4 Android Tablets Reviewed and Compared
After nearly a year of having the market pretty much to itself, Apple's iPad finally has some serious competition. The first Android-based tablets are starting to ship, and they will soon be followed by a wide variety of portable devices, some of which should give the iPad a run for its money.
To see how the first Android slates stack up against each other, I looked at four tablets: three with 7-in. screens -- the Archos 70 Internet Tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the ViewSonic ViewPad 7 -- and the 10-inch Archos 101 Internet Tablet. I also checked out HP's PhotoSmart eStation C510, an inkjet printer with a Zeen wireless Android tablet included.
Over two weeks, I had at least one of them with me for most of the day. I used each to write, read e-books, collect my e-mail and bounce between Web sites. I listened to Internet radio stations, played games and watched videos. I also ran a number of tests on each.
The Androids are coming -- finally
By next year, there could be as many as 15 different Android slates available, according to Anna Hunt, principal analyst at IMS Research. She forecasts sales of 36 million Android tablets by 2015, accounting for roughly 28% of the market. "With a variety of Android slates on the way," she says, "this market will grow and grow. This is just the start."
Hunt points out that the potential weak point of the new Android tablets might be software. At last count, Apple's App Store had 300,000 iPad programs available for download; users had downloaded 35 billion copies as of mid-October.
In contrast, the Android Market for downloading software has just over 100,000 programs available, and 2.3 billion copies were downloaded by the end of October, according to AndroLib, which tracks Android apps.
Once things really start moving, buyers should have more to choose from than just the iPad and Android devices. For example, as this was being written, there were rumors that new Windows-based tablets would be announced at the CES trade show in January, and RIM is touting its upcoming PlayBook, which will run on a Blackberry tablet operating system.
With all of those options to choose from, 2011 might end up being the year of the slate. The hardest part might be picking just one.
Archos was one of the first companies to offer tablets. I looked at two of the company's latest: the Archos 101 and the Archos 70.
The Archos 101 measures 10.7 by 5.9 by 0.5 inches and weighs 18.4 oz., making it the largest and heaviest tablet reviewed here. Still, it's slightly smaller than the iPad and half a pound lighter, despite having a 10.1-in. screen, compared with the iPad's 9.7-in. display.
The Archos 70 Internet Tablet is 7.9 by 4.5 by 0.5 inches in size and just 11.3 oz. It's about 2 oz. lighter than the other 7-in. models and approximately half the weight of the iPad. Both Archos tablets were easy to hold for long periods of time.
Two of a kind, they have chic black plastic cases with sculpted backs and rubber feet. They also each have a handy pull-out leg for propping them up. The stand folds into the back of the tablet when not needed.
While the characters on the Archos 70's 800 x 480 display are noticeably fuzzier than those on the Galaxy Tab, the Archos 101's 1,024 x 600 screen was pinpoint sharp and easy to read. Unfortunately, it has a visible diagonal grid pattern that's annoying on dark backgrounds. Other than that, the displays are bright, rich and sharp.
Powered by a 1-GHz ARM Cortex A8, both Archos systems come with a scant 256MB of RAM (the other tablets reviewed ship with 512MB). There's 8GB of storage space; you can get an additional 8GB for an extra $50.
Like the other devices I tested, the Archos tablets can use up to a 32GB microSD card, but no card is included. The company says that it will soon come out with a slightly thicker and heavier Archos 70 model equipped with a 250GB hard drive for $350.
Even more minimalist than the iPad, the Archos tablets have no physical navigation buttons on the case. There's only an on-off switch and volume up and down buttons. The usual Android control buttons for home, settings, back and search are on-screen, at the side of the display.
Besides the microSD card slot, these systems have a proprietary flat plug for charging the battery and connecting with a Windows, Mac or Linux computer. They also come with a single USB port and a mini-HDMI jack for plugging in a cable to a TV or projector. I connected both to an InFocus IN3916 projector and an LG 47LH40 TV using the HDMI jack, and they both worked well, but the tablet's screen went blank (you can only watch the TV or the tablet, but not both). The HDMI cable is not included.
Neither the Archos 101 nor the 70 make a provision for connecting with a 3G network. That's a feature that the company says it will introduce in a future model. For now, they both have 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi for getting online.
While the Galaxy Tab and ViewPad 7 have both front-facing and rear-facing cameras, the Archos tablets have single, front-facing 0.3-megapixel cameras.
The on-screen keypads lack the Swype typing gestures and vibration feedback that some of the other tablets include, and which make typing easier.
The home screen of each Archos tablet comes with 18 app icons, a Google search bar and links to settings and the system's manual. The devices come with two dozen apps, including ones for e-mail, Web browsing and playing videos, but nothing for viewing or working on standard Microsoft Office files. (I downloaded the free MobiSystems OfficeSuite 5 app for those purposes).
Oddly, the Archos tablets don't have a direct link to the Android Market for downloadable software. Instead, you need to get new apps from the Hong Kong-based Appslib site, which offers about 15,000 programs -- a small fraction of what the Android Market contains -- organized into 18 categories.
The system has Flash 10.1 software but not the player plug-in needed to watch videos or play Flash-based games. Archos says that it will have a free download available before year's end.
Both the Archos 70 and the Archos 101 tested as midrange performers, with Quadrant benchmark scores of 896 and 827, respectively. That's about halfway between the top-scoring Galaxy Tab and the lowest-scoring ViewPad 7.
When continuously playing videos, the Archos 70 had a battery life of 5 hours and 8 minutes, just behind the ViewPad 7's 5 hours, 10 minutes. The Archos 101, however, came out ahead of all the others with 7 hours and 10 minutes of battery life. That's 1 hour, 20 minutes longer than the iPad's 6 hours, 30 minutes.
Both Archos tablets tested with a Wi-Fi range of 115 feet, 20% farther than the View Pad 7 or Galaxy Tab's range, and nearly double the range of the iPad.
At $300 and $275, respectively, the Archos 101 and 70 are priced considerably lower than any of the other Android tablets. Although they disappoint on memory, software and the lack of a 3G connection, they could be appealing to those looking for smaller, lighter and less expensive iPad alternatives.
Samsung's Galaxy Tab follows close on the heels of the company's successful smart phones by creating the most complete tablet made to date. It combines an elegant functional design with excellent integration and versions for each of the major 3G networks. If it only had a stand, it would be ideal.
At 7.4 by 4.7 by 0.5 inches and 13.5 oz., the Galaxy is half the size and weight of the iPad, which has a 9.7-in. screen whereas the Galaxy Tab has a 7.0-in. display. Compared to the other 7-inch systems, it is 0.2 oz. heavier than the ViewPad 7, and 2 oz. heavier than the Archos 70.
I really liked the gently curved edges of the Galaxy Tab, which make the device easier to hold for extended periods of time. But when I was working on a tabletop, the tablet wobbled annoyingly and I definitely missed the built-in kickstand that Archos devices provide.
Inside is a 1-GHz ARM Cortex 8 processor, 512MB of RAM and 2GB of storage. Like the other Android tablets, the Galaxy Tab can expand its storage with up to a 32GB microSD card. It comes with a 16GB card, but it still can't touch the higher-end iPad's 64GB of built-in storage.
The Galaxy Tab that I looked at came from Sprint and can connect to Sprint's 3G network (though not its faster 4G network). Sprint's monthly data plans range from $30 for 2GB per month to $60 for 5GB per month. Samsung also has versions of the Galaxy Tab for AT&T, US Cellular, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. No other tablet offers that variety of service providers.
The tablet also works with 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. Meant to be a data-only device, the Galaxy Tab lacks the ViewPad 7's dedicated app for making phone calls, but it comes with the Quik videoconferencing app.
In addition to offering GPS and Bluetooth support, the Galaxy Tab has a pair of cameras: a 1.3-megapixel camera that faces the user for videoconferences and a 3.0-megapixel one in the back for shooting high resolution video and snapshots.
Bright and rich, the 7-in. screen can offer 1,024 x 600 resolution, matching that of the Archos 101. It responds well to subtle finger motions.
It takes some getting used to, but the Swype software makes rapid-fire typing possible by -- you guessed it -- swiping your finger over the soft keys rather than tapping them, and I like the keyboard's vibration feedback when typing.
Navigation is through the Galaxy Tab's four control buttons below the screen: Settings, Home, Back and Search. The system has an on/off button and volume up/down buttons on the edge. There are connections for headphones, a microSD card and a proprietary flat plug for connecting it to a computer and charging the system's battery; it works with Windows PCs or Macs.
The default home screen comes with 11 apps, including e-mail, a Web browser, a Google search bar and a link to the Android Market for downloading new apps. The Applications icon takes you to the system's 40 preloaded apps, which include ThinkFree Office, Daily Briefing for a mix of news, stock prices and local weather, and a bunch of online games.
The Galaxy Tab scored a 1,072 on Aurora SoftWorks' Quadrant benchmark; that's 40% better than the ViewPad 7's score. Getting data from the Sprint 3G network, the system ran for 5 hours and 11 minutes; while using a Wi-Fi connection, the battery lasted for 14 more minutes. That's nearly 2 hours short of the Archos 101's battery life. It had an adequate Wi-Fi range of 90 feet, but that was 25 feet short of the Archos tablets. It played HD YouTube videos without a problem.
By combining Android's tablet abilities with high performance and 3G capabilities, the Galaxy Tab is the most complete Android tablet available.
A maker of TVs, monitors and specialty computers, ViewSonic is branching out with its ViewPad 7. While it has the hardware and software to be used as a phone, the ViewPad 7 hasn't been certified on any 3G networks.
While the others have curved backs, the ViewPad 7's black-and-silver plastic case is squared off all around. At 7.1 by 4.4 by 0.5 inches, it's the smallest of the three 7-in. units and is half the size of an iPad.
At 13.3 oz., it's 2 oz. heavier than the Archos 7 and 0.2 oz. lighter than the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It lacks the Archos kickstand but comes with a padded case.
The ViewPad 7 has an ARM 11 processor that runs at the sedate speed of 600 MHz, much slower than the 800-MHz and 1-GHz CPUs that power the others. It comes with 512MB of RAM and a scant 512MB of storage that can be augmented with up to a 32GB microSD card (but no microSD card is included with the system). A 10-in. model, the ViewPad 10, is in the works.
While the Galaxy Tab is offered by four national 3G service providers, the ViewPad 7 doesn't currently work with any network, although it does come with the hardware for AT&T's network and has an app for making and taking phone calls. It includes 802.11b/g Wi-Fi connectivity and comes equipped with Bluetooth and GPS.
With a bright, clear display that quickly responds to finger motions, the ViewPad 7's 7-in. screen works well, but, like the Archos 70, it is limited to 800 x 480 resolution.
In addition to an on/off switch, the system has the usual Android buttons for Back, Search, Home and Settings. There is a mini-USB connector for charging and connecting with a Windows PC or a Mac. There are also slots for a phone network SIM card and a microSD card. Along the edge of the device there are volume up and down buttons and a headphone jack.
Besides a 0.3-megapixel camera facing the user, the device has a higher-resolution 3-megapixel camera in the back. ViewSonic is adding Swype software for a mid-December launch.
The soft keypad has good vibration feedback. Conveniently, it includes an "@" symbol on the primary keypad, although you need to shift to the symbol set to get to a dedicated ".com" key. There's also a neat online time-saver for typing Web addresses. The space key inserts "www" and ".com," leaving the space between them for adding the particular site you want to go to; it's simple and very effective.
As is the case with the Galaxy Tab, the ViewPad 7 has a Google Search bar on the Home page as well as a link to the Android Market and a Web browser. It comes with 40 preloaded apps, including Documents to Go for reading Office files, Latitude (for finding where your friends and colleagues are) and Maps and Navigation.
The ViewPad 7 was back of the pack on performance, with a 630 on Aurora Softworks's Quadrant benchmark.
Its Wi-Fi system stayed connected 90 feet from my office's router, and its runtime of 5 hours, 10 minutes was 2 hours less than that of the Archos 101. It played HD videos without a problem.
If and when the ViewPad 7 is able to work on a 3G network, expect the carrier to subsidize the tablet's price in exchange for a two-year contract. For now, the ViewPad 7's retail costs begin at $450, too much to pay for a device with limited performance.
How we tested
To evaluate these tablets on a level playing field, I lived with and extensively used them for work and play. I started out by measuring and weighing each as well as examining each button, jack and control. I then went through the system's software and tried out all the major programs.
After I connected each tablet to my lab's Wi-Fi network, I started an Internet radio app and slowly walked away from my Linksys WRT54GS router. I noted where the system lost contact and walked back 10 feet, allowed the tablet to reconnect and confirmed the place where the system lost its wireless data connection.
After setting up each tablet's e-mail app, I sent it PowerPoint, Word, Excel and Acrobat files and attempted to open them. Then I downloaded the Aurora Softworks Quadrant standard benchmark application and ran the software. The app has 12 processor tests, one memory assessment, four input-output tests and four graphics measures. The app combines them into a single score that is a good gauge of the unit's overall performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
After charging the tablet's battery, I started Endlessyoutube's Web site and set up a video to play over and over again. As I unplugged the AC adapter, I started a stopwatch and let the system's battery run down as I timed it. The Archos 70 and 101 lack the software to run the latest Flash software, so I used its built-in video app and looped five videos. For the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which can receive 3G data, I ran battery tests in both Wi-Fi and 3G modes.
Finally, I watched videos, played Touch Pool and generally used these systems for business and pleasure. I downloaded an e-book with the included app and read it on the screen. For those that required a storage card for downloading items, like the ViewSonic ViewPad 7, I used a SanDisk 2GB microSD card to store the data.
Having lived with each of these tablets, I admire them all, but for different reasons. In my opinion, they each take a technological step over the iPad. The three with 7-in. screens are portable enough to fit into a back pocket but still very usable for Web browsing, e-book reading and media watching. Even the largest of the four reviewed here, the 10-in. Archos 101, is thinner and lighter than the iPad. In addition, each has at least one camera and can expand its storage options with a microSD card. And two -- the Galaxy Tab and ViewPad 7 -- have the streamlined Swype keyboard.
That being said, I was able to choose my favorite among the four.
The simple, functional and inexpensive design of the Archos 70 and 101 Internet Tablets are appealing, but they come up short on software and 3G abilities. The ViewPad 7's clever keyboard and its padded case make it tempting, but the system needs better performance and a 3G carrier.
The clear winner here is the Galaxy Tab. Not only does it come in versions for five national 3G networks, but its high-resolution screen, support for Swype keyboard gestures and great performance put it in a class by itself. If it only had a stand, it would be my perfect tablet.
Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.