Update: With a new software update, the Notion Ink Adam is slightly better now. If you asked us, we'd definitely still call it beta, but there's progress being made on the UI front.
Notion Ink Adam unboxing and hands-on
- Intriguing designs
- Sunlight-readable screen
- Full-size USB and HDMI ports
- Software is beta at best
- Broken promises
- Unrealised dreams
While we're comparing with the Xoom, it's probably worth mentioning that even though the Adam actually has a slightly smaller 10-inch screen, the rest of the unit completely dwarfs Motorola's slate and most other tablets we've seen. It's not that the Adam is fat -- handle aside, its 14 millimeter girth is comparable to all but the latest batch of skin-and-bones rigs -- but rather that it's got a gigantic bezel surrounding the screen that no amount of photoshopping can hide.
The upper-left-hand corner of the bezel is where you'll find the Adam's four capacitive touch buttons, which are a disappointment in and of themselves. They're not backlit, provide no vibrating feedback, and are in a position where it's easy to brush them with stray gestures. We aren't completely sold on Google's virtual buttons in Honeycomb, which are always positioned at the bottom left corner of the screen, but at least we can use them in the dark and live without fear of exiting apps and canceling commands accidentally.
Underneath that bezel, however, there's something fantastic going on -- rival manufacturers take note -- enough full-sized ports crammed into that creamy white band to make the tablet into a potential laptop alternative. There's a lot of fuss about connecting tablets to keyboards and televisions as of late, but the Adam doesn't need a proprietary keyboard, cables or docks because it's got two full-sized USB ports and a full-sized HDMI slot. It detects USB peripherals automatically and seamlessly, as we discovered when we plugged in our wireless Logitech mouse and keyboard using their Nano receivers and had both work like a charm, and the Adam can do full 1080p display mirroring over that HDMI port. Unfortunately, the HDMI connection doesn't pass audio signals and may not line up the mouse cursor with the television properly (unless you've got a 1:1 pixel mapping option) so it's not quite the leanback experience we'd hoped, but we were definitely able to draft some business emails and browse the web without ever touching the screen.
Display / touchscreen
We're sorry to say that two of these promises simply weren't fulfilled. Not only do you have to affix an (included) screen protector to achieve the matte effect, but the Adam's viewing angles are terrible. Approach it from any angle but head-on and either the whites or blacks wash out, and if you tilt it to the left everything begins to turn a sickly yellow. The colors are also a bit washed out, and if you're a fan of deep, inky blacks you'd best look somewhere else, as the best the Adam can do is a shade of noisy purple. Moreover, the matte screen protector is fairly thick and we suspect it may be to blame for making the tablet's capacitive digitizer less effective than it should be, as it often felt like we had to press with a little bit of effort to get the Adam to respond to our touch. All that said, the Pixel Qi's reflective mode most certainly does work, and it does its job well, saving hours of additional battery life and making the screen quite viewable outdoors. The question is whether that's worth all the other tradeoffs.
Drag and drop an app from the ribbon onto the desktop and the Adam will attempt to open it in Panel View. Sadly, you can't just turn any app you want into a Panel, only the ones that Notion Ink specifically includes, and as of today those are precious few -- not to mention that those that come with the Adam are buggy and frustrating as a general rule. The interface is also slow to scroll, often unresponsive, and not every part responds the same way to Android's hardware buttons. We also had some very odd issues when the tablet went to sleep -- sometimes, it refused to wake up without rebooting, and once it spontaneously reset the internal clock to January 1st, 2009. Oh, and on occasion when the UI was acting unresponsive, the entire tablet would crash to a black screen and reboot spontaneously. Not good.
Let's take a few of Notion Ink's bundled apps for a spin, shall we?
Mail'd: There's no Gmail here, but Notion Ink provides an alternative -- Mail'd, an IMAP / POP3 client (reportedly based on the popular K-9 Mail for Android) that can automatically set up an IMAP version of Gmail with just your email address and password -- though we had quite a bit of trouble getting the setup screen to recognize user input. It's got a fairly useful two-panel tablet layout for browsing and reading email, and a full-screen view as well, but in most every way it's a far cry from Google's Honeycomb Gmail client. Again, the Panel view doesn't automatically sync with what you're doing in the full app, and doesn't automatically update the miniature inbox it provides.
Sniffer: A quick, attractive and intuitive three-panel file manager, Sniffer lets you browse the contents of the Adam's internal storage, microSD card and any attached USB drives, and copy, move, delete, rename, preview, play and search for files. There's also a basic task manager included, and the Panel View is fairly nice, giving access to the full functionality one panel at a time, though once again, it won't keep track of where you were in the fullscreen version.
Calendar: An attractive full-screen or single Panel calendar
Canvas: This one's a fairly interesting -- if pretty basic -- fullscreen painting and photo editing app, which lets you composite three layers at a time, with a full color picker for four custom hues and control over opacity and brush size. There's also eraser, bucket and text tools and a variety of photo filters and tweaks you can access by dropping into edit mode.
Calculator: Notion Ink's built a hefty scientific calculator here which processes multiple functions in a row, and has a virtual tape output so you can keep track of the history. Shrink it down to Panel View and it becomes your standard calculator.
Facebook: This isn't a full-screen app, but rather the mobile version of Facebook's website in a Panel view, along with a notifications bar that theoretically pings the Facebook servers to pull in your social feed automatically. That'd be nice, because the mobile website doesn't ever refresh itself, but we say theoretically because we couldn't actually get notifications to work.
Rest of the heap:
Music is just a play / pause toggle on the homescreen for tunes you've got running in the plain jane Android app, and the Video Player seems to be a re-skin of Android's default Movies app which doesn't play any additional codecs. Notion Ink's Settings pane is actually pretty neat, turning Android's nesting menus into a visually pleasing, intuitive full screen. Nimbuzz is bundled for chat, Quickoffice for basic productivity and Solaro Mobile for an educational twist; all require registration to begin with. OsmAnd is your Maps replacement, with downloadable (and locally cached) open-source maps for different regions around the globe, with the unfortunate compromise of being rather slow. That's about it, really, for included apps, and there's no app store to download more, as the promised Genesis store isn't out yet -- you'll have to sideload third-party app stores and apps if you want to do anything else with the tablet. (Protip: creatively acquired copies of Google Maps and YouTube work just fine, though Gmail and Market didn't.)
Performance / battery life
We mentioned earlier that the Pixel Qi screen extends the Adam's battery life, but it's still not as good as we were led to believe: if you were hoping for the minimum 15 hours battery life that Notion Ink promised, you'll have to look elsewhere.
|Apple iPad 2||10:26|
|Notion Ink Adam (reflective / no backlight)||8:38|
|RIM BlackBerry PlayBook||7:01|
|Acer Iconia Tab A500||6:55|
|Samsung Galaxy Tab||6:09|
|Notion Ink Adam (transflective / with backlight)||5:52|
|Dell Streak 7||3:26|
We did manage to make it through a full 24-hour day with very mild use and found it just about ready to die when we woke up the next morn, but in our standard battery rundown test (which loops the same video, with WiFi turned on, and the screen at roughly 65 percent brightness) the Adam managed only 8 hours, 38 minutes with the backlight off. Using the Pixel Qi's full color LCD, we managed only 5 hours, 52 minutes before that 24Wh battery died. Mind you, that's comparable to the original Galaxy Tab, but decidedly weak for a 10-incher.
Features like USB host functionality, a desktop-class web browser, a sunlight-readable screen and a multitask-friendly interface aren't just value-add bullet points that justify a higher price -- they're the difference between a tablet that can augment an existing computer, and one that can replace it altogether and thrust users into a new paradigm. We're sad to see the Adam couldn't make it happen, but there's still an opportunity for other manufacturers to take up the torch.
Update: According to Notion Ink the Calendar app can sync, but you need to manually add your account information in to make it happen. We're working on verifying this.
Myriam Joire contributed to this review.