Let's just call it like it is: Archos doesn't have a history of making good tablets. I have fond memories of my Jukebox MP3 player from years ago, but more recently the company's produced a slew of tablets that just didn't measure up.
So when I first sat down with Craig TerBlanche, Director of Marketing at Archos, we immediately got to the point. TerBlanche said he knew that Archos' recent products haven't been well-received, and that the company and brand have a lot of negative connotations to overcome. But this one, he said, is going to do it: the 101 XS is years in the making, and represents Archos's best hardware effort to date.
On paper, there is in fact a lot to like about the 101 XS, the first in the company's new Gen10 lineup. It's light and thin, powered by TI's recent OMAP 4470 processor and 1GB of RAM, and it runs effectively stock Android 4.0. It also comes with a keyboard dock that doubles as a case and a stand for the tablet, and the whole package also costs $399.99.
Can Archos wash the bad taste out of our collective mouths with a great tablet? Or is its reputation still earned? Let's see.
Hardware / design
Hardware / design
'Archos' and 'attractive,' back together at last
I'll gladly admit to being surprised by the 101 XS — against all prior evidence, Archos is capable of building an attractive tablet. This device is only 8mm thin (about 0.3 inches), which is slightly slimmer than the iPhone and as svelte as any tablet I've tested. At 1.3 pounds, it's about the same weight as the latest iPad, and the two tablets feel virtually identical in my hands. The bezel and back panel are made of silver stainless steel, and there's a white plastic shell around the edges; the whole device feels solid despite its waif-like dimensions.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|Archos 101 XS||10.7 x 6.7||0.32||1.32|
|Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1||10.3 x 7.1||0.35||1.31|
|Nexus 7||7.8 x 4.7||0.41||.74|
|Asus Transformer Pad TF30||10.4 x 7.1||0.39||1.39|
|Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime||10.4 x 7.1||0.31||1.29|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1||10.1 x 6.9||0.38||1.3|
|Acer Iconia Tab A510||10.4 x 6.9||0.40||1.50|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1||10.1 x 6.9||0.34||1.20|
|Apple iPad (3rd gen., 2012)||9.5 x 7.3||0.37||1.44 |
I quite like the look of the tablet — when it's clean, anyway. For some reason, the 101 gets more dirty more quickly than almost any device I've ever used. After only a few days there were dark scuffs on the back of the tablet, and I found myself almost obsessively cleaning the device to keep it looking nice. The back panel also scratches and dings pretty easily, and after only a week of use my review unit doesn't look nearly as good as it did.
There's a power button on the right side of the 101 XS, next to a volume rocker. Both are set next to a slight lip on the device's edge, which makes them hard to find and press, and the fact that they're insanely close to each other doesn't help either. The ports are similarly crammed together on the opposite side: there's a microSD slot (you can add up to 64GB of storage on top of the 8GB built in), plus Micro USB, Micro HDMI, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The top and bottom are both unadorned, save for the connector pins on the bottom (I'll get to those in a minute). The tablet's face is obviously dominated by the display, with a mono speaker on the right side and a camera on the left.
The camera, by the way, is exactly what I want a tablet camera to be: kind of terrible, but there if I need it for video chat. There's no rear-facing camera because, TerBlanche told me, Archos's research shows no one wants one. I have no trouble buying that logic, and if its absence knocked a nickel off the sale price I'd say it's a worthy tradeoff.
Display and speaker
Nice to look at, but don't press too hard
The 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 LCD on the face of the 101 XS is a pretty nice screen. Its blacks are deeper than most similar screens, and in general colors are very accurate. Viewing angles are good, though colors do dull a bit as you get off-axis. 1280 x 800 is a fairly standard resolution for a 10.1-inch display, but that baseline could use an upgrade — the Acer A510 and Transformer Pad Infinity both have much sharper 1080p displays, and I'd like to see more tablets adopt them. This also isn't the brightest screen I've seen, and the difference between its brightest and dimmest settings is surprisingly small. The screen's also very prone to fingerprints and glare, but that's hardly unexpected. In general it's a fine screen — nothing to write home about, but little to complain about either.
As you tap around the display, though, serious build quality issues start to emerge with the tablet. If you put more than a light tap's worth of pressure on the screen the LCD ripples underneath, and worrisome black spots appear around your finger — they've never lasted longer than a few seconds, but I'm still pretty sure that's not supposed to happen. I could even get the little ripples to appear by pressing from the back of the device, which immediately made me worry before tossing the 101 XS into my crowded backpack. It's particularly bad when you're playing a game that uses an on-screen joystick; it only takes about five seconds of Shadowgun before it looks for all the world like you've broken the screen. Again, I haven't done any lasting damage yet, but none of this bodes well for the lifespan of the device.
Archos did one thing very right with the 101 XS's speaker: it faces toward you, instead of blasting sound out the side or the back of the tablet. The fact that sound comes toward me as I watch a movie makes everything sound better, and louder without forcing me to cup my hand around the speaker to direct it toward my ears. The tablet needs the help, too: the mono speaker is pretty anemic, and outputs the same quiet, tinny sound I've come to expect from any tablet. It does sound better than most others, though, again purely because sound is actually coming directly at you.
There are two parts to the 101 XS — the tablet, and the Coverboard. "Coverboard" is evidently a portmanteau for cover and keyboard, and the moniker neatly sums up what the slab is. On one hand, it's a magnetic cover for the device, sticking firmly to the front of the tablet to keep the screen from getting scratched when you toss it into a bag. It's light and thin, and the two pieces together feel about the same as the iPad with a Smart Cover attached. Twist or pry the Coverboard off (which takes some doing, thanks to the remarkably strong magnet) and you'll see underneath a full keyboard, dock, and stand for the tablet.
There's a small piece of the Coverboard that pops up and acts as a stand for the tablet — by itself, it looks for all the world like a sail ready to guide the Coverboard across the open seas. The tablet leans against it, sticks to it via the same strong magnet, and slots into a small groove above the keyboard. It slides in really easily, without any of the awkward mechanisms in the Transformer tablets, which make you shove the tablet in so hard it feels like you're going to break it. It can take a second to get the two parts perfectly aligned — and the connection with the keyboard doesn't kick in until it's just right – but it's still a much better system, and thanks to the ultra-powerful magnet is still a sturdy one.
The chiclet keyboard isn't quite full-size — it's about 90 percent as wide as my MacBook Air's keyboard — but it's close enough that I was typing quickly and nearly mistake-free in only about an hour. The keys clack pleasantly, with nice travel and feedback. There are function keys everywhere, too, to the point where you almost never need to touch the tablet itself: you can scroll through homescreens and apps, control playback and settings, and anything else you can think of from the keyboard. Some games even recognize the keyboard as an external controller, so you can play Shadowgun without your hands taking up half the screen. The only thing you can't do with the keyboard is turn the tablet on — you'll still have to hunt for the power button to do that.
From a pure typing standpoint, I'd pick the 101's keyboard over the Transformer dock any day. I like that it's well-integrated with the tablet, too, unlike the separate accessories for the iPad — though some of the best iPad keyboards are larger and better for typing.
Software and performance
The 101 XS runs Android 4.0.4, and that's pretty much all you need to know on the subject. The only — literally, only — change Archos made was to redesign the Music and Video apps. This is almost universally a good thing: the 101 supports basically every file format you can throw at it, and the apps themselves are quite nice-looking. There's a bit of bloatware, too: an Office suite, Fruit Ninja and a few other games, and a couple of utilities. None of the bloatware apps are particularly exciting, but the number is fairly small, so I don't mind too much.
Jelly Bean is coming this year
I always prefer stock Android to any kind of skin, especially since Ice Cream Sandwich — Google just didn't do much wrong, and most manufacturer changes don't exactly qualify as improvements. But there's another benefit to Archos' decision: as TerBlanche told me, there's very little development required for Archos to get Android 4.1 running on the 101 XS. Add that to the fact that the company picked TI as a chipset partner largely for its ability to deliver timely updates, and TerBlanche doesn't hesitate to promise the 101 XS will be updated to Jelly Bean before the end of this year, and likely well before. In a market where "updates are coming soon" typically means just the opposite, Archos's strategy is a refreshing one — make it easy for the company to deliver updates, and then deliver them in a timely fashion.
Speaking of TI, its OMAP 4470 SoC is responsible for keeping the 101 XS humming, and generally speaking it does fine — or, at least, as well as it can be expected to do. The more I use a Nexus 7 the more I realize how much smoother and faster Android 4.1 really is, even for very basic things: switching homescreens, opening and closing apps, and even scrolling are all seamless in a way they just aren't on Android 4.0. That means there are some hiccups in performance on the 101 XS, but they're mostly not device-specific.
|Quadrant||Vellamo||GLB 2.1 Egypt (720p)||GLB 2.1 Egypt (1080p)||AnTuTu|
|Archos 101 XS||3,934||1,374||48fps||27fps||7,518|
|Asus Transformer Pad TF300T||3,623||1,358||63fps||31fps||9,614|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1||2,590||849||28fps||14fps||4,911 |
OS-wide problems aren't the only ones present here
There's at least one Archos-specific problem, though: when you connect or disconnect the tablet and keyboard, all hell breaks loose. About three quarters of the time everything works fine; the other 25 percent is some combination of brief flickers on the screen and outright freezes that require a reboot. I learned eventually to wait about five seconds after connecting or disconnecting the keyboard before I tried to do anything, and that at least stemmed the flow of freezes; still, it's far from a seamless pop-it-in-and-out experience.
Consider also the power button, which is astoundingly unresponsive — it takes three seconds or so to turn on nearly every time you try, by which point I've typically grown impatient and mashed the power button again, making it turn off again. It's little quirks like this that make it hard to use the 101 XS, because it just feels... broken sometimes.
One downside of the Archos Coverboard is that there's no battery inside, so the combination of the two doesn't give you the ridiculous battery life of a Transformer Pad. Still, longevity is pretty solid — the 101 XS lasted about two and a half days on a charge, and I used the device regularly during that time. As some tablets are wont to do, the browser crashed every time we tried to run The Verge Battery Test, but with or without the keyboard attached I have no qualms about battery life on the device. It's not world-beating, but it's perfectly good.
A leap forward for Archos, but not for the tablet market
The best compliment I can pay the 101 XS is that it works far better than any Archos device I've tested in a long time, and that for the most part I genuinely enjoyed using it. It's a solid productivity device thanks to the keyboard, and the whole system is well-integrated and for the most part works well. On the other hand, though, this tablet reminds me a bit of the Toshiba Excite 10 LE. Design was clearly paramount in the company's plans for the device, and so Archos built a good-looking tablet that comes with a few too many build quality problems and performance quirks. Fortunately, the 101's issues are neither as pervasive nor as crippling as the Excite's, but they still make the tablet nicer to look at than it is to use.
At $399 with the Coverboard, the price is definitely right for the 101 XS — you'll be hard-pressed to find another tablet / keyboard combination for the price. And as an inseparable package, they're not bad. But there are many better tablets out there, and at least a handful of better keyboards — unless $399 is the ceiling of your budget, you're better off with a Transformer Pad or Frankensteining your own combination together.