HTC Flyer Review

Posted May 29, 2011
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HTC has come a long way in the last couple of years thanks to its excellent portfolio of Android smartphones. Even before Android, it was a prominent manufacturer of Windows Mobile powered smartphones. Who can forget the legendary HD2, the 4.3 inch monster running a barely recognizable Windows Mobile thanks largely to HTC’s excellent Sense UI. And since the advent of Android, HTC has almost become a house hold name. With devices such as the immortal Desire and the Evo, it has firmly cemented its place as one of the best, if not the best, Android smartphone manufacturers in the world.

But today we wont be looking at a smartphone. It runs Android, but its not a smartphone, and it’s from HTC. If you haven’t guessed it yet(chances are you haven’t because it has never happened before), it’s a 7 inch Flyer and it’s HTC’s first ever foray into the tablet world. While HTC is not the first company to make an Android tablet, the Flyer however is quite unique and quite different from the rather mundane and extremely similar looking and performing Honeycomb tablets released this year. HTC have opted for a 1.5 GHz single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, in a time when dual core is the rage, and chose Gingerbread as their OS of choice, when Honeycomb is available specifically designed for tablets. And did I tell you it comes with what HTC calls “Magic Pen”? It’s different for sure, and it does raise a few questions, but with hardly any mediocre devices in their portfolio we’re feeling quite confident. Let us see how well the strategy of being different and unique worked out for HTC.

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The tablet came with the required accessories. You get your data cable, charger, earphones and a nice looking case that also houses the Magic Pen.

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HTC has always followed a specific design scheme on all their phones. Starting from the original Desire all smartphones proceeding it have oozed of dark colored industrial designs which have kind of become synonymous with HTC. However initially looking at the Flyer you are humbled by how sleek it looks. Weighing nearly 420g and 13.2mm thickness, its one of the chunkiest tablets currently available. The front is covered in glass which protects the 7 inch display. At the right of the display you’ll find a front facing camera which I suppose means HTC expects you to use the tablet in landscape mode while video chatting. Below the screen are four capacitive buttons which are quite responsive. Rotate the tablet 90 degrees to the left and the capacitive buttons will move accordingly. Note, move, not rotate like in Incredible S. So there are essentially eight capacitive buttons out of which four light up depending on the screen orientation. The top and bottom of the tablet protrude out slightly which was more of a aesthetic decision from HTC

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The right side of the devices houses the volume keys which were pretty abysmal in my opinion. Apart from feeling flimsy they were flushed a little too much into the body and I found myself occasionally searching for the keys.

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The power button at the top isn’t any better either. It’s quite small and quite difficult to press. With so much space you’d think HTC would have big, easy to use buttons. On the side of the power button is a 3.5mm jack. The bottom contains a micro USB port.

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Move towards the back of the tablet and you’ll see where all the weight comes from. The chassis is molded from one continuous piece of aluminium, also known as uni-body design . The top and bottom are plastic pieces. The top one can be removed and houses the SIM card and microSD card and also doubles as a cover for the camera. The SIM card only provides cellular data and SMS capability, no voice calls. The bottom piece is non removable. I suppose it contains the 4000mAh battery. You can also see the grills for the stereo speakers. White and grey are certainly interesting choices and while some might not like the color combination, I actually found it quite nice.

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I mentioned earlier the device weighs a hefty 420g and measures in at 13.2mm thickness. That certainly sounds a lot in the world of anorexic gadgets but I found the chunkiness of the Flyer a pleasant surprise. It feels heavy initially but eventually the weight just reassures you of the quality of the chassis used and in the end it feels comfortable. The 13.2mm also never posed any issues. The added thickness made it quite easy to handle the tablet and the plastic piece on either ends results in a nice reassuring grip. In fact i’ll go as far as saying that the HTC Flyer is quite pocketable. While you wont want to carry a tablet around in your pockets, but if the need arises the Flyer is certainly up to task. At no point did it cause any discomfort. In an era of devices with eating disorders, the Flyer can hold its head high in the air(despite its weight) with pride.

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Now you might think 7 inches is small for a tablet especially considering what’s available in the market at the moment; the iPad 2 with its 10 inch and Galaxy Tab with a 9 inch  display. But truth be told, I had no problems with a display of the size of Flyer and at no point did I wish I had more screen estate to play with. The display quality is the usual HTC fare and while they have not mentioned officially whether it’s a regular LCD or a Super LCD, we’re inclined to believe it’s the later. The colors are vivid without being over saturated and they give out a very natural look. While in smaller screens I prefer the eye popping saturation of the Super AMOLED, in larger displays such as this a Super LCD or a IPS display is preferred. The resolution of 600×1024 isn’t exactly at the Retina Display level and at a mediocre 160DPI it does tend to become a bit pixelated when viewing small fonts. Viewing angles are superb. Even at almost 180 degree tilt the screen was quite visible. This is extremely important for a tablet because unlike a cellphone, a tablet can be used in a variety of ways (reading books, watching movies etc etc) and you eye sight does not always tend to be entirely perpendicular to the screen. The display also offers 6 separate touch points. Apart from the resolution being slightly below par I was extremely pleased with the quality of the screen HTC has used.

I mentioned before HTC chose Gingerbread(2.3.3) over Honeycomb as their choice of OS. They blamed time constriction for this as porting Sense UI over Honeycomb would have taken time and eventually pushed the release date back a bit for the Flyer. Now we’ve seen pre-Honeycomb tablets before like the Galaxy Tab from Samsung and the result was not pretty. Android 2.3 and below is built for smaller screens, not tablets, so anytime you’re going to port it onto a tablet it wont feel right. So what has HTC done to overcome this issue? Well it’s their brilliant Sense UI to the rescue of course. Now HTC has been using Sense UI in pretty much all their smartphones and truth be told, it was getting a little long in the tooth and was begging for an upgrade. And that is exactly what they have done for their tablet. The software information on the Flyer shows it as version 2.1 for tablets but it’s essentially the same version 3.0 used in the Sensation. Lets see how this Sense UI is better than the ones we’ve seen before.

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The first time you unlock the device you’ll notice the new unlock screen. Unlike previous Sense unlock screens this does more than just tell time. At the bottom are four shortcuts which can be customized to launch any application. To launch the shortcuts directly from the unlock screen you drag their icons in an activation circle. Or if you just want want to return to the homescreen you simply drag the activation circle anywhere on the screen and the homescreen will spin into view. Apart from having four shortcuts you also have the option of having weather displayed on the unlock screen and boy does it look spectacular. It’s reminiscent of the weather app HTC uses in Windows Phone 7 but here it looks a heck of a lot more lush and high-def.

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Moving onto the home screen you have the usual HTC fare. You get a big flip clock and some nice looking weather animations. Previously there was no option to customize the shortcuts on the launcher but now you have three. The other two are for the app drawer and launcher customization. Just like previous versions of Sense UI HTC again allows minor skinning of the launcher. There are total 8 homescreens and if you swipe quickly they turn away in a manner that looks like a carousel. It’s a nice looking effect but it doesn’t add any form of extra functionality. You can pinch to zoom out which gives an overview of all homescreen from which you can change the position of the screens as well. The app drawer is the usual fare listing all installed apps. What I don’t like about it is the scrolling mechanism. It’s in fixed steps rather than the usual free scrolling. You can change the view from list to grid and sort the apps alphabetically or by date installed.

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Another area where HTC has made visual changes is the music app. There’s a bit more eye candy and a few added functionality. You now have the option of changing equalizer presets or enable/disable SRS sound effects. For checking the audio quality I used Sony MDR-V6 headphones. I copied a few songs to check out how well the Flyer acts as a MP3 player and I was quite surprised by the over all by the quality of the sound it produced. While it’s not as good as the Wolfson headphone amp used in some other portable devices, the Flyer still holds its own. The music was clear, the bass was tight and there was almost little to no background noise. The only gripe I have about it is that it’s not nearly as loud enough as it should be. I found myself listening to songs at maximum volume pretty much all the time. I hope HTC can rectify this through a software update however as a whole it was a very satisfying experience listening to songs on the Flyer. One other issue I encountered was the data transfer rate. It capped out at 2.5-2.8 MB/sec which is pretty hopeless. I don’t know if it was our unit at fault or what, but 2.5 MB/sec for internal storage is simply not good enough. It’s slower than most slow SD cards out there. The music player also has the option to stream songs wirelessly through your PC. I also tried a few movies to see how well it does player different formats. The Flyer’s stock video by default is capable of playing divX encoded videos however for this I used VLC player from the Android market. The Flyer did extremely well playing AVI files. The playback was smooth and the quality of stereo speakers really shone here. Playing 720p videos encoded in MKV formats was quite jittery. I don’t know if its the software at fault here or if the CPU just cannot keep up but MKV files are a no-go on the Flyer unfortunately.

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Apart from the music player, HTC has also revamped the weather app. Infact, revamped is an understatement. What we’re looking here is the most fantastic looking weather application I have ever seen. It’s 3D effects galore! It bears resemblance with the weather app HTC uses in its Windows Phone 7 devices but on the Flyer it offers much more. Each type of weather condition is accompanied by a full screen video effect which looks stunning. To add to that there are different sound effects for each weather conditions. You can see the forecast up to 5 days. It’s just a mesmerizing experience that it makes you wonder if HTC has a separate department that specializes in weather apps.

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HTC has also added functionality to the notification bar. Pull it down and you’ll see a list of you last used apps. Press the quick settings tab and you can turn on/off stuff such as WiFi, bluetooth etc. There’s also a quick setting to turn on/off screen rotation. Personally I like the hardware button implementation in the iPad more. There’s a built-in task manager which can be launched via the notification bar which shows memory information and can be used to kill individual tasks.

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Playing games on the Flyer was a treat. The big screen results in lots of screen estate and Angry birds was never this fun on a smartphone. You can of course install all apps that would normally run on any Android 2.3 smartphone but unfortunately there are only a few that take advantage of the increased resolution. I only found the calender and the gmail app truly utilizing the added resolution. Other than that Google Maps too looked amazing on a big screen and if coupled with a car dock, this can very well replace your regular GPS navigation. The rest were just blown up to fit the screen while some didn’t even do that and only occupied a small part on the screen. The same goes for the homescreens; you’d expect with increased resolution that more information would fit in like more widgets, more shortcuts, but it’s essentially the same as a smartphone, just in a bigger size. I hope with the increasing variety of screen resolutions, developers allow their apps to make full use of bigger screens.

Also included is the HTC Hub which allows you to remotely control specific functions of your tablet as well as offering a host of other features. Unfortunately it’s not currently available in this region so I was unable to test it out.

One of the new features HTC is launching with the Flyer and then on their future devices is the HTC Watch. Users will be able to rent or buy movies online and will be able to watch them on their tablet. Currently it’s only launched on a small scale in the UK with HTC promising other regions to follow soon.

HTC has done a fantastic job in customizing their Sense UI for tablet use. It has come a long way from the likes of Hero or Desire. There is a bit more that could have been done for example making using of the increased real estate. It’s littered with small animations here and there which are not distracting but very pleasing to the eyes. It makes good use of the CPU/GPU and the result is almost completely lag or jitter free.

Here’s a video walk through of the basic UI:

I already mentioned before HTC decided to use a single core CPU rather than a dual core. To compensate for the cores they bumped the speed up to 1.5 Ghz. The GPU in use is the Adreno 205, the same one used in current HTC phones like the Desire S and Incredible S. Here are a couple of benchmarks I ran and compared it with a Galaxy Tab P1000.

Most of these are synthetic benchmarks and don’t really translate into real life. However that being said, the Flyer is a pretty nifty device. It managed a quadrant score of 2100 on a stock ROM which is quite amazing since most smartphones top out at 1600. You can clearly see how consistently the Flyer is coming out ahead of the Galaxy Tab by huge margins.

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The UI was smooth despite heavy use of animations and there was no lag between switching apps. 1GB of RAM is pretty generous and ensures better multitasking. The stock browser also performed excellently. Opening flash heavy websites such as youtube was a piece of cake for the Flyer. Flash does cause some slowdown, but it was no where near as bad as it’s on smartphones. Even compared to dual-core Honeycomb tablets the software performance was simply more refined. This is thanks to a tried and tested Gingerbread variant of Android which has most of the niggles and bugs already ironed out by Google

What we’re looking here is a 5MP camera without any flash. So my hopes for good quality pictures vanished even before I tried it. And when I did, boy did it turn out a lot worse. Pictures are muddy and washed out. Zooming in reveals excessive amounts of noise suppression that destroys any detail the camera somehow managed to capture. To hope for any passable picture you’ll need a perfectly lit environment. However indoors the result is quite hopeless. The front 1.3MP camera isn’t any better. I suppose HTC knew this already and hence included a software that allows a variety of different effects which is best used to distract viewers from the otherwise abysmal quality of pictures. Video isn’t any better. It says 720p but it honestly looks like something out of a 80s VHS tape which is to be expected from a sensor that takes bad pictures to begin with. Manufacturers have made a joke out of using terminologies such as “HD” or “720p” and I’m afraid HTC has carried on the tradition.

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Now onto something that truly sets this tablet apart from the usual offerings: the Magic Pen. HTC has clearly put a lot of effort into making this as functional as possible and the result is something you’ll not find in any other tablet. The pen, made of aluminium has a very nice feel and grip to it and is of just the right size. The included case for the tablet has a place for holding it as well. Now onto its functionality. Well to be honest it’s a bit of a hit and miss. The included Notes app was designed solely for this pen. In it you can use the pen to draw, write or make whatever you want with options for different colors, you can switch between markers, pointers or a variety of other pen choices and you can set the size as well. You can also use the virtual keyboard to write notes. It all sounds great and dandy but there are some fundamental flaws with this app. First is if you try to draw using the pen and  you hand hits the screen first, the on screen keyboard will pop up and you’ll have to close it. Similarly if your hand hits the capacitive button, you can end up doing something you didn’t intend, like closing the app! There must be a way to somehow lock the capacitive buttons or stop the onscreen keyboard to show up. It becomes extremely annoying and deters from an otherwise enjoyable experience. And as for scribbling notes during a lecture or whenever, the pen just isn’t accurate enough and the letters end up being much larger than what you want. And when you end the Notes app, the pen suddenly becomes more of a paper weight than something useful. All you can do is to tap the pen capacitive button, take a screenshot of the screen you’re on and scribble on it using the notes app. And when you try to write something on it, the issues I mentioned above pop up again.

It’s a decent enough start for something new and I commend HTC for pursuing it but right now it’s just a very disjointed experience. The pen functionality is tied almost entirely to the notes app and it finds little to no use outside it. HTC has dedicated a whole capacitive button for it so I expect the functionality to be more integrated with the OS. Sadly it isn’t. They also need to sort out the issues within the Notes app. Right as of now, the Magic Pen is nothing more than just a ‘fun’ addition.

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After spending three days with the Flyer my overall experience was quite positive. When it was announced I criticized HTC heavily for choosing Gingerbread over Honeycomb and powering it with a single core CPU rather than a dual core one. But the truth of the matter is both these decisions were extremely wise and well thought out. Honeycomb while designed specifically for tablets is currently not up to mark. It’s slow, it’s buggy and it’s going to need a few updates before it reaches it’s full potential. There are hardly any applications for it as well. I would chose a Gingerbread topped with Sense UI any day over a stock honeycomb. And as for dual cores, it’s more of a bragging rights war than anything else. Android makes no use of the second core and most of the time it’s sitting idle, wasting battery.

What will determine the success of this tablet is its price. Its immediate competition is the iPad 2 and a slew of other Honeycomb tablets. iPad 2 offers a bigger screen and is a lot thinner, but it wont fit your pocket. The Flyer on the other hand is far more portable and strikes a fine balance between size and functionality. It offers a true smartphone experience and comes with a Sense UI that HTC has quite brilliantly modified for tablet use. Let us not forget the Magic Pen. While it’s utility is still tied heavily to one single app, there are those who will find it quite appealing and a great value added addon. The 7 inch form factor has been done before, but for the first time, in my opinion, has it been implemented successfully. Don’t let dual cores influence your buying decision. It’s just not ready yet. What HTC has done here is take an existing platform, sprinkled it with their custom UI and added a bit of extra oomph to it with a Magic Pen. The result is a fantastic tablet. Those looking for a smaller sized tablet will be left fully satisfied.

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