When it comes to making a budget device, be it a phone or a tablet, compromise is the name of the game. It's not possible to squeeze in top spec hardware components as well as making the product super thin, constructed from top end materials and still hit a budget pricepoint (£199 in this instance)... so something has to give. The problem is it's a delicate balancing act - if the hardware is too basic, the software too poor or the construction too cheap, buyers will be turned off. Archos are no strangers to the lower end of the market and have certainly had their fair share of 'misses' as well as the occasional 'hit'... so which of these is the Archos 80 G9? Read on to find out!
In the box
The tablet comes in a smart black box emblazoned proudly with Honeycomb screenshots and logos as well as the various hardware features of the device. The box contents are spartan - you have the device itself, a microUSB cable, a mains adaptor (dual 110V/240V rated at 5V / 1.5A) with UK, European and US plugs, a rather chunky manual, (albeit in a multitude of languages with only a few pages dedicated to each), a warranty booklet and a support leaflet.
No headphones are included in the box.
Hardware - overview
If you're expecting a lot of corners to have been cut on the device to hit the £199 price point then you're in for a pleasant surprise! The device specs are as follows..
- Android 3.2 Honeycomb
- 8” 1024 x 768 Display
- ARM dual-core CORTEX A9 TI OMAP 4430 processor @ 1GHz
- 512MB RAM
- 8GB internal storage
- microSD expansion
- Video playback: MPEG-4 HD (up to 1080p) / MPEG-42 (ASP@L5 AVI, up to DVD resolution) / H.264 HD (HP@L4.2, up to 1080p@30 fps and 1080i/720p@60 fps)
- Video playback with optional plug-in: MPEG2 (up to DVD resolution MP/D1)
- VIdeo container support: AVI, MP4, MOV, 3GP, MPG, PS, TS, VOB, MKV, FLV, RM, RMVB, ASF
- Audio playback: MP3, WAV (PCM/ADPCM), AAC3, AAC+ 5.13, OGG Vorbis, FLAC
- Audio playback with optional software plug-in: AC3 5.1
- Photo viewer: JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF
- Subtitles: srt, .ssa, .smi, .sub formats supported
- 720p front camera with 720p recording
- USB MTP support
- USB host: Mass Storage Class (MSC) (Micro USB/USB Host cable sold separately)
- Mini HDMI output
- 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
- Bluetooth 2.1+ EDR
- Built-in GPS
- Built-in speakers
- Vibration motor
- Built-in kick stand
- Built-in Microphone
- 226 mm x 155 mm x 11.7 mm (8.90 x 6.11 x 0.46 inch)
- 465g (17 oz)
- Battery life: Music playback time: up to 36 hrs, Video playback time: up to 7 hrs, Internet navigation time: up to 10 hrs
Hardware - around the device
The device is constructed from smooth, shiny grey plastic. While it does feel somewhat cheap, there is little flex and creak. The plastic on the back is softer than i'd like and bends rather easy, but we'll talk more about this later.
So let's give you a tour of the tablet starting with the front. The front of the device is home to the 8" 1024x768 screen, a size and resolution quite unusual in the Android world (although about to get a lot more widespread when the HP Touchpad Android build lands!). The screen is not flush with the front of the device, it has a black border with a 'lip', which some potential users have expressed concern may collect dust as on phones of old. This is quite an unusual design nowadays, but I don't really have a problem with it myself. Below the screen is the 'Archos 80 G9' branding and to the left of the screen is the 720P forward facing camera, primarily intended for video calling. The back of the device has 4 small rubber feet (for when the device is laid flat), Archos branding next to a single speaker roughly in the center of the device, a flip out kickstand (a really useful addition!) and a slide out port where the optional 3G modem can be attached. Behind this port is a regular USB port. The base of the device has two additional feet (although moulded into the case plastic rather than rubber) for use when the device is using the kickstand. The right hand side of the tablet has the volume rocker. The left hand side has the power button (which doubles as a reset button when held for 10 seconds), the microUSB port for syncing / charging, the microphone, a 3.5mm headphone socket and a mini HDMI connector. There is also a charging LED.
The Archos 80 G9 runs Android 3.2 Honeycomb, which really sets it apart in the budget segment of the Market. Honeycomb on board means it's a full Google experience device with a few additions from Archos themselves. Installed software includes...
- Stock Honeycomb software - Browser, Calculator, Calendar, Camera, Clock, Contacts, Email, Gallery (with Picasa integration),
- Google Experience additions - Google Mail, Google Search, Maps, Market, Movie Studio, Talk, YouTube
- Archos Remote (control your Archos Tablet from your Android Phone) - useful if you have it plugged into your TV via HDMI perhaps?
- Files (File Manager)
- Archos Music
- Photo Frame
- Sound Recorder
- System Monitor
- User Manual
- Archos Video
- Voice Dialler (?)
- Voice Search
So that's the overview... what's it like to use?
Actually, it's pretty nice!
While the plastics on the device feel a bit cheap, the device feels good in the hand, not least because the 8" size feels quite natural to hold compared to it's large competitors. If you've used other Android Tablets the 4:3 screen ratio feels a little strange at first, but Android 3.2's added support for such screen sizes on Honeycomb means it's pretty rare for it to be an issue. I find that the volume button placement low down on the right hand side is prone to being knocked accidentally and the microSD sticks out a few mm when it's inserted, which is a little strange. The buttons have a very 'clicky' feel which gives good feedback during use, although being made of the same shiny plastic as the rest of the device they too feel a bit low budget. One thing I have noted is that I have a few very light surface scratches on the back of my unit already - a case may well be a sound investment if you plan to purchase.
One thing that can be a bit disconcerting from a hardware perspective is that the soft plastic used on the back of the device does mean that if you press on it, you can make marks on the LCD display. These marks disappear as soon as you stop pressing, but it does raise a question as to the devices ruggedness over time - see the end of my video below for a demonstration.
The screen itself is bright and clear with reasonable outside visibility. Viewing angles are great from straight on, pretty good from off to the left and above and weaker from the right or below. I have not had issue with the viewing angles at all (compared to devices such as the Vega where it's quite a problem), but sometimes I think about the best way to hold the device to make the most of the viewing angles. For example, if i'm reading in portrait, I get better visibility with the volume key facing up than down.
When the device first arrived, I thought it was DOA. It wouldn't turn on and the manual suggested that there should be a battery charging indicator on the display even when off. It runs out that this isn't the case - the green charging LED will flash to indicate the device is charging but it won't show anything on screen... and it seems it won't turn on until it's had a bit of juice first! Although the device has a microUSB charger it is recommended that it is charged using the supplied 1.5A adaptor, however I have successfully charged the device from my iMac, albeit slower than I would plugged into the mains.
When you first turn on the device you are greeted by the Archos tailored startup wizard which walks you through the initial setup of your device. The setup process is thorough and well presented, introducing the user immediately to a level of polish that has been sorely lacking in Archos products of old and amongst many of it's competitors. The immediate impression is that Archos have stepped up their game. When the setup is completed you are presented with a fairly stock looking Honeycomb build. The iconography, fonts etc. are all stock Honeycomb, but in my opinion this is a good thing. Archos have used base Honeycomb for all of the things that it is great at and then added a light sprinkling of their own tweaks and software to round out the experience... bravo!
When navigating around the device, the experience is generally smooth... or at least as smooth as I find Honeycomb on any of my tablets! I often find that the launcher in Honeycomb is not as smooth as i'd like and while I also see this on the Archos, I don't think it's any worse than i've seen elsewhere. Switching apps on the device and general use is good, although if you are running a large number of applications or applications that use a large amount of memory you can run into the devices memory limit by virtue of the fact that 512MB is included as opposed to the more common 1GB for Honeycomb. That said, i've not had any situations where the reduced memory has caused any serious issues so I wouldn't personally put it down as a big problem.
I'll gradually work through the apps on the device and talk about what they do and most importantly, how well they work. First of all though, i'm going to start with the settings menu. Now, obviously the Android settings menu is every geek's first port of call and on the Archos it's littered with lovely little customisations. In the Wireless settings, you have additional options for the 3G stick. You can turn the 3G stick port on and off, as well as managing the disconnect policy, timeout, SIM pin etc. Being able to turn this port on and off is particularly useful as you can plug in USB sticks and hard disks as well as the 3G dongle (at least with the shipping firmware, they've accidentally removed this in the latest update!) In the screen menu, together with the usual options (although no auto brightness, there's no light sensor), you can adjust the TV overscan for the HDMI output. In the Applications menu, in development settings, you can set the power button short press to take a screenshot instead of suspending. In the storage menu, you can at a glance see Internal, SD card AND USB storage usage. In the Language and input menu you can configure the software keyboards which include Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. You can also configure the layout for a USB connected keyboard and the pointer speed for a USB connected mouse. A new repair and formatting menu allows you to recalibrate the touchscreen or individually reformat / reset different media stores. And finally, in the About menu, you can disable deep sleep, check for an OTA firmware update, register your product and view installed plugins. All small tweaks that add up to round off the device experience.
Working through the launcher, the Archos Connect app is basically a sales ad for the 3G dongle and the Archos Remote app is, as mentioned before, related to remote controlling Archos products from other Android devices. Next comes the Browser. Web browsing on the Archos is a pleasant experience. The 4:3 screen lends itself well to browsing, rendering is fast and multitouch zooming and panning is very smooth. This is probably a good time to talk about online video services. I've tested a number with the Archos (iPlayer, TVCatchup etc.) and they all perform beautifully. What was particular impressive for me was that the device is able to play 'High Quality' TVCatchup streams (in fullscreen mode), something that has choked many a device I have tried it on. Impressive. Typing text into the browser is a pleasant experience due to the good stock Honeycomb keyboard, drop on Swiftkey Tablet and it's even better. The Archos 80 G9 has an internal vibrate motor for haptic feedback, something missing on a lot of more expensive tablets... although again, this seems to have been accidentally disabled on the new software update.
The Calculator, Calendar, Clock, Contacts and Email apps are completely stock Honeycomb, as is the camera, but it's worth mentioning quickly the image quality of the camera. It's just about good enough for Google Talk conversations, but don't expect it to replace your point and shoot. Once again, the included kickstand is helpful here! The camera can take still pictures at 1.2MP or video at 720P resolution... i've included some samples below.The Gallery too is stock Honeycomb, which means you can take advantage of the excellent Picasa integration that's built in. If you haven't used a Honeycomb tablet then you haven't experienced Google's 2-pane GMail client which I personally love. Maps and navigation works very well on the device by virtue of the inbuilt GPS. If you add the 3G stick you have yourself a pretty awesome navigation tool.
In time for my review Google chose to switch on Google Books for the UK, which allows you to buy books from the Android Market on your device. Personally I'm a Kindle user myself. I've used the Archos for reading from the Kindle app and it's a good experience. Just about within reasonable limits for reading in portrait, it's another string on the bow of a very multifunctional device. The 'Movie Studio' simple movie editing app is included, not something i've used a lot in anger to be honest, but for basic video editing it's nice to have there and the Archos seems to have the power to use the app with no issues. Photo Frame is just that as is Sound Recorder.
One app that is worthy of a mention is 'System Monitor'. An Archos addition, it has a lovely Honeycomb UI for showing (and killing) running apps, pending alarm events and wake locks as well as allowing you to uninstall apps. Although Task Killers on the whole are frowned upon, this app is brilliant. It lets you delve pretty deep into what's running on your device and what might be running down your battery in a very friendly UI. Excellent. I've included screenshots below in my Picasa album.
Google Talk is preinstalled provided you update your device to the latest firmware, and, of course, it supports voice and video calling. The installed User Manual application links to, well, the user manual online. Voice Dialler seems a strange inclusion alongside Voice Search (Voice Actions) while YouTube, as always, is a treat on Honeycomb.
I've left a couple of apps until last to talk about - the Archos Music and Video apps. Archos have been in the media player business for a long time, and their expertise shines through on the G9 series. Where the media solutions on previous Android efforts have been something of a hack job between their media players of old and the 'new Android world', their new Media player is very nice indeed. It can play local content, USB content, UPNP content, content over SMB... all out of the box. If you need AC3 support you'll have to pick up an additional ~£13 software addon pack, but the range of format playback out of the box is impressive. The video application will play back MPEG-4 HD (up to 1080p), MPEG-42 (ASP@L5 AVI, up to DVD resolution) / H.264 HD (HP@L4.2, up to 1080p@30 fps and 1080i/720p@60 fps) and MPEG2 (up to DVD resolution MP/D1) with the add-on pack. As far as containers go, the Archos supports AVI, MP4, MOV, 3GP, MPG, PS, TS, VOB, MKV, FLV, RM, RMVB and ASF. The music application will play back MP3, WAV (PCM/ADPCM), AAC3, AAC+ 5.13, OGG Vorbis and FLAC. YES. FLAC! In a nutshell, the device has played back everything i've thrown at it. I've played content from my FreeNAS over the WiFi and it's played beautifully. This is surely helped by the fact that the Archos has excellent WiFi range and 802.11n support means you're going to be making the most of what your wifi router can give you.
One unique feature for the Archos 80 G9 is it's 3G 'dongle system'. Basically, the tablet ships without 3G but has a USB port on the back where a 3G dongle can be inserted at a later date. The dongle costs £49.99 and is tailored to fit the device although it has the added bonus that it also works in Windows PCs and Macs. Neat! Unfortunately I don't have access to a dongle as yet, but if I can get hold of one i'll update the review in due course. I do think it's a great idea though!
For the techies
Rooting the Archos units has been traditionally obtained via the 'Developer Edition' firmware Archos release. This isn't out for the brand new G9 devices yet, but hopefully it'll come. In the meantime, I have a 'temp root on boot' solution i'll be releasing in the near future. Bear in mind that the boot and recovery images are signed on the device and the system partition too has a signature on a squashfs image, so /system changes aren't happening any time soon (i.e. custom ROMs).
I've found my Archos at least living up to the stated battery times in general use but I have also been very impressed by it's standby time. Archos' inclusion of a 'deep sleep' mode means you can effectively power down the tablet when you're not using it such that when you turn it on next it will have lost next to no battery but still turn on instantly. It works extremely well! The downside is that the device is in true sleep and thereforce can't be woken by anything except the power button (e.g. by an Alarm Clock app) but hey, it's a tablet... I think this feature makes a LOT of sense. If it doesn't suit you, you can turn off the feature completely anyway in the settings menu.
If you want to pick up a tablet for under £200, your options are pretty limited. If you want a tablet with a decent screen (it's not the best, but it's good enough), Honeycomb, a speedy processor, GPS, 3G expandability, excellent media playback, a kickstand for taking advantage of said media playback and much much more for under £200, you have a choice of one.
I cannot commend Archos enough for what they've achieved with this device. Yes, they've cut corners to keep the price down but for the first time in my many MANY years of using Archos devices they'd done it sensibly and without massively compromising the overall experience. It's not a competitor for a Galaxy Tab, a Transformer, a Flyer or indeed many of the devices sitting above it on price but for what it is, I have no problem recommending it as a purchase to readers, provided the low end build quality, 4:3 screen ratio and lower resolution compared to some of it peers are not an issue.
Pros and cons
- Great specs
- Good software build
- Excellent media performance
- Full Google experience
- 'Add later' 3G expandability
- Rear case flex (and associated LCD 'swim')
- 512MB RAM
- Slightly cheap plastics - scratch prone
- Unusual 1024x768 screen resolution
- No USB mass storage support in Honeycomb
- Strange feature removal from latest release (USB on 3G port, vibrate)
Do you have an Archos 80 G9? Share your thoughts on the device (and the review!) below!
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63 screenshots are available to view in this Picasa web album.
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