Despite being declared gadget maniac, somehow I never really got into tablets. When the first iPad came out and whole hype began, I regarded it as overly-expensive gadget having virtually no practical use to me. Yet quite recently I’ve started changing my mind towards tablets. I thought they could be good use not only for general web browsing but also for reading articles or e-books more comfortably than on 3-inch-odd display of my phone, playing YouTube videos to my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter (note this if you’re married) or just checking various stuff on the web quickly without getting a laptop out. Still, I regarded tablets too expensive for my needs and looked for a budget solution. Thankfully, my search for tablet coincided with release of Archos 80 G9 which promised Android Honeycomb on top of fairly good specification within £200 budget. Seemed like perfect match, so I decided to get one straight away.
When the device came in, my first impression was pretty positive. As I learned from early reviews, the body is all plastic but I’m happy to say it’s fairly fantastic. Of course, it’s nowhere near premium (aka >£399) devices when it comes to build quality and materials used, but it’s perfectly fine to me and I think Archos did a good job balancing quality and price here. It’s a bit heavy and not extremely thin but all within reason. 8-inch display is again a fair compromise between quality and budget – it has surprisingly good viewing angles, yet its brightness and colour vividness is lacking.
What I didn’t like about the build design was placement of control buttons on the sides of the device (power, volume rocker), which simply aren’t quite ergonomic to use while holding device in landscape mode. I also noticed that MicroSD memory card inserted into slot is sticking out too much for my taste, making accidental card ejection way too easy.
Quite unique feature of Archos G9-series tablets is “3G stick” USB port in the back which allows plugging an optional 3G dongle and expand connectivity from WiFi-only to 3G/WiFi. I haven’t tested this feature myself, as I don’t have dedicated Archos modem and generic 3G dongles (tried two different Huawei modems) weren’t recognized, nonetheless I must say that’s pretty cunning idea.
Speaking of extending device capabilities, Archos tablet also works as an USB host. Plugging external disk, pendrive or keyboard+mouse combos works out of the box. Actually, it’s pretty cool to be able to control tablet using standard keyboard and mouse pointer. Strangely, this feature only seems to work using microUSB port rather than aforementioned full-sized “3G stick” USB port in the back, so an adapter host cable is required.
Archos G9-series tablets come with Android Honeycomb 3.2 OS installed. It’s pretty much vanilla Honeycomb experience with just a few specific apps pre-installed by Archos – most of them quite useful actually and others can be easily uninstalled. Full access to the Android Market is available too.
Having 1GHz CPU and just 512MB of RAM onboard raises natural question about overall performance. On one hand, it’s surprisingly fine – UI transitions are fluid, apps are launching quickly or interactions with browser are smooth. Problems arise when heavier multitasking kicks in and OS starts dumping background tasks out of RAM, at which point switching between apps can be painfully slow. It’s also quite difficult to load more than 2-3 web pages in separate browser tabs and then switch between them without experiencing slightly annoying lag needed for OS to refresh the page.
Broadly speaking, general usage performance of Archos 80 G9 isn’t by any mean breathtaking and just half-gig of RAM is main thing to blame, but it would be unfair to say it’s unacceptable either. I think it’s another example of compromise for the price paid, and taking it from that perspective suddenly those multitasking lags becoming just fine. ;)
When it comes to web browsing, probably the most important feature of every tablet, Archos does fairly good job. Websites load and render quickly and interactions like zooming, panning, scrolling etc. are really snappy. Adobe Flash content is not supported out of the box, but plugin can be easily downloaded from the Android Market. Once that’s done Flash videos within the browser are playing flawlessly.
Browsing trouble comes with two things: 1) any kind of text input on websites; 2) interacting with particularly heavy, AJAX-driven services (think m.facebook.com or mobile.twitter.com). Both these scenarios bring major performance hit, undermining generally nice experience. Nonetheless, I still think stock browser works reasonably well and smooth on most occasions.
Multimedia-wise Archos also does pretty well. I never paid much attention to these kind of things but I threw couple of 1080p movies at it and was pleased to see them all playing fluently with no glitch. There’s also support for reading media content remotely from local network shares via Samba or UPnP. I’ve tested the latter using MediaTomb UPnP server installed on my home Linux-box, which Archos has picked up immediately. There is also mini-HDMI port on the side which requires adapter cable but works off the bat otherwise.
Archos battery is a bit of so-so. It quite easily manages to last through my typical working day with fairly heavy use while commuting to/from work, and then couple of hours in the evening. However, what is most concerning is battery drain while idle. According to my observations, battery could leak up to 30-40% within approx. 3-5 hour period, most of that time lying on the table and doing virtually nothing. Even always-on WiFi with constant data syncing doesn’t really justify that.
Thankfully Archos comes with “deep sleep” mode, which essentially hibernates device, preserving its battery for much longer periods. Resuming tablet from deep sleep mode is instant, so it can be used without degrading overall experience too badly. The downside is that deep sleep mode disables background notifications, alarms and connectivity, so it’s not quite useful for someone using tablet as alarm clock for instance.
Interesting point to note is Archos’ software support for the tablet. G9-series tablets have already received five official firmware updates within about 6 weeks since release to the market. Impressive.
Wrapping up, I must say I am quite impressed with my Archos 80 G9. Actually, I am not as much impressed with the device itself as with the fact it packs the latest Honeycomb with Android Market, pretty decent technical specification, good performance or unique 3G extensibility option at so reasonable price. I have paid £199 for the device buying directly from archos.com website, however shortly afterwards Dixons started offering the same model at unbeatable price of £171 (update: it’s £199 now)! Suddenly all these ultra-budget Android 2.x powered tablets make absolutely no sense whatsoever as Archos is beating them in virtually every single aspect. So if you’re looking for brand new budget Android tablet, yet one which have very little corners cut to keep price low, Archos G9-series tablets are definite way to go at the moment. Simply unbeatable.