ViewSonic ViewPad 7x

ViewSonic said they would touchdown early with a 7-inch tablet and here we have it. The ViewSonic ViewPad 7x joins a market that already seems saturated. But has the age of the 10-inch tablet passed? At 7-inches we pass into new territory, a type of device that gives you more portability and pocketability. 

With tablets slotting into that third screen role, they’re becoming that bedroom, bathroom and sofa companion, a constant connection to the outside world, a way to browse the Internet whilst watching TV, a source of entertainment at any juncture: they’re doing what we were all using our phones for last year.

The 10-1-inch market has its contenders, but the smaller format market is less established. We liked what ViewSonic did with the ViewPad 7, but berated the lack of power and the OS was a poor fit. But with the ViewPad 7x, all that looks set to change.

Design

About the only thing we have to complain about with the design of the ViewPad 7x is the glossy back. Although it hides subtle red detailing deep within the plastic, you’ll spend more time wiping it clear of fingerprints than you’ll probably like. Although it looks black, when the light catches it at an angle you’ll catch the crimson, with triangular detailing matching the triangular cutouts for the rear 5-megapixel camera and LED flash openings.

The red waistband continues the colour theme, and like many devices these days, the contrasting colour highlights the connections and physical controls. Being a Honeycomb tablet the main interactive controls reside on-screen, leaving only the standby button and volume rocker as hard buttons. Stereo speakers sit at either end, a conventional 3.5mm headphone jack, micro HDMI and Micro-USB have their place, along with a covered bay to accept a microSD card, with up to 32GB supported. The micro HDMI will, with the appropriate cable, allow you to mirror the device on a larger screen - which looks great and will let you show off your content with consummate ease. 

Like many other recent tablets, you’ll need to use the DC input to charge it - the Micro-USB is only there as a data connection. The real positive point is how good the ViewPad 7x feels compared to something like ViewSonic’s ViewPad 10s. It feels solid, and whilst some might say it is weighty, at 380g it is noticeably lighter than its larger rivals, as you’d expect.

Power in your palm

Measuring 122 x 195 x 12mm and with a screen diagonal of 7-inches, it moves itself from a tablet you need a bag to carry, to one that actually fits in your pocket. This is not only ViewSonic’s line on the device, but the reality. Having been swanning around the house with the ViewPad 7x for more than a week, we’ve found ourselves slipping it into the dressing gown pocket when heading downstairs to make the morning tea, or slipping it into the inside pocket of a jacket when stepping out of the door.

Of course, this being a Honeycomb device it doesn’t have that big phone feel that 2010’s Samsung Galaxy Tab did (of similar dimensions) as Android 3.x Honeycomb is much better suited to larger devices than Android 2.x builds are.

Toeing the line for recent tablets, you’ll also find that the ViewPad 7x competes internally, with a dual core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 chipset, as you’ll find in the likes of the Motorola Xoom, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and numerous smartphones. On the RAM front you get 1GB, with 8GB of internal memory (some used by the OS however). All in all, it’s an impressive loadout, especially compared to the rather underpowered ViewPad 7 forebear.

Sweet Honeycomb: now pocket sized

Before we proceed further, we’d like to make it clear that, because we’re amongst the first to see the ViewPad 7x, the device on review here wasn’t the firmware that the retail device will ship with. ViewSonic has told us, even as we write this, that a later build has just arrived with them. We’re also aware that some of the preinstalled applications that will ship with the final device weren’t included on our review device.

If the ViewPad 7x was riddled with problems then that might be an issue, but in this case it isn’t. The Android 3.2 build running on the ViewPad 7x was stable and didn’t present us with any problems. We did encounter some problems with apps however. The likes of IMDb and Movies from Flixster were persistently crashing, and Gameloft’s Backstab HD claimed it wasn’t compatible and prompted us to get a refund. The core experience, the Google apps, seemed to run fine, and it’s difficult to judge whether this is a device problem, or a wider issue with apps on smaller Honeycomb devices, as we know the Acer Iconia A100 also has some app compatibility problems. 

We’ve talked a lot about Honeycomb in our review of Google’s tablet OS, so we’re not going to laboriously repeat all that here except to say that we’re impressed by how neatly Honeycomb fits onto this smaller device. At first glance it looks the same: controls, notifications and general behaviour are all the same, but once you put it alongside a larger device you’ll see how screen space has been put to best use. For example, heading into the settings and you’ll find that some of the headers in the different categories move out of the main info box to the top of the screen to give it more space. Likewise, head into the YouTube app and you get two rows of thumbnails rather than three. Minor differences, but they leave us with a sense that Honeycomb works here.

Of course this being Android, once you’ve signed into your account(s), the contents of the Googleverse will pour into the ViewPad 7x. Your Gmail, contacts, calendars, YouTube subscriptions and so on will all be there. You’ll get access to the Android Market, offering up its tasty treats for you to snack on, so you can download your favourite apps, games and anything else (with the caveat that some might crash). 

A different view

ViewSonic haven’t just left the ViewPad 7x to languish in Google glory, with differentiation coming in the form of a number of preinstalled applications. The biggest of these is something they are calling ViewScene 3D, a modified version of SPB Shell 3D. The 3D isn’t just in name - you can actually enable 3D, although without a 3D screen you’ll have to make do with anaglyph and don a pair of coloured glasses. 

This interface replaces the homescreens you’ll normally find in Honeycomb, giving you a set of customisable panes that you can swipe through, adding widgets and shortcuts as you’d expect. There are a number of live widgets that come with the shell which are unique (i.e., they’re not Honeycomb widgets), but you can add regular Android widgets in too. It doesn’t all behave the same way as Honeycomb, so you don’t get resizable widgets, but that’s a minor point, considering what the included widgets offer.

ViewScene 3D doesn’t just depend on swiping, there is a slider across the bottom, which pops the interface back into a rotating 3D view which you can spin and select the screen you want. But taking it a step further, if you pause on a screen, you’ll find the widgets are animated, so pause on the calendar widget, and the day’s appointments will pop-up and scatter over the screen, land on the weather page and it pops-out animated weather for your selected cities. It’s pretty clever.

As we mentioned, there were some software differences between our review model and the models that will eventually hit the shelves. One is ViewScene 3D, which on our device wasn’t part of the preinstalled apps. As result, when we started the device up we had the option to choose between the regular Honeycomb launcher or the ViewScene 3D interface - assuming this remains the case on retail units, you’ll be able to try both and then decide which suits your needs, abandoning ViewSonic's modification if you don't like it.

For us, ViewScene 3D isn’t too offensive, but given the simplicity of Honeycomb and the full range of customisation it offers we’d happily live without it. Admittedly things like the weather pane are useful and it’s impressive to show off the 3D spinning homepages. If you’re interesting, head over to Android Market and check out SPB Shell 3D, on which it is based.

Elsewhere, ViewSonic will be including a full version of LogMeIn Ignition, which will let you access your PC from your tablet (we saw a similar thing with SplashTop on the Asus Eee Pad). You’ll also get Angry Birds and the Kindle app pre-installed. Essentially, although the latter two are free, it means you’re ready to get started entertaining yourself straightaway. We also found Myriad UPnP in place, which capably streamed music, video and photos from our Cisco media server, which is a convenient addition.

The final addition is the TouchPal keyboard. This keyboard is in addition to the default Android keyboard so you can easily switch between the two. Neither is especially good, with the TouchPal variant being a little too fiddly when it comes to entering anything beyond simple words - alternative characters or digits means moving to a different section and then back again. Both keyboards are easily bettered by something by SwiftKey Tablet X which you can get from the Android Market and offers a better experience. At this size, holding the tablet in two hands and bashing out emails with your thumbs is easy.

Display

The display, with a resolution of 1024 x 600, giving you a pixel density of 169ppi, is vibrant and capable of producing some great colours, although the whites are a little on the yellow side and the blacks aren’t the deepest we’ve seen. These things don’t worry us, but we did find that viewing angle from “above” can be a little restrictive.

This suggests there is an “up” and “down” in landscape modes, even though the screen content will rotate as you move the tablet. This is confirmed by the positioning of the speakers in the ends. When the speakers are uppermost, you’ll find you don’t obstruct them with your hands when gripping the ViewPad and you’ll then also get the most freedom with viewing angles. Get the ViewPad upside down and you’ll find your hands blocking the speakers and the screen blacking out - something you’ll soon get familiar with.

Whilst in landscape viewing this doesn’t really make much of a difference (“upside down” is better suited when using headphones due to the location of the 3.5mm port), when viewing the device in portrait you will notice that image quality from one side of the display drops off rapidly.

Entertainment on the move

Many people are finding that in reality, tablets aren’t the content creators they might have hoped. That’s no surprise to us, and although you can dive into apps like Evernote or Google Docs, you’ll find that you have less visible space than on larger devices once you fire the keyboard up. It isn’t impossible to organise yourself and email works pretty well, but entertainment feels much more at home on a device this size. 

We found that there was plenty of volume on offer from those speakers at the ends, although at higher volumes we found that there was a fair amount of vibration in the case. Connecting headphones will give you better audio results, although we found the steps in volume was a little severe at first, so it can be a challenge to find a quiet setting with headphones. We also encountered another issue - interference chirping from the Wi-Fi radio. We tried several pairs of headphones and found that they were both affected by the Wi-Fi - in airplane mode playing a video from the memory this isn’t a problem, but streaming a movie over Wi-Fi can be frustrating. 

One of the accepted advantages of Honeycomb over notable rivals like the iPad, is integrated Adobe Flash support. This means you get a more complete internet experience, with more websites behaving as they should. We fired up our old favourite 4OD and had no problem navigating the Flash-heavy site to watch catch-up TV. In fact, performance was better than on our Xoom, with the browser giving a strong showing for itself. 

The browser in general is very good, seemly free of the bugs of early Honeycomb days and offering a great overall internet experience. At 7-inches there’s more to play with than on your phone, but you lose that big screen convenience. Whereas on a 10-inch tablet you’ll find that many sites fit well, down on the smaller screen you lose a fair amount through the tabs and address bar, so it’s worth playing with Honeycomb’s Quick Controls in the browser to give yourself a little more screen space.

The ViewPad 7x is ideal for taking movies on your travels. We found it coped with common codecs, although there was no support for DivX or DivX HD. It handled 720p camcorder footage with some skill, giving cracking results. Of course, to widen the format support you can download other media players from the Android Market. 

Cameras

You’ll find both front and back cameras, the front 2-megapixel model offering video for applications like Skype or Google Talk, with the 5-megapixel rear camera offering to capture the world around you. The interface is the standard Honeycomb camera interface which is pretty basic, but we’ve never had a problem with it, seeing as other than in testing, we’ve never used a tablet for taking photos.

Perhaps that will be different with something as pocketable as the ViewPad 7x, but don’t get too excited as the resulting photos are just about average, and don’t hit the same good standards you now expect from your top-rung mobile phone. They demonstrate the hallmarks of camera phones, with plenty of fringing and invariably noisy images in lower light, but that’s nothing unusual for a tablet. Unfortunately our tests weren’t helped by the miserable British weather.

On the video front it will capture HD video of the 720p variety, at 30fps, on the highest quality settings. Nothing to get too excited about and once again we doubt you’ll use your tablet for much video capture anyway.

Verdict

So overall the ViewSonic ViewPad 7x has plenty going for it. We haven’t touched on battery life yet. The internal 3200mAh battery didn’t have the staying power that we get from the Xoom which surprised us. ViewSonic said that there were some battery tweaks to come: we averaged about 5 hours of use from it before it started complaining. If you’re planning to be a sofa-based tablet user then battery life probably doesn’t worry you, but if you’re a long haul traveller, you might want to wait and see what other users report once the ViewPad 7x hits the shelves.

The surprising thing about living with a smaller format tablet is that we’ve used it in all the ways we use the larger 10.1-inch Xoom and haven’t really missed the screen size. The portability is a real benefit and the build quality makes the ViewPad 7x feel like the premium product it aspires to be.

The ViewPad 7x is expected to hit the shelves at around £349, not too far off the price you’ll pay for a 10-inch tablet, but essentially you’re getting similar hardware. We can recommend the ViewPad 7x, but keep an eye on reported battery life, app compatibility and that chirping headphone problem.

UPDATE: ViewSonic now tell us the ViewPad 7x is likely to land at £299 in the UK, or €349 on the continent.



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