Editors' note: Thanks to the release of recent, high-quality tablets, the overall score of the Archos 7 has been adjusted down from 7 to 5.
We have to give Archos credit for being the first to market with a 100 percent Android tablet and at a price ($199) that's within reach for most people. If you're looking for an iPad killer, the Archos 7 Home Tablet misses the mark, but it's not without its redeeming qualities.
Like most tablet computers, the Archos 7 Home Tablet isn't much to look at. It's a plastic slab that measures 8 inches wide by 4.25 inches tall by 0.5 inch thick; the dimensions feel nice in the hand and may even fit in a generous-size pocket.
Taking a cue from Apple, Archos' tablet design has few buttons and ports. There's a power switch up top, along with a microSDHC memory expansion slot. On the right side, you'll find sockets for headphones, the included power adapter, and a Micro-USB port. Apart from the speaker grilles on the front and an integrated plastic kickstand on the back, that's about all there is to the tablet's design.
If you were hoping for a volume switch or a home button, you'll have to be content with the tablet's onscreen controls. We can't say we're happy about that, especially given the inherent response latency that comes with resistive touch screens, compared with the capacitive displays used on many of today's smartphones. In spite of the screen's generous size, it often took us a few tries to get the onscreen home, back, and volume buttons to respond.
The Archos 7's onscreen keyboard is a different kind of disappointment. Sure, its sluggish touch-screen response is a drawback, as is the lack of multitouch support and predictive text, but it's the keyboard's tiny spacebar that really has us singing the blues. The tablet's design is small enough that you naturally want to grab it with both hands and type on it with your thumbs, like a giant smartphone. Unfortunately, its narrow onscreen spacebar, logically located in the middle of the keyboard, is just out of thumb's reach, requiring you to cradle the tablet in one hand and type with the other. Since the tablet doesn't reorient itself when held in portrait mode, there's only one way to type on the screen, and it leaves much to be desired.
The 7-inch screen on the Archos 7 Home Tablet does have a few qualities working in its favor. The backlit LCD has an 800x480-pixel resolution that gives movies and photos crisp detail and balanced color. The plastic overlay on the LCD provides a matte, antireflective finish that stands up to outdoor use better than the iPad or, provided you have the screen brightness cranked. The finish also affords the tablet better resistance to smudges and fingerprints, compared with the glossy glass screen of the iPad and Touch.
As the Archos 7 Home Tablet comes loaded with Google's Android OS (version 1.5), it includes many core apps, such as e-mail, a Web browser, photo viewer, and media playback for music and videos. Because of hardware limitations, other features of the smartphone operating system have been removed from the tablet, including apps for camera, maps, contacts, and messaging.
Another critical distinction to make between the Archos tablet and a conventional Android smartphone is that the included app store isn't Google's Marketplace, but is instead a collection of downloadable apps selected by Archos. In our conversations with Archos, company representatives cited several reasons for using its own app store, most notably the fact that many apps aren't yet optimized for use on tablets and rely on hardware features that aren't available, such as GPS, camera, or accelerometer control. In the end, users will either need to make do with the app selection provided on the device through Archos, or do some tinkering to load apps manually. This comes as disappointing news to anyone looking at the Archos 7 Home Tablet as an unrestricted gateway into the world of Android apps.
There are some useful apps for the tablet, though. Twitter fans can download the popular Twidroid app. There are games and Internet radio apps, apps for social networking, and for reading e-books. You probably won't be able to download the hot app of the week, or month, but there's enough substance in the Archos app store to lend the device the kind of mutability you want from an Android product
The Archos 7 Home Tablet has features that are independent of the Android OS include a pair of predictably tinny built-in speakers, an integrated microphone, and a microSDHC card slot that supports up to 32GB of additional memory. Out of the box, the tablet comes with 8GB of internal memory, some of which is used by the operating system.
A 600MHz ARM 9 processor at the heart of the tablet can decode music formats such as MP3, unprotected WMA, WAV, APE, OGG, FLAC, and AAC, as well as H.264, Real Video, and MPEG-4 video codecs with AVI, MP4, MKV, MOV, and FLV file extensions. It can play back video files with resolutions as high as 720p and at 30 frames per second, although playback can get a little jerky with large files.
We've already covered the shortcomings of this tablet's keyboard, the slow response of the touch screen, and some of the user-interface quirks, so let's dive in to some of the other real-world issues the affect its performance.
The two pillar features of the Archos 7 Home Tablet are Web browsing and e-mail, both of which are provided though Android. Like most features of the tablet, these apps only work in landscape view, which is sometimes inconvenient, but mostly forgivable in light of the large screen.
Its Wi-Fi support is limited to 802.11 b/g, which, when coupled with the modest processor, doesn't make for the speediest browsing experience. In an informal test, we loaded the full version of The New York Times Web site on the Archos 7 Home Tablet, Apple iPad, and Apple iPod Touch and noted the load time. Connected to our office 802.11g Wi-Fi router, the Archos 7 tablet took 23 seconds to load the full page, whereas the iPod Touch took 30 seconds and the iPad flew in at 10 seconds. The same test on the San Francisco Chronicle's news site took 41 seconds on the Archos 7, 44 seconds on an iPod Touch, and 19 seconds on the iPad. Though the Apple iPad costs more than what you'll pay for the Archos 7 Home Tablet, we think it's fair to say it affords more than double the download speed.
Another quirk of the Archos 7 Home Tablet's Web browser that even experienced Android fans will have to adjust to is the lack of pinch or double-tap zoom control. Touching a Web page brings up icons for zooming in or out of the page, but tapping or pinching the page does nothing. It may seem like a minor complaint, but in spite of the tablet's relatively large screen, we still found ourselves needing to zoom in and out frequently. The lack of a gesture-controlled zoom function is one more way that the Web experience on the Archos 7 Home Tablet is fairly sluggish.
Setting up e-mail on the Archos is smooth as can be. After downloading your unread messages, the e-mail app is just about the snappiest app on the entire device. Unfortunately, two problems plague this particular execution of the Android e-mail app. The first issue, as we mentioned before, is the onscreen keyboard's cramped spacebar, slow response, and lack of predictive text and multitouch support. The other major drawback to using the Archos 7 Home Tablet as an e-mail machine is the lack of a contacts directory. Unless you're simply replying to incoming mail, composing a new mail from scratch requires you to type the recipient's e-mail manually for every message. Aside from the larger screen of the Archos, we found the similarly priced iPod Touch and its integrated contacts database to be a more efficient way to compose and manage e-mails while away from a smartphone or computer.
The Archos tablet's music and video playback performance isn't too shabby. Its media format support is better than many of the portable media players we've tested and the large screen works nicely to present it all. Bear in mind, though, that you only get 8GB of built-in storage before you need to supply your own microSDHC cards. It's also worth noting that all volume control is handled by two awkward onscreen buttons (one for increasing volume and the other for turning it down). Video playback is also encumbered with the same awkward volume controls, and it has poor viewing angles when the device is tilted forward or backward.
Video playback is also one of the surest ways to kill battery life, which Archos generously rates at 42 hours of music playback or 7 hours of video. Those best-case ratings were achieved with the tablet's screen set on low backlight and may not account for Wi-Fi activity. With Wi-Fi active and the backlight set midway, our unofficial tests found roughly 3 to 4 hours of constant general use--browsing the Web, checking e-mail, playing video--on a full charge. We'll update this review with official test results from CNET Labs when the data becomes available.