Seven inch tablets are still a relatively uncommon commodity since manufacturers are rushing to market with 10″ tablets to compete with the obscenely popular iPad and iPad 2. But the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the granddaddy of 7″ tablets has sold well since its late 2010 launch (it helps that all major US carriers offered this slick little beast), and the BlackBerry PlayBook seems to be doing reasonably well. Some of us want a tablet that will fit easily in a bag or large pocket rather than a tablet that verges on netbook size.
Like the 7″ Galaxy Tab, the HTC Flyer runs Android OS 2.x, the phone-optimized version of Android, rather than the new tablet-optimized Honeycomb 3.0. When the Tab came out, Honeycomb didn’t exist, so it didn’t hurt sales or interest in Samsung’s tablet. But HTC has released the Flyer after a flurry of Honeycomb tablets hit the market, and that’s a black mark against an otherwise lovely product.
The HTC Flyer has a sharp and bright capacitive 1024 x 600 (same as the Tab and Nook Color) display, a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon single core CPU, 6 gigs of storage and WiFi. There’s no 3G or 4G in the model we’re reviewing, but Sprint will offer the Flyer with WiMAX 4G as the HTC EVO View 4G later this year. The Flyer has Bluetooth 2.1 with stereo profile, a GPS and a microSD card slot. It runs Android OS 2.3.3 Gingerbread with HTC Sense 3.0 software.
The hardware exudes HTC’s design esthetic, and it looks something like a giant HTC Inspire 4G or HTC Sensation. The back is curved with a brushed aluminum finish and very large white plastic end caps that disrupt the otherwise fluid unibody look. One cap slides off to reveal the micro SD card slot (and SIM card slot for overseas Flyers), while the other is not removable. As with most tablets currently on the market, the battery is sealed inside and isn’t removable. While the 7″ Galaxy Tab is a black, angular slab, the HTC is a curvy, silvery device that belongs in the iPad 2 design camp. It’s also more prone to slip out of your hands as a result. The Flyer weighs a few more ounces than the Tab, but at 15 ounces, it’s not unbearably heavy.
HTC uses their usual design magic: we love the little things like the backlit capacitive buttons that appear at the bottom of the display bezel in portrait mode and auto-magically move to appear under the display when held in landscape mode (only when the tablet is turned to landscape in a counterclockwise direction, there are no capacitive buttons along the opposite long side where the front camera is located).
10″ Android Honeycomb tablets run on 1GHz dual core Tegra 2 CPUs, while HTC has opted for a single core CPU running at 50% clock speed. That’s not a terrible decision since Android 2.x doesn’t make as much use of dual core CPUs as does Honeycomb, but should HTC offer a Honeycomb upgrade, it will be a sore point. Adobe Flash Player 10.3 offers hardware acceleration for the dual core Tegra 2, making for much better Flash playback, and those compelling Nvidia Tegra 2 Zone games won’t run on the Flyer. That said, Flash playback is acceptable on the Flyer, and is leagues better than single core Android phones. And there are Qualcomm GPU optimized games available on the Android Market, even though they’re not as well organized and marketed as Tegra 2 games via NVidia’s dedicated showcase app.
The Flyer is responsive, though running several heavy apps at once introduces some lag here and there. It doesn’t get terribly slow by any means, but switching between apps and launching new apps results in an occasional 1 to 2 second pause. It scores very well on the Quadrant benchmark: 2130, which puts it in the same league in Quadrant as the Xoom, Eee Pad Transformer and LG G-Slate. It seriously outpaces stock single core 1GHz Android devices and we’re not surprised since this is the first 1.5GHz Snadragon Android product. The Flyer really shines in Linpack where it gets a 57 score–the highest we’ve seen on an Android device that hasn’t been overclocked or loaded with a custom ROM.
The tablet handles video playback up to 720p nicely, but 1080p doesn’t play at all. The display is very sharp and colorful, making the Flyer a mobile video player. If you want to play content on an HD TV, you’ll need to buy an MHL adapter that pulls the HDMI signal out of the combo USB/charge/HDMI port at the bottom. We used the cable included with the Samsung Infuse 4G to test output to an HD TV, and the Flyer can output 480p and 720p video that mirrors the device’s display.
What really sets the Flyer apart from the mobile OS tablet crowd are the optional digital pen ($80) and HTC’s excellent Sense software and customizations. HTC Sense 3.0 with the new 3D home screen effects and powerful widgets will make HTC smartphone owners feel right at home. Weather is on steroids now, and you get sound effects in the weather widget (the sounds of thunder or the whoosh of winds and clouds). Tap on the weather under the flip clock to see a full screen view with weather forecasts and links to your other tracked cities. The only thing missing is radar view. HTC’s FriendStream social networking widget, People widget and app that integrate social networking with contacts, and a dedicated secondary weather widget are all on board. New for the Flyer are an eBook widget that links to a customized version of the Kobo Book reader and HTC Watch that links to HTC’s new movie and TV show purchase and rental system (gotta compete with iTunes and Samsung’s Media Hub).
HTC has been clever, and designed several cornerstone features around existing third party applications. These days folks want to read ebooks, watch movies and sync notes, images and snipped web pages to the cloud. Tablets have become children’s toys and there’s an app for that too on the Flyer. Ebooks are handled by Kobo, a Canadian online ePub bookseller and ereader app maker with 2.3 million books (including public domain titles) available. Kobo has a partnership with Borders in the US. HTC designed an attractive widget for Kobo’s Android app, just as their “Kid Mode” is actually Zoodle, an app and online account that control what your kid does and sees with your tablet. HTC has heavily integrated the popular and excellent Evernote into the Flyer. You can grab screen shots of most anything including web pages and documents, make ink annotations and embed photos, PDFs and audio recordings that can sync with your free Evernote account. Evernote is available for every major mobile phone OS, Mac OS X and Windows, so you can access your synced info across computers and devices. We love this, though we did have trouble with notes not syncing if we had a camera photo image embedded into a note.
And that leads into the pen: HTC’s special Flyer sauce. We suspect that note-takers and digital artists will gravitate to the Flyer, but we’re not so sure about the rest of you. The $80 active digitizer Scribe pen runs on a single AAAA battery (yes, 4 A’s) that’s included with the pen. Overseas, the pen is included in the box, but the Flyer sells for much more money in Europe, so don’t complain. Using the pen and the Flyer’s behind the scenes integration with Evernote, you can take notes in the notes app and draw with a basic set of tools. You can also grab screen shots and save them into a note. The pen tip does not work to navigate or control the Android OS or applications; it currently works only in the notes app and to take screen shots by tapping on the screen with a pen when not in the notes app. But if you turn the pen around and use the eraser pen, you’ll discover a little surprise: the butt end of the pen is capacitive and can control apps and replace your finger’s touch. Cool.
To activate the pen, you’ll tap on the pen activation icon to the right of the capacitive buttons. You’ll then choose screen shot mode or notes mode from a circular menu. Once in the notes app you can write in digital ink, embed a photo (you can even take a photo using the camera and embed that from within the notes app), attach a PDF or music file, record audio from within the notes app and send a note to your calendar. Alternatively you can save your note and sync it with the Evernote service if you wish. Unlike Windows tablet PCs, there’s no ink to text conversion, so your notes will remain ink. Ink-based notes are synced as screen shots to Evernote. You can however use the excellent HTC on-screen keyboard or a Bluetooth keyboard to enter text-based notes.
If you take a screen shot, you can mark it in the same ways as a blank note–very handy for making notes pertaining to web pages and documents. You can also use the pen to highlight or annotate books in the ebook app but you can’t take a screen shot and save that as a note (due to book copyright issues). Pen tools include a pen, pencil, highlighter, eraser, fountain pen and magic marker. You can choose from 5 line widths and 8 colors. The pen supports pressure sensitivity (watch our video review to see it in action), which makes this tablet attractive to digital sketch artists, despite the relatively limited selection of painting tools and colors. The Flyer won’t put Windows tablet PCs with active digitizers and apps like Corel Painter, Art Rage and Photoshop out of business by any means, but it’s a handy portable sketchpad for very basic artwork. The pen has two buttons which function to trigger eraser mode and the highlighter.
There’s no problem with hand vectoring (palm rejection) since the notes app only accepts touch input via the on-screen keyboard and on-screen buttons above the note. That means you can lean your hand on the screen with no spurious input from your hand. What if you like notes but prefer text and the on-screen keyboard or a Bluetooth keyboard? No problem: you can use the notes app without the pen. You won’t get the handy screenshot feature without the pen however. Want to print those notes? You can print them to WiFi printers.
Given all these custom goodies, we can see why HTC took a chance and went with Android 2.3 rather than Honeycomb. Right now, there are few customization options for Honeycomb, and HTC wouldn’t have been able to make a tablet that used lots of custom software as a differentiator. They’ve made a tablet that out of the box does many of the things buyers want right now: ebooks, movies, YouTube, Adobe Flash, MS Office viewing (via Polaris Office) and now ink-based note taking and drawing too. Other than digital inking, you could do these things with other Android tablets, but for newbies who don’t know what apps to download, the Flyer is much more turnkey.
The Flyer has a front 1.3 megapixel camera, but alas it doesn’t run Android OS 2.3.4 which ads Google Talk video chat support. You can go with other video chat apps however, and use HTC’s Snapbooth (a clone of Apple’s Photobooth) to have fun warping your face and adding special effects. The rear 5 megapixel autofocus camera takes average photos by tablet standards and it can shoot 720p video. Tablets don’t boast the best rear cameras, and we noted the Flyer tended toward soft or slightly blurry photos even when held very still in good light. There’s no flash, so no nightclub shots for you.
HTC doesn’t disclose the capacity of the rechargeable Lithium Ion battery sealed inside the Flyer, but we can tell you that it lasted quite long in our tests. We watched 2 feature length movies (4 hours) on a charge, which might not beat the iPad 2 but the Flyer is a much smaller device that can’t house as large a battery as 10″ tablets. With average use, expect to charge the Flyer every 2 to 3 days.
Is it an oversized phone (minus voice and 3G) or a really cool tablet? The HTC Flyer is both. It runs the phone version of Android OS and honestly looks like some of HTC’s higher end Android smartphones, just bigger. But HTC’s software turns this tablet into a compelling offering, especially for less technical types who don’t want to hunt for apps that meet their needs. Out of the box you get video rentals, ebooks, detailed weather information, kid mode and note-taking on steroids thanks to HTC’s partnership with Evernote. It’s fun and easy to use. For those of you who are more Android savvy and immediately run to the Android Market to download Kindle/Nook/Kobo, prefer the Weather Channel app or Weatherbug and rip or YouTube stream your videos, there’s a less compelling case for the Flyer. Whether you’re a techophobe or a geek, the digital pen might just push you over the edge to the Flyer if note-taking, diagraming and drawing are your thing.