Monday, December 20, 2010

Early impressions of the Viewsonic G tablet

I got a tablet
I used to dream about pervasive Internet. I used to dream about using a tablet to read web sites on a streetcar. That future is here, but it's in beta.

More recently, a colleague of mine got an iPad. I think the coolest thing about it is its long battery life. I sometimes take long trips, and I need my entertainment. I deal with jet-lag by staying awake until it's night at my destination, so I'm often too dazed for reading. Video is crucial. On long flights, I bring a laptop, an extra battery and a netbook. Cutting back to a tablet and a laptop would be nice.

I know Android's not really ready for tablets-- in six months, 3.0 devices should be plentiful and wonderful. But I've got travel coming up, and I lost my patience. So I got a Viewsonic G tablet. The premier Android tablet is Samsung's Galaxy Tab, but its screen is 7 inches, and I think that's too small for enjoying video. I considered the Archos 101, but it was hard to find. I didn't find the Advent Vega until after I'd ordered.

So what's the G tablet like? Is it worth it?

Viewing Angle
If you use a landscape orientation, slight changes in viewing angle affect the brightness a lot, but it is easy to find angles that look good. If you use a portrait orientation, each of your eyes has a different viewing angle. The screen has a simultaneously bright-dark look that may be familiar if you've used red-blue 3D glasses or polarized glasses. This makes the tablet an inferior e-book reader, but a decent video player.

Rectangular pixels
The G tablet's 1024x600 screen has slightly rectangular pixels; they are roughly 87:84. This means that the launcher icons, and presumably other raster art, are slightly distorted. It's fairly subtle, though, and I didn't notice for a while. It probably won't affect your enjoyment of the device.

Size and weight
At 1.8 lbs, this is an object that you don't want to hold in one hand. You can do it if you hold the top corner in your fingers and rest the opposite corner against your inner elbow, but it feels like a stunt. It's fine to hold two handed, or reclining and resting it on your body, or lying in bed.

Processor and chipset
Performance is very good in most apps, like Angry Birds or video playback. Bonsai Blast is unusably slow. The G Tablet is based on Nvidia's Tegra 2 chipset, which is rumoured to be the reference platform for Android 3.0, so things can only improve as more software is optimized for Tegra 2.

Before buying the G tablet, I knew that the software it ships with was unusable, so I bought it knowing I would have to install a hacked firmware from xda-developers. That's getting routine. I've also installed OpenWRT on a router and Ubuntu on my new laptop in the past couple of weeks.

I've installed the TnT lite firmware and it works. The Android Market works, and I've got Flash installed. Most things either work or aren't available on the Market. "On Air", a program I sometimes use to wirelessly transfer files, doesn't work. "Tape Machine", which I've used for rehearsal recordings, seems confused about whether I've purchased it or not.

I get a lot of "Force close" messages, though. I think some of it is because it's easy to accidentally hard-reset the tablet, leaving broken data files. The problem is that sometimes the "shutdown menu" takes too long to show up, and if you hold the power button down long enough, it does a hard shutdown (just like a modern desktop or laptop).

Occasionally, the sound stops functioning correctly, and just makes white noise. This is unpleasant, and can't be controlled with the volume control.

One point of confusion with the stock and TnT lite firmwares is that the internal storage location is labelled "sdcard". This made me think it was the (micro-)SD card.

I wish the status bar wasn't on the top; in a 16:9 device, every pixel of vertical real estate is precious.

Ports, etc.
The tablet has two usb ports; one for accessing its storage like a USB stick, and one so that it can access USB devices like USB sticks. It's a shame that neither port can be used for charging, like my Nexus One. Instead, it has a 12V/2A "wall-wart" adapter. I've managed to get it to work with USB sticks, but neither of my USB hard disks works. Oh, and it takes mini-USB instead of micro-USB, like my Nexus One, so that's one more cable to take when I travel.

It would be nice to have an HDMI port, like the Archos 101 or the Advent Vega, but I can't really see a need. I can use my HTPC or laptop for that. I do wish it took a line-level input, so I could use it for live recording. Hmm, would it make a good control surface for mixing?

It has a micro-SD slot, but I kinda wish it took regular SD. My laptop and camera both use regular SD, so it would be easier to swap in. That said, I can use my laptop to access the generous internal storage like a USB stick, and I guess I can use an SD reader in the USB port if I need to transfer photos directly from my camera. (Or plug my camera in as a USB device?)

Battery life
So far, I've only gotten it down to 58% battery life in two days of occasional use. This is pretty good in my opinion.

The touch screen seems a little bit flaky when I'm playing Angry Birds. (When I tap to make the blue bird split into multiple birds, it often doesn't work.) I'm not sure if this is a general problem.

Hard Keys
Unlike my Nexus One, the hard keys aren't backlit. This means they're hard to use in the dark, but the status bar provides soft keys you can use. Well, mostly. The soft "Home" key won't launch the task switcher if you long-press it. The real problem is that without backlighting, it's easy to hit the hard keys accidentally.

Wait six months or so for a proper Android tablet if you can. If you need a tablet today, consider an iPad or Galaxy Tab. You should only get a G tablet if you can stomach poor performance as portrait display, and put up with immature hacked firmwares. The software situation is improving, but the screen may be a deal-breaker if you want to use it as a portrait device.