Archos 7 Home Tablet

The Archos 7 Home Tablet is the latest Android device to roll off the assembly line of the French company, bringing with it 7-inches of touchscreen love. This time Archos is pushing the device as a "home tablet", a third screen for entertainment, meaning you don't have to fire up your laptop to check your emails or head online.

As such it pitches itself directly against Apple's iPad, although there are obvious differences in the hardware, the size and most significantly, the price. Priced at £129.99 it comes in cheaper than the Archos 5, but it only has 2GB of internal storage. A larger 8GB version will set you back £179.79 (reviewed here), although with an 8GB card costing around £10, it's easy enough to expand the memory yourself. We tested the Archos 7 Home Tablet with a 16GB microSDHC card and encountered no problems.

The Archos 7 is measures 203 x 107 x 12mm, so it is slim. The lightly curved ends give you something to hang on to and nestling it in two hands feels comfortable enough, although at 388g, it is a little too heavy to hold in one hand whilst viewing for extended periods.

The back is a contemporary brushed metal finish, matching the screen surround, whilst the ends and sides of the device are black plastic. The plastic parts don't carry the impression of being especially good quality, with the rough join visible, but at this price, you can't be too critical - it doesn't detract from the user experience after all.

Around the back is a kickstand which is welcomed, so the Archos 7 will sit neatly on your desk or table, ready to be watched. Unlike the Archos 5 though, this kickstand is plastic and looks suspiciously like it would be the first thing to break. It sets the screen at a comfortable angle for viewing when sitting at a table, or on a train or plane.

Stereo speakers are mounted in the front at either end and you'll have to make sure you don't cover these with your thumbs which holding the device. There is a strange round moulding on the right-hand side of the Archos 7 and we couldn't figure out what is was, but it looks like the sort of place you could mount a camera or a light sensor, but we couldn’t detect if there was anything there.

On the bottom, or right-hand end, of the device you'll find the connections, including Micro-USB, a DC power connection and a 3.5mm jack. Strangely, the Archos 7 won't accept power through the Micro-USB which is a little inconvenient - otherwise you could charge it with the same charger you use for your phone, in the car and so on.

On the top of the Archos 7 is the power and lock slider which is fiddly to use. You have to slide and hold to the left to get the option to turn it off, whilst a click to the right will lock the screen and put it in standby. At least with this arrangement there is no danger of it turning on in your bag. Next to the power slider is the microSD card slot, as mentioned previously.

This being a tablet device it is all about the screen, which dominates proceedings. It is a 7-inch resistive touchscreen display with a resolution of 800 x 480, a 16:10 aspect. That resolution might sound familiar, because it’s the same as you'll find in the likes of the HTC Desire and HTC Evo.

Obviously this means the pixel density is comparatively low at around 130ppi, although this is a similar density to the iPad and most netbooks. The resolution, given the price, is adequate, as you don't need such fine detail as you do on a smaller mobile phone screen.

What detracts from the screen is the surface. Rather than a sharp glass surface, you have a plastic finish, which is a little soft to the touch - something that those who have had resistive touchscreen devices in the past will be familiar with. As you touch it, you can see the top film moving around, a sign that it isn't the highest quality. It also suffers from reflections and outdoors is almost impossible to see, even at full brightness. Indoors it generally lacks the punch that the iPad has. It also has a limited viewing angle, so from slightly below the screen you quickly lose contrast. At this price though, perhaps that's to be expected.

As a resistive touchcreen device you also have to press quite hard to get it to respond. We often resorted to using the end of a pen, especially when the Archos 7 was sitting on a desk with the kickstand. The size of the display, however, means it is pretty easy to press what you want, so it doesn't suffer in the same way that smaller resistive devices can with mis-keying. The likelihood here is that your press won't be firm enough, rather than hitting the wrong thing.

Things like scrolling aren't so good, as you will sometimes open a menu or press a link whilst trying to move a page around. Again, the end of a pen seemed more appropriate than using a podgy digit. You get the standard Android keyboard on-screen, but seeing as you won't be bashing out rapid messages like you might on a phone, the fact that it is less responsive isn't such a problem. If you plan on using the Archos 7 as an email device, this will be a more significant point.

Power on the Archos 7 and you are presented with Android 1.5. As intuitive as Android is, if you've used more recent versions of the OS on your phone, you'll find it does feel a little dated - such is the pace of change in the OS. It also throws up a few issues that make the Archos 7 a little awkward to use at times.

There are no buttons, so when you think of diving off into a menu, you'll have to do that through the bar at the top of the screen and the same with back. Perhaps this can be forgiven, but the thing that we think is a massive oversight is not including hard buttons for volume control. Instead you'll have to change this on the screen, which can be a pain in the middle of watching a movie.

As we saw on the Archos 5 however, you'll need to temper your excitement about Android. If you're thinking this will be an Android wonderkid it unfortunately won't be. You're unlikely to see an update to more recent versions of the OS and you don't get the Android Market, which will leave you feeling a little shortchanged if you don't know what that means.

It means you are left to deal with the AppsLib service, so you only have limited access to Android apps. Some sites will offer apps when you visit a  webpage, or you can download them directly in some cases, but searching and browsing AppsLib you won't find much that will get you excited. We have also found AppsLib to be buggy and it threw up a load of errors when downloading and installing apps, and was incredibly slow in downloading relatively small apps.

So you have to decide exactly what you want the Archos 7 to do for you before you buy it, as we are sure that you'll have much more freedom with rival devices soon to appear. If you want basic media functions and to browse the Internet, or read emails, then you'll have no problems. Well, we say no problems, but in setting up email, we found that the usual seamless configuration of Gmail didn't work and manual settings didn’t either, but there is always webmail.

Archos present you with a three-page homescreen which can be dragged from left to right. A small number of widgets are available to drop and you can add links to apps or bookmarks for easy access. Applications are accessed in the menu which you drag out from the right-hand side of the screen.

Given the Archos 7's remit as a home tablet, it is surprisingly sparsely populated. You get the video, music and photo browser and then a few other applications. Aldiko is an ebook application that put your books on a shelf, rather like Apple's iBooks does; Deezer is a music streaming service and eBuddy offers a universal IM client, although we prefer Nimbuzz, which you can download from their website. Daily Paper provides a collection of links so you can use the browser to get directly to online newspapers, those without a paywall at least.

Although the screen isn't the best, there's no denying that playing back your video files on the Archos 7 is good. It supports a range of common formats - AVI, MPEG4, MKV, MOV and FLV - although in our test files we found the normal codec oddities – MPEG4's that didn't play, FLV as audio only, etc. We did get it to play 720p MPEG4 files, although lipsync was sometimes a problem, as the frame rate slowed. You'll have to figure out the codecs that will work for you and ensure that you have files in the correct format to get the best out of the Archos 7.

Sound from the Home Tablet is a little tinny, but load enough for playing back music in your hotel room whilst away on business. The bundled headphones are of the hard plastic variety and easily improved on by connecting your own. The music player seemed to work well enough, displaying album art (so long as you supply it) and offering a number of preset sound profiles.

The photo viewer will let you make an instant slideshow from your folders of photos. We found photo loading to be a little slow when asking it to access high-res images. The slideshow flicks through smaller images (which don't fill the screen) at a more acceptable rate, but really it should be able to give you a fullscreen slideshow without a problem.

When we reviewed the Archos 5, a number of people asked about using the device as an ebook reader. Whilst the 5 is a little small for that, the 7 is more naturally suited. Aldiko is the application to make this happen. It supports EPUB format, but not of the DRM variety, so anything you buy will be useless to you. To import books you have to put the files in the right folder on your SD card, but then it adds them on to the bookshelf.

The application itself is fairly good, with the option to switch between day and night mode (black text, white background or white text, black background). You can swipe from page to page, and within chapters pages roll over at an acceptable rate for reading - faster than the refresh of an E-Ink device. As a way to read something on the train or plane, then we are sure it will be fine, but in the long-term we'd prefer a traditional ebook reader with support for DRM content.

For many people though, the opportunity to browse the net without a computer will be a real attraction. The Android browser is pretty good, and given the screen space available, the browser experience is also pretty good. It supports multiple pages and if you regularly visit the same sites, it's easy enough to flesh out your list of bookmarks to speed things up. Stepping around some of the app problems, we found that using the mobile page of some websites, like Facebook, gave a great result.

There is no multitouch support so you'll have to zoom using the onscreen buttons if you need too. We found that most pages loaded without issue, although there is no Flash support, so you won't be able to playback all videos. Usually Android devices have a YouTube player, but sadly this is missing, so you won't be able to watch this flavour of video either.

The internal battery claims to be good for 7-hours of video playback. In our testing, we found that this was probably about right, although you'll have to turn down the screen, disable Wi-Fi and so on to hit this figure. As always, battery life will depend on what you do with it, we found that browsing the web, testing some of the video playback and playing a bit of Postal Babes (honestly, don't go there) the battery gave us around 5 hours.

Verdict

What we have in the Archos 7 is a device that feels like it has been engineered to a price. And that's the scary thing about the Archos 7: the price is biggest plus point. The fact that it runs Android isn't such a benefit as you don't get to experience what the rest of the Android world takes for granted: those freedoms are denied, unless you are happy to hunt out new apps, something the average customer won't want to do.

We can accept the build not being that exciting and at this price, we'll even forgive the screen, which really doesn't sell the device as well as it should. We find ourselves scratching our head over small design points that make the Archos 7 less user-friendly, like needing a separate charger and not having a volume control - simple things that detract from the everyday experience.

So you have to see the Archos 7 Home Tablet for what it is. Given the right source, it is a capable video player and the freedom to expand the memory via microSDHC is welcomed and this makes it really easy to add content. The browser is good enough to quickly look something up online.

But an all-round entertainment device it is not and we didn't find the Archos 7 to be quite as compelling as we hoped.