|Introduction and Specifications|
|So, why haven't we seen more 10-inch or larger Android tablets to compete with the iPad? That's a question we've been asking and we're sure many of you have the been wondering about the situation as well. The primary reason is that Google's tablet-targeted operating system isn't here just yet. The latest version, Android 2.2, which is installed on most 7-inch and smaller slates like Samsung's Galaxy Tab and the Dell Streak, is Google's smartphone OS. Honeycomb is the OS that Google is slating for tablets (pun intended) and all the hype manufacturers can muster won't push the release earlier than when Google says it's ready. Though it does appear that at least one manufacturer may have the inside track.
Regardless, a few manufacturers have forged on and released 10-inch Android tablets regardless of Google's hamstringing of the OS, by limiting Android Marketplace functionality on any device larger than 7-inches. It's a hard line to walk without Google's blessing but ViewSonic has stepped out with their 10-inch gTablet and we've spent some quality time with it. The gTablet is driven by NVIDIA's Tegra 2 processor, comes equipped with 512MB of RAM, 16GB of Flash storage and a myriad of expansion options. We'll first give you a hands-on demo of the device and then break down the features and performance of it, to help complete the picture.
So, that's the out of the box experience currently with the gTablet, let's look at the specifics, build quality and then we'll see how the hardware stacks up performance-wise.
A quick scan of the specifics here can get you pretty excited if you're a tablet fan. NVIDIA's Tegra 2 chip is a 1GHz dual-core ARM 9-based device with an on-board NVIDIA graphics engine that reportedly not only offers great performance for things like full 1080p HD video playback but also great battery life, 8 - 10 hrs according to ViewSonic. There's also 16GB of Flash ROM and both mini USB and standard USB ports along with a micro SD card slot for further storage expansion. The only shortcomings we'd point out here is that another 512MB of RAM might make this well-equipped tablet even speedier and a higher resolution camera might be better for web conferencing. Let's take a closer look at the gTablet's build quality and software.
|The gTablet Experience|
|For reference, the gTablet is slightly wider than an iPad, not quite as tall and just a hair thicker at .54 inches, versus the iPad .5" thick frame. It also weighs just .05lbs more than the iPad. In reality, it's about the same size as an iPad only it comes in that 16:9 aspect ratio we all were expecting in Apple's design but didn't turn out that way. The gTablet's build quality in general is about as good as the iPad but it's not adorned with a brushed aluminum backing. ViewSonic opted instead for a high quality dense black plastic casing all around.
One of the greatest advantages that an Android tablet has over Apple's tablet is the openness of the design. No matter how Mr. Job's likes to portray his devices as being open, you simply can't get around the fact that there is currently very little user access to the iPad, unless you want to go through that synch cable and iTunes. The gTablet, on the other hand, has not only an SD Flash card slot but also a mini USB and a full sized USB port. Getting files onto and off the gTablet is as simple as plugging in a USB cable, USB memory stick or SD card. ViewSonic also included a docking port on the device, and an optional docking station with HDMI output is available as well. In short, connectivity is abundant with the gTablet.
The capacitive touch screen on the gTablet is relatively responsive and, as with most tablets and larger smartphone devices on the market today, it will change orientation depending on how your hold it. Seen here is the gTablet with a stock Android 2.2 (FroYo) homescreen. The gTablet's Android-based navigation buttons on the top right edge of the slate are also capacitive touch enabled. There are buttons for search, home, menu and back navigation functions.
gTablet vs iPad - The right aspect but viewing angle; what viewing angle?
The screen itself on the gTablet has a native resolution of 1024X600, which is a modest number of pixels for a display of this size and aspect, though we'd always take a higher resolution. Some 10-inch netbooks support 1366X768 resolution, for example, in a 10.1-inch LCD. The gTablet also has nice contrast and brightness, with one rather significant caveat; you have to view it fairly straight-on because the viewing angles of the device are pretty bad. Seen here next to the iPad (arguably tough competition since Apple's slate is significantly more expensive but hey, we're comparing 10-inch slates here), the gTablet loses almost all its brightness at about 45º or so. Also, a rather odd issue we discovered is that the screen actually has a significantly better viewing angle if you flip it upside-down (navigation buttons on the left). As we researched this, we discovered on a few forum threads that users were claiming their gTablet was built with the screen installed incorrectly, upside-down. We contacted ViewSonic about this and they responded that the issue hasn't been reported here in the ViewSonic US QA department but that the factory would look at it. Regardless, we observed this anomaly and also asked a few folks around the office to take a look for themselves. Everyone agreed, hold this thing flipped over 180 degrees and you can see it much better, plain and simple. It remains to be seen if this is a confirmed manufacturing defect and if ViewSonic is going to formally address it.
Tap 'n Tap's split keyboard is actually quite nice but the UI itself really gets in the way sometimes...
Then there's Tap 'n Tap. To be perfectly honest upfront, we're generally critical of UI overlays of this sort. After all, these are thin an light, ultra-low power devices we're talking about here, so running two user interface stacks is just going to consume additional resources. Dell has done a pretty good job with their Stage UI for their Streak tablet, all-in-one desktops and netbooks but it's a tall order to design something that has a light resource footprint and actually enables a better user experience. Unfortunately, Tap 'n Tap does not deliver here.
The primary home screen that you see above looks a bit out dated and bland, but that's not the real issue -- what really takes the wind out of our sails is how much it slows the system down. ViewSonic has been very diligent about releasing over-the-air updates that have improved the Tap n' Tap experience but still, the software just feels bloated and clunky. About the only thing we liked with the UI, was its split keyboard, which does do a nice job with a key layout that delivers a solid typing interface for capacitive touch screens.
Tap n' Tap is sort of a necessary evil however, with the gTablet, at least currently. Since Google isn't allowing the Android Market on platforms larger than 7-inches, at least this UI gives you some free utilities to work with, like email, contacts, weather, etc. This is all expected to change upon the release of Google's Honeycomb OS (Android 3.0) and then it's up to ViewSonic to deliver a Honeycomb ROM update. In the mean time, and in order to get our benchmark apps installed on gTablet, we ended up rooting the device and installing a custom ROM from XDA-Developers forum. We followed this guide and installed TNT Lite.
With a little elbow grease, this ROM allows you to keep the Tap 'n Tap keyboard as well as the settings control panel, but strips back the image to more of a stock FroYo installation with the ability to enable the Android Marketplace. With TNT Lite, the gTablet is definitely more responsive and with Android Market at your fingertips, you pretty much have what you need in terms of utilities and apps. Again, this is not an "out-of-the-box" user experience however, so don't expect this level of functionality out of the gTablet, unless you're prepared to gets your hands dirty and work with a custom ROM like this.
|We took the gTablet through a few of the more widely used tablet/smartphone benchmarks that you can currently find in the Android Marketplace. The nice thing about using some of these tests is that you can pull them down yourself if you have an Android device, run them and compare our results to your own equipment if you like.
** Please note: All scores on the devices listed below for the gTablet, were taken from the TNT Lite custom ROM installation and Android 2.2.
The general take-away here is that the gTablet has a solid processing engine under the hood with best of class general compute performance (BenchmarkPi and Linpack scores) and very competitive graphics performance (An3DBench and Neocore). The only processor in the field here that gives challenge to the NVIDIA Tegra 2 SoC in the gTablet, graphics-wise, is Samsung's 1GHz Hummingbird processor that's found in the Galaxy Tab and the Epic 4G. With the An3D benchmark, we're looking more at raw fillrate comparisons, where as in Neocore it's OpenGL-ES performance for high efficiency rendering techniques on mobile devices.
From a standard compute perspective the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor in the HTC EVO 4G, provides some competition for the Tegra 2 chip in the gTablet but all in all, the gTablet is a well balanced machine hardware-wise and offers leading-edge tablet horsepower for things like full 1080p HD video playback and mobile gaming.
A Note On Battery Life: Though we weren't able to quantitatively measure battery life for you in a controlled benchmark environment, we did realize nearly 10 hrs of battery life with the gTablet under various light workloads like simple web browsing and music playback. Video playback might consume the battery quicker, but all told this is about the best battery life performance we've realized yet in a tablet, even over the iPad.
|Performance Summary and Conclusions|
|gTablet Performance Take-Aways: The ViewSonic gTablet delivered a solid user experience, in terms of responsiveness and performance. In our benchmarks, the device posted strong scores across all tests we threw at it. It was the fastest tablet we've tested to date in general compute horsepower and also has a strong 3D engine by NVIDIA that is easily up to the task of ultra-mobile multimedia playback and gaming on the go.
The real major issue that we simply couldn't get around with the gTablet is its screen. It's actually an odd sort of thing to have get in the way, coming from an LCD manufacturer like ViewSonic. With all of their experience in display technologies, we would have expected the screen to be a strong point for the gTablet, but it's definitely not. And the orientation issue with the viewing angle being better when the device is held upside down, is just plain odd. We won't linger too long on this sticking point, however. It's not a complete deal-breaker for the device and the gTablet's price point is definitely more palatable for the average consumer, when you consider 10-inch slates are commanding upward of $500 in some configurations. The gTablet can be found online at places like Amazon for $399 and you might even find it a few bucks cheaper at a place like Sears or Office Depot. At that price, for a 10-inch slate with WiFi, lots of connectivity options, and capability for expansion, it's definitely worth consideration.
The big opportunity here for ViewSonic, comes in the area of support. If ViewSonic can react quickly to the impending release of Google's Android Honeycomb OS, which will not only provide a full-fledged tablet optimized UI, but renewed access to the Android Marketplace, the gTablet could be an inexpensive alternative to many of the higher-end tablets on the market. Let's Kick Tap 'n Tap to the curb, just for good measure too. And so we'll wait and see in the coming weeks if ViewSonic provides an over-the-air update with Honeycomb. NVIDIA's Tegra 2 platform definitely supports it and hopefully ViewSonic will step up to the plate, or should we say, "slate."
Update 2/1/11: ViewSonic has confirmed that they "plan to support the latest Android version on all our nVidia platforms….assuming of course that both nVidia and Google permits this."