Apple has done an excellent job of carving an “elitist” niche for itself in the portable audio and video player market, something that has been reaffirmed most recently with the success of the iPad. Since its products frequently come under criticism from some quarters for omitting key features, adopting a “closed” model and being overpriced, it’s surprising not to see rival companies trumping the kings of aesthetics more often. Archos is one of these rivals, and has recently placed Apple’s iPad squarely in its crosshairs with the release of the Archos 101 Internet Tablet. This is a 10.1-inch, capacitive widescreen (1024 x 600) Android 2.2-based internet tablet that for all intents and purposes represents a significant alternative to Apple’s device.
Finished in sleek black plastic with brushed metal backplates, it’s extremely light at just 480g and is amongst the slimmest of its kind at just 12mm thick. The adoption of a widescreen design will appeal to those who would view media on the device and a front-facing webcam offers video chat, though we’re disappointed to note that this is quite poor and only offers VGA (0.3-megapixel) resolution. Around the back is a kick-stand, which is extremely useful for propping up the tablet to watch video or elevating it slightly to offer a more comfortable viewing angle.
The range of connectivity on offer includes a USB-host for connecting to a computer to drag and drop content across, a standard USB port for connecting drives, microSD port for upping the 8GB or 16GB capacity and HDMI-out that (with an optional cable) can send content to a TV. It can also multi-task by switching between open applications, offers full Adobe Flash support and can stream media across wireless via SAMBA or UPnP protocols. In case you’re unaware, none of these features are available on the current version of the Apple iPad, which is pretty damning evidence for the versatile, open nature of this tablet.
Of course it’s not all good news for Archos in this match up and one area where Apple most definitely trumps the device is the display. This isn’t to say that the Archos 101’s screen isn’t very capable, because it is, but it’s not a patch on Apple’s gorgeous IPS screen, which is crisper, more vibrant, more responsive and has a better viewing angle. The latter quality is actually our biggest problem with the Archos, as images can drop in clarity drastically at a fairly shallow angle from square-on. In addition the Archos just feels a bit cheaper, and certainly doesn’t have the build quality on offer from Apple.
In terms of key functionality though, it does very well. We won’t go into the benefits of the Android 2.2 OS here but suffice to say it offers an extremely flexible and customisable environment with the ability to add useful widgets to any of five desktop views, a capable keyboard that’s about on par with most touchscreen devices around and fast browsing via wireless. Archos isn’t offering a 3G version of its tablet at present, but it is still possible to tether a phone via Bluetooth for use away from hotspots (which is also handy for adding a wireless keyboard and mouse). Media support is excellent, though users who have a wide array of video content may need to add the optional cinema plug-in for full support, which brings us to our next observation.
Two of the reasons why Archos’ devices are sometimes criticised on release are that users often have to pay extra over the base model price for plug-ins to unlock the full potential of the product and (more recently) that it restricts users to its own Android application library. This does seem a little unfair since Archos can often boast far cheaper prices for its “base-unit” than like-for-like rivals, thereby giving users the opportunity to save money initially and upgrade if they need to. Acceptably many consumers won’t want to buy with the intention of modding it from the off, so this will always be a contentious issue.
In addition, while the 101 is indeed restricted to Archos’ selection of apps, savvy Android users will be aware of ways to unlock the full complement of Android applications by installing a simple APK, which on this occasion we did.
Regardless, we found the selection of applications available from Archos to be reasonable (with around 18,000 or so available), and in most cases key apps and games have been incorporated. It should also be acknowledged that although Android 2.2 serves perfectly well on tablets, it isn’t designed for devices of this size, and with a new range of tablets offering the forthcoming Android 3.0 in 2011, owners might find themselves with out-dated software fairly quickly.
If you’re in the market for a tablet and are considering alternatives to the iPad, Archos makes it very simple. The 101 is far cheaper, far more flexible and far more “open” than its main rival, and though the display isn’t nearly as impressive, we can see a significant market willing to forgo this benefit for a long list of advantages – especially if modding it is on your list.
Archos has a reasonably priced, well performing and versatile internet tablet on offer with the 101, which despite its faults is ultimately a far more flexible device than the iPad. Apple fans will no doubt exacerbate its weaknesses, and they will have a point if display performance and build quality is a priority, but for those looking to experience the benefits of a lap-based tablet this is one the more compelling devices currently available.