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.
This story, "4 Android Tablets Reviewed and Compared" was originally published by Computerworld.