As portable as my twelve inch laptop is, it’s not really that portable, partially because of all the stuff I need to carry along with it: the charger, mouse, cables, external speaker, external hard drive…okay, so I don’t help by filling my laptop bag full of crap. Disregarding my tendency to overpack, my laptop bag does take up a decent amount of space and weight.
While my Samsung Moment smartphone can do a lot of stuff, it does have its shortcomings, not the least of which is its screen size. Also, after nearly two years of reboots, crashes and a less than reliable GPS, I find myself wondering if all the extra stuff smartphones can do comes at the expense of the phone. Just sayin’.
Thus, I started looking at tablets, the near-ultimate in portability and (hopefully) functionality. The most obvious device would seem to be the iPad, but I have never been a big fan of Apple’s locked-down portable devices. I also hate iTunes with a passion and try to avoid using it after getting frustrated with it way back when. Those statements are odd considering that I own an iMac, but one can get around most, if not all of the iMac’s annoyances. Heck, if worse comes to worse you can install Windows on it. -shrug- My needs are a bit above that of the average user, so a do-it-Jobs-way-or-else iPad was not going to cut it.
Android was familiar to me from having used my Moment for nearly two years and so I began looking into Android-based tablets. After hearing all the wonderful things my friends were saying about their newer Android phones, I figured that the problems I was having with Android were due just it not having been updated. My poor phone can’t even play Angry Birds, for crying out loud.
Thus, I found myself at Ye Olde Electronics Store poking and prodding at various tablets. Despite the fact that I had no intention of buying one, I even checked out the iPad as well.
I am pretty good at typing, so I wanted to have something I could hold in my hands and type on using my thumbs like a phone. As it turns out, all of the ten inch tablets I sampled were too wide to be used in that way, never mind my arms getting tired from holding them up for extended periods of time.
I found seven inch tablets to be much easier to use in that way, though. I could almost bang away on their keyboards with aplomb, but soon discovered a new problem: crappy screens. Quite a few of the smaller tablets were less expensive eReaders that happened to run Android, but their screens were not nearly as responsive as their larger, pricier brethren. As enticing as getting a tablet for $200 or under sounded, the compromise of having to deal with a less than responsive screen quickly killed that idea.
I seemed to be stuck at this point. I could get a quality device that would be too big for me to use the way I wanted to, or get a smaller device of dubious quality. I just happened to find something in the middle.
ENTER THE VIZIO TABLET
Vizio, best known as a maker of low-cost TVs of average quality, recently introduced the their first tablet. The VTAB1008 (VTAB from here on out) is an eight-inch model priced at $300. Of course, getting the price that low means some compromises had to be made: it does not run the latest and greatest version of Android, does not have a dual-core CPU like the big boys do and has a pretty low amount of built-in memory (2 MB, which can be increased via an SDmicro chip). Vizio also puts a custom interface called “Vizio Internet Apps Plus” on top of Android that places all of the application icons on the device’s home page like the iPad.
I did some research and checked out online reviews: many of them described the VTAB as being an average device that wasn’t bad for the price. At $100 less than a ten-inch tablet, it seemed like a good deal so I figured it was worth a shot. I excitedly picked one up from Wal-Mart and got to tapping.
The VTAB is a solid device with a little bit of weight to it, but it isn’t terribly heavy. Like many devices these days, it sports a glossy screen that is a bit on the reflective side, but its 1027×768 resolution produces a good picture. An inwards-facing camera is at the top center of the panel and the typical Android Back, Home and Menu touch buttons are at the bottom. Oddly enough, the only thing you can do with the camera right now is take pictures of yourself, as Skype is not available as of this writing. A second pair of touch buttons are on the device’s left hand side are are used when holding the VTAB horizontally. The buttons light up when available and go dark when not in use.
At the top center of the VTAB is the power button which is flanked by two speakers. In a pretty clever move, a third speaker at the bottom right corner of the device is activated when the VTAB is held sideways so that you always have stereo sound. The bottom center has a Micro-USB charging connection, a Micro-HDMI out connection, and a Micro SD card slot on the bottom left. Volume control buttons are on the right side and a control-free left side round out the unit.
The VTAB’s battery life is pretty good compared to other portable devices I have owned, it lasted about eight hours of on and off use with everything on. Turning off the GPS bumped up the battery life significantly, to over ten hours. Those numbers aren’t based on “stress tests” so don’t read too much into them, but I will say that I have had to charge it each night in the short time that I have owned it. Its use of a Micro-USB charger instead of some crappy proprietary connector means I that can use the charger for other things, which is very convenient.
As I mentioned at the opening, Vizio makes television sets and other home theater equipment, and so the VTAB also has an infrared transmitter, so the device can be used as a giant remote control. The remote app doesn’t quite make full use of the ability, though, important buttons can sometimes go missing.
The VTAB is a pleasure to carry around. It has a slightly rubbery finish on the back that provides some grip so I don’t have to worry too much about having it slip out of my hands. After putting a screen protector on it, I can tap away with impunity. Typing on this thing is AWESOME, it is as close to typing on a keyboard as I have ever gotten to on a portable device. It’s actually better, thanks to the installed SwiftKey TabletX software which does a scary-good job of guessing what I’m about to type. The VTAB is almost a little too wide to be used comfortably when typing using my thumbs like a phone. I am enjoying it for now, but time will tell.
The Vizio Tablet runs the “Gingerbread” version of Android (2.3.2 to be exact) so if you have an Android phone it will feel very familiar. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it is easy to use, but it is a bad thing because makes the VTAB feel like, well, a giant phone. That isn’t necessarily bad per se, but the apps and even the OS itself simply do not take full advantage of the larger screen.
A good example of this is the Widget screen, which is identical to the home screens on Android phones. It sadly limits widgets and shortcuts to a four by four grid. While my main Widget screen is almost full, it also has way too much unused space.
Flash 10.1 is installed, but the browser loads the mobile version of websites fairly frequently. Alternate browsers are available but seem to confuse the device. I kept getting asked which browser I wanted to open when I tapped links, which got annoying.
I can understand why Vizio customized Android the way they did, but I think they took away some of its usefulness in doing so. For example, the notification area at the top of the screen does not behave in the same way as in “plain vanilla” Android. Normally, each new notification appears in the bar with its own icon, and in order to see them, you drag down the top bar and they appear in a list. On the VTAB, all notifications are accessed by clicking on a fat asterisk sitting in the upper-right corner that never goes away. Bleh. Having to click an icon to get to a “widget board” is also inefficient and defeats their purpose
While the VTAB does get slow on occasion, it is fairly responsive for the most part. Vizio is reportedly working on a Honeycomb update for it, but as this is their first true computing device, I’m not sure I trust them to keep that promise. I’ve been burned in the past by established manufacturers that didn’t keep their products up to date (like my Samsung Moment) so I’m a little skittish about trusing the new kid on the block to do so. To their credit, Vizio has released two minor updates since the device’s launch, so there may be hope yet.
The VTAB is severely lacking in apps, which is a unfortunate considering that one of its selling points is access to the Android Market. I wanted to install many of the same apps that I had on my phone and was surprised to find many of them were not available. As of this writing, Yahoo! Mail, Netflix, Skype and even Facebook apps are nowhere to be found. I don’t use very many apps, so not being able to get the few that I do use is a bit of a downer.
For me, the Vizio Tablet is almost a keeper. Instead, the delight of having Android running on a bigger screen is quickly offset by the disappointment of realizing that this device just doesn’t do a whole lot with the additional real estate. The hardware is pretty good for the cost, but the VTAB’s potential is wasted by the fact that the version of Android it runs was not written for tablets, making it a really big phone-without-the-phone. App support is the final nail in the coffin; if I could get any app from the Android Market that I wanted, the VTAB would be a slam dunk, but even with my limited app use, there are too many things missing.
Keep in mind, though, that my needs are not the same as the average user’s. Most people will be content to check Facebook through the Vizio Tablet’s built-in browser. Most people won’t care about editing Word documents and attaching them to emails. Most people won’t care which version of Android their tablet is running under the hood. Those people will probably be perfectly happy with a Vizio Tablet. As for me, I’m going to give it a few more days, but it looks like it will be going back to the store while I wait for a reasonably priced 7-inch device to come along. I may also just say to heck with it and get a cheap E-reader running Android instead. I guess this eight, isn’t quite enough.
3 out of 5