I’ve been checking out a few Android tablets lately. All three use ARM based processors and run Android 2.x. The Barnes and Noble Nook Color runs a skinned over version of Android 2.1, while the Stream TV Elocity A7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab run Android 2.2. All have 7″ capacitive touch screens, however they are extremely different in real life. The A7 has only a 800×480 pixel resolution screen, while the NC and the GT both boast 1024×600 pixel screens. Additionally, the A7 only registers single point touch contact while both the GT and the NC offer true multi-touch capabilities. All three are 7″ tablets with pretty different form factors. The NC is the most unique design; the others are basically just black tablets with flush glass across the surface. My primary uses for a tablet are e-book reading, some e-mail, chat and web browsing. I’ve found that this size tablet is great for all of those applications and is quite portable. Additionally, it is possible to find all of these tablets for close (or far under) $300.
Stream TV’s Elocity A7 $309.99 from Amazon.com
This product is a bit of a conundrum. The Elocity A7 uses nVidia’s Tegra 2 – 250 system on a chip (SoC) to power it’s operations, the most robust and capable innards of the group. Additionally, the A7 has a full 4GB of eMMC onboard memory and 512MB of RAM. The Tegra 2 chip makes this a speedy contender. Every app boots up quickly. The trouble with the A7 however, is twofold. Support from Stream TV is almost impossible to find. This tablet was shipped without the market, and thus needed to be manually re-configured. As with all Android devices, support can be found at XDA developers, you can get the market and ROMs to install and make the device much more usable. The other issue is the screen. I did not think a lack of multi-touch would be an issue, and I was wrong. Using a browser, or maps, or even Angry Birds, the screen’s lack of good multi-touch is evident. Additionally, I think the lower resolution hurts the tablet – you can fit less on the screen. Lastly, the A7 has the worst battery life, while being the largest and heaviest device. The A7 has HDMI out and a USB host (for flash drives/keyboard/mice) ports. However, coming from a small company, there is very little support and even fewer accessories.
Barnes and Noble Nook Color $249.99 from Barnes and Noble
I’ll be honest, I was extremely skeptical of the Nook Color when it first came out. Running the “Eclair” version of Android OS, it is an extremely locked down device at first. However, it is graced by an incredibly active development community. The NC can boot directly from a microSD card, making it a modders dream. The NC has a Texas Instruments OMAP chip (clocked at 800MHz), as well 512MB RAM and 8GB of eMMC storage. This is the same chip running in the original Droid, and it shows its age. The screen is bright and crisp; however, the touch screen is a tad unresponsive around the edges. It is a significantly better screen than the A7, but it does have its faults. Additionally, the inset nature of the screen can make it hard to press all the places on the screen you want to touch. Unlike the other two tablets, there isn’t a single camera on the NC, but our intrepid friends at XDA have gotten the Bluetooth modules working.
My first moves when getting my hands on the NC was to root it right away. I then installed a version of Cyanogen Mod 7 (Android 2.3 – Gingerbread). This booted up quickly and easily, and I had the market and my host of Google Apps working. I installed an over-clockable kernel and the NC was working a lot faster (when needed), and had better battery usage on standby. A developer was able to create a dual boot scenario, enabling me to run Gingerbread as the primary OS and Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) on the second boot instance. Again, I installed an overclocked kernel for the Honeycomb side, which made it a little more manageable (but not perfect). The NC is a great little tablet, with an excellent form factor and best of all, charges via USB micro (like most of your cellphones).
Samsung Galaxy Tablet ~$300 from Craigslist/EBay
The Galaxy Tablet has been out for months now, but I just recently got my hands on one. It is the only tablet that comes with the Android market already enabled – but that didn’t stop me from rooting it anyways. The Samsung “Touchwiz” interface is different than most, and I don’t much like anyone’s skinned Android interface. That said, the Hummingbird 1GHz w/ 512MB of RAM speeds along. The Galaxy Tab provides at least 2GB of user accessible memory w/ microSD expandable memory. The Galaxy Tab is noticeably quicker than the NC and only a little slower than the A7. The GT acts like a large phone, with only a few Samsung apps dedicated to the larger real-estate. One of these key apps is their email client, which does a pretty good job with Gmail (but isn’t quite there yet). That said, almost all standard apps work great, often with just a little need for re-sizing.
The GT is a tough machine to root and install custom ROMs on. Additionally, one needs to be careful which ROM/Kernel to install. I would recommend the T-Mobile or AT&T versions for those who like to travel (ability to use SIM cards internationally). However, once an overclocked kernel and SetCPU were installed, I got great battery life with the correct settings. The GT has a great looking flush mounted screen that is reminiscent of a large cellphone. It is actually lighter than both the A7 and the NC, and is smaller than both as well. I have never had a problem holding any of these for a long time, but find the GT the best device to hold. The last thing that has to be mentioned is Samsung’s indefensible decision to have a proprietary plug for charging/interaction. In this era of microUSB/HDMI, it is ridiculous that a company need any other plugs. It is the one true negative about this device, but in my mind, it’s almost a deal-breaker.
An Android tablet is an easy way to hop into the new OS without committing your life (aka your cellular handset) to the OS. The ability to play with capable tablets for around $300 dollars can give you a powerful e-reader, as well a web + YouTube consumption device. Since Pandora and other streaming services work well with all options, it’s an easy way to listen to music as well. As more and more games are on the Android market – a good tablet is a great airplane toy, and can help you do some work while you’re at it.
I have delineated my pros/cons of each device, as well some overall thoughts
|Samsung Galaxy Tab||
||Best of these 3 (3 of the prime android tablets right now). If you can find a good one, it can be a great cheap toy!|
|B&N Nook Color 7||
||Great e-reader, if $200 is your limit, good clean android fun can still be had!|
||If you’re a developer, who wants to output to the big screen, go with this, otherwise, you are overpaying for under-supported hardware|
There is one key problem with Android tablets, there are so few apps dedicated to the tablet devices. It isn’t that phone apps don’t scale (Angry Birds on the big screen is a religious experience) but rather that apps aren’t designed to take advantage of the big screen. With the expanded pixel count (just a few less than the iPad), you would think developers might start to create apps for tablets. However, the Xoom (and most Honeycomb tablets) will ship w/ 1280×800 resolution, putting these tablets squarely in the middle between the 840×400 cell phone and 1280×800 Honeycomb tablets.
The Xoom has less than 30 tablet optimized applications in the market now, and until that number grows, tablets on the Android platforms will continue to underperform their iOS brethren. Now I ask our readers; do you have any experience with any of the aforementioned tablets or any others? Please comment below.