With little fanfare, the Ainovo Novo7 Basic launched just before CES as the world's first Ice Cream Sandwich tablet, at a retail cost that deserves attention: $99. Even at that price, the Novo7 has a capacitive screen instead of a resistive screen, a feature that hadn't yet made its way down to the bottom end of the tablet market. It also has a processor we haven't yet seen much of, based on the MIPS architecture.
The world of tablets was relatively stable six months ago: there was the iPad 2, a bevy of Android tablets at various sizes, and not much more. Amazon's Kindle Fire managed to disrupt that market as a well-made 7-inch Android tablet, at a surprisingly low $199. Ainovo's entrant is not going to be anywhere near as disruptive as the Fire or the upcoming iPad 3, but it could be the precursor to two very real disruptions: the widespread adoption of Android running on non-ARM processors and the widespread availability of very cheap tablets that you'd actually want to use.
That's a pretty big job for a pretty small tablet. Can the Novo7 Basic do more than herald the impending invasion of inexpensive-yet-decent Android tablets? Does it lead the vanguard? Even if you're not interested in this very low-end tablet, the answer to those questions are going to matter to Intel's chances in the Android ecosystem. Read on.
The first thing you will notice when you pick up the Novo7 Basic is that is creaks — a lot. Clearly, one of the ways that Ainovo was able to keep the cost down on this tablet was by cutting costs on materials. It's literally impossible to handle the tablet in any way without hearing the body squeak in protest. The plastic casing isn't very slick, but it's a far cry from the grippable softness of a Kindle Fire or a BlackBerry PlayBook.
The edge around the front of device is a sharp 90-degree angle, with a large seam between the screen casing and the rest of the body. Around back, the edge tapers slightly into its half-inch thickness in the middle. That thickness doesn't set the Novo7 Basic all that far behind its 7-inch brethren, but don't take that to mean that it's on par with them. You're getting what you pay for with this hardware.
The 7-inch screen is surrounded by a fairly large bezel, which is larger on the right to accommodate a vertical row of capacitive buttons, none of which are at all necessary on a tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich. In fact, there is an option to disable them completely if you want to. There's Back, Home, Menu, and two Volume buttons — the latter being doubly (triply?) redundant as there are physical volume buttons next to the power button up top.
The thickness doesn't set the Novo7 Basic all that far behind its 7-inch brethren
One thing Ainovo didn't skimp on is ports. Along the right, next to the capacitive buttons, are an HDMI port, headphone jack, microSD card slot, a Mini USB port, and a custom power port. Fitting with the theme of inexplicable redundancy, the power port isn't strictly necessary as the Novo7 Basic can be charged off the Mini USB port. Going with Mini USB instead of Micro USB is an odd choice, but the tablet does come with an adapter so you can plug USB devices in. Theoretically, you can use the option to connect a 3G or 4G dongle — but you'll be on your own in getting the software to work on Ice Cream Sandwich (we couldn't get ours to work).
The tablet has a 2-megapixel camera off-center in the back and a VGA camera up front — both are predictably abysmal even by very low tablet standards. I wasn't able to produce a passable image even in ideal lighting situations and in low light it was impossible. Crazy as it sounds to say about a $99 tablet, Ainovo would have done better to shave a few bucks off the cost of the tablet and not include the rear camera.
Sadly, text is so pixelated that it's impossible to recommend this for lengthy reading
When we first heard about the Novo7 Basic, we found it frankly hard to believe that a $99 tablet could feature a capacitive touchscreen. The Ubislate 7 was making headlines as a low-cost Android tablet for India and its resistive touchscreen had been the norm for the very low end. The Novo7 Basic is indeed capacitive, but unfortunately that is the only happy surprise you'll find when interacting with the display.
The issues with the screen are twofold. First, it's a standard LCD without any of the fancy "Super" prefixes or IPS additions that are becoming the norm for smartphones and tablets. That's not necessarily something to hold against such an inexpensive tablet, but even on its own merits the screen is not a pleasure to look at. Tilting the tablet back in landscape more than few degrees makes everything radically darker — colors were nearly negative. As this is the typical angle you'd see a tablet at while it's sitting flat on a desk, it's a daily frustration. Sunlight was a baleful enemy to using the tablet, but even indoors we found the screen to be overly dim.
The second issue is that the resolution on this tablet is only 800 x 480. Again, it's not strictly fair to knock a low-end tablet for having low-end specs. However, given the tablet's poor performance in browsing and app incompatibility issues (more on those below), the one use case we'd like to imagine for it is as an e-reader with a few bonus capabilities. Sadly, text is so pixelated on a 7-inch screen at this resolution that it's impossible to recommend for lengthy reading.
Performance / battery life
The browser will test even the most patient Zen masters
The Novo7 Basic has some, well, basic specs for a 7-inch Android tablet. The $99 model comes with 8GB of storage (1GB is assigned for app storage) and 512MB of RAM, but any discussion of performance needs to focus on its unique processor. Ainovo opted for the Ingenic JZ4770 processor clocked at 1GHz. It's based not on the traditional ARM standard or even something from Intel, but instead on a MIPS architecture.
MIPS created the architecture for chips in a variety of embedded systems, notably the Playstation 2 and PSP, but Android is a relatively new frontier for the company. The MIPS architecture is included in Android's Native Development Kit, but support for the processor is hard to come by on many third party apps. That situation is unlikely to get better anytime soon — it's an ARM world, and the entire Android ecosystem is going to have its hands full in the coming years contending with the addition of Intel chips.
That's not to say that Android 4.0 doesn't work on this processor. In fact, using the core elements of the OS is surprisingly passable — at least if you grade it on the curve of ulta-cheap tablets. I'm not sure if Quadrant is set up to fairly test a MIPS-based processor, but the average score of 860 felt like an accurate representation of the Novo7 Basic's overall performance. Again, if you're expecting something more than last year's performance in a $99 tablet, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.
|Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus||1634ms||3590|
Unfortunately, there was one particularly sour point: browser performance. Our average Sunspider test was about 5700ms, half as good as the Kindle Fire and significantly worse than the Nook Tablet (but still better than the Kobo Vox). That score only tells part of the story, though, as the actual experience of using the browser would test even the most patient Zen masters. Even on a very fast connection, times for loading and rendering web pages could be measured in minutes when it should have been measured in seconds. We're not sure if the browser simply isn't optimized for MIPS, but just as we can't recommend the Novo7 Basic as a cheap e-reader, we can't recommend it as a cheap web-browsing tablet.
Battery life was a bright spot — Ainovo claims it should achieve 8 full hours of usage with the 4000mAh battery, and in our testing that wasn't too far off the mark. More to the point, the Wi-Fi-only tablet seemed to hold up particularly well in standby. It took about two days of moderate usage (two to three hours) with both email and Seesmic sending regular alerts to get to our first battery warning.
As it was technically the first tablet to be launched with Android 4.0, you might be tempted to think that Ainovo's Novo7 Basic had some sort of "in" with Google, but you would be wrong. Ice Cream Sandwich on the Novo7 is more of the bare-bones Android Open Source Project variety than the actual, Google-blessed version. As such, none of the core Google apps nor Android Market are present on this device. That's important to know going in — this is an Android tablet, yes, but most of the core benefits people think of when they hear "Android" are not here and there's no ecosystem from the likes of Amazon or Barnes & Noble to fill in the gap.
Actually, the truth is that Amazon can step in on the Novo7 Basic. Though sideloading apps was a hit-and-miss affair, we did install the Amazon Market in order to get some additional apps loaded beyond what came with the tablet. That, unfortunately, is where the real trouble began.
About half of the apps I tried to install from the Amazon Market failed with the message "The package appears to be corrupt." The issue appears to be that most apps are coded to expect support from an ARM-based processor, not a MIPS-based processor. Common apps like 1Password, Angry Birds (not the pre-installed MIPS-compatible version), Fruit Ninja, Flixter, Rdio, Retro Camera, Skype, SwiftKey X, and more wouldn't work on the Novo7 Basic. At all.
This is a serious problem, and not just for MIPS. A bunch of failed app installs on a $99 tablet that's not genuinely likely to gain any real marketshare shouldn't be cause for concern. However, if the reason for those failures is indeed incompatibility with the MIPS architecture, then Android as a platform has some dark times ahead. Intel is pushing hard to get its own processors on Android devices — Lenovo and Motorola already have phones planned and more are coming. Like MIPS, Intel's chips have a different architecture from ARM and could lead to app incompatibility.
What does it mean for Intel?
Google, Intel, MIPS and others need to do the work necessary to make it easy for app developers to code for these various processor architectures. If they don't, the kind of fragmentation we've experienced on Android so far will have been just the greasy appetizer to the gigantic, heartburn-inducing meal of fragmentation to come. It's already annoying to discover that some games don't work or don't perform well because some phones don't have Tegra processors, but imagine if that same pain applied to a much wider swath of apps.
Perhaps as a way to amend for all this, Ainovo preloaded the Novo7 Basic with a few apps, including the Kindle reader app and some games to showcase the tablet's capabilities. These performed quite well, especially Spider-Man HD. As nice as the built-in apps were, they will never be a substitute for full participation in a robust ecosystem of apps. Right now, a MIPS-based Android device just isn't in that space.
Android is running pell-mell into a future where it needs to support multiple architectures
Should you buy a Novo7 Basic? Well, no. The Kindle Fire may be double the cost, but it provides an excellent e-reader experience and an ecosystem to support expanded use. The Nook Tablet is also a superior device, to say nothing of more expensive Android tablets and the iPad 2. Even at $99, the Novo7 Basic simply doesn't have enough utility for the average consumer when you consider the app issues and poor screen quality. The tablet may find a home in emerging markets and in that context, it definitely presents a strong challenge to the likes of the Ubislate 7.
Should you pay attention to the Novo7 Basic? Absolutely. Android is running pell-mell into a future where it needs to support multiple architectures — most importantly Intel's Medfield chips. The Novo7 Basic is an example of how not to do this: an Android tablet with custom versions of apps, no ecosystem support, and little thought given to the real and deep problems of a new processor architecture. Google will need to work harder than ever to ensure that most Android apps will work on all devices, because if the Novo7 Basic is the canary in the fragmentation coal mine, Android may never dig itself out.