The Archos 101 XS has a handy keyboard dock and costs less than its rivals but asks you to make too many sacrifices in quality.
While having a big 10-inch tablet to swipe your finger around is great fun for games and apps, when it comes to getting proper work done, it's much more comfortable typing on a proper keyboard.
With this in mind, Archos has brought to life the 101 XS, a 10.1-inch tablet that has a keyboard dock that handily doubles as a protective cover -- similar to Asus' Transformer line of tablets.
With a price tag of £300, it undercuts the cheaper of the Transformers -- the Pad TF300 -- by a healthy £100. But does that make it the bargain it first appears to be?
The Archos 101 XS will be available to buy from mid-September.
The Archos 101 XS is a 10.1-inch device, which should immediately tell you it's less hand- and pocket-friendly than smaller 7-inch tablets such as the Google Nexus 7. On the other hand, the larger screen real estate makes full-sized slates much better suited to watching video, browsing the web or using any apps that require more space.
I won't try to argue which size is better, as it's totally down to what you need a tablet for. If you're looking for a device you can slip into a jacket pocket and pull out easily on a train or a short-haul flight, a smaller tablet will be more suited to you. If most of your tablet time is likely to be spent browsing the web and watching YouTube clips from your sofa, or working at your desk, a bigger screen will come in handy.
The 101 XS measures 273mm wide and 170mm tall, which is pretty standard for 10-inch slates. More impressive is the atom-splitting 8mm thickness, which makes it one of the slimmest tablets on the market. By comparison, the iPad measures 9.4mm thick and the Asus Transformer Pad TF300 -- arguably the 101 XS's closest rival -- is a chubbier 10mm. Whether you really need a tablet that slim is debatable, but it does make it feel pretty good in your hand.
Looks-wise, the 101 XS has a silver metal back, surrounded by white plastic with a silver bezel around the screen. It's far from the most beautiful design I've seen, but I'm sure it will appeal to at least a few of you. The use of metal panels and solid-feeling plastic makes the 101 XS seem pretty durable and capable of taking a few knocks.
Annoyingly though, both the white edging and the aluminium panel like nothing more than to pick up every piece of dirt they come into contact with. It shows off the tiniest of scuffs. If you're planning on taking this tablet anywhere fancy, I highly recommend you keep a pack of wet wipes handy to give it a quick polish.
Around the edges you'll find a micro-USB port that handles both data transfer and charging (which is nice of it), mini-HDMI for hooking up a big tellybox, a microSD card slot for increasing the 16GB internal capacity and a 3.5mm headphone jack for, well, headphones.
A massive problem I quickly found with the headphone port was that the tablet wouldn't work properly with earphones that feature a built-in microphone and remote. Although music is audible, it's distorted and altered to the point of being totally unlistenable. Given that a good proportion of earphones on sale nowadays feature these mics, it's something of a problem.
I tested it with several pairs (including on-ear cans) that use mics and they all threw up the same problem. That's a huge shame as the audio quality is otherwise high. A pair of Denon AH-D1100 that didn't have a mic built into the cable was able to play the music normally. But If you've spent a couple of hundred quid on some delicious new 'phones with a mic, don't expect to use them with the 101 XS.
Supplied in the box with the 101 XS is a screen cover that can be used as a keyboard dock, turning your 10-inch slate into something resembling a netbook. It's an idea that's already proved very useful on tablets such as the Asus Transformer Prime and it's a great way of making a purely touch-based device more comfortable for typing on at length. Sadly though, I'm not convinced Archos has made such a good job of its dock.
I'll begin with the positives. The Coverboard, as Archos likes to call it, functions as a protective hard cover, using the same metal panelling found on the tablet to repel any attacking objects that would otherwise harm the screen. Pull it apart and inside is an Android-specific keyboard with a flip-out stand that lets you dock the tablet and type away as if it were a laptop.
When the cover is on your tablet, it only fattens to 13mm thick, which is considerably slimmer than the 23mm of the Asus Transformer Prime. The magnets used to keep the tablet docked keep it fairly secure, so long as you're not moving it around.
On the downside, Archos' attempts to make the cover so thin have resulted in it feeling very cheap. It's extremely easy to bend. It connects to the front of the tablet using magnets but unlike the iPad's Smart Cover, it has no bar guiding it in -- you have to spend a moment positioning it correctly so everything lines up, which is a little annoying.
The magnets don't seem to be particularly strong either. Archos has evidently made them weak enough for you to easily peel the cover off, but I'm pretty sure if you popped it in a rucksack and bumped it through airport security, you'd open your bag to find the two pieces separated.
A big issue for me though is the stand that supports the tablet when it's docked. It's a plastic flap that you need to manually fold out and then fold again, which sits flush against the base when not in use. When it's in the upright position, however, it's very exposed and feels as though even a slightly heavy hand would cause it to snap off. It's a very inelegant and risky solution to the 'how do we stick the keyboard to the tablet?' problem.
The keyboard itself is fairly standard. The keys are spaced evenly across the surface and are about as easy to type on as the Asus Transformer, or indeed any 10-inch netbook. If you've got huge hands you might struggle, but I found it perfectly usable. You'll probably want to put it on a secure surface as it's a bit too lightweight to sit comfortably on your lap and you can't alter the rather steep angle of the screen.
I noticed the tablet didn't always recognise the keyboard was attached, meaning I wasn't able to type. Archos assures me this was simply a firmware issue on the very early sample I was testing and won't be evident on the finished model. Here's hoping.
There's a micro-USB port on the back, so you can plug it into a power socket and let your tablet charge when you slot it into the dock. Archos pointed out how you could keep the keyboard plugged in at your desk for you to easily pop the tablet on charge and do some office work on the keyboard, then just take the tablet away for app use, which I agree is a smart idea. But given the keyboard is also a protective cover for travelling with the tablet, I don't think I would leave it behind if I went anywhere.
In general, the addition of the keyboard is a handy accessory for the tablet and it's great that it's so slim when used as a cover, but it's far from perfect and feels considerably cheaper and less stable than the netbook-style Asus Transformer Pad TF300.
The 10.1-inch screen offers a resolution of 1,280x800 pixels, which isn't at all bad. Sure, the Asus Transformer Infinity offers a full 1080p resolution display and the iPad's 2,048x1,536 pixels is in another realm of impressive. But it's still in the top half of the pile. Considering its lower price tag, that's pretty good.
Sadly, that's the only positive thing I can bring myself to say about this screen. Not only does it lack the sharpness around small icons and text that I'd like to see, but it's so dim I spent a considerable amount of time looking over the settings trying to see what was keeping the brightness down. When I found that the brightness was ramped to the max, I was forced to conclude that it's just very dim.
This poor backlighting also resulted in a blue-grey hue being cast over the screen, which was particularly noticeable on the YouTube and Gmail app icons, the whites of which looked dingy and grey. This became even more apparent when put next to Samsung's new Galaxy Note 10.1, which in comparison shone like the light of a thousand suns.
Although you can still see what's going on and use the tablet as normal, if you've got any plans to enjoy films, videos, photos and colourful apps like Angry Birds on the 101 XS, expect to be severely disappointed by the display's performance.
The Archos 101 XS arrives with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) on board, which is the most-recent-but-one version of Android. Jelly Bean is the latest, greatest iteration so it's a shame it won't ship with it in September. Archos did explain to me that an update would be pushed out over the air by November "at the very latest".
Usually, promises of Android updates are like forecasts of sunny weather in England -- it'd be nice, but it might not happen for ages, if ever. Still, the 101 XS is running stock ICS, meaning Archos hasn't tweaked the interface like Samsung does with its TouchWiz software. As Archos won't need to rewrite any software for Jelly Bean, it should hopefully be able to get the update out on time. Although that does raise the question of why it couldn't just ship with it as standard.
While stripping out any third-party software like TouchWiz or HTC's Sense interface might seem like you're missing out, it could well be beneficial. Firstly, having less software running will give the processor an easier time of things so you should find it runs a little quicker.
Also, the fact of the matter is that a great deal of third-party interfaces are clunky, buggy and difficult to operate, so it's quite refreshing to hear a company admit it would rather not annoy the user, and just use the standard version of Android instead.
Standard Android -- or 'Standroid', if you will -- is pretty simple to get your head around and will be familiar to any of you who've used an Android device before. You get the usual multiple home screens to fill up with apps and live widgets and you can dive into a grid of apps to see those that you don't want to put on the front page.
The 101 XS also has full access to the Google Play store. That might seem pretty fundamental for an Android device (which it is), but previous Archos tablets haven't been 'accredited' by Google, meaning they couldn't access the store, instead relying on Archos' own digital store, which wasn't exactly what you'd call well stocked.
Archos has slapped in a few of its own treats as well. Harking back to its multimedia player days, it's provided some pretty nifty video- and music-playing apps that use the files' metadata to download and display cover art in an attractive carousel. It also lets you stream content to DLNA-connected TVs and PCs. It'll play pretty much all of the popular video and music formats, so you shouldn't need to spend hours converting your files.
Archos has kindly bundled some third-party software with the tablet, including Angry Birds and OfficeSuite Pro 6, which normally sells for 10 quid on the Google Play store. It's great to have that as standard, particularly if you intend to use the keyboard dock for work.
Under the hood you'll find a dual-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz. The hawk-eyed tech addicts among you might be appalled that this isn't a quad-core chip, but more cores doesn't necessarily mean better performance. Many apps aren't yet designed to take advantage of four cores, so a nippy dual-core chip can usually provide enough juice.
In my own use, I found it be very competent, with swipes around the home screens being mostly smooth and menus opening without much delay. It was able to quickly switch between open apps using the Android multi-tasking menu without argument, even when the switch was between demanding apps. There seemed little I could throw at it that slowed it down to any considerable extent.
On the Geekbench benchmark test, it returned a score of 1,381, which isn't far off that achieved by the quad-core Toshiba AT300, which I found could tackle any task I threw its way. Of course, once you start filling it up with apps and live widgets hogging your background processes, you'll certainly start to see some slowdown, but it's off to a good start.
When playing the graphically demanding water racer Riptide GP, I found the 101 XS maintained high frame rates and smooth gameplay, even when the quality settings were ramped up to the max. There were similar results with the zombie shooter Dead Trigger -- it's just a shame the blood from the zombies' heads didn't look prettier on that dim display.
While the keyboard dock and £300 price tag make it a cheaper alternative to the Asus Transformer Pad TF300, it's sadly not cheap enough to make the poor screen, flimsy, awkward keyboard dock and other assorted issues acceptable. The 101 XS makes up some ground with its decent performance, but not enough for me to recommend it as a worthwhile purchase.