Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A New Toy

Well, I finally cracked. I'd been staying away from the Apple store, lest I inadvertantly find myself the owner of an iPad, when I came across Archos' 7 Home Tablet - a nifty looking little 7" screened "mobile internet device", running Android.

So I ordered one.

After a while (quite a while, actually), and 3 calls from Archos telling me my order had been put back again, I got a bit steamed with Archos and told them where they could stuff their 7" rigid object. If you catch my drift.

However, I'd sort of got hooked on the idea of a 7" replacement for my ageing Newton MP2100, so I started casting around and eventually found witstech, who produce the A81, a nifty looking 7" device with GPS, a Cortex-A8 processor, and all for less moolah than the Archos. Score!

So I contacted them, and purchased a brand spanking new, hot off the presses A81(E) (The E meaning that it has extra buttons for Android usage, but more on that later).

So, sure as eggs is eggs, it got a bit delayed. But it did eventually get here.

Review time.

Out of the box, I find: One 7" tablet, half of the back removable, and a replaceable battery that slips nicely behind the back. Okay. One mini USB B to female USB A cable, one generic 5v, 1.5A charger (and they were kind enough to send one that had the right sort of plug for France, score one for Wits tech people), and (as I have a developer model), a little mini-USB B to 1.8V serial adaptor. The latter item looks like a mini-USB plug with 3 hand-labelled wires hanging out of it. Oh, and a nice enough little semi-hard-case.'s unboxing video and overall photos can be found here. Note that hey got a few extra goodies that I didn't like a car charger (already got one) and holder (don't need one).

In terms of finish, the outside of the hardware is not so bad, considering the price. It's lightweight, and has a relatively clean look overall. Although lightweight, it feels tough enough. A bit "chubby" in terms of depth if you're used to looking at Apple gear, but that's tolerable.

Battery is marked 3000mAh, 3.8v. That's a couple of massive plus points - not only is it a load more beefy than the majority of the competitors' offerings, but it's also removable / replaceable. More on battery life later.

The stylus (which is tiny, about the same size as a DS stylus) has a tendency to jam in the holder if you don't push it in "just so" (and it has nothing to help you with alignment - 1 point for industrial design there).

Nothing much to say about the power and USB ports, which seem solid enough. The audio out port looks "odd", or rather "cheap". We'll come to audio later.

The MicroSD card slot hides behind a little rubber grommet, which is normal, although it doesn't look overly waterproof. It's a push/push slot, but seems to be mounted a little too far out, it's hard to get the rubber grommet in place with a card in there. Half a mm further in wouldn't have hurt.

The stand is a nice addition, pulls out from the back and holds the unit at a usable angle.

Button-wise, on the "top" of the unit we have a power button, which (being clear, and retro-lit with LEDs) also doubles as a charging / level indicator as far as I can tell. Green for fully charged, orange for charging, I think. Next to that, there's a pair of left-right buttons, one unit as a "rocker". Looks very nuch like a volume up/down pair, and, oddly enough, that appears to be what it's intended as. On the front, at the bottom left, there are 3 more buttons, with icons corresponding to "home", "back", and "menu". The thin plastic sheet over the fasia around these buttons is already coming away, and from photos it appears that this is endemic - I haven't had the guts to completely remove the sheet and see if it's just "packing protection" though.

Touchscreen is shiny, and has the slightly greasy feel that is common to most resistive devices. The LCD panel itself is bright (20% brightness is more than enough in most circumstances), clear, and (at least on mine) has no dead pixels. The 800x480 resolution gives roughly 135dpi, which makes for a nice enough display. Viewing angle range is "OK", at about 90° horizontally and 60° vertically before it's difficult to see.

On the back we have 2 speakers, oddly positioned vertically (assuming a "widescreen" mode of usage), one over the other. Left and right would have been tricky with the battery placement, I guess, and I'm not expecting hifi quality sound from built in speakers anyway.

On firing the device up, we find, horror of horrors, WinCE. Never has a user experience been so well summed up by its name. Wikipedia tells me that winCE has been out for 13 years, but it doesn't appear to have moved on at all - it still feels like Win 3.0 badly shoehorned into a portable device. It gets everything wrong. *Everything* runs full screen. Microscopic close buttons right next to other microscopic buttons - even with the stylus it's hard to hit the right one (and the touchscreen calibration is pretty much pixel perfect). This is obviously the build for the previous A81 with no buttons, because the buttons themselves don't do anything other than make a "click" noise. Even though I've told WinCE not to click. At all. Bastarding pile of shite.

Wifi performance is fine, it picked up my access point straight away and gave me decent speed. The antennae don't seem overly sensitive (I'd like an external antenna port, myself), but hey - it works. Bluetooth appears functional, although the godawful WinCE interface (particularly the disappearing keyboard) meant that I couldn't actually get the device to pair with my mac more than once.

WinCE, surprisingly enough, managed to use a USB keyboard and mouse through the supplied USB cable. Nice. Couldn't make my Mac see it as a USB storage device through a standard USB cable though. This may be an issue with the Mac, as I had the same problems with Adroid.

Before we do away with WinCE, though, let's look at the quality of the speakers (and the reasons for this will be come obvious later). Playing through the speakers sound quality is at least "OK", at least up to about 80% volume (about the volume of a relatively "loud" radio), at which point things start to distort badly. Cheap speakers, don't expect to use them for much.

So, we hate WinCE. Still alpha quality after 13 years. But we knew that.

Let's reflash with Android and see where we get. After all, Wits have just released an english language Android 2.1.

Reflashing is a piece of piss, once you have the SD card formatted properly (a bit tricky on the Mac, as it craps all over the disk as soon as it's formatted and the booter needs to be the very first item in the FAT, but a bit of VirtualBox voodoo gets us there). Power on, whilst holding down the "left" button, and leave it alone for a few minutes.

Now, some of my gripes about Android are related to the fact the Android I have here is a beta. Some are to do with Android itself, which I'm not really a fan of. Bear this in mind as you read on.

So, we power on, and we get a 4-colour quadrant display as the kernel loads, followed by a bunch of android robots, and finally an animated "android" logo. Boot is pretty quick, but it should be, it's solid-state after all.

Out of the box, we don't have much. For some reason, wits have left "phone" and "camera" functionality in place despite the tablet having neither. A bit daft, that.

No google Apps, (particularly "market").

Bluetooth doesn't want to play, at all. this is, I suspect, a wits issue, or quite likely something to do with kernel drivers for the WL1271 wifi/bluetooth/fm chip. The end result is the same - no bluetooth.

Battery status monitoring is also not included, it seems - the unit reports itself as being on charge, 100% charged, all the time. That sucks, but at least the power button indicates the charging state.

Sleep doesn't appear to function - I suspect that there's no power management going on at all. Surprisingly, this still allows the unit to function for 7-8 hours with wireless turned on and decoding music (but not playing it through the speakers - my wife would have killed me for leaving it turned on all night making noise).

Sound drivers give almost zero volume on the external speakers. That's gonna be a wits bad as well.

For the rest, everything seems to function properly. Calibration is good, again (although the fucking idiot who decided recalibration of the touch panel should require a reboot wants taking out back, shooting, and burying next to the bloke that decided changing network settings in WinNT required a reboot).

I find Android *very* difficult to get along with. Swipes are taken as taps, taps as swipes, and the keyboard / input handling is painful. I've found this to be the case on Android phones, too, but it sometimes makes me want to throw the damned thing at a wall.

The onboard browser is pretty good (no flash, thankfully), renders pretty fast, and appears to work OK. I might try mini opera to get some adblocking, though.

Although the onboard speakers are not properly driven by Android, the external audio is plenty loud enough, and without the usual underlying low-level hiss of cheap audio gear (tested with FLAC rips of Om's "At Giza" and Miles Davis' "Jeru"), and doesn't overload even with some really nasty noise pushed through it (Mainliner's "Black Sky"). As an audio player it's pretty good.

Gaming-wise, Quake3 runs nicely at 30-40fps, and Modern Combat:Sandstorm is equally playable (although multi-touch would be handy for this). Radiant Lite is a nice little "old school" shooter, too.

I haven't tested video playback, but given the gaming performance, it shouldn't be an issue.

Other apps were less endearing, and indicative of what the average android experience might be, regardless of platform. Many apps don't bother to check screen size, and run in a little window on the screen. That's just lazy coding. Others crash with no explanation, or simply hang. Again, bad coding - if they are crashing because of missing features, there should be some sort of feedback.

The device does miss a few features that Google, in their wisdom, have deemed "compulsory" for Android devices, namely: accelerometer, compass (and, to my chagrin, in my case, GPS). Not that I really need another GPS enabled device, but hey, I was kinda looking forward to playing "Zombies! Run!".

Overall, Android still feels part-finished, even allowing for the missing functionality of a beta release. That's part of the overall Google "permanent beta" thing, I guess. It's not awful, and it's certainly better than Wince, but that's not saying much.

More later. Hopefully I'll be able to find my spudgers and do a teardown, and I'll do a side-by side comparison versus my Venerable Newton.



No comments:

Post a Comment