Tech Lab

Cheaper tablet does not measure up to iPad

By Hiawatha Bray
June 24, 2010

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By now you’ve probably heard that Apple Inc. sold 3 million of its iPad tablet computers in its first 80 days on the market. Oddly, this is good news for Apple’s competitors. When a tablet priced from $500 to $830 sells this fast, there’s surely enough demand to support a rival product that’s cheaper . . . unless the alternative tablet can’t even approach the elegance and high performance of the iPad.

Which brings us to the Archos 7 Home Tablet, a $200 device available at The Archos 7 is the first of several tablets coming to market that use Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

Now there’s a bright idea. Android-based phones like the Motorola Droid and HTC EVO 4G are excellent alternatives to Apple’s iPhone. Why not tailor Android to run on a tablet, just as the iPhone’s software has been superbly modified for the iPad? It could work — but not on the Archos 7, a product hobbled by its reliance on cut-rate hardware and a primitive version of Android.

The Archos 7 is about half the size of an iPad, like a sheet of copier paper torn down the middle. It’s got decent storage capacity, with eight gigabytes of built-in flash memory. And unlike the iPad, there’s a Micro SD card slot to add up to 32 gigs more.

Plugged into a PC or Mac, the tablet can be treated as an external hard drive. You can install your favorite audio or video files by dragging and dropping, then play them through software included on the tablet.

The Archos 7 also sports Wi-Fi wireless networking; not the latest, fastest version found on the iPad, but quite good enough for most users.

Archos also left out an accelerometer, the little chip that tells the iPad to rotate the on-screen image when you turn it sideways.

The sawed-off screen lowers Archos’s production costs, while remaining wide enough for Web page viewing. But you’ll have to do a lot of scrolling up and down, and that’s no easy task, because the Archos touchscreen is so unresponsive. The iPad reacts to the slightest flick of a finger. The Archos made me peck and poke so firmly at the screen that I half-expected my finger to pop out on the other side.

That’s “finger,’’ singular, not plural, because the Archos 7 lacks the delicious, multitouch technology that lets an iPad or iPhone user blow up or enlarge images with a two-finger pinching motion. It also lacks the iPad’s brilliant, glossy colors. Everything on the Archos 7 looks pallid and washed out by comparison.

Its version of Android is also sadly faded. While newer Android phones sport a more polished and powerful version of the original operating system, the Archos 7 uses an early edition that feels crude and undeveloped by today’s standards. Archos informs me that the 7 can’t support the newer Android software, so forget about upgrading it after purchase.

There are about 50,000 Android apps now available, but Archos users get access to a mere 2,000 free programs. Archos says it’ll soon release an additional 2,000 apps that are good enough to sell for real money. But you can’t get the software through Google’s own Android Market, because Google hasn’t yet launched a version for tablets. Instead, you’re forced to use Archos’s own online store.

An Archos executive shrugged off the limited number of apps. He noted that many apps for other devices were designed for smartphones with cellular data connections and GPS location chips, making them useless for the Archos tablet. But the available ones aren’t much better. They’re no-name programs, seemingly created by amateurs.

The sleek high-end apps by major software vendors are nowhere to be found. I searched in vain for a good Facebook or YouTube app, the sort that’s easily available for Android phones.

More Android tablets are on the way; I’m especially looking forward to the Streak from Dell Inc., already on sale in Europe and soon destined for these shores.

I’m guessing that deep-pocketed Dell will serve up a more polished product than the Archos 7.

Still, what do you expect for $200? You can buy two and a half Archos 7s for the cost of the least-expensive iPad. But that’s only fair.

The iPad is at least two and a half times better.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at