The ViewSonic ViewPad 7 is a 7-inch Android 2.2 tablet that, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Dell Streak, offers mobile phone features in a device with a large display. It is beautifully designed and comes out of the box nestled in a case reminiscent of an ebook reader, rather than a overly-large phone.
The 7-inch screen sits in a body that measures 179.4 x 110 x 11.5mm and weighs approx. 300g. In design it actually looks rather like a giant iPhone 4, with black glossy front and back, with an encircling metal band running around the edge holding everything together. It is certainly attractive and has a premium look and feel to it.
Working around the body are a number of connections and ports. With no internal access you’ll find covered flaps allowing access to the bays for your microSD and SIM cards. The latter is optional, but there is only 512MB of internal memory, so you’ll need a memory card - up to 32GB is supported. Other connections include a 3.5mm headphone jack and Micro-USB for charging and for connecting to a PC, if you feel the need. The internal battery is good for about 6 hours, shorter if you are watching video. There are also two elegant openings for the stereo speakers, conveniently placed so they are not obstructed by your hands when lounging in bed watching a video.
Around the back is a 3-megapixel camera and a 0.3 megapixel forward-facing camera is also present. Sitting in its case, the rear camera won’t be getting any of the action. There are also two volume buttons on the top, with a nice tight action.
Control of the ViewPad 7 is through the 800 x 480 pixel resolution capacitive display. Running down the right-hand side (when holding landscape) are the usual four controls you find on an Android device - menu, home, search and back. All are touch sensitive and integrated into the bezel. Again, it’s a great look and a nice clean design.
So from the outside we love the ViewPad 7. We think it looks better than the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It might be more bulky, but it has a certain elegance. Internally, however, the story is slightly different and the ViewPad’s hard work on the outside doesn’t compensate the for general lack of power.
The ViewPad 7 is equipped with the Qualcomm MSM7227 processor, clocked at 600MHz, with 512MB of RAM. This is the same processor used in a number of entry- and mid-range Android devices and it simply doesn’t have the power to make the ViewPad shine. It is a real shame too, as the ViewPad never manages to drag itself above this shortcoming.
The overall lack of power means that Android 2.2 doesn’t get one of the exciting features you probably want on a 7-inch device, and that’s Flash video playback. We tried the usual work around of installing the Skyfire browser which swung into action offering up some online video fun. But that’s hardly the point. We’d argue that larger devices should at least have the ability to deal with video, but the ViewPad falls short.
And it doesn’t just fall short on the online video front. When it comes to actually playing back your own video content you’ll find that native format support is limited, so you’ll be scurrying off to the Android Market to find a better player. Again, rivals are offering HD video playback, so you can whip the card out of your camcorder and watch the footage on a larger screen. The Galaxy Tab also offers DLNA support too, so you can stream content from and to other devices. The ViewPad does neither.
Moving on from video, you will at least find that this is a fully-fledged Android device. That means you’ll get the full Google experience (minus the Adobe Flash 10.1 support) of syncing with Google’s services, Google Maps, all the glory of the Android Market and so on. For the most part, the experience is fairly fast and fluid, with the ViewPad offering up an interface presented in landscape, but is otherwise unsullied Android.
ViewSonic have altered the keyboard however, turning to TouchPal. Given the size, it is pretty hard not to hit the right key when typing, but we can’t help thinking that the word suggestions (if you want to use them) are just too big, eating up too much of the screen. It offers a degree of prediction (as SureType does) offering the word you might be typing, and then the word that might come next. This can lead to some confusion until you get used to it. Still, it isn’t a deal breaker as you can easily turn off suggestions and we love the fast response from the screen.
Flip the ViewSonic ViewPad 7 around to portrait and you’ll get plenty of space to type and see what you are writing, although the slightly restricted viewing angles of the screen become more obvious as you move the device around trying to find the most comfortable angle to view the entire screen clearly.
Unlike Samsung, ViewSonic hasn’t made any move to make better use of the screen space. The email, contacts and calendar are all standard Android so at times it feels as though there is more space available that could have been used better. Still, we like those default Android services, they work and are familiar and that’s important.
The default browser is standard too, offering up multi-touch zooming and is generally fast to load pages and navigate around them. As mentioned there are choices available when it comes to browsers and you might find that Skyfire or the Dolphin HD browser will give you a more dynamic experience. Needless to say, browsing on the ViewPad 7 is a pleasure thanks to the space it offers.
Plug in your headphones and you’ll find that the ViewPad 7 is a capable music player too. You don’t get any player control from the lock screen, but you do always have volume control from the hard buttons. Remove your headphones and you’ll find the external speakers are reasonable too, a touch on the tinny side but for this type of device that’s to be expected.
When it comes to the camera(s) you’ll find there is a 3-megapixel rear and 0.3-megapixel front facing camera. There is no flash (for what little good they are) for the rear camera. The camera relies on the touch-to-focus and release-to-take-the-photo system. It's a little tedious as you have to take the shot once you touch the on-screen button, rather than being able to move, recompose or find a better spot. The results are average camera phone shots, lacking detail in the distance and suffering from heavy fringing from high contrast scene, and plentiful noise and softness when the light drops.
Video capture comes in at a below average 640 x 480 pixel resolution, probably down to the lack of processing power, with low rate mono audio. But this probably isn’t the sort of device where you’re going to whip it out to capture a quick video on the fly, something that smaller smartphones are more suited to. Again, video is average mobile phone quality, before we all jumped on the HD bandwagon.
Of course this is also a fully featured HSDPA phone and if you slip in a SIM card you’ll be able to take it on the move with you without the dependence on a Wi-Fi connection. You can place a call on it, remembering that the mic is at one end, so it does look rather strange when placed against the face. The likelihood is that you’ll take advantage of the Bluetooth 2.1 to use a headset. Of course, you could always throw in a SIM card from a mobile broadband dongle and just take data.
You’ll be able to navigate yourself around thanks to the GPS and the digital compass on board. We found the ViewPad 7 was fast to find our location - faster than many other devices we have tried. It certainly gives you a great size of map display too, with pinch zooming, but remember that the device has the same resolution as many smaller Android phones, so although the image is bigger, it isn’t any more detailed.
It’s clear that we love the way the ViewSonic ViewPad 7 looks and it certainly turns heads and garners admiring glances. As a device to whip out of your bag and enjoy all the benefits of a smartphone, but with plenty more space, then the ViewPad 7 is excellent. Facebook, Twitter and a world of goofy connect apps run without issue. It delivers core connected features with no problems, but then so does your smartphone. Your smartphone battery is likely to last slightly longer too.
But where the ViewPad 7 fails is stepping up to the mark to deliver anything above and beyond your average Android smartphone. It never takes real advantage of the screen space it offers. This is partly due to the Android OS not being designed for this type of device (although the latest v2.3 might change this some), but also the middling processor and lack of video support. It isn't cheap at £400, although it is some £130 less than the Samsung Galaxy Tab.
We take our hats off to ViewSonic for creating a device that looks and feels great, but if you are interested in a device with real power then you’ll have to look elsewhere.