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Hands-on with the Vizio VIA Tablet

Vizio's Android-based tablet has a trick up its sleeve: an IR blaster that acts as a universal remote. Its 8-inch screen is unique among Android tablets, as well.

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LAS VEGAS--Admittedly, Vizio's Android tablet is one I didn't see coming. After spending some time with it this afternoon, I'm declaring it a happy surprise. Granted, there's no pricing, and no firm ship date, but my vaporware detectors weren't ringing on this one.

Even in its fragile state as a hand-tooled engineering sample, it's clear that this 8-inch tablet has been approached thoughtfully. The capacitive touch screen is very responsive, and the custom UI running over an unidentified version of Android behaved fluidly. Unlike most Android tablets I've tested, Vizio's tablet dispenses with the widget-based home screen and opens up to the app listing by default, with a customizable space for favorites at the top. It's a slightly risky move, especially if you're a consumer who is easily overwhelmed by options, but Vizio's tasteful UI treatment comes across as a calm retreat from the wallpapered, preinstalled widget circus of the Galaxy Tab.

Many of the features we've come to expect from a tablet are here, including Wi-Fi (b/g/n), Bluetooth, GPS, accelerometer, and an ambient light sensor. There's also a Mini-HDMI port, which for better or worse is HDCP-enabled, giving piracy-phobic content providers a comforting level of baked-in DRM. Other ports include Micro-USB and SDHC memory expansion. A VGA-resolution front-facing camera is also offered, but Vizio is stopping short of putting a camera on the back. For me personally, using a tablet as a giant camcorder isn't an appealing idea, especially if skipping it means a significant cost savings. We'll see.

The big hat trick, though, is an IR blaster integrated into the top of the tablet, theoretically blessing the device with all the functionality of a universal remote. The Vizio reps on hand claim the remote software will make the tablet compatible with 95 percent of all AV hardware out there.

What will impress me more, though, is seeing how Vizio handles getting Android apps optimized for an 8-inch screen. The company is promising full Android Marketplace and mobile suite compatibility, so its people have their work cut out for them if they want to get the mobile app experience to scale elegantly to an 8-inch panel by summer. I'll keep my fingers crossed. We don't want another gTablet on our hands.