Android Tablet Review: ViewSonic ViewPad 7

Comparisons, it's said, are odious - or odorous, as Shakespeare amended the saying. But in the case of post-iPad tablets, comparisons are impossible not to make.

Every tablet that appears will be stacked up against the iPad, and until something better comes along, every Android tablet will likely also be compared to Samsung's Galaxy Tab.

So, how does the ViewPad 7, monitor maker ViewSonic's seven-inch-screen Android 2.2 tablet, measure up?

ViewSonic announced the ViewPad and its 10-inch sibling in November and began shipping the seven-incher in December. The 10-inch model ships early this year.

The ViewPad 7 is available from online resellers for as little as $429. It's "3G-ready," meaning it has a tri-band GSM/UMTS radio and easily accessible SIM card slot, but it's not clear on which if any 3G networks it will work out of the box.

It has a 600MHz ARM11 processor, 512MB of Flash memory, 512MB of internal memory and a micro-SD slot that will take cards up to 32GB. (A 32GB micro-SD card sells for about $120; 16GB cards can be had for under $50).

ViewPad 7 v.s. iPad, Galaxy Tab

The ViewPad 7 also has Wi-Fi (G/B only, no N), Bluetooth and front and back video-capable cameras (VGA on the front, 3 megapixels on the back).

ViewSonic claims battery life of between 4 and 6 hours in heavy use. This may be a rare case of truth in advertising about battery life, given that one reviewer actually reported over seven hours of life. But it's still less than the reported eight-plus for Galaxy and 10 for iPad.

The least expensive iPad, the 16GB model, sells for $499, but it's Wi-Fi-only. And no iPad has a memory card slot, so they aren't expandable. The 16GB Wi-Fi+3G iPad, which works on the AT&T network, sells for $629, the 32GB for $729, the 64GB for $829.

The iPad also, famously, lacks cameras. Advantage ViewPad.

Galaxy Tab prices start at $499 for no-contract 3G models marketed by carriers. It's available from the four major carriers and US Cellular at various price points.

The Galaxy Tab comes with 2GB of internal memory, a pre-installed 16GB micro-SD card, and it has a 1GHz processor. It runs the same Android 2.2 operating system as the ViewPad 7, and has a similar array of bells and whistles, including two cameras.

When you add a 16GB micro-SD card to the ViewSonic product, it costs only a few bucks less than the Galaxy Tab, which works for sure on multiple 3G nets. Slight advantage Galaxy.

The iPad-ViewPad comparison is arguably apples and oranges. The ViewPad screen, like the Galaxy Tab's, is seven inches, while the iPad's is 10. The iPad uses Apple's iOS operating system, the ViewPad Google's Android 2.2.

The 7-versus-10 debate, to which even Steve Jobs has seen fit to contribute, is slightly idiotic.

A 10-inch screen, clearly, delivers additional screen real estate that is valuable, maybe essential, for some applications. Seven-inch screens, just as clearly, deliver greater mobility.

The ViewPad 7 fits in a sports jacket pocket or a mid-size purse, an iPad doesn't. You can hold the ViewPad 7 fairly easily in one hand, the iPad only with difficulty and not for long.

The ViewPad looks chunky beside the iPad, because unlike the iPad (and Galaxy), it doesn't get thinner at the edges. But in fact it's a hair thinner than the iPad at its thickest. And it weighs substantially less - 14 oz. versus 24 oz. (according to our kitchen scale - ViewSonic doesn't bother to give the ViewPad 7's weight.)

Which is more important to your users: screen real estate or mobility?

Apple's tightly-controlled, proprietary operating system is slicker than Android. The open-source-based Android 2.2 just doesn't have as sophisticated or intuitive an interface. It can behave differently on different phones and the latest version doesn't work on all devices.

Android mobile operating system v.s. iOS?

The Apple App Store still has more iOS apps than the Android Market has Android apps, although Android is closing the gap. Android does make it easier to set up and access the attractive Google suite of online apps - although those apps are also available on the iPad. And by most accounts, it's easier to build custom enterprise apps for Android.

The question with Apple products is always whether their superior industrial design and aesthetics, and their market cachet, are worth the price premium and limitations of Apple's walled-garden approach. A rapidly growing cadre of Android aficionados think not. But the Android-versus-iOS debate is ultimately a religious one. Don't get sucked in.

We haven't said much yet about our experience with the ViewPad 7. After six-plus months of iPad use, it was a little frustrating at first - Android really is not as intuitive or easy to learn.

But the mobile operating system and the device grow on you. And the ViewPad, while not a stellar performer, acquits itself reasonably well.

The screen does not appear as vibrant or crisp as either the iPad or Galaxy Tab screens, but it's more than adequate for most applications you'll want to run on a tablet, including YouTube, which looks pretty good.

The ViewPad's touchscreen also suffers in comparison with the iPad's. It's sometimes not quite as responsive as you want it, but at others, it seems too easy to inadvertently launch apps or activate menu options when you meant to scroll through them.

While the processor has a lower clock speed than either iPad or Galaxy Tab, it did not seem particularly sluggish. In most of the apps we tried, it was more than adequately responsive - although there were a couple of exceptions.

ViewSonic has promised a firmware upgrade that will make the front-facing camera useable with video conferencing apps such as Fring and Tango - surely the point of including a front-facing camera - but as far as we can tell, in the meantime, it's of no practical use (or indeed any use). It certainly doesn't work with Skype or Tango.

We could not test the ViewPad as a 3G phone. As a VoIP phone, using the built-in microphone and speakers, Skype worked, but not as well as on the iPad, where it works surprisingly well even though not officially supported.

We also tried the ViewPad with Bria Android Edition, an enterprise-class softphone from Counterpath, and a hosted PBX. That was even worse, with most calls untenable because of latency and jitter (delay and break-up). The fault there may have been as much or more with the softphone, though.

It's perhaps not surprising that the iPad, given its iPod heritage, does a generally better job on audio reproduction, but the ViewPad sounds fine, and audio quality is not a huge consideration in a business tool anyway.

Mobile app performance

Some of the most useful and popular apps on the iPad are also available for Android, but not all, it must be said, work as flawlessly as they generally do on the iPad.

Dropbox and SugarSynch, both free and very popular online storage and file sharing apps, are available in Android versions. But SugarSynch would not launch on the ViewPad and Dropbox reported an unknown error when trying to download standard file formats such as Word document and PDF.

QuickOffice, a file organization, transfer and display utility (among other things), is also available for Android.

Despite supporting Flash videos, which iPad famously does not, Android otherwise disappoints a little on the video front - not that you want to encourage your users to watch videos (other than business videos), but you know they will.

There is an Android Netflix app, for example, but it can't stream video, at least not on this Android device. The iPad can, and does it very well.

There reportedly is a SlingPlayer app for Android - it lets you watch TV from home piped over the Net by a SlingBox device - but it doesn't appear in the Android Market, at least not on the ViewPad.

(That is one thing we've learned about Android that is not often noted: some apps simply don't appear in the Market on some devices.)

Kobo and other e-book reader apps are available, and the ViewPad comes pre-loaded with Aldiko, an e-book reader and market. It works fine but isn't quite as slick as iPad's iBooks. When turning pages, Aldiko sometimes pauses, irritatingly, to flash a message saying "opening chapter."

The ViewPad does come pre-loaded with Documents To Go, a very useful program that lets you read and create Microsoft Office-compatible word processing spreadsheet and presentation files, as well as PDFs. It's equivalent to but in many ways superior to iWorks on the iPad, for which Apple charges $9.99 per module.

Is the ViewPad a contender?

If you've decided on Android over iPad, if you've decided on seven-inch rather than 10-inch, it is. It's a solid, if not exceptional, tablet. Before deciding, look closely at the Samsung Galaxy Tab and other Android contenders flooding the market.

If you could save $100 or even $50 per unit by going with the ViewPad over the Galaxy Tab, it might be worth it, but at only $20 or $30 less (when you factor in the cost of flash memory), it's probably not. Maybe ViewSonic will drop the price.





Android, mobile, iPad, tablet PC, ViewSonic