HTC Flyer review

4 out of 5
£599.99

For

Pen, size, build quality

Against

No Honeycomb, not dual core, no space for the pen on the actual device

The tablet market is heating up and heating up fast. So what makes HTC think that it has what you need when it comes to a tablet? Some have called out some glaring spec shortcomings of the HTC Flyer. Can HTC overcome and weave its magic with HTC Sense? Is their first tablet “quietly brilliant”? We’ve been living with the new 7-inch tablet to find out how it stands against the competition.

Design

If you thought the iPad was a giant iPod touch, the first impression of the HTC Flyer is that it’s a giant phone. Measuring 195.4 x 122 x 13.2mm and weighing 420g the Flyer sports the company’s now familiar design; it is well built and solid in the hand. The front is dominated by the 7-inch capacitive touchscreen with a black bezel around the edge.

Like the BlackBerry PlayBook there are no buttons to distract - that is until you turn it on - and the only real tell-tale sign of which way is “up” is the HTC logo. While other tablets encourage you to hold them horizontally, like phones, the design intonation here tells you the best way to hold the tablet is vertically. That’s not to say you must hold it that way. Obviously HTC has designed it to be held in landscape as well, and that is expected when it comes to video calling as the front facing camera is at the top when held in landscape.

Those appearing and disappearing buttons (Home, menu, back, and pen - no search though) are a nice trick too. Hold it portrait and they appear at the bottom of the screen on that black bezel. Hold it landscape and they shift to the landscape bottom bezel. iPad users will be very jealous with their static physical home button that does nothing of the sort.

Switch around to the back and the UK version of the Flyer shows off it's silver and white colours. In the US the Flyer will sport a moody black and red paint job. (UK readers needn’t get excited: we’ve been told that paint job isn’t coming to Britain.) Another logo lets those who see you using it know just exactly what tablet you are using while the white elements of the design allow for the radio and wireless antenna to get a signal.

The top white area features the 5-megapixel camera, no flash, and sliding this off reveals the SIM card slot and a microSD slot for expanding the Flyer’s storage. Both are easily accessible and those who have opened up an HTC phone before (since the HTC Legend) will feel right at home. Not that you’re going to see this too often, as once you’ve loaded it up with a SIM for surfing and some storage it’s unlikely this cover will ever come off again. The battery is sealed out of sight and inaccessible. Volume buttons, a power switch (which also has a notification light in it), Micro-USB and 3.5mm jack complete the package.

In the flesh it is comfortable to hold with one hand. It’s small enough to type on with two thumbs, and yes, you could slip it into your back jeans pocket, although we wouldn’t recommend sitting down. On the train and in the home we’ve found that we hold it differently to the iPad, and because of that it’s not as isolating, you aren’t so shut off from the world because its less of a physical barrier and that means you probably won’t be as self-conscious about getting it out in public.

As for the size, like the BlackBerry PlayBook and the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the 7-inches compared to the Motorola Xoom and iPad 2’s larger screen certainly makes a difference, this is more like a paperback book than a full screen laptop without a keyboard, and that changes the experience dramatically.

Specs

Let’s get the bad bits out of the way first: it’s not dual-core and it’s not Honeycomb. That means it is at a disadvantage compared to the likes of the Motorola Xoom or the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, happy to tout their Honeycomb wares, or other tablets coming on the market that are more powerful with a dual-core chipset. That’s not to say it’s a slouch though, the Flyer still packs a 1.5GHz processor, and 1GB of RAM meaning it zips along just fine.

Apps opened quickly, although there is a noticeable lag compared to our Samsung Galaxy S II. It’s not enough to break the bank over, but it’s a good split second slower doing menial tasks like opening the gallery. Getting around the Sense interface isn’t a problem and we didn’t experience any problems in loading Flash in the browser. While the power may not be a problem now, it could be that apps designed for dual core processors in the future may not work so well.  

You get 32GB of internal storage (there is a 16GB version too), the microSD slot we’ve already talked about allows expansion up to 64GB in total and the 5-megapixel camera on the back in addition to the 1.3-megapixel camera on the front.

Camera performance on stills is okay but not great. It’s an afterthought rather than a must-have, but then you probably aren’t getting this for its camera performance anyway. That’s a good job too as the camcorder’s capabilities are even worse, the camera struggling in our tests to produce anything remarkable. You can apply affects like sepia or negative as is standard for HTC devices. As for the front facing camera the capture angle is fairly wide - great for video conferencing (you still can’t do video via Skype). You won’t have to hold it out at arms length to have a conversation.

On the connectivity front you get HSPA/WCDMA, Quad-band, and wireless connectivity in the guise of 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0 and GPS. Don’t for one minute think that you’ll be able to make a call though. The Flyer might have a SIM card, but like the iPad it is not a phone and HTC hasn’t included phone capabilities. That won’t stop you making a call via Skype or other VoIP services, but that SIM is for data only. The Flyer also has the ability to be turned into a wireless hotspot for up to eight devices. Sensors include a digital compass, and a g-sensor, although no barometer (like the Xoom) and no NFC.

Battery life is a promised 4 hours video playback. We found we could get through a good day on a single charge, using it fairly heavily for web applications. Battery will depend on what you do with it of course, but it is better than many the company’s phones.

Media, music, and more

A 7-inch screen makes it perfect for watching movies and content on the go - it’s a really nice size. Most video codecs are supported and you get to watch them in the standard ways available to you via Sense. That means 3GP, 3G2, MPEG4, WMV, AVI (MP4 ASP and MP3), Xvid (MP4 ASP and MP3) are all supported covering most options. The Flyer supports playback up to 720p and we had no problems doing that.

Besides importing your own content, there are plenty of other options too. A quick visit to the BBC iPlayer lets you watch all the content thanks to Flash support built-in to the browser. The Apprentice here we come…

But wait, there’s more. HTC has also introduced a new movie download and streaming service, which has debuted on the Flyer. Watch is for buying tracks on the go and lets you download 720p movies (just make sure you’re on Wi-Fi).

HTC’s answer to iTunes movies (and soon to be launched Google Movies) is Watch. It is currently a series of trailers in a Cover Flow design that you can … watch. Although the app is there, the service is still to be turned on in the UK. However a sneak peak before we updated to the final ROM (that will be available on retail units) showed us that it's a easy to use and currently has around 100 movies and TV shows to rent or download.

Rentals vary in price, but the average seemed to be £2.49, while movies to buy cost around a tenner. Not all are available to rent, and we will make sure we cover this in more depth when it launches properly in the UK. (Sadly we didn’t get a screenshot expecting the access to still be available in the final ROM.) Likewise OnLive, HTC’s gaming service isn’t present either, presumably because it is not ready yet, so we were unable to test this.

Streaming is quick and as long as HTC can get decent movies on the service you’ll want to watch - at the moment it’s classics like Ferris Burris Day Off or Napoleon Dynamite, then this has strong potential for the travel bound tablet fan.

Sharing all this content is easy. You either get to watch it on the screen, or fire it out across your living room to other supported media devices like your DLNA TV or a media player on the network - it worked very well with our Sonos system with music, for example.

When it comes to music there too are a number of options on the device before you have to start enlisting the help of services like Spotify. Amazon MP3 is pre-loaded. The music player has been re-designed to benefit from the landscape view with your playlists and tracks on the left and what’s playing on the right.

Twin stereo speakers might be found on the rear of the Flyer, but this doesn’t seem to affect the sound quality, which can be switched from Stereo to SRS where available. The quality is good, certainly better than we expected, and the speaker placement uses the curve in the design of the back of the player to bounce off the table if lying flat, although at an angle is pushed away from you. The PlayBook’s front facing speakers produce a better sound.

The pen is mightier than the sword

Helping the HTC Flyer to stand out from the tablet crowd is the Magic Pen that comes in the box. The stylus, pen, scribe, digitiser, or whatever you call it comes in the box (for Best Buy customers in the US it won’t) and gives you a secondary level of input beyond your finger.

The idea is that you can use the Magic Pen to jot down notes quickly by writing them rather than having to operate a keyboard - something that’s not hard here because of the Flyer’s size and the very good keyboard with decent autocorrect anyway. The pen is activated by pressing on a small green icon next to those shifting buttons we mentioned earlier. When it’s red then the pen is no good to you and you’ll have to put it away.

The app will dictate the level of input the pen gives you. Currently the pen only works with two apps shipped on the device, both from HTC, although HTC has said that third party developers can get involved. Those apps include Notes, a service HTC has teamed up with Evernote to create, and Reader, HTC’s ebook reading app allowing you to make notes or highlight text.

Furthermore, and this will be welcomed by anyone that’s ever tried to do a screenshot on Android, you can use the pen at any time to take an instant screenshot of what’s going on. (The only place we’ve found that it doesn’t work is in HTC’s Watch application, and we presume this is because of the copyright issues.) Why would you need to take a screenshot of a page and then draw on it? Well for web developers making constant mark-ups on a website design we can see this being very handy - especially when you can Dropbox the results straight away.

So that’s the theory, what about the actuality? The first problem we encountered is that the Flyer doesn’t have a place for the pen to live. There is no hidden stylus sheath in which it tucks. Perhaps realising this, HTC have bundled a leather case with the device that has a slot for the pen. It means you won’t necessarily lose it in the first 10 minutes, but it’s something that you need to bear in mind.

The pen itself is akin to an expensive Biro and features two buttons on the side, which act as function buttons. Thanks to some clever technology in the screen itself the Flyer knows when it is being touched by the pen or by the finger. That means that if you are using the pen your hand won’t trigger random actions. That said, the main focus on interaction on the Flyer is still by the finger touch.

The first couple of times you try to press something with the pen that you aren’t able to, it politely tells you are doing it wrong. The pen instead controls a small dial that appears in the bottom right-hand corner, accessible by tapping on the green logo we told you about earlier. That reveals a series of options from what pen type to choose, the colour and size. There are eight primary colours, six pen types and five different sizes. Beyond that there are options for toggling on and off your marks, deleting them altogether or if you’re looking for something slightly less severe the ability to redo or undo.

In use and the pen is very responsive, easy to use, and works as you would expect a pen to work. HTC has found a balance between weight and size of the pen itself and if it had the ability to write on paper as well, you wouldn’t think that it was a dedicated digital pen (aside from those buttons). Using the pen to make notes is easy and then sharing those notes via HTC’s Sense UI easier still, but you have to ask how much value it really offers and whether you are going to actually use it.

We suspect it’s the latter, for while it works, we personally can’t see the need to doodle, or highlight text. Ditch the pen and it’s a giant phone, no really it really is. But then that’s us and we acknowledge that that won’t be the case for many individual whether it’s designers sketching or just annotating notes. The technology works, you’ve just got to find a use.

Apps

For those worried that the HTC Flyer might not offer much more beyond the pen you shouldn’t be. The HTC Flyer has HTC Sense for Tablets at its core. Along with all the normal HTC goodness, you get dedicated apps like Watch, a new tablet variation of mail that splits the view into two panes to make best use of the available space, and other features like Kid Mode by Zoodles that makes your tablet child-friendly.

You might not get Honeycomb (although HTC has promised an update soon), but the company has done all that it can to cover up that fact thanks to HTC Sense. That’s not to say the experience is perfect. The Gmail app (as opposed to the standalone email client) isn’t “tabletised” and other apps don’t benefit in the same way their Honeycomb offerings do. But when it comes to HTC Sense features, they’ve done all they can.

There is of course much more to the new Sense for tablets: there’s the new homescreen unlocking mechanism when you turn the device on; SnapBooth which is a way of showing you a stack of effects the camera can produce; Evernote, the note taking software that lets you share notes with people and yourself via the web; and Kid Mode thanks to an app provided by Zoodles that locks down the Flyer so your kids can’t cause chaos if you leave it with them. Others include Polaris Office, PDF Viewer, Amazon MP3 player, Navigation, and many more.

As we’ve said, core apps get a upgrade, the keyboard now features a better auto correct feature that certainly gives SwiftKey a challenge and this can be used in portrait or landscape mode, but the landscape doesn’t drastically change to use the space to best effect. The keys are bigger, or wider, and that's about it.

Regardless - find anyone with an HTC device and we are sure they’ll wax lyrical about the apps and features of the operating system they have. Much of it is the same whether that’s Market, News and Weather, Navigation, Weather, or Stocks. Yes some get a slight change for the tablet version, but the core experience is the same.

For a fuller, longer, in-depth detailing of some of the new apps it’s worth reading our HTC Interface walkthrough we wrote after a detailed play with the new features with HTC and a Flyer back in February.

Verdict

The HTC Flyer is a giant phone without the phone calling capabilities, just as the iPad 2 is a giant iPhone without the calling capabilities. The Flyer sports HTC Sense, it has the same aspect ratio as a phone, and even runs a phone operating system (Android 2.3.3). By those terms it means that its competitors are the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Dell Streak 7, the ViewSonic and Archos tablets and a whole range of mediocre products in-between. But to bundle it in that category would do the HTC Flyer a disservice: it is better than that and it deserves more attention, thanks to the full inclusion of Android Market and the niceties of Sense.

The lack of Honeycomb is something that HTC has said it’s fixing. Doing so, while HTC won’t admit this, will make a massive difference in the way apps are viewed and work. Android Honeycomb makes native Android apps, like Gmail or the browser, work much better on a larger screen. Of course it also brings with it a change to notifications and optimised menus, which may well leave HTC with a lot of work to do to make Honeycomb and Sense gel together.

If you’re already a HTC Sense user then you’re going to love it. It is like HTC has taken your phone and supersized it, literally, bringing you a stack of new features all around the same core experience that you know and love. The HTC Sense users we’ve shown it to have all got very excited and no one so far has had anything bad to say about the Flyer, even when we mention the pen.

It’s a well polished, well built tablet. HTC has been clever here. This is a tablet for those that don’t necessarily want the latest features of Android, want the experience their HTC phone gives them, but essentially want something that will work, work well, and ultimately be familiar to those who have bought into the HTC lifestyle already.