Honeycomb has been a bit of a disappointment so far and because of that, all the tablets running it have not been received well despite most of them packing some serious horse power. It’s a bit unfortunate that the company's suffered poor sales of their product due to Google’s folly. On the contrary, their mobile phone version of Android just keeps getting better and with the latest build called Gingerbread, devices have gotten faster and battery life has improved breathing new life into older Android handsets. It’s no surprise that HTC has chosen to go with Gingerbread for their Flyer tablet (well that and the fact that Honeycomb doesn't support 7-inch tablets yet). There’s still plenty of market share up for grabs in the 7-inch tablet space as currently we just have the BlackBerry Playbook and the aging but still capable, Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 as the major players. Let’s see if the Flyer can find a place in this expanding ecosystem.
Build and Design
The Flyer is definitely one of the best looking tablets in the market. The unibody aluminium frame coupled with the choice of plastics used is eye-catching. With most company’s using black or dark shades, HTC has chosen just the opposite which gives the Flyer a fresh and youthful appearance. The build is excellent just like most of their devices. All the buttons, ports and removable parts line up perfectly which gives you the feeling of a sturdy and well built device. It’s quite light as well at 420g and due to its small size, I found it quite comfortable when holding it with one hand.
Colors are rich and vibrant
The 7-inch capacitive screen sports a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels and is surrounded by a thumb-size black bezel so you don’t accidentally touch the screen no matter which way you use it. The screen does not use Gorilla Glass and doesn’t have any oliophobic coating either so finger prints can be a nightmare. HTC bundles a pouch along with the Flyer so that it takes care of any accidental scratches. If you look at the screen from an angle you’ll notice a grid of dots, that’s for their Scribe technology which allows you to use a digital pen to draw/scribble on the screen.
The removable plastic cover can drive you crazy
Transferring data and charging the Flyer is done through what seems like a proprietary connector, which was puzzling, since all their phones have a micro-USB port - so why use something different. As it turns out, it's in fact a standard micro-USB connector so any standard cable will work. The volume rocker is placed on the left and the power button and headphone jack are placed on the top. There’s a little red light towards the edge of power button that glows red when charging. My first little niggle with the tablet is the plastic cover for the SIM and memory card slot which is a real pain in the a** to open. It's a struggle you don't really want to get into, but won't necessarily have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
The unibody design gives it a classy look while keeping the weight down
There are two grills for the speakers at the rear and are cleverly placed in a landscape fashion since when you’re watching a video, that’s how you would typically use the tablet so you get a proper left/right stereo sound. Overall, the Flyer feels expensive (which it is) and well built so kudos to HTC for that.
The Flyer is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapgragon MSM8255T(ARM v7) single core processor running at 1.5GHz. This, coupled with HTC’s Sense UI 2.1 makes for a very good user experience. There are two sets of menu buttons placed alongside the bottom and on the left ,so you always have easy access to it no matter which way you're holding it. To unlock the tablet, simply swipe the ring forward and you’re in the home screen. Alternately, you could open an application directly by dragging it in the ring itself.
The interface is really slick with lots of fancy animations all over the place. The home screens have a nice 3D animation added. There’s a new shortcut bar similar to the ‘Icon Dock’ in iOS, which gives you quick access to most used applications irrespective of which home screen you’re on. There are plenty of customization options thrown in by HTC right from skins, wallpapers to themes, plus you can download many more through HTC Hub.
The notification bar has undergone a major facelift
The notification bar has also undergone a major overhaul. It’s now divided into three sections, the first shows you the ten most recently used apps, the second gives you notifications like alerts, new messages, etc and the third is ‘Quick Settings’ which gives you little toggle switches for Auto Brightness, Auto Rotation and connectivity settings. Going into the main menu, apps can be sorted by the ones you frequently use, have just downloaded or the whole set.
The default keyboard is very comfortable to use with good spacing between the keys even in portrait mode. Holding the tablet in this position, I was easily able to type using both my thumbs. Thanks to the 7-inch screen all the keys were within reach. It’s not so easy in landscape mode though, you’ll want to use it on a desk or your lap.
Unleash your creative side
HTC is using the digital pen functionality to differentiate the Flyer from the competition. The pen is operated using a single ‘AAAA’ battery. Normally you would be able to use the pen only in some sort of application like notepad or paint but HTC has one better and allows you to use it virtually anywhere other than the lock screen. Let’s say you come across something interesting while browsing and you quickly want to share, simply tap the pen icon on the bezel which brings up a little semi-carousel in the corner. This lets you jump directly to Evernote or you could tap the screen once which takes a snapshot of whatever is on the screen. Now you can scribble, make notes,etc on the snapshot and then either save it, print it or share it via Bluetooth, Facebook, Flickr, Gmail, Peep, Picasa, Plurk or Twitter. You can do this with any screen in Android.
The pen input offers plenty of options like pencils, ball-point pen, brushes, markers,etc. You can choose from a selection of colors and brush sizes as well. I can see the novelty factor here but I'm not sure how many people would actually care about it or base their tablet buying decision on this feature alone.
The Flyer comes with 32GB built-in memory with the ability to expand it to 64GB via micro-SD card. But the actual storage that’s available for use is only about 19 GB, the rest is used by the OS and HTC’s Sense UI. Video formats like 3gp, MP4, WMV, AVI and Xvid are supported out of the box. You can further extend that support by installing Moboplayer which reads MOV and MKV files as well. There is no separate video player app, you can access all the videos through the gallery itself. Surprisingly, the default player wasn’t able to play SD files smoothly. Standard DVD resolution movies or even TV shows had quite a lot of stutter, something I didn’t expect. The same goes for 720p videos as well. Moboplayer comes to the rescue for SD files but HD was still a bit problematic.
The HTC music player is redesigned for the larger screen giving you your playlist on the left and the ‘Now Playing’ screen on the right. The Flyer supports SRS sound enhancement along with some Equalizer presets (only available when headphones are plugged in). With a decent pair of earphones, music sounds really good with punchy bass and clear mids and highs. The audio formats supported are AAC, AMR, OGG, M4A, MP3, WAV and WMA, no FLAC support unfortunately.
HTC has only launched the 3G version in India so you have to pay more for this even if you don’t care about the feature. The tablet has full HSDPA and HSUPA 3G support along with EDGE/GPRS and Wi-Fi ‘n’. Android gives you a whole bunch of apps by default like Gmail, Gtalk, Maps, Latitude, Places and Locations. HTC also bundles some of their own apps like HTC Hub which lets you download additional apps, widgets, scenes, skins, wallpapers and alarm sounds. HTC Likes is a portal that aggregates all the popular widgets, themes, etc made by HTC and you can add to it by liking a particular widget or app. HTC Watch gives you access to latest movie trailers but it didn’t really work well and refused to update the exsting list to anything current. The default browser does a good job of rendering web pages which look really good on this screen.
Surfing is fun on this 7-inch screen
Now if you were expecting to make phone calls like the Galaxy Tab, you’re in for a big disappointment. There is a way to send and receive messages but phone calls are a no-go. EDGE works well and I didn’t face any signal problems holding it in either portrait or landscape view.
There are lots of extra useful apps pre-installed in the Flyer. Reader lets you purchase eBooks from Kobo. HTC bundles along some popular novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jane Eyre, The Art of War and many more for you to get started. The app does a good job of mimicking Apple’s iBooks with similar page animations when you flip a page. You can also use the pen to mark, highlight or make notes on chapters which gets saved. Other apps include Task Manager, Sound Hound, Press Reader, Foxit PDF viewer, Friend Stream and one of my favourite games, Teeter.
Popular eBooks come pre-installed
Productivity apps include Polaris Office which supports doc, ppt, xls file formats. Evernote is an advanced version of notepad which lets you add pictures, record a voice memo, attach a video or picture and with HTC Scribe, you can even write or draw using the pen. The Flyer does not support hand writing recognition - a must have feature for a device with digital pen support. Car panel is useful when you’re driving as it gives large, easy to work with icons for navigation. Kid Mode is a coloring book app designed for children.
The 5MP shooter is devoid of a flash so naturally indoor shots are not very good. Thankfully there is auto-focus, so some level of detail is preserved. Even in day light, the picture quality is just about average. The images appear a bit soft even though there is auto-focus. The menu icons on the screen change orientation when you switch from portrait to landscape mode which is nice. All the basic camera options are available like different scene modes, exposure settings, colour tone, etc.
Camera is not the best but is there if you need it
The Flyer supports 720p recording at 30fps but this only looks good on paper. First of all, it saves the recorded video in 3gp format so video quality is downgraded a bit right there. To make matters worse, the recorded video is horribly jerky and is certainly not 30fps. In the end, just like all the tablets we’ve seen so far, the camera is just there for that little check mark in the spec sheet.
With EDGE always on, one whole movie, a few hours of music listening and little Internet surfing, I managed to get a full day]s worth of battery life which is strictly decent, but I expected a lot better. The 4000mAh battery is even larger than the one in Acer’s ICONIA A500 so that itself coupled with the smaller screen should have given me at least two days or a little over a day and a half of battery life which sadly is not the case. I don't think Gingerbread is to blame for this since it has done wonders for battery life on mobile phones.
The Flyer is HTC's first venture into the tablet space and I had high hopes for this as it looked like a winner right from the start, well at least on paper. If I may quote Morpheus from the Matrix, "Everyone falls the first time" , this is exactly what has happened with HTC's Flyer. There's no denying the fact that the Flyer is built well enough to rival the iPad. The finish and attention to detail is impeccable and HTC gets full points for that. The UI is another area where it excels, the interface is slick and fast and even though Sense is not designed for tablets, they've done a pretty good job of porting it to the larger screen. There's also a whole bunch of multimedia and productivity apps built right in. Finally, the digital pen support is a novel idea and while it seems like a gimmick at times, some people may find it very useful.
But these features alone aren't enough to justify the high price. The HTC Flyer is priced at an absurd Rs. 39,890 for the 3G version with 32GB built-in memory. Spend a little more and you can get the Motorola Xoom or the iPad 2 which are much more powerful tablets with larger screens. It may have a speedy processor but sadly that power is not harnessed properly. Apart from the UI being quick and snappy, the Flyer struggles to playback HD content (I'm talking 720p, not even 1080p). If Samsung can support 720p video playback (MKVs included) with their stock player on a Galaxy S, why can't HTC do the same? I mean how hard can it be? TouchWiz may not be as slick as Sense but when the chips are down, it kicks butt. Another flaw is the camera which really isn't up to par when it comes to recording video. But the thing that's hurting the Flyer the most is the ridiculous pricing. It's way to expensive for a tablet of its size when there are much better offerings in the same price range.
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