* Prices may differ from that shown
Despite a pathological hatred of devices beginning with a small 'i', I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed being let loose on an iPad 2 for a week. It seemed very slick and intuitive, also possessing what appeared to be a high build-quality. There again, at £400 and upwards, it bloody well ought to.
Hence my dilemma:-
I was now convinced that our net-book could be set out to pasture (or dumped if it so much as sneezes outside of its warranty period) as my needs for mobile computing when away from home involved a bit of surfing and e-mailing. Of hard disk drive use is there none hence even a relatively dainty net-book is, with hindsight, overkill. So a tablet PC was next in my sights. However, the Apple had three major faults as far as I was concerned, and they alone were easily enough to divert me into the arms of an Android tablet.
a) It was too expensive for what I wanted* or needed*, and
b) Once bought, you were stuck with the amount of internal memory that you specified in the first place. This is not the case with Android-based tablets, which all seem to have no problem with letting you augment the existing memory with a micro-SD chip in a wide range of sizes and at reasonable prices
c) It was just too darned big (and heavy) to be in any way described as pocketable, unless you have 'poacher's pockets', whereas many Android devices tipped the scales at little larger than the biggest smart phone.
(*Still having trouble separating those two!)
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Many people will be familiar with the name Archos in the field of music and video players, so it'll come as no surprise that the Arnova range is made by this French-based company, the significant difference being that Arnova products are only labelled 'Designed by Archos' not 'Made by'. They too make a 10 inch model of the same order of size as the iPad, so clearly from what I've already said, that was too big. Now then, the Arnova 7 G2 8G sounded about right, as the '7' relates to its diagonal screen size in inches. Confusingly, the '8G' stands for how much built-in RAM it has, NOT that it can access the internet via its own SIM-card - which it can't. Even more confusingly, it's the 7c G2 4G version that CAN do this. Basically, it's twice the dimensions of my HTC smart-phone in all directions.
I got mine for a lowest price of £107 + £8.30 from Pixmania, earning me another 1% discount via an incentive site.
Well, it all seems neat enough. The screen is modern 16:9 widescreen format of 800*480 dots. Not exactly 'full HD' but at this size, who's going to notice? I had thought about splashing out on the 8 inch model but since its screen is more of a 4:3 format, any movies you watch will be 'letter-boxed' and turn out the same size as they do on the 7 inch version.
The mains adapter sports UK, European and US plug adapters which is refreshing.
Naturally, it doesn't have the iPad's solidity, being all plastic in construction, although the front bezel and rear panel have a satinised metal feel. It doesn't however feel 'twisty and creaky' like some lightweights, which for something 30% the price of the cheapest iPad is commendable.
More to the point, it's only about £30 dearer than something like the basic Kindle or Kobo both of which can only ever be a book reader. This is despite being able to read e-books and, as you'd expect, do a whole lot more...and in colour.
I'll freely admit that having recently come by a DVD of 5,000 free e-books was a major driver in persuading me to buy one.
Battery life, at around six or seven hours, comes somewhere in between the expectancies of a net-book and an e-book reader, but as long as it can last till I doze off reading in bed, it's hardly an issue! At this point, you'd probably have the wi-fi turned off to maximise battery life anyway.
The screen is a 'capacitive' touch-screen, unlike previous 'resistive' models which, whilst happier with styli, didn't react to anyone wearing gloves. Moving around it comes as no surprise to anyone with a touch-screen phone, with all the pulling and poking and pinching that these allow. Apart from an On/Off/Reset button, all other manipulation is via the screen. Typing follows the style of its 'little brother' the smart phone. As soon as something wants typing, like a password or a search box, the lower end of the screen becomes a keyboard. As you'd normally be using it in landscape format at this point, the 'keys' are of a generous size with less of that 'did I or didn't I press it?' experienced with a smart phone. A useful strip of punctuation marks pops up.
The applications as supplied are a sensible selection with a few notable omissions. For example, why install a web-cam and then not put the Skype application on there? The OfficeSuite as supplied can load and read a sensible selection of typical 'Office' output, including .doc, .xls , .pdf and .ppt files. If you want to view MS Access databases, you'll need to look elsewhere.
WHAT CAN IT DO?
By this I mean straight from the box. If you read on, you'll see that I've found out how to make it that bit more useful.
In short, it's a browser, a music player, a movie player. OK, that's a bit glib, as you are free to make it so much more, thanks to the literally thousands of applications available, mostly free. In two years of using Android I've paid for three, and then only 69p each!
Another way in which it proves itself valuable is as a kind of remote control for my Humax Freeview+ box which thanks to the latter's modified unofficial software will allow the recording of its last download, be it iPlayer or YouTube (and they said it couldn't be done!) but you need to access it via a PC of some sort to do this. Up till now I've been having to dash upstairs or fire up the net-book, but with the dinky proportions of the Arnova, it's not out of place in the lounge.
WHAT CAN'T IT DO?
One thing it isn't exactly is a camera in the accepted sense having only a 0.3 megapixel fixed-focus web-cam facing forwards. Hardly a recipe for taking an actual photo, but since most people's phones have better cameras than this, it's not really a show-stopper. Being able to use it for video calling/chatting could well prove useful though.
It also has no GPS abilities, despite the fact that it can be made to run Google Maps, and without its own mobile connection, it can't triangulate your current position from the nearest cellular masts either.
Without the addition of the correct dongle, it can't access the internet independently - this doesn't worry me as my smart-phone will allow itself to be set up as a wi-fi hotspot, and I have a no-limits data tariff even when the phone is used as a modem for a PC.
THE INEVITABLE NIGGLY BITS
Nothing's ever perfect, and it's at this point that it pays to keep reminding yourself of its bargain price.
Most Android devices have access to the Android market, the main 'official' source of extra application software, but not Arnova, oh no. They just HAD to plump for something called AppsLib, which works in a similar way, but is lacking in several key areas, like the sheer number of applications available some of them key to the way I work.
There's a wealth of free help out there in the form of forums and blogs, many advocating the entire discarding of the official software in favour of something 'unofficial' which claims to include the Android Market but I'm not yet in the mood for being that brave with something under warranty - maybe next year!
Whether you'd find this a limitation or not really depends on you. The first thing I did was to set about finding how to install the Android Market. Obviously it wasn't going to be available for download from AppsLib, because that would be like a temperance society publishing a list of off-licences. Fortunately, there'll always be some geek - bless 'em - who has found a way to do this, and all it really involves is a bit of PC use to track down and put the correct '.apk' files onto your Arnova's SD card whilst connected to your PC as a storage device, and install them. I've annotated the precise method later on.
There's not much in the way of written instructions to accompany the Arnova - what appears to be a useful 19-page pdf file on their site turns out to be a couple of pages in each of several languages! Thus you'll know how to initialise it and set up wi-fi, but as for anything else.............................
I was a bit puzzled by the fact that it has to be charged using the dedicated charger, as the USB link is solely for data transfer, which means carting yet another charger with you when the USB method could mean packing just one for Kindles, phones and tablets. Beware, the charger socket and that for the headphones are the same diameter, and it's not impossible to think you're charging it, when in fact you're not even using the correct socket. The LED to show that it is charging is very small. You can't get the headphone jack into the charger socket though!
When in use as a book reader, I do find the screen a little over-bright even with the brilliance turned right down. This is in direct contrast with my wife's Kindle which somehow manages to look like a real printed page, having no back-light. If you wanted a book-reader that can do a bit of surfing, by now you'd be disappointed. If you wanted a mini PC that can act as a book reader, like me, then you'll be delighted.
The screen is nicely responsive, a never seems to baulk at rapid 'gestures' (well, not those rapid gestures anyway!) but I've yet to shake a fist at it and threaten it with a multi-storey 'Mulholland Fall'! Colour is good as long as you sit facing it - any crowds that gather round you to watch your latest YouTube 'find' will get the faded tints they so richly deserve for being nosey. To help you get the right viewing angle when it's sat on the tray of an economy class seat, there's a recessed prop you can pull out. To be honest, I like to tilt it slightly backwards from 90 degrees to my line of sight as this enriches the colour a bit, which I find a tad washed out when viewed directly.
Movie action is smooth, it being capable of resolving 30 frames-per-second, just like a real TV movie in fact. Sound is understandably limited on such a slim device, although to be fair it does scrape up the ability to be stereo, but through decent headphones it's fine. Whether your own movie files fill the screen will depend on their format. Some of the .mp4 files that I've created from my DVD collection are only 320 lines tall and so don't use the whole height of the screen, and in some cases, not the full width either.
Getting movies onto the thing is, for me a bit of a chore. I don't subscribe to any download sites so I use a utility to create an AVI or MP4 file from an existing DVD in my possession and then pass them over to the Arnova whilst it's docked as a USB drive. What works equally well, is to load up a micro SD card directly from your PC with music, e-books, pictures, movies, what-have-you, and then re-insert the card to the tablet.
Whilst this machine comes with a useful-enough 8 gigabytes of system memory, like a lot of smart-phones, it could really do with a boost if you're going to start putting libraries of books, photos, music and movies onto it. The maximum capacity of its microSD card slot is 32 gigabytes, so this is what I went straight for at the cost of some £26.
It's also worth getting a step-down adapter for ordinary USB devices to connect to the micro USB port. For £1.69, I got one with some lead built in so that no strain is put on the port on the tablet.
There are many add-ons I'd like to have, like a compact keyboard, maybe combined with a leather case, but as yet there's no certainty that the USB port is configured to handle input devices. I guess this is where a dreaded Apple products win, with the sheer weight of after-market accessories, but just keep reminding yourself; £440-£115 = quite a lot of change!
If a netbook is just too much mobile computing for you and you only want a bit of browsing, e-mailing and some entertainment, wrapped up in a not-too-large package, then the Arnova 7 G2, at under £120 represents excellent value for money, especially if you don't use it much. If you want the Rolls-Royce solution then by all means splash out £400 on an iPad which undeniably rules the roost here.
It's an Android-based tablet with a 7-inch 16:9 format capacitive screen, and 8 gigabytes of RAM, upgradable by a further 32 Gigabytes on a microSD card. The processor runs at 1 gigahertz.
Make the first thing you do checking for firmware upgrades. Mine needed one having obviously been manufactured before the mid-December date of the latest release. Flashing it with new firmware wipes out local settings, like wi-fi encryption so it's less annoying to make this the first item on your agenda after charging it, let's say. Just download the .img image file from the www.arnovatech.com web-site, place it in the root directory of the tablet and 'let nature take its course'.
If you simply must have the Android Market instead of Appslib (and GMail and Google Maps), it's easy enough to do. All I did was download a zipped file to my PC, extracted the half dozen files within, copied them to the drive on the Arnova, and then using its in-built File Manager, installed the .apk* files in a strict sequence. After that all you need to do is sign into (or create) your Google account through the GMail app.
If you want further details, send me a GB message.
(* the standard file extension for an Android application file)