In the past few months, we’ve reviewed four Honeycomb tablets, which despite some minor differences — a USB port here, a keyboard dock there — have largely been built from the same cloth. You’re familiar with the threads: a 1280 x 800-resolution 10.1-inch display, a dual-core Tegra 2 processor, and a smattering of Google’s tablet OS. But not the HTC Flyer. Amongst all the new tablets, HTC’s entry has been the biggest anomaly. The 7-inch tablet fits somewhere between a phone and a larger-screened tablet with its Sense-infused Gingerbread OS and single-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor. And of course, there’s that optional stylus (or “magic pen”) that adds the ability to create beautiful handwritten notes, like the one above. There’s no doubt that it’s absolutely one of the most unique tablets to hit the market, but is pure differentiation enough to make the Flyer a success, especially with its $500 price tag and its $80 stylus? Hit the break for answers to those burning questions.
Hardware / design
The aluminum unibody construction matches Apple's laptops in design and rigidity
As you might expect, HTC’s tablet is built just as well as its phones. The aluminum unibody construction matches that of Apple’s laptops in both design and rigidity. Yes, for the most part the entire body of the tablet is made of metal; however, the chiseled white material along the top and bottom of the rear cover seem to be made of a tough plastic. You’d be mistaken to think those are purely aesthetic — when held in landscape mode, the bottom one actually seems to double as a grip. There aren’t all that many 7-inch tablets on the market, but I can confidently say the Flyer bests the plastic Galaxy Tab and Dell Streak 7 in terms of rigidity and overall make. I’m leaving out RIM’s Playbook as I haven’t actually spent much time with it.
Where the Flyer doesn’t beat the others is on size. The chart above maps it out fairly well — the Flyer’s thicker architecture makes it one of the weightier and wider 7-inchers out there. Indeed, the tablet is noticeably thicker than the Galaxy Tab and Apple’s iPad, and it was the first thing most mentioned. All that said, it is still very easy to grasp in one hand and hold up for longer periods of times. And the curved edges and soft feel of the aluminum make it one of the comfortable 7-inch tablets I’ve used. As I’ve said many times, I am a big big fan of the 7-inch form factor — it makes for a great ereading device and it’s the perfect size for thumb typing in portrait mode.
More than a few times I panicked about losing the stylus
HTC has kept the sides of the tablet fairly clean. The top edge houses the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack, while a volume rocker dwells on the left side and the charging port on the bottom edge. The aforementioned white plastic piece on the back of the slab can be forcefully (emphasis on forcefully) removed to reveal a MicroSD card slot. However, nowhere to be found is a stylus holder to safely store the $80 pen should you buy it. Since the pen is optional, I guess I can see why HTC didn’t integrate a slot, but it’s a real drag if you opt to buy both. More than a few times I panicked about losing the stylus.
Screen and speakers
The premium look and feel of the Flyer continues to its 1024 x 600-resolution 7-inch display. It’s not IPS quality, but it is one high-end panel. Viewing angles are superb and the display itself is extremely bright, even when turned down to 65 percent. It’s impressive in its own right, but even more so when you consider that it’s overlaid with N-Trig’s active digitizer, which supports both pen and finger input. There’s more to come on how well the pen works on the display, but the important thing to know here is that it doesn’t impact the general multitouch and LCD viewing experience — there’s none of that old Tablet PC grayness or color depletion.
I’m sad to say the top-notch quality of the components starts to diminish with the speakers on the back of the tablet. The two vertical slits may be backed by SRS enhanced sound, but music sounded overly tinny and lacking in quality. I didn’t have a Playbook to compare it directly to, but given Josh’s affinity for those speakers, I’d say RIM has HTC beat on sound quality.
Viewing angles are superb and the display itself is extremely bright
This section of your average tablet review is starting to sound like a broken record
Sadly, this section of your average tablet review is starting to sound like a damn broken record. Indeed, the five-megapixel camera on the rear of the Flyer is disappointing. Sure, there’s no LED Flash, but even worse are the grainy images that the lens actually captured. As you can see in the gallery below, both indoor and outdoor shots were void of crispness and colors are washed out. To boot, the autofocus is, well, just slow. You have to get in the habit of staying still for a few seconds longer if you don’t want to end up with a blurry image. The 720p footage was similar to what I’ve found on other tablets — the video looks smooth, but the end result just doesn’t look all that HD.
The front facing camera is better
I do have better things to say about the front facing camera, however. The quality isn’t the best, but I at least expect that with a 1.3-megapixel shooter. And while HTC doesn’t include any video calling apps, it does preload its Snapbooth software. Sure, as its name implies, it’s pretty much a Photo Booth knock-off, but it’s still loads of fun. You can select different fun effects, most of which morphs your face in unattractive, yet hilarious ways.
Performance rests on one core and 1GB of RAM
The Flyer is powered by a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which is a fairly big change from all the tablets with dual-core NVIDIA silicon inside. While the tablet’s performance rests on one core and 1GB of RAM, it still provides a rather speedy experience. For the most part, it was quick to open apps and nimble enough to keep up with the animation-heavy Sense interface. There were some instances where I noticed it slowing down, but HTC’s Task Manager makes killing apps a cinch.
As for video and gaming performance, it handled 720p streaming video without a hiccup, but going on up to 1080p caused for some always-lovely stuttering. Sadly, HTC hasn’t rolled out that promised OnLive app yet — which was supposed to be available on only this US version of the tablet — but games like Contract Killer and Raging Thunder Lite purred along.
The Flyer is certainly a different sort of tablet and much of that has to do with its software stack. Instead of Honeycomb, HTC has launched the device running the latest version of Android for smartphones — Gingerbread. Yes, in many ways this makes the tablet just an enlarged phone, but it is HTC’s Sense for tablets (or Sense 2.1 according to the Settings menu) that makes the experience seriously compelling.
The previous version of Sense for phones was and is a very solid Android layer, but this new version (which is very similar to 3.0 for phones) adds an overwhelming amount of polish. Everything from the improved lock screen to the 3D homescreen carousel is just well thought out and chock-full of eye candy. There’s a lot to talk about here in terms of UI tweaks, so I’ve bulleted out some of the highlights below.
To unlock the device you simply drag that ring above. However, if you want to launch one of the four apps on the screen — yes, you can customize what apps appear there — just hold down the app and drag it to the middle of the circle. Simple but very clever stuff.
On the surface, the Flyer still has eight homescreens, which can be customized with a variety of HTC and non-HTC widgets, but it’s no longer a two dimensional experience. Imagine that each one of those slightly transparent panes is a side on a carousel — not only can you quickly twirl the carousel by quickly swiping across the screen but when you swipe slowly to the next pane you can see the edges of the previous pane.
new launch bar
The Flyer has two sets of permanent LED shortcut buttons, including home, back, list, and pen shortcuts. One lives on the bottom bezel and the other on the left bezel (for when in landscape orientation). But in addition to that, there’s also a new "launch bar" across the bottom of the display. Out of the box there are shortcuts to the app drawer, Notes, Reader, Email, and the Personalize menu, however you can swap those middle three out for any of your other favorite apps. The bar, which takes up extra screen real estate, does seem redundant since you can put app shortcuts right on the homscreen, but surely some will like it.
Some of the widgets in this version of Sense will look familiar, but some have been jazzed up with animations. For instance, the new weather widget actually has moving rain drops if it’s raining. Pretty trippy stuff.
HTC has done quite a bit to optimize its apps for tablets
I didn’t think I could live without the Honeycomb browser, but HTC has done some really nice work with the Flyer’s web experience. Controls are pretty standard, but you see all your open tabs and get a nice thumbnail view of bookmarks.
Calendar and email
It’s no Gmail replacement, but in landscape mode, the email app provides a basic list view of email messages on the left and the full message on the left. You get the same sort of layout with the Calendar — you can pull up a day, week, or month view on the left side and then view more details on the right.
The Flyer may not have Honeycomb 3.1 and thus not Google’s new Movies service, but fear not, HTC has its own Watch app for downloading content. I didn’t actually buy anything — I’ve had no use for a $14.99 movie on a 7-inch display in the past few days — but a preview of "Middle Men" looked crisp in the Streaming Player. The UI is basic and lets you easily switch between the store, downloaded movies, etc.
What’s a tablet without its own ereader app, right? HTC has partnered with Kobo to provide a decent selection of digital tomes here, though I’d really suggest going with Nook or Kindle apps for continuous client sake. On the other hand, you are only able to take notes and highlight with the pen in the Reader app.
HTC and Google aren’t the only ones making software for this tablet. The Flyer also comes with preloaded Facebook and Twitter apps. Additionally, it comes with Polaris Office, Press Daily, SoundHound, Amazon MP3, and Evernote.
So is the Sense / Gingerbread combo better than Honeycomb at the moment? That’s really a point of personal preference. There’s actually a lot I missed about Honeycomb when using the tablet — including, the Gmail app and the browser — but the software here certainly feels more stable than 3.0 on some of the more recent tablets I’ve reviewed. I also should mention that I think Gingerbread lends better to portrait navigation, which is how I used the 7-inch tablet for most of the week.
Sketching with the stylus is silky smooth
The last of those third-party apps — Evernote — plays a large role in the Flyer’s software experience, or at least it does for those that opt to buy the $80 pen. As I previously mentioned, the tablet functions like any other when the aluminum, battery-powered stylus isn’t hovering over the screen, however, tap the pen to the display or on the pen shortcut on the bezel and you’ve got a real digital notebook.
Simply put, there are only three real applications that let you take advantage of the pen right now. (HTC says it plans to open things up to third party developers, but couldn’t provide more information at the moment.) The first is the Notes app, which is really HTC’s version of Evernote. You can easily open up a new note and draw on the lined paper. You can also sync this with your Evernote account and edit your other documents on the tablet. The implementation is quite good and everything works just as it should.
One of the other apps that works with the pen is called Scribble. However, the only way to launch it is by tapping the pen on the screen, which automatically takes a screenshot and brings up the selection of pen tools. You can then doodle on top of the image. What’s the purpose of that? I asked myself the same question, but it’s actually really useful to be able to snap a picture of a map, draw on top of it, and send it off to a friend. It really is an interesting shortcut, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve accidentally hit the screen and mistakenly took a screenshot.
Apps that take advantage of the pen are lacking
The last app to recognize the pen is Reader. You can highlight text in a book or make notes in the margins. As I mentioned before, this doesn’t work in the Kindle app — more on that sort of issue soon.
So how does the pen work in those apps? Extremely well. Sketching is very smooth and you can use the top button on the pen to erase and the bottom to highlight notes in a book. The digitizer also supports pressure sensitivity, so scribbling with a bit more force will darken your strokes. I also found palm rejection to be quite good, but oddly when I handed the tablet to Ross, the side of his wrist kept launching the keyboard and pen palette. The pen does make some distracting clicking noises when first pressed on the screen, but it’s something you’ll get used to. (Note: the tablet won’t just work with any sharp object. It does seem to work with other N-Trig stylui, however. For instance, the one that comes with the HP Slate works.)
Overall, there’s nothing wrong with the "magic pen" implementation — everything works quite well and there are some strong usage scenarios. The apps are lacking at the moment, however. I desperately wanted to have my handwriting converted to text, but the pen simply won’t work in OCR (optical character recognition) apps like Graffiti right now. No, really, other apps will not recognize the pen at an input device — try it and you will just end up with a screenshot in Scribble. At this point, the pen is simply an annotation and doodling tool, which may be fine for some, but I really don’t think its full potential has been reached yet.
Battery life is impressive for the size
The last piece of the equation: battery life. And thankfully, it’s quite impressive. The tablet’s 4000mAh battery lasted seven hours and 29 minutes on our video rundown test, which loops the same standard definition video at 65 percent brightness and WiFi turned on. That’s an hour longer than the Galaxy Tab and four hours longer than the Dell Streak 7. Even better is the fact that the tablet can be charged via a Micro USB cable — none of these proprietary charging cables! The does come with a unique charging cable, but it does work with regular Micro USB cables and adapters.
In the end, the Flyer’s unique features are more than just needless differentiation. Its 7-inch display makes it more portable than the loads of new 10-inch tablets hitting the market, its Sense UI gives it a bit more stability than the Honeycomb slates, and its pen unlocks a whole new dimension. Sure, the cameras are crappy, its a bit heavier than other 7-inch slabs, and there aren’t many apps that support the stylus right now, but after a week with the device, I can say that it really is an extremely well-rounded tablet and the stylus is a notable addition. And I predict it will only get better with HTC’s promised Honeycomb upgrade and additional pen-based apps.The Flyer gets so much right, which is why HTC’s pricing oversight is such an incredible shame. At $500, the 16GB tablet already seems overpriced, but when you throw in an $80 stylus, it’s really just outlandish. Don’t forget there’s no 3G here and the pen is what makes this device really come to life. Ultimately, yes, the Flyer is a solid device with some really interesting features, I just wish HTC would differentiate on one particularly important point: price.