When the Huawei MediaPad was first announced in June, it was notable for being the first tablet we'd heard of to run Android 3.2. Since then, the Acer Iconia Tab A100 and others have beat it to market, but its arrival in the US is timely nonetheless: it joins the petite tablet party at about the same time as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus and forthcoming Toshiba Thrive 7", to name a couple. We already knew that when the MediaPad landed here in the States it would be known as the T-Mobile Springboard, but the carrier just announced some key pricing and availability details: it'll go on sale November 16th for $430 off contract, or $180 with a two-year agreement and $50 mail-in rebate -- not surprising, given that we've been hearing this would cost less than $200 on contract.

In addition to running on T-Mobile's 14.4Mbps HSPA+ network, it has WiFi and GPS radios, a dual-core 1.2GHz chip made by Qualcomm, 227 pixels-per-inch IPS display, 5 megapixel rear-facing camera, a 1.3 shooter up front, 8GB of internal storage, a microSD slot and support for 1080p playback. We'll return to all those specs in detail after the break, but nonetheless, it's important to get them out of the way from the get-go. After all, there's soon to be a glut of Android 3.2 tablets, and it's worth asking if this one is worth the slightly high price -- or maybe even a two-year marriage to Big Magenta.

T-Mobile Springboard review

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T-Mobile (Huawei)

T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad)

Pros

  • Attractive and well-made
  • Easy-to-read IPS display
  • Reliable HSPA+ connection
  • Fast performance
  • Good battery life for a tablet this size

Cons

  • Slightly pricey in the US without a two-year agreement
Summary

It's fast and long-lasting with a handsome design, but you'll get the best value if you buy it off contract.


Hardware


Even among such fine company, the Springboard instantly establishes itself as one well-made hunk of hardware.

This could be an excellent time to pull the trigger on a 7-inch tablet. Sure, there are still some chintzy options like the Iconia Tab A100 and forthcoming Toshiba Thrive 7", but by and large, the Springboard joins a fraternity of attractive, solidly built tabs -- a group that includes the Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus and the steeply discounted PlayBook and HTC Flyer.

Even among such fine company, the Springboard instantly establishes itself as one well-made hunk of hardware. At least when it's turned off, the first thing you'll notice won't be its IPS display, but its smooth metal surfaces. With the exception of two plastic bits on the back, that aluminum stretches across the lid, creeps up along the edges and bumps against the screen. Those plastic pieces form two triangles on either end of the back side, with one covering the SIM and microSD slots, and the other housing the rear-facing camera. The effect is quite pretty, but on a practical level we also enjoy how apparently scratch-proof the tablet is, as well as how relatively light it feels, at 390 grams (0.86 pounds).


All told, that aluminum-and-plastic combination is pleasantly reminiscent of the Flyer and other HTC devices, except here, the back side is almost entirely smooth -- save for the spot where the rear camera protrudes slightly. The Springboard is also thinner, at 10.5mm (0.4 inches) thick, and it feels less dense too (the Flyer tips the scales at 0.93 pounds and 13.2mm thick). Then again, the Springboard looks downright chunky next to the 8.6mm(0.34 inch)-thick Galaxy Tab 10.1, which is arriving on T-Mo around the same time. What's more, the plastic bit covering the Springboard's SIM and microSD slots scrapes off in a disconcerting way that can make you feel like you're breaking it the first time you go to insert a memory card. Given the high-quality display and smooth metal chassis, this feels like the one blight on what's otherwise a classy design.

It's worth noting that the buttons, too, are made of metal, and these include a volume rocker and power / lock key on the right side (that's if you're holding it in portrait mode, with the front-facing camera up top). On that upper edge, near the camera, you'll find twin speakers, along with a 3.5mm headphone jack. The bottom side, meanwhile, houses the power port, as well as micro-HDMI and micro-USB sockets. The left side is completely blank. Really, there isn't much else to say about the port except that we really appreciate how the volume rocker was placed toward the top of the right edge, near the front camera, since that means you won't accidentally press it when you're using this thing in portrait mode.

Display and sound


The Springboard's 1280 x 800 IPS display doesn't disappoint here. For starters, we were able to watch a movie with the tablet propped up in various makeshift positions on our desk (this thing doesn't have a dock, after all). More impressively, though, using it outdoors felt natural. We never stopped to squint as we framed photos, loaded websites and checked email. Which is good to know, since that consistent 3G connection means we'd be more likely to take this on a field trip than some garden-variety WiFi tablet.



Audio, on the other hand, isn't the Springboard's strength but then again, does any tab really excel in this area? The sound was loud enough for us to comfortably listen to music alone in our quiet apartment, but the quality was too reminiscent of a transistor radio: songs sounded metallic, distant, restrained. If you use this for music playback, your best bet is to plug in a good pair of headphones.


Cameras


As we snapped photos in and around Manhattan, we started thinking of what we'd write in this section. "This is one of the best cameras we've seen on a tablet," we imagined saying. "It doesn't blur the foreground in close-ups, and it doesn't struggle with image stabilization to nearly the same extent as other tablets."

As it turns out, we were right -- mostly, anyway. Our images looked a lot better on that crisp, vibrant IPS display than they did blown up on our computer screen. But the colors are accurate, and it does indeed take blur-free stills, which automatically catapults it beyond most tablet cameras. But let's not be hyperbolic here. At times, it seemed that some details had been stripped out. Take that shot of the muni-meter up there, or the close-up that features a bunch of tomatoes. Much of their texture gets lost in translation. As you'd expect, the camera also struggles in harshly backlit situations. Still, while this doesn't quite best the main camera on the EVO View 4G / HTC Flyer, it's still among the most usable we've tested recently.

And it's a good thing, too. Of all the tablets to have a strong camera, we're glad it was this one -- after all, it's easier to use as a point-than-shoot than a 10-inch slate, and its 3G connection means the chances of you toting this thing around are much higher.

T-Mobile Springboard sample shots (rear-facing camera)

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T-Mobile Springboard sample shots (front-facing camera)

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As for the 720p video, we were less concerned with the quality (and its slight ghosting) as we were with its puzzling sound quality: the wind noise in the background is one part howl and another part gurgle -- a distracting sound we couldn't escape even on a mild day.


Performance and battery life

With the exception of the graphics test Nenamark 1, the Springboard bested the Acer Iconia Tab A100 in our usual suite of benchmarks. (To be fair, the margin was small in some cases, such as Nenamark 2 and Vellamo.) Whether it's stronger or just a worthy opponent, that means you can expect brisk performance. The display responds smoothly to swipes and taps, and the 1.2GHz Qualcomm chip did an admirable job keeping up as our digital ADD led us to switch between the browser, Gmail and camera apps.

Still, we sometimes noticed a pause when opening the app menu, and browsing, in particular, wasn't as buttery smooth as we would have liked. When we used two fingers to pinch to zoom, we noticed a delay as webpages resized. Other times, we even detected a stutter while scrolling through pages, though by no means did this happen routinely.

Benchmark
T-Mobile Springboard
Acer Iconia Tab A100
Quadrant 1,871 Would not run
Linpack 46.22 MFLOPS (single-thread) / 58.81 MFLOPS (multi-thread) 28.38 MFLOPS (single-thread) / 55.36 MFLOPS (multi-thread)
Nenamark 1 43.2 fps 57 fps
Nenamark 2 27.9 fps 24.5 fps
Vellamo 1,161 1,057

The 4,100mAh battery is rated for up to six hours of runtime and indeed, it made it six hours and 34 minutes through our rundown test, which entails looping the same movie off local storage with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 50 percent. That's an hour and forty minutes longer than the 7-inch Iconia Tab A100, and a good twenty-five minutes better than what the original Galaxy Tab managed. Still, it's almost half an hour less than the 7-inch BlackBerry PlayBook, which suggests its runtime is respectable for a tablet this size, though not exemplary.

Tablet
Battery Life
T-Mobile Springboard (Huawei MediaPad) 6:34
Apple iPad 2 10:26
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 9:55
Apple iPad 9:33
HP TouchPad 8:33
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 8:20
Motorola Xoom 8:20
T-Mobile G-Slate 8:18
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 8:00
Archos 101 7:20
Archos 80 G9 7:06
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Acer Iconia Tab A500 6:55
Toshiba Thrive 6:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 6:09
Velocity Micro Cruz T408 5:10
Acer Iconia Tab A100 4:54

Network speeds

In theory, the Springboard should be capable of max download rates of 14.4Mbps. In practice, we calculated average speeds of 7.01 Mbps down and 1.66 Mbps up. Excepting the extremely low scores from our office (where everyone's cellular service sucks), our download rates here in Manhattan ranged from 5.02 Mbps to 9.47 Mbps, while our upload rates remained more consistent, with a narrower gamut of 1.62 Mbps to 1.73 Mbps.

Once we entered Brooklyn, an outerborough of New York City, our rates plummeted, falling as low as 0.54 Mbps down and 0.29 Mbps up when we retreated indoors (compare that to 3.22Mbps up and 1.61Mbps down from the fifth floor of our Manhattan office). We have to say, though: we always -- always -- had a signal, even in an apartment where we normally have to sit in just the right place in order to get Verizon 3G service.

In practice, the network speeds were fast enough to load and quickly check websites while waiting for the stoplight to change. And particularly if an LTE radio were to have a negative impact on the battery life, we can see "settling" for a more modest (though very reliable) connection. Still, no amount of "4G" branding can help T-Mobile answer this lingering question: why not just tether the tablet to your smartphone? Or reconsider whether you can get by on WiFi?


Software


Before the Springboard / MediaPad was announced, Android 3.2 was a build of the OS we had only ever joked about. By now, of course, it's a staple on Android tabs, especially those of the 7- and 8-inch variety. Happily, Huawei didn't muck with the stock Honeycomb UI, though it did clutter up the five home screens with widgets -- all of them removable, thankfully. These include the stock Honeycomb calendar and non-Gmail widgets, as well as YouTube, the native music player and Android Market.

But you'll also find widgets for two T-Mobile services: the MobileLife family organizer, as well as a meta Bonus Apps widget that highlights the software T-Mobile pre-installed. Annoying carrier bloatware? Of course it is. But at least these widgets can be chucked in the trash bin, just like any other.

So about those apps. The Springboard comes with Blockbuster, Blio, Let's Golf 2, Lookout security software, Zinio, Quickoffice, Netflix, T-Mobile TV, Qello, Qik Video chat, TeleNav GPS Navigator and My Device, where you can peek data usage and billing information and what-not. When the tablet was first announced, we were told it had Facebook pre-installed, but as it turns out, it's just a browser shortcut. Thanks, guys! In all fairness, though, many of these apps are useful and even the ones that aren't are at least easy to remove or ignore.

The Springboard also comes with Swype as the default keyboard, though you can always revert to the standard Android option if you so choose. As we've discovered with other devices, dragging your finger between letters on the Swype keyword works for spelling out real words; things like passwords and usernames, not so much. In those instances, we found ourselves using Swype as a traditional peck-with-your-thumbs keyboard, which is how we interact with any Swype-enabled device when we know we're about to type something that will cause its algorithm to stumble.

Data plans

The Springboard itself costs $179.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate, but once you have the tablet in hand you'll be required to make 20 monthly payments of $10 each. Plans start at $30 a month for 2GB of data with no overage fees, though if you're already locked into a T-Mobile voice plan, you're entitled to 5GB of data per month for $20. In fact, voice customers get $10 off any of the available monthly plans.

More of a no-strings-attached kind of person? We don't blame you. If that's the case, you'll pay $430 for the device -- slightly more than the $400 the 16GB Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus is fetching. From there, you can buy data passes when you need them, starting at 100MB for $10, going up to $30 for a 1GB month-long pass and $50 for a 3GB month plan.

Like T-Mobile, Verizon is forgoing any overage fees, and is charging $30 a month for a 2GB plan (you can also get 5GB for $50 a month or 10GB for $80 a month). On the prepaid side, plans start at $20 a month for a 1GB pass, which undercuts T-Mobile's comparable pass by ten bucks. Thirty bucks gets you 2GB of data, not the single gigabyte T-Mo is offering. For $50, you can get a 5GB (not 3GB) monthly pass. Lastly, $80 gets you 10GB for the month -- something you can't even find on T-Mobile.

On AT&T, meanwhile, if you were to buy a tablet you'd pay $35 a month for 3GB of service (LTE or otherwise), and you'd be paying $10 per gigabyte in domestic overage fees. On the pay-as-you-go side, you could pay $15 for 250MB with overage fees of $15 per 250MB or $25 a month for 2GB of data with a $10 surcharge for every gigabyte you went pass the limit.

Rounding out the list, Sprint is offering a 3GB / $45 a month plan, as well as 5GB for $60 and 10GB for $90. Across the board, you'll be charged five cents for each additional megabyte you gobble up on Sprint's network (the overage fees rise to twenty-five cents off when you're roaming).

The competition


For awhile there, we found ourselves reviewing 10.1-inch tablet after 10.1-inch tablet, with the occasional 9.7-incher thrown in for variety's sake. Lately, though, we've seen more and more smaller 7- and 8-inch slates -- a trend that's only going to continue for the foreseeable future. So far, most of them are or will be available in WiFi-only flavors, no two-year ball-and-chain required. These include the Acer Iconia Tab A100 ($330), which also runs Android 3.2, but lacks the IPS display, has shorter battery life and rocks a chintzier design.

We'd also throw the Archos 80 G9 into the mix, even though its 8-inch display has a 4:3, not 16:9, aspect ratio. It, too, runs Android 3.2 and starts at a similarly low price ($300). In terms of sex appeal, its slick plastic back has nothing on the Springboard, but for the money, we were seriously impressed by its performance, battery life, kickstand and full-sized USB port. The fact that it supports a wide assortment of codecs doesn't hurt either.

We'd also be remiss if we didn't compare this to the Kindle Fire. Yes, it's missing 3G as well as any cameras, but for $200, you get a fully functional (albeit, highly skinned) Android tablet with a 7-inch IPS display coated in Gorilla Glass. An apples-to-apples comparison? Not totally, but since this is so aggressively priced and likely to sell like gangbusters this holiday season, it's worth clarifying what the Springboard has that the Kindle doesn't. Cameras, for one, along with the option of riding a 3G network. For what it's worth, the Fire, too, has a solid (if somewhat pared-down) design -- at least that's the impression we got in our brief hands-on.

Before unleashing the world's umpteenth Honeycomb tablet, Huawei made sure it was speedy, well-built and longevous, with a high-quality IPS display and halfway decent camera thrown in for good measure.


Then there are the tablets we haven't had a chance to test yet. There's the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, for one -- the clear, long-awaited successor to the original Galaxy Tab. (It looks like those of us in the US might not have the option of choosing its posher sibling, the Galaxy Tab 7.7.) With a 1024 x 600 LCD and 3MP and 2MP cameras, its specs would appear fairly ho-hum, especially given its relatively high starting price of $400. Then again, it supports 21Mbps HSPA, which means if it made its way to AT&T or T-Mobile, it would offer theoretically faster speeds than the Springboard, which would be one way to justify sinking thousands into a two-year contract.

Also on our hit list: the 7-inch Thrive, whose price we don't know yet, but which seems about as cheaply made up close as its 10-inch brother. Then there's Sharp's Galapagos A01SH tablet, which should hit the US before year's end with a 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2 SoC, 1GB of RAM, a 1024 x 600 display, 8GB of internal memory, a microSD slot, 5MP / 2MP cameras and a rated seven and a half hours of battery life. Again, we're pointing out these options mainly to underscore the fact that you've got lots of choices here; we can't in good faith recommend any of these tablets without having tested them.

Wrap-up


Look up there at that review card, if you haven't already. The Huawei MediaPad -- make that the T-Mobile Springboard -- is a very nice tablet. Before unleashing the world's umpteenth Honeycomb tablet, Huawei made sure it was speedy, well-built and longevous, with a high-quality IPS display and halfway decent camera thrown in for good measure. T-Mobile's reliable HSPA+ network is also a pleasant surprise, though we probably would have liked this tab even without that added perk.

If it were us, we'd buy it for $430 off contract and avail ourselves of the pay-as-you-go plans on the rare occasion we planned on traveling and didn't think our smartphones would suffice for web surfing, checking email and a little movie watching. Will you be paying an above-average price? Maybe a little. It costs thirty bucks more than the 16GB Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, and though it's not out yet, we've already been promised the 7-inch Thrive will cost less than $400. And it's definitely pricier than the $330 Iconia Tab A100, though its low price is backed by a chintzy design and short battery life. (That's not even mentioning the price gulf between this and the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet!) As it happens, we haven't reviewed most of these competitors yet, but we can at least say that the Springboard's slightly high price tag comes with fast performance, solid battery life and a truly pleasing design.

As for that $180 price T-Mobile will surely be promoting, it's tough to get excited about a tablet that cheap when the only way to get it is to sign a two-year agreement. If we're talking to a narrow, self-selecting group of people who think it's worth it to pay upwards of $30 a month on an always-there Internet connection, we can see why you'd pick this over, say, the HTC Jetstream, which is heavy and costs an insulting $700, even on contract. But for most people, a pretty design and decent battery life simply won't be compelling enough reasons to get shacked up with a carrier. That's why pay-as-you-go plans are such a beautiful, beautiful thing.

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