Archos Internet Tablet

I have always been amazed on how interested my son has been of anything with buttons or displays. He can sit forever in front of the TV doodling with TuxPaint, playing simple flash games and so on.

Earlier this autumn it struck me, an Internet tablet might be the right medium for him. It would allow him to play games, watch all favorite cartoons, music videos etc that he love (without occupying our living room). All that and with an ideal input mechanism, the touch screen. As an added bonus it would hopefully give me a reason big enough to try some application development on this type of devices.

Said and done I started investigating matters on what was available here in Sweden. My findings where very meager. There where a few Android based ones, an upcoming Meego tab, WeTab,  and of course the iPad.

Since I have a problem with the locked in world of Apple i quickly wrote of the iPad. I really don’t wont to be a part of that ecosystem. But thats a completely different story.

MeeGo is at least on paper the most “open” environment with the development model most close to what I’m used to in my professional life, Linux applications.

The problem here is that there are no devices to be found. The above mentioned WeTab excluded then. They seem to be available in Germany but others most likely will have to wait. That and the fact that i downloaded the latest release of MeeGo, V1.1, and tried it out, I was not impressed, made me cross that of my list of candidates as well.

Left where the bunch of Android tablets, that actually is starting to be available here in Sweden. (Even though I think most of them missed the Swedish Christmas shopping.)

Browsing specs on these there where a whole lot of them, mostly the cheap ones, that run on low end hardware. E.g. the Kendo M7, with its  600MHz CPU. Anyone that has the same phone as me, an HTC Hero, will know that this is not enough for more serious/modern applications. Other ways to cut cost on these devices seem to be to use resistive touch. Why on earth would one want one of those?

On the other side of the spectrum we have the Samsung Galaxy Tab which really has most of the things the iPad has but also comes with a hefty price tag.

All this lead me to the conclusion that the Archos Internet tablet might be the right device.  It comes in to flavors, with a 10.1″ or a 7″ display. Since the tab where supposed to be usable for my son i decided that a 10″ screen would have been to clumsy. Further more it comes with a decent ARM Cortex-A8 running at 1GHz which should be able to run most apps written today. Finally it runs Android 2.2(FroYo) which also is a big plus in my world.

The not so good is the limited memory of only 256MB compared to the 512MB of say the Samsung. No 3G is also a bit of a letdown. But since this unit should be mostly used as a stationary device it really weren’t a show stopper for my use.

A big minus though is the lack of connectivity to the Google Market, one really has to wonder what went through their mind  at Archos when they made that decision to create the AppsLib. The only thing i can think of is that they actually can create a revenue stream from this. Unfortunately i think the only thing they will achieve is to fragment the market.

I say that with some hesitation. The Android market has the main problem that exists in the Apple world with iTunes. It creates a monopoly  for application and media distribution that is definitely not a good thing neither for customers nor content or media producers.

But when reading the bottom line, I want as many applications available as possible. And that wont be the case with AppsLib. Fortunately there is a quick fix for this in the form of gApps4Archos2 which replaces AppsLib with Google Market.

So a few days before Christmas I went out shopping purchasing an “Archos 70 Internet Tablet” from a local store. Eager to try it out I attached the charger and fired the unit up. A nice crisp display with good colors greeted me with an animated background. Sweet!

Since I’m used to Android phones configuring WiFi was a breeze. Once connected the unit immediately told me that it had upgrades (The upgrade to FroYo) A bit irritating since i wouldn’t dare to do the upgrade until the battery was fully charged. Well that hour was all I had time to look at the original Android installation but due to the lack of applications I really can’t comment on how that worked.

Well after a while and a reboot or two I was all set with the unit running both Android 2.2 and access to Android Market. The talk of Android not being ready for the tablet market I think is a bit exaggerated. Yes it’s to technical/complicated for common usage but the UI metaphors work quite well, at least on the 7″ screen of the Archos.

I must say that applications and animation runs smooth and with acceptable response times on the Archos tablet. Bundled applications are also acceptable. The gallery application is an especially pleasing experience. The big problem is that most applications seem to lack the final touch. Someone should have done a more thorough UX review before releasing the applications.

Battery times seems to be as advertised. I’m still surprised on how long the tablet can run between charges.

The bad parts seems to be in resource management. Archos ships a “System Monitor” application which primarily is used to kill applications. This application has been a must for me to be able to use the tablet properly. After using the device for a while it becomes very unresponsive. The only solution then is to clean up “running” applications and in some cases even that won’t work. The solution then is to force shut down the unit. (Keep the power button pressed for 10 seconds)

This could of course be due to me installing apps not from the AppsLib but rather from the jungle called Android Market. But i see no patterns indicating so.

I wonder if the tablet would have worked better with 512MB of RAM? I surely think so. This is most likely the price you pay for multitasking and writing applications in Java. All iPads have only 256 MB of RAM what I’m aware of and they do not suffer from these problems.

The other big issue i have with the Archos tablet is its touch screen. I’m almost unable to move any applications between the different desks or to the trash can. Most often this results in me starting the application or just dragging the whole desktop. My son, fortunately, and my girlfriend seem to have less of a problem with this but i still have no problem with my HTC phone.

Another possible cause of the screen problem could be the fact that the primary user of the device is my 3½ year old son. I will try cleaning the screen and possible recalibrate this to see if it makes any difference.

So how does the Tablet work for a child aged three? My son loves his “computer” and can’t seem to get enough of it. The other Christmas gifts are still mainly left unused in comparison to the Tablet. Sadly most of his usage up until now has been listening to music and watch videos on it.

I have yet failed finding suitable applications for him to run. Most apps in the Android market is still targeted for smaller devices, often in a fixed orientation as well making them perform miserably on the 7″ tablet.

The cheapness of ad sponsored applications is a sure fail when used in kids applications. It’s only a question of time before my son accidentally touches one of the ads warping him to a completely unanderstandable web page hiding his game.

To summarize my impressions of the Archos Tablet. For now its worth its money. The step up to the Samsung Galaxy, some 2000 SEK or ~200 EUR, just isn’t worth it right now. The Archos tablet does its job, if just barely.

Now lets see if i could write some code for it as well 🙂

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