites.
The slickest app is the Aldiko e-book reader, although the screen’s 16:9 aspect ratio doesn’t work well for books. Others, such as the camera (the ViewPad 10 includes a front-facing 1.3-megapixel model) and web TV apps, don’t take advantage of the screen’s resolution, either, making them pretty pointless.
You don’t get access to Google’s Android Market, just a third-party App Store with a pretty uninspiring collection of apps. Email and general web browsing work well, although there’s no Flash support – annoying, given that this is one of the chief reasons to choose an Android device over one running Apple’s iOS 4. You can’t access files on the Windows partition when running Android, so any shared files need to be stored on a microSD card (not supplied).
Windows 7 is a different kettle of fish. The problem is that its touch features, while good, are tacked on to a keyboard-centric OS, and are more suited to stylus use – making it fiddly to use with fingers on a screen as small as this. You get used to it after a while, but it’s always a bit hit-and-miss. The on-screen keyboard is OK, but forget about handwriting recognition unless you have an especially pointy finger. The big attractions, of course, are familiarity and the fact that you can plug in any USB device and run any Windows application that suits the hardware specs. However with only about 3GB free on the SSD, you’ll soon need to resort to a microSD card for file storage.
Video performance isn’t stellar, but looping a 720p HD clip gave us 2.5 hours of battery life. The 1,024 by 600 screen is bright, and viewing angles aren’t too bad from the sides or the top, but viewing from below at more than about 45 degrees from the vertical (with the device flat on a desk in front of you, for example) is nigh-on impossible, due to the drop-off in brightness and contrast. Of course, you can get round this by turning the thing upside down, but it’s still an annoyance. Also, the aspect ratio makes most apps look pretty peculiar in portrait mode.
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