(Pocket-lint) - Archos hasn't had the greatest success with its run of Android tablets. Having pushed out an Android device way back when, the French company found itself falling foul of the Google certification problem.
Fast forward a few years and things are more positive. The Archos 101 XS comes fully certified, running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich - with a Jelly Bean update scheduled for November - and offering the full Google Android experience.
But the competition is increasingly fierce. The iPad still dominates the tablet market for many consumers, and Google's own Nexus 7 tablet suggests that the future is smaller and cheaper than what Archos is offering here.
So has Archos got it right?
Design and build
Archos has always sat towards the affordable end of the market. That's both good and bad, offering a good deal for consumers, but usually struggling to offer the build and quality of design that you'll find elsewhere. We hate to mention the iPad again, but there's no denying that Apple's tablet is wonderful to both look at and hold.
But with this latest XS device, Archos has made an improvement. Fusing white and silver, the plastic and steel construction is slim and cleanly designed. It can't quite hold a flag to the elegant simplicity of the Asus-built Nexus 7, but it's better than some of the "cheap" black plastic tablets you'll find out there.
The build quality of the tablet is reasonable. It doesn't flex or creak when manipulated in the hands like some do, but tapping around the display we found an unusually hollow-sounding patch. The body is formed from front and rear pieces of the plastic shell and that means that the edge has a seam, something that's getting less common in this world of unibody design devices.
It is slim at only 8mm thick and with measurements of 273 x 170 x 8mm it beats many rivals, but the immediate effect is that it's not hugely comfortable to hold. At 600g, we found when supporting the tablet one-handed in bed, the edge started to dig into the joint of the finger and thumb.
But bringing a touch of the premium is a steel sheet to finish the back. It looks good, but even during the time we've had the Archos 101 XS to review, we've found it's easily scratched and that's from carrying in a backpack and use around the office and home. You WILL need to use a case to preserve the finish.
Physical buttons are kept to a minimum. There is a power/standby button and a volume rocker. Both are a little pokey and the placement on the end of the tablet means that it is possible to turn off the display, or change the volume, in the middle of a video call, should you be resting that end on a desk, ahem.
Connectivity and specification
Leading straight on from design, the physical connections on the Archos 101 XS are rather more generous than many recent rival devices. We'd totally expect this from a company like Archos and media fans will be pleased to find a mini HDMI and a microSD card slot in place.
The microSD card slot (which supports microSDXC up to 64GB, currently) will let you expand your storage over the 16GB of internal memory. It's an exposed slot of the spring-loaded type so there is some potential to fire the card out accidentally, but we found it stayed put in transit and in testing.
There is the expected 3.5mm headphone jack on board and Micro-USB, used for charging and syncing, as well as offering USB host, so will accommodate a range of other accessories, external drives and so on.
The display on the Archos 101 XS measures 10.1-inches on the diagonal and offers a typical resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels. It lacks auto-brightness, so won't change to suit your environment, which is a little annoying. This can be sidestepped with the stock Android power control widget, however.
The display is vibrant and bright, exhibiting a nice palette of colours and respectably deep blacks. Viewing angles are good rather than fantastic, somewhat blighted by the high reflectiveness of the surface.
Like many tablet screens, it's next to useless in bright conditions because of those reflections and its lack of screen brightness. In reality, you're more likely to be using your tablet on the sofa than on the beach, so it shouldn't be a problem for many, but it doesn't have the wow factor of the best devices out there.
Internally you are treated to Wi-Fi b/g/n as you'd expect and Bluetooth 4.0, along with Wi-Fi Display and Direct, available with compatible software and devices.
There is no rear camera, and we can't say we're sorry about that. There is a front-facing camera designed for video calling, along with a mic. It will offer HD capture (of the 720 variety), but aside from the odd video call, we doubt it will see much use. It's placement will fall under your thumb, with the Archos 101 XS not really sure whether it wants to be a landscape or portrait tablet.
But what powers the Archos machine? The company has stuck with Texas Instruments and its dual-core OMAP 4470 chipset, clocked at 1.5GHz, along with 1GB of RAM. In a world where specs make an impression, the lack of a quad-core chipset might deter some, but the question is not about cores, or benchmarks, it's about whether your tablet will actually do what you want it to.
In terms of performance, it feels slower than the Nexus 7, but we suspect that's partly down to the version of Android. Jelly Bean is noticeably slicker in touch operation. In reality, aside from the occasional app that's specific to Nvidia's Tegra platform (some games), the Archos 101 XS tackled daily operations without a hitch.
When you challenge the 101 XS, you might find it becomes a little warm on the left-hand/top end. We're guessing this is where the processor lies, and firing up a session of Riptide GP saw this area getting noticeably warm to touch.
Software and media
Archos hasn't messed around with Ice Cream Sandwich on the Archos 101 XS, much to our pleasure. The native experience is just as you'd expect it to be, which is par for the course on most Android tablets.
The only place where Archos really swings in to add their own dab of customisation is in the media apps. The video and music players are the same design and you get the stock Android video player accessed through the Gallery too, as well as Play Music and associated Google apps.
The Archos media apps in landscape offer a left-hand carousel, pulling in cover art to make them look nice. You can opt to search for info online (you can remove it if it's wrong), so if you have a digital version of a movie, you'll get a nice pretty display.
It also integrates content from an external card, so if you load a card with movies and chuck it in, it looks great. Video playback looks excellent on the tablet. True to Archos heritage, the 101 XS copes with just about any video codec you throw at it, so if you're a movie fan, you'll be well catered for from the off and we had no problems playing a wide range of file types.
There is a single front-facing speaker on the tablet. It's positioning is questionable because it falls just about where you might want to grip the device, but you'll only make that mistake once. The quality isn't great. It's fine for conferencing and system sounds, but if it's music or movies, you'll want to use headphones.
The speaker offers a fair whack of volume, but crank it up and you'll find a lot of distortion comes to the fore. Plug in headphones and the experience is much better with Android's audio options meaning you can tweak the sound to your liking.
This being an Ice Cream Sandwich device, you get Adobe Flash video support. So as long as you use the stock Android browser rather than Chrome, you'll be able to access things like BBC iPlayer online for your streamed goodness from Auntie, for the time being at least.
Elsewhere you'll find Archos has bundled in some of its own apps, but you can remove anything you don't like the look of. One to keep is a full version of OfficeSuite Pro, which will get you going with work, should you choose not to use Google's own Docs service.
The nice thing is that Archos hasn't locked down any apps, so you can remove what you don't want. One app that's worth investigating if you also own an Android phone is the Archos Remote. This is a free app that will let you take control of your tablet from another Android device, so if hooked up to your TV, you can use your phone for a remote control.
Is it a cover? Is it a keyboard? No, it's Coverboard!
The magnetic Coverboard is one of the features of the Archos 101 XS that's getting a lot of attention. We say features, because although it's an accessory, it comes in the box and is actually fairly well considered.
There are plenty of covers for tablets and a growing trend in cover keyboards, with some innovative ideas coming out. Archos has created a chiclet keyboard cover that will stick to the front of your tablet with magnets and offers a magnetic docking stand for typing.
It's only 5mm thick, so when stuck to the front of the tablet, swells it to only 13mm, which is still pretty slim - slimmer than a netbook, certainly. You can then pull off the cover, stand the tablet on it using the support, guide the tablet down onto the keyboard and the X-pin connection.
It works well and the magnets are strong enough to keep the screen in place reliably. You can happily pick up the tablet "screen" and the keyboard is perfectly secure. We found it balanced well too, so sitting on a train, typing on the knees is entirely possible.
However, in the pursuit of saving weight and bulk, the construction of the Coverboard is rather lightweight. We can't help feeling that adding a little more metal would have improved the whole thing. The problem only really occurs if you try to lift the docked device by the keyboard, when you'll find it bends frighteningly under the weight of the screen.
We'd advise against lifting in this way, because we're sure the keys would pop off fairly quickly. But those keys are actually very nice. Individual, with a typing action that makes them usable, the only criticism is size really and that's something you'll get used to.
You'll find yourself using a collection of key presses and screen pokes to keep things moving along, but there are a number of keys dedicated to Android that make things easier. You get hardware toggles, like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, you get brightness, volume and media playback keys.
You also get home, back, recent apps, search. The cursor keys will let you navigate around and there's a menu and notifications too. All-in-all, someone has actually thought about what Android users want and put it mostly into place.
Typing on the Archos 101 XS Coverboard is possible, and working on the move becomes easier when you're not fighting for space on the screen. We found it worked well enough in Google Docs, through Google Drive as well as in the bundled OfficeSuite Pro. Our only real gripe, apart from the lack of caps lock indication, is the small right-hand shift.
There seem to be some compatibility problem with Gmail however. Typing becomes difficult with the Gmail app because lots of keys will jump you back a text box. Press delete and you're back in the subject. Press caps lock and you're back in the address box, press backspace and, well, you get the idea. Other apps seem fine, so hopefully this is minor fixable issue. Until then, Gmail is tricky to use with the keyboard.
So it's a stand, keyboard and cover, but in making a dynamic accessory, one thing is overlooked. If you don't want to use the keyboard, but like the protection it offers screen, you're left with a slab of keyboard. In an ideal world, we'd like to be able to flip it around and stick to the back of the tablet to keep it out of the way. Alas, this isn't an option, so you'll be stuffing it back into your bag when not in use.
And the rest…
Archos gives the battery life as seven hours for video, or 10 hours of mixed usage. In writing this review, we've drained the battery in approximately five hours from fully charged. That's mixed use, but a lot of playing around, with the display taking the lion's share of the power. The Coverboard unfortunately doesn't have a battery, but does offer a Micro-USB connection and will charge the tablet when docked, should you plan to leave it on a desk.
We've found the Archos 101 XS to be stable in everyday use. We've had the occasional app not respond, for example the gallery not producing thumbnails, prompting a restart, but generally speaking it's been smooth sailing for the new tablet. The browser is speedy, the keyboard is responsive and we're left with little to complain about. It behaves like an Ice Cream Sandwich tablet and, indeed, like many of the other ICS tablets out there.
There are also other accessories. The Cradle will let you hook up the tablet to an audio rig via RCA, with additional USB connectors for external drives. There's also a Boombox - which we've yet to see - a 32W speaker dock, but can't comment on its performance.
We know how important desirability is to consumers. Although the Archos 101 XS is smart, is it going to be desirable enough to for the £299 asking price? For a 10-inch tablet, the price is pretty good, but it’s only £30 cheaper than an iPad 2 and those sell like hot cakes.
It's also £100 more expensive than the Google Nexus 7, the darling of Android tablets, the flagship device for Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. That’s a fair difference in price.
When it comes to challenging something like the Asus Transformer line, the Archos looks favourable when it comes to price. It's certainly a more compact offering, but the Tranformer keyboard is more substantial. If this is what you want, try them both.
What the Archos 101 XS brings then is a credible alternative to what's out there. If you're looking for a lightweight tablet and want a keyboard for working on your travels, then it's well worth a look. We've been pleasantly surprised by what Archos has done here, as it works in that role.
But we're also slightly confused by the push towards productivity. Archos is traditionally about entertainment - entertainment your way. And here the company seems to want to do work your way too.
In truth, the Android tablet market is littered with options. The Archos model is innovative and good value, but you might find a Bluetooth keyboard would make many of the other models more desirable.