Hands-on: Archos 101 XS review

Archos has launched a new line of Android tablets and the first arrival is the Archos 101 XS. The 10.1-inch model will be joined by 8 and 9.7-inch models before the end of the year, but we've had plenty of playtime with the 101 XS to bring you our first impressions.

Archos has always sat at the affordable end of the spectrum, and has been in the tablet business for several years. It was among the first to commit to an Android tablet, based around delivering a solid multimedia experience, and built up something of a fan base in the process.

Design and connectivity

First impressions of the Archos 101 XS are good. The look and feel of the tablet sets it ahead of previous devices. The design fuses plastic with steel, with the metal back giving a quality finish.

But it's no iPad, nor do we think it's as sexy as the Google Nexus 7 or the similarly designed Motorola Xoom 2. If you're a pedant, then yes, perhaps the fact that it's constructed from a front and back piece, with a seam around the edge, might make you say it isn't quite at the top of the build quality or design scale.

The Archos 101 XS finds itself well appointed with connections, however. In a time when devices seem to be slimming down on options (see the Nexus 7, for example), Archos are offering expandable storage through the microSD slot (up to 64GB) and the convenience of mini HDMI output.

The Micro-USB is also a USB host, so given the correct adapter, you'll be able to hook up additional devices.

Internally you'll find the normal wireless connectivity on offer, with things like Bluetooth 4.0 and Wi-Fi Direct making sure the tablet is keeping up with the Joneses.

With tablets we always say that the display is key. The Archos 101 XS, as the name suggests, features a 10.1-inch display. It offers an average 1280 x 800 pixel resolution. It doesn't match the punch and detail of the new iPad's Retina display, but for an Android tablet this is the resolution you'd expect.

It's nice and vibrant and from our preliminary time with the tablet video looks fantastic, with deep blacks, so the viewing experience it good. However, it's very reflective and lacks auto brightness – the stock android power control widget makes this easy - and quickly attracts fingerprints.

Sitting under the hood is a dual-core TI OMAP 4470 processor, clocked at 1.5GHz. This is backed by 1GB RAM, so although it might not seem like the greatest loadout, it will probably deal with most of what you throw at it. There is 16GB of internal memory to store your content.

We fired up a range of full-HD videos and found they played without a hiccup. As always, Archos has bundled in a great deal of format support for video – harking back to its heritage – so you'll find it plays pretty much anything. When we come to our full Archos 101 XS review, we'll take a closer look at the video experience.

There is only a single speaker on the 101 XS. This is front facing and shows some sign of distortion when you crank up the volume. It's perhaps not devastating, but we'd like to have seen a little more refinement here.

Keyboard? Cover? Stand?

One of the unique points about the Archos 101 XS is that is comes with a keyboard in the box. The Magnetic Coverboard serves not only as a screen protector (if you want), but is also a netbook-rivalling keyboard and a dock/stand for the tablet.

This makes it ideal for slotting the tablet in to watch movies in your hotel, but the speaker quality lets the side down slightly when used in this role. However, there's a 3.5mm jack in place and Archos has an accessory cradle that offers RCA outputs if audio is your thing.

The tablet docks with the Magnetic Coverboard through the X-pin connector on the bottom (and also with the Cradle and Boombox accessories). To keep things in place, Archos has used magnets and it seems pretty secure. Secure enough to pick up by the "screen" and not have the keyboard fall off.

The use of magnets is clever, as they'll also hold the keyboard in place over the screen as a cover, so this is a dynamic accessory.

The keyboard itself has been designed for Android. It has buttons specific to the OS - such as home, recent apps, notifications - as well as offering volume controls, media playback controls and toggles for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It's considered and well executed.

It's 5mm thick, which Archos tells us is the slimmest it could get and still retain the physical key action. It's small, sure, but lets you type without sacrificing your entire display. It works well, although it's obviously small and takes a while to get used to the spacing of the keys.

If we had one criticism at this stage, it's that the pursuit of slimness, and perhaps the use of plastics rather than metal for the body of the keyboard, means the keyboard will flex if you hold it by the edges. Pick up the 101 XS by the keyboard when docked and it bends a little too much to feel safe.

Software

Elsewhere the Archos 101 XS comes with Ice Cream Sandwich. Archos is already promising an update to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and has set the date as November, although Philippe Geldard, web content manager at Archos, told us that it could well arrive before that date.

Archos hasn't messed around too much with the UI (Geldard amusingly commenting "no dodgy skins to slow it down or make it look staggeringly ugly"), but Archos has added to the media apps.

The video and music player have both been tweaked, incorporating access to UPnP or SMB folders and servers, so you can get to all your files in one place. The apps offer an album art carousel on the left of the display, so you can whizz through and find what you're looking for. Of course, you can arrange by album, artist, and so on.

The Archos 101 XS is also Google certified, so unlike some previous tablets from the company, you'll get all the goodness of Android in the mix. That means full access to Play, Gmail, YouTube and integration with your Google account(s).

There are some pre-installed app options, too. You can remove whatever you don't want, but the full version of OfficeSuite Pro included will get you started with all that work you want to do.

Looking good

First impressions of the Archos 101 XS are good. The tablet is well designed and the Magnetic Coverboard well considered. It's being pitched as a rival to the Asus Transformer line of Android devices and sort of steps up as an alternative to that line.

The keyboard, however, is less substantial than that from Asus. But it is lighter and when in place as a cover, it makes the 101 XS only 13mm thick, which is still pretty impressive. The price of £299 is competitive, considering the keyboard, but there are tablets available for less.

The excellent Nexus 7 is substantially cheaper and the iPad 2 is only £30 more expensive. It's an interesting move from Archos and we like what it's done with the Archos 101 XS. We've been critical of some Archos devices in the past, but we're impressed with what we've seen of the new Android tablet so far.

We will be bringing you a full review of the Archos 101 XS in the coming days.