Unfortunately, that just about exhausts the list of software that truly exploits the Flyer's 7-inch size and 1024 x 600 resolution. For the rest, you're stuck with expanded versions of apps designed for phones. Again, that's not a horrible situation to be in, as Gmail looks gorgeous while operating with the added real estate, but it's not the tablet-optimized, slicker version that Honeycomb users are enjoying. Google Talk also doesn't benefit from the video and voice chat implementation that's available in Android 2.3.4 and 3.0, leaving you having to download an app from the Market to put that front-facing camera to the use it was made to fulfill.
Perhaps the most aggravating issue -- because it feels like a choice rather than any sort of technical limitation -- is that HTC's widgets suffer from a mass of wasted space. There's a persistent dock at the bottom that you can customize with shortcuts, which is fine, but then its space usurpation is augmented by making widgets fit within windows inside the tablet, allowing them insufficient room to be informative at a glance and forcing unnecessary scrolling from the user to see more content. That's true whether you're talking of the Friend Stream, Messages, Music, My Shelf (for ebooks, powered by Kobo), News, or Weather widget. Nothing is even close to employing the full screen without opening the app itself. Moreover, when you receive a message or play back music, the lockscreen is dominated by big and gaudy UI elements that also play fast and loose with screen real estate that could be better utilized. Overall, there's a definite sense of inefficiency to what HTC has done here.
Another 3D interface awaits eager movie lovers once they step into HTC Watch. Sadly, as attractive and quick as the interface to this movie-renting and -buying app may be, at present it's only dedicated to showing off a set of eight trailers. We're told we're on the very precipice of the service going live and permitting Flyer owners to buy and enjoy movies across their Watch-compatible devices (the Sensation being another one announced to support it), but at the moment there's little we can comment about. The eventual system will offer films on a progressive download basis, which you can consider just another form of streaming. You just have to let the Flyer buffer up a bit of content at first and then you can simultaneously watch and download your movie. We're sure that's slick stuff, but disappointed not to be able to test it -- particularly since the Flyer is already on sale. What we can say is that the trailers we checked out on the Flyer looked spectacular. The resolution on the screen is plenty dense enough, but it's really the quality of that 7-inch display that kept us mesmerized by what were teasers to some pretty appalling flicks. Top marks for hardware, but HTC needs to get its house in order and make this thing live already.Update:
And just as we've said all that, HTC has turned Watch loose in the UK. Pricing varies between £7.99 ($12.94) and £9.99 ($16.20) for movie purchases, and £2.49 ($4) and £3.49 ($5.65) for movie rentals, depending on the film's age and popularity. At present, some flicks are only available to rent and others are only available to buy, but we expect that's just a temporary situation while HTC gets its store built out properly. There are also TV show episodes up for consumption, with 60-minute Gossip Girl
blasts costing you £1.49 ($2.40) to own. As usual, we've provided currency conversions as simple guides to pricing, you should expect HTC to have separate deals arranged for content distribution in the US, whose cost will likely differ from that in the UK.
OnLive and gaming
Speaking of live things, we were also bummed not to be able to test out the OnLive cloud gaming service. It's only available in the US for now, whereas we reviewed the Flyer in the UK and there's nary a trace of it on the tablet. The US product (and the UK one once OnLive crosses the Atlantic) will benefit from an app that jacks it into the OnLive network and gets you playing such things as Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
, Just Cause 2
, and -- eventually -- Duke Nukem Forever
! You can rest assured we'll be doing a separate feature on how this touchscreen device handles the control schemes of these games in due course.
As to playing Android Market games on the Flyer, we couldn't find a single one that caused it any performance issues, though we admittedly spent most of our time shaking monkeys out of trees in Angry Birds Rio
. Still, for the speed junkies among you, we made sure to run a batch of benchmarks to check how quickly this tablet's heart beats. The usual proviso should be heeded here: graphical tests such as those carried out in Quadrant run at the device's default resolution, so the Flyer's 1024 x 600 panel will be at an immediate disadvantage to smartphones running more modest pixel counts. Our average scores were as follows: Quadrant: 2,050, Linpack: 55 MFLOPS, Neocore: 51fps, Nenamark: 36fps. Basically, it performs exactly in line with what you'd expect from a machine employing a 1.5GHz processor, Adreno 205 graphics, and 1GB of RAM.
And now we come to the Flyer's headline differentiator: the Magic Pen. A lot of work has clearly gone into making this stylus a coherently integrated and value-adding element of the Flyer's retail proposition. We're inclined to believe the major reason HTC is bundling a case in with this otherwise sturdy tablet was so that there could be a place to stash the Magic Pen, which in itself is styled very much in keeping with the Flyer's aesthetic and is also made of aluminum. The Flyer's Notes app is almost entirely dedicated to the Pen and serves to show both its greatest strength and weakness. The strength is the sheer variety of useful things you can do with the app, the weakness is that it's the only one
that truly harnesses the stylus to its full potential. Admittedly, the Kid Mode app has a rudimentary painting canvas and the Kobo-powered ebook reader lets you annotate books on the fly, but the fact remains that the utility of the Magic Pen drops off steeply once you step outside of Notes. You'll still be able to draw over anything else you see on the Flyer's screen, though you'll need to capture a screenshot (HTC calls this a Scribble) of the page before applying your nib to it.
Inside the Notes app, you're able to annotate, highlight, and doodle to your heart's content. There's also an audio recording function that intelligently associates typed or written notes with the time in a recording, essentially creating automatic timestamps. Sadly, this doesn't work too brilliantly as it requires a pretty sizable gap between note-taking in order to insert a new timestamp, which may make it less useful if you're constantly writing away during a lecture.
Use in academic environs may indeed be the Flyer's big target market, so a discussion is merited of how well it works as a receptacle of handwritten notes. We put in a few sincere attempts at jotting things down with the stylus and were met by a pair of issues: firstly, if your hand makes contact with the screen before the Magic Pen, the Flyer takes that as indicative of your intention to type and brings up the onscreen keyboard, and secondly, refined input with the pen is very hard indeed. We'll readily admit we're not as practiced at using pens as we are with keyboards, but writing on the Flyer was significantly harder than using a real ink diffuser. Our letters were about twice the size as on real paper and approximately five times as ugly. We encountered similar difficulty when trying to accurately plot a course on a Scribble of Google Maps -- it was just too hard to stay within the lines.
So, the Magic Pen isn't all that hot on intricate detail, but if you decide to use it as a fast and loose accessory to the rest of your work on the Flyer, you'll likely be very well rewarded. It's weirdly addictive to add doodles and annotations, whether to webpages or images captured with the tablet's camera, and we found ourselves spending lengthy sessions trying out the pressure sensitivity (not a wide range by any means), different nub size and shape options, and color variations. On the whole, input recognition works very well and we recognize a bunch of uses that it can be put to, both practical and farcial, but HTC will need to step up its game and introduce more in the way of pen-friendly software. One note-taking app will not bring the stylus revolution about by itself.
We came, we saw, we doodled. The HTC Flyer is the result of a well thought-out and executed plan by HTC. It is truly differentiated from the Android tablet pack with its robust aluminum construction, Magic Pen inclusion, and more responsive interface, and aside from a few imperfections and a general immaturity of tablet-specific software, it's as competently designed a tablet as we've yet seen. Its 7-inch display is a beauty to behold and, though it may be encased in a somewhat bulky body, its size strikes the right balance between portability and utility. The real issue holding the Flyer from a successful launch, in our opinion, will be its pricing. We got to grips with the 32GB, 3G-equipped variant which retails at £600 in the UK, or £21 more than the similarly outfitted iPad 2. The latter is thinner, faster, and bigger, which in most people's eyes will make the choice between the two a no-brainer in favor of the Apple device. What's even more perplexing is that the 16GB, WiFi-only Flyer will cost £480, or exactly the same as the 32GB
WiFi-only iPad 2. How HTC hopes to convince buyers to spend more for less, we're not really sure.
Setting aside the economics, we truly enjoyed our time with the Flyer and will regret to see it depart our testing nest. It's a fine tablet pointing to a bright future for HTC's newly expanded mobile device range. We'd probably advise waiting until the next generation to see prices reduced to saner levels and refinements made on the software front, but that's true of any device ever built. The Flyer will
find a market for itself, and there'll be a group of very satisfied users for whom it'll provide a unique blend of functionality. You'll just have to carefully consider your mobile computing needs and how well they mesh with what HTC has to offer.