Vizio Tablet VTAB1008 Review: A Pleasant Surprise at a Value Price
At a Glance
TV maker Vizio has always followed its own course, and its first foray into the growing tablet market is no exception. The company's awkwardly named Vizio 8" Tablet with Wi-Fi (VTAB1008, $330 as of September 23, 2011) has an 8-inch display, and it eschews Google's Android 3.x Honeycomb operating system for the older Android 2.3. This bulky tablet could be a good choice for consumers who want to get a taste of life with a tablet, but who have no grandiose expectations for high performance or fancy design.
In some ways, the VTAB1008 is a refreshing surprise. The company provides its own overlay on top of Android 2.3 which makes the interface feel fresh, friendly, and more tablet-appropriate. The company didn't introduce wholesale revisions of core apps, though; and as a result, the Google Mail app feels clunky compared to the multipane approach in Honeycomb. Ditto for the Music app and for the Web browser, while I'm grousing. But the Apps Menu is better presented than on stock Android 2.3. Overall, I liked what Vizio did better than what I've seen with the HTC Sense UI overlay on the HTC Flyer.
Vizio's special sauce includes its simplification of Android's notification system; the widget board for aggregating all widgets in one place (instead of placing them on separate home screens, as other Android tablets do); and a cleaner App Menu design, with persistent tabs at the bottom for browser, market, email, gallery, and music.
The company says that its interface customizations--seen here as the application launcher (with all apps and subsets of apps based on categories), notifications, and the tab dock at the bottom--will be consistent with the way its interface will look on the company's new Vizio Internet Apps Plus platform HDTVs and Blu-ray players, due to arrive later in 2011 and beyond. The VIA Plus platform will bring Android apps to your TV; the company says that future services and products will tie in to the tablet and other VIA Plus platform devices.
Overall, I found the Vizio interface refresh pleasing. From the changing orientation of the three capacitive touch buttons that run along the bottom of the screen--regardless of whether you hold the tablet in portrait mode or landscape mode--to the well-designed lock screen and well-defined power button up top, the Vizio is not just another low-cost tablet.
Vizio's attention to interface extended to the company's swapping out the stock keyboard in favor of the SwiftKey X keyboard. This highly responsive keyboard makes typing more natural than on the standard Android offering, and customizations such as having two functions assigned to a key and having a split thumb-keyboard design for use in landscape mode are convenient touches.
Inside the Vizio Tablet
The VTAB1008 measures 6.6 inches by 8.1 inches by 0.48 inch thick. At 1.2 pounds, which is about what Samsung's slim Galaxy Tab 10.1, (named in part for its 10.1-inch display) weighs, it feels too heavy for prolonged one-handed holding.
Vizio doesn't specify which processor its tablet uses, but it does reveal that the VTAB1008 has a single-core 1GHz Marvell 600 Series ARM CPU and 512MB of memory. The tablet manages to achieve its relatively low $300 price by offering just 4GB of built-in storage--half the storage that the upcoming 7-inch, $200 Lenovo IdeaPad A1 will carry. Worse still, the VTAB1008 makes only 2GB of space available to users, according to the Vizio. The tablet does have a MicroSD Card slot for expanding the storage to up to 32GB, but the slot is hidden beneath a hard plastic flap on the bottom left of the tablet (in portrait mode); you'll need strong fingernails to pull the tight-fitting flap aside.
The front-facing camera has a low resolution of just 640 by 480 pixels, though it can capture video at 30 frames per second. The Wi-Fi radio supports 802.11b/g/n, and the tablet has both micro HDMI and micro USB ports at the bottom.
Preloaded apps run various Google services such as Android market, Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube, as well as Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader.
The tablet's display measures 8 inches diagonally, making it an uncommon specimen in a sea of Android sameness. Its 1024-by-768-pixel resolution yielded sharp text, though some fonts were more prone to pixelation than others. Images looked okay, but didn't impress: My test images lacked detail and sharpness, and skin tones were deficient in natural browns.
One point of distinction: The tablet has a 4:3 aspect ratio, like the Apple iPad 2 and the now-discontinued HP TouchPad, whereas most Android models adopt a 16:9 aspect ratio. Matched against a 7-inch tablet with a 16:9 aspect ratio, the VTAB1008's extra 1 inch of diagonal length and its 4:3 aspect ratio translate into about 30 percent more surface area for the display. Vizio reports that, in its own testing, Android 2.3 apps optimized for phones scaled up better to a 4:3 aspect ratio than to a 16:9 aspect ratio.
The random apps, including games and news apps, that I downloaded from Android Market did scale far better than such apps typically do on Honeycomb tablets, with their 16:9 aspect ratio. Though it's hard to recommend a tablet running an operating system not intended for tablet use, Vizio's implementation is fairly appealing, and it certainly gives you more apps to choose from today. That said, it's unclear how the coming release of the Android operating system, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich, will affect the long-term app story for the Vizio Tablet. At this writing, Vizio couldn't say whether the company will offer an update to Ice Cream Sandwich.
A Mixed Entertainer
Thanks to the built-in infrared blaster and an included app, you can use the VTAB1008 as a universal remote. That capability remains unusual for now; aside from the VTAB1008, only the upcoming Sony S1 tablet offers the feature. Though it's a novel idea, I found the Vizio remote app poorly designed. I liked being able to customize setups for different rooms; but inputting my gear was a pain, the on-screen button positions were awkward (especially in view of the size and weight of the tablet), and I couldn't get the database to cough up critical features for my Pioneer DVD recorder (others worked fine, however). Vizio says that its app should cover 95 percent of home entertainment devices. Sony's remote control app has a far better layout and configuration, and it recognized my device without a problem.
The tablet handles Adobe Flash playback. Unfortunately, the YouTube videos I played tended to have macroblocking artifacts not seen on other tablets.
I liked Vizio's thoughtful use of three speakers for the audio. This way, you get stereo (left/right) sound no matter how you hold the tablet. In landscape mode, the speakers are situated at the upper left and right edges; in portrait, they're at top, porting upward. This design permits greater flexibility in how you use the tablet. I wish, though, that there were a way to use the third speaker to improve the audio, or even to impart a surround-sound effect, but that's not an option. Still, despite some tinniness, audio sounded better on the VTAB1008 than on most Android 3.x tablets I've tested. Whether the credit goes to Vizio's use of SRS TruMedia, or to Android 2.3's player codec remains to be seen.
The Vizio VTAB1008 is neither sleek nor cutting edge, but it is usable. The universal remote feature, while not best implementation I've seen of this feature, is a compelling extra not found on most rival tablets. If you're constrained by a tight budget, like the idea of a universal remote, and want a tablet yesterday, the Vizio tablet is worth a look. How long you'll be satisfied with it will depend in large measure on how Google handles Ice Cream Sandwich.