In conversations with Archos before we began this review, we were presented with a choice: we could try either the 8-inch 80 G9 or the 10-inch 101 G9. While we haven't ruled out the possibility of giving the latter a whirl, our gut told us to start with the 8-incher. Why? Well, to be honest, we haven't seen that many of them. 10-inch slates come a dime a dozen, and though we've only tested a handful of 7-inchers, the market will soon be overflowing with them. But 8-inch tablets? Not so much. So here we are, getting acquainted.
Archos' tablets have always strayed from the slab-of-glass look made popular by the likes of the iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1. And if you've been following along, you know the 80 G9 isn't that big of a departure from the 70 and 101 tablets
we reviewed last year. The large lettering on the back cover has carried over, as have the bezels, which are wider in landscape mode than in portrait. This time, though, Archos traded the brushed metal back for smooth plastic. But, there's more here than meets the eye. Lying just underneath that plastic is a layer of stainless steel, which makes the entire tablet feel rigid. There are two exceptions to that, actually, but they're both understandable. These pieces -- a kickstand and USB slot (more on both in a moment) depress ever-so slightly when you bear down on them with your fingers, and make a faint creaking noise in the process, but otherwise the lid feels reassuringly solid. It's also worth noting that the kickstand feels firmly attached - we tried flexing it backward, like a schoolyard bully bending our fingers the wrong way, and the blessed thing stayed put (you know, like our fingers).
'Round back, you'll find that kickstand -- a fixture on older Archos tablets -- as well as a pull-out slot revealing a full-sized USB port. If you're based in Europe, you an buy can Archos-made USB 3G stick into which you can insert your own SIM (Archos confirmed this won't work in the US). An Archos rep also said the company's working on an LTE, carrier-subsidized version for the states, but for now, third-party USB 3G sticks (for the European market) should work, even if they do protrude awkwardly.
Lingering on the back cover for a moment, you'll find four small, rubberized feet, along with a lone speaker. If you hold it in landscape mode, you'll find most of the action lies on the left edge, which houses the aforementioned USB / 3G slot, a power / lock button, a micro-USB port, microSD reader, headphone jack and a mini-HDMI socket. In fact, with the exception of a volume rocker on the opposite edge, the tablet's sides are blank, making for a (mostly) minimalist look. Ironically, given the abundance of unused space, we wish Archos had placed the volume buttons a touch higher, since they're all too easy to press by accident if you're holding the tablet in landscape mode.
Speaking of minimalist, the 80 G9 has a 720p front-facing camera, but not a rear-facing one -- an obvious trade-off for scoring a Honeycomb tablet this cheap. Given the abysmal image quality we've been treated to in most every other tablet, we can't say we're disappointed Archos dropped this pretense altogether.
All told, the tablet feels light in the hands, though we're finding that the 8-inch form factor is just big enough that typing in landscape mode feels unwieldy in a way it doesn't with 7-inchers.
Display and sound
Like its 10-inch sibling, the 80 G9 has a 1024 x 768 MVA LCD panel, which was bright enough for us to see outdoors on a sunny day. Even without the kickstand, you'll find that the viewing angles are pretty versatile, especially from the sides, though we'd be lying if we said that stand didn't help. Certainly, it's more than just a differentiator, a gimmick -- even in our brief time with the tablet, we found ourselves regularly using it to prop up the tablet on our coffee table or desk while we leaned back and used our hands for other, more pressing things (you know, like typing this review). Particularly given that tablet makers can easily get away with selling an external dock for $30 or even $50, it's nice to have this kind of convenience built in.
As for audio, the sound quality is predictably tinny, though we were more concerned by the volume -- we had to crank it to the max to make our music rise above the whirring of our air conditioner, though if you're listening outdoors you might well be using headphones anyway.
Performance and battery life
The 80 G9 packs the same dual-core 1GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4 SoC
found in the LG Thrill 4G
. In general, the display felt responsive and the tablet was brisk enough in opening apps and transitioning between menus and home screens. Look hard enough and you'll notice some delay when switching between open apps. (As it happens, the latest firmware update actually promised to address memory management.) If benchmarks tell at least part of the story, its numbers generally trailed the 7-inch, similarly priced Acer Iconia Tab A100, though in some metrics, such as the mobile browsing test Vellamo and the graphics benchmark Nenamark 2, the difference was pretty negligible. By the way, guys, mid-way through working on our review we upgraded the firmware from version 3.2.22 to 3.2.46, but didn't notice any significant difference between either set of benchmark scores.
The 80 G9's battery eked out seven hours and six minutes in our battery rundown, which involves playing the same movie on repeat with WiFi on, Bluetooth off and the display brightness fixed at 50 percent. That's with the latest firmware, mind you -- before we upgraded from 3.2.22, we were getting just five hours and 45 minutes of runtime. In any case, its most recent score is still hours less than what you'll get from an iPad 2, but it more or less matches the 7-inch BlackBerry PlayBook. It also managed to outlast the similarly sized 7-inch Acer Iconia Tab A100 and the 8-inch Velocity Micro Cruz T408
by about two hours. So, in the grand scheme of tablets, its runtime is mediocre at best, but compared to models in its size class it's downright impressive.
Like so many other 7- and 8-inch slates trickling into the market, the 80 G9 runs Android 3.2. (Happily, Archos has upped the specs since it announced the tablets in June, at which point it was touted as running 3.1.) You might also be relieved to know that the company has barely tinkered with the stock Honeycomb UI you're used to. The keyword being "barely." Archos did
give Google's native music and video apps a facelift -- a much-needed one, at that. Taking a cue from Cover Flow, the new apps let you navigate your various libraries by swiping through album covers or, alternatively, movie jackets. In the case of both movies and videos, it offers separate folders for internal and external storage as just another shortcut to finding what you want. On top of that, Archos threw in optional widgets that let you scroll through albums and movies right on your home screen. Just tap a thumbnail to start playing something. It's a nice touch, we have to say, and both widgets quickly found a home on one of our secondary home screens. If it's not your thing, you can just ignore it. If only all software tweaks were that simple.
As for apps, you won't find much beyond your garden-variety Honeycomb staples here. We point this out just because some tablets we've tested recently -- the IdeaPad K1
and the Toshiba Thrive
, to name two -- have bundled various popular apps (and yes, some bloatware, too) as a kind of value-add. Of course, the Archos 80 G9 is well-made and cheap with acceptable battery life, which makes it plenty valuable already.
One trade-off you'll make in exchange for walking away with a $300 tablet: this guy has only a front-facing camera for video-chatting / grainy self-portraits. In conversations with the company, an Archos rep reminded us that this is not a camcorder, and that if people want to take photos, they'll use their smartphones. Fair enough, though we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't point out that dual cameras are a staple on pretty much every other tablet on the market.
So how is that lone 720p camera? In some scenarios, the quality is borderline acceptable, but predictably, a dearth in image stabilization means you'd have to hold the tablet very still if you wanted to use it as a camera. And why would you, given that making use of the front-facing lens means holding the display away from you and reaching around to tap the shutter?