For a tablet of its size (7.8 x 4.6 x 0.42 inches), the Slate 7 feels pretty heavy. Unlike some of its ilk, HP elected not to pursue a sleeker, unibody design, and the result makes for a device that's a little bulkier than you might want it to be. The Slate 7 has a stainless-steel frame surrounding a glass display with a standard black bezel. At the top of the tablet, two small screws hold the whole shebang together. The shiny HP logo emblazoned on the soft-touch backing (available in dark gray or bright red) is joined by relatively small, but still very noticeable Beats Audio branding (more on that later). The device's serial number can be found awkwardly squished on the steel accent on the side.
The power button is located at the top, along with an unmarked microSD card slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The volume rocker on the right-hand side (with the device facing you) is made of the same sturdy steel as those aforementioned components, and it's one place where HP didn't cut corners. Obviously, a budget tablet won't be made of 100 percent premium materials, but it's good that HP used them for those buttons that we frequently handle. Flanking the micro-USB socket at the bottom are two small speakers, whose performance we'll get into shortly. That port feels a little flimsy, and the wire wobbles quite a bit when jostled.
That being said, some lower-priced tablets feel like they have all the stability of a box of Kleenex, so the Slate 7 actually seems pretty sturdy by comparison. At 13.05 ounces, the little extra weight the Slate 7's carrying around is a testament to its solidity. The soft-touch backing feels luxe at first touch, but the chalky texture might grate after a while, even if it is decently scratch resistant. It also hides a rather flimsy plastic backing. Pressing down on the HP logo on the back of the tablet causes a noticeable (and audible) depression in the device's rear panel. The steel frame grants the Slate 7 some much-needed stability on the sides, but what's under the hood might be more fragile than it initially seems.
Out of the box, the tablet packs eight gigs of storage space (nearly six of which are actually usable), plus a microSD card slot. If you're hoping to beef up your storage space, know that you'll be limited to a 32GB card. The Slate 7 doesn't pack a whole bunch of bells and whistles -- there's no GPS or Bluetooth 3.0 or 4.0. Out of the box, it comes with Bluetooth 2.1 with EDR, 802.11b/g/n and an accelerometer. The latter proved to be reasonably responsive, though we did notice the occasional stutter as the display shifted orientation.
Display and sound
Using the Slate 7 is an intensely vertical experience. The tablet is built according to a slightly narrower-than-normal form factor, and due to an unusual aspect ratio, everything is just... off enough to be noticeable. The 1,024 x 600 screen isn't great to begin with, especially when compared to the Nexus 7's 1,280 x 800 IPS display (currently $30 more, but a much better buy). At 169 pixels per inch, that resolution would have worked on a slightly less rectangular form-factor (a 5.86-inch display would have worked with the tablet's 4.44-inch width). Considering that the Slate 7 comes with stock Android 4.1.1, the flatness of the UI makes the stretch especially obvious. Even round icons are more oval than circle.
Again, for a budget tablet, we weren't anticipating much from the display, but the Slate failed to live up to even our modest expectations. The colors aren't particularly vibrant to begin with, but any viewing angle other than straight-on caused them to be significantly washed out. The technology HP used for oblique viewing angles -- "Fringe Field Switching" as opposed to IPS -- does little for the LCD display when the device is angled even a little bit away from the viewer.
When it comes to sound quality, HP is putting all its eggs in one Beats Audio-branded basket -- as it's done with many of its products. From the Beats logo on the back of the tablet, to the Beats-specific tab on the settings menu, HP is aggressively pushing the relationship at consumers.
The dual speakers located on the bottom of the tablet are adequate in the truest sense of the word, which is to say: they work. Because they're so close together, there's no real stereo sound despite there being two of them. Do they sound like $170 speakers? Not really. Played at reasonably loud volumes, the audio is strained and tinny, as is the case with many a mobile device. With the Beats Audio feature toggled on, vocals on most songs had a noticeable echo not present when it was turned off.
When it comes to headset use, we must admit there's a certain level of cognitive dissonance required to use -- or even worse, acquire -- a pair of headphones more expensive than the device you intend to couple them with. But if you're a Beats fanatic (we know you're out there), then perhaps the Slate 7 will tickle your fancy. For those of you who aren't immediately charmed by the promise of Beats Audio's potential (and so far, we see no reason why you should be), the actual feature is pretty lackluster.
Beats Audio can be toggled on or off, but it's basically nothing more than a jazzed-up EQ setting. We tried out the Slate 7 with a few different types of headphones -- admittedly, not Beats -- and there didn't seem to be anything special about Beats Audio's performance aside from slightly deeper bass (an effect achieved with regular ol' EQ settings). HP promises that the sound setting is "optimized" for Beats Audio headsets, but there seems to be little evidence to support that the claim is more than a mutually beneficial marketing strategy.
In addition to the standard Google suite of apps (Gmail, Chrome, Google+, Search, Maps, et cetera), HP has made only two modifications to the Slate 7's stock Android 4.1: Beats Audio and HP ePrint. We've already discussed the efficacy of Beats Audio at length, so we'll avoid the rehash here. HP ePrint is a neat idea, but not necessarily one with loads of practical application. The app (which can also be found in the Google Play Store) is only compatible with select wireless HP printers – if you've got one, you're all set. If you don't, HP ePrint will be useless to you.
We're happy to note that the Slate 7 is otherwise free of any unnecessary Android skinning, and the stock 4.1.1 Jelly Bean experience is as streamlined and user-friendly as one might expect. When it comes to software, HP evidently prescribed to the less-is-more school of thought, and the decision to not overburden the Slate 7 with an array of bundled apps pays off.
The Slate 7 comes armed with a 3-megapixel rear camera, as well as a front-facing VGA shooter. In brightly lit outdoor settings, the camera performs reasonably well, and the colors are vibrant considering the low-end specs. The absence of an autofocus feature meant that stabilizing our photographic experiments proved more difficult than perhaps it should have. Also, the tablet lacks both a flash and exposure adjustment, so you'll pretty much have to hope for decent lighting wherever you are.