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HP Slate 7 review: Low price undone by absent features, dull screen

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The Good The HP Slate 7 is a durable 7-inch tablet, includes an expandable storage option, and has good gaming performance. Beats Audio effectively enhances bass-heavy music through headphones or earbuds.

The Bad The screen’s resolution is eye-squintingly low, large apps take a long time to load, and its cameras produce washed-out, dull-looking shots. Also, there’s no GPS, and Android 4.1.1 can feel a bit archaic compared with newer versions of the OS.

The Bottom Line The HP Slate 7 strips out way too much to make its low price, and what's left can't compare to the Nexus 7's offerings.

6.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6

At $170, you'd expect the HP Slate 7 to be stripped of a few features; however, HP takes this a bit too far. The Slate 7 includes only 8GB of storage, and it has no gyroscope, no GPS hardware, poor camera quality, a slightly (but significantly) older version of Android, and a low-resolution screen.

And even the unique features we do get have their drawbacks. MicroSD is great, but with so little storage to begin with, buying a storage card won't simply be an option but a necessity. And while Beats Audio enhancements work great on your headphones, it does little to improve the tinniness of the tablet's speakers.

All of this serves to clearly illustrate that a Nexus 7, with more storage, faster app loads, a better-looking screen, GPS, and the latest version of Android is only $30 away.

Design
The HP Slate 7 features a 7-inch screen with a thick, thumb-accommodating black bezel, making it easy to hold without accidentally touching the screen. A silver metal spine encloses its entire body, reinforcing it over your typical fully plastic tablet.

On the bottom edge sits a Micro-USB port flanked by a narrow speaker grille on each side. The top edge sees a headphone jack, microphone pinhole, and microSD slot gathered on the left, with the power/sleep button on the right. Along the right edge is a slightly concave volume rocker. A silver embossed HP logo graces the gray rubberized back side, and in the top-left corner sits a 3-megapixel camera, sans LED flash. At the top of the bezel is a low-quality VGA front-facing camera.

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The top edge features a headphone jack, microSD slot, mic, and power button. Josh Miller/CNET

HP Slate 7 Asus Memo Pad ME172V Google Nexus 7 Apple iPad Mini
Weight in pounds 0.80 0.78 0.74 0.68
Width in inches (landscape) 7.7 7.7 7.8 7.87
Height in inches 4.6 4.7 4.7 5.3
Depth in inches 0.42 0.45 0.40 0.28
Side bezel width in inches (landscape/portrait) 0.87/0.56 0.87/0.55 0.8/0.49 0.76/0.25

There's nothing particularly distracting or uncomfortable when holding the Slate, just nothing especially cozy about it either. Aesthetically, Slate 7's gray back side would probably make for an effective contrast to its thick black bezel, but for the aforementioned silver spine, which kind of clashes with the light gray back. Otherwise, it looks like a typical 7-inch Android tablet. Ports and features have sensible placement, and the rubbery back and metal spine give it a durable feel.

Software features
The Slate 7 ships with Android 4.1.1 and features an effectively pure Jelly Bean experience. However, the State 7's slightly older OS serves only to remind me how far we've come in just a year. A couple of features in 4.2.2 that smooth out navigation, such as the pull-down shortcut menu, are sorely missed here.

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Beats Audio in full effect! Well, maybe not Josh Miller/CNET

HP adds a Beats Audio music-enhancing feature (more below) that seems to make bass more prominent when listening through headphones or earbuds. The ePrint app requires that you first register with an e-mail account, but if you're not locally-connected to the printer or on the same network, you won't be able to print.

Hardware features
The Slate 7 houses a 1.5GHz Rock CPU and a Mali-400MP4 quad-core GPU. It comes with 8GB of storage and includes 1GB of RAM. The tablet supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, and it features an accelerometer. There's no GPS hardware and no gyroscope included, however.

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From this distance, the Slate 7's low-resolution screen isn't much of an issue. Upon closer inspection however... Josh Miller/CNET

Performance
Most new 7-inch tablets feature minimum screen resolutions of 1,280x800 pixels; however, HP went with a lower 1,024x600 resolution for the Slate 7. The screen displays distractingly jaggy text in app icons and on Web pages, and both games and movies suffer from diminished clarity. Thankfully, text becomes less jaggy when zoomed in, however. As for viewing angles, HP used an IPS (In-Plane Switching)-derived technology called Fringe Field Switching (HFFS), which provides wide viewing angles as well as a high screen brightness.

Tested spec HP Slate 7 Asus Memo Pad 172V Google Nexus 7 Apple iPad Mini
Maximum brightness 373 cd/m2 317 cd/m2 288 cd/m2 399 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.47 cd/m2 0.30 cd/m2 0.28 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 793:1 1,056:1 1,028:1 814:1


(In seconds, shorter bars indicate better performance)
N.O.V.A. 3 Level 1 load time  

Menus, apps, and widgets zoom and slide around smoothly while navigating the interface, but things do stutter a bit now and then. Small apps like Angry Birds Rio take only a few seconds to load, but it can take larger games such as N.O.V.A. 3 an exceedingly long time to start a level. I also experienced one hard OS crash while attempting to switch Wi-Fi on and was forced to perform a hard reset.

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The Slate 7's rubbery back adds to its durability and comfort. Josh Miller/CNET

The Slate 7's Mali-400MP4 quad-core GPU, delivers good gaming performance for a 7-inch tablet. Judging from its 3DMark score, the hardware seems to have some skill at rendering post-processing effects such as particles and high dynamic range, but fails to match the Nexus 7 at raw polygon pushing power. Check here for more information about how 3DMark works.

The real problem however is the lack of a gyroscope, which makes playing games like Riptide GP -- which can be controlled by tilting the screen -- more than a bit problematic. The main character lags behind my tilts, making it unplayable with this control scheme. Thankfully, there are alternative control schemes for the games, but none work as well as tilting. That is, when tilting works correctly.

Device CPU GPU RAM OS tested
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad (4412) Mali T400MP4 (quad-core) 2GB Android 4.1.2
Google Nexus 7 1.2GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 ULP GeForce (12-core) 1GB Android 4.2.2
HP Slate 7 1.6GHz dual-core Rockchip RK3066 Mali T400MP4 (quad-core) 1GB Android 4.1.1
Kobo Arc 1.5GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 PowerVR SGX544 (single-core) 1GB Android 4.1.1

3DMark (Normal, 720p)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 1, 720p (GPU) (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Graphics Test 2, 720p (GPU) (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Physics Test, 720p (CPU) (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

You won't see great cameras on $170 tablet. Actually, it's doubtful good cameras are even possible, so it's no surprise that the Slate 7's front and rear cameras record washed-out images and video. The front VGA camera also drops plenty of frames while recording. If you're only looking for "a" camera on your tablet, HP gives you two. Neither is very good, but they get the job done in the most superficial way possible.

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While I like its placement, the Slate 7's rear camera's quality did nothing for me. Josh Miller/CNET

I played a 720p MKV-encoded movie on both the Slate 7 and Nexus 7 through the Dice Player. The video was obviously sharper on the Nexus thanks to its higher resolution, but what was really troubling was the stuttering playback on the Slate. During fast action or simply when the camera panned around too quickly, the Slate would slow down or drop frames noticeably. The same video played smoothly on the Nexus 7.

The Slate 7's speakers belted out typically tinny tablet sound and even with the Beats Audio turned on, delivered only slightly less tininess while being a bit muffled. However, when listening to bass-heavy music through headphones or earbuds, sounds was noticeably improved with Beat Audio activated, giving extra thump and clarity to the low-frequency sound.

HP claims about five hours of video playback, which is low but seems about right from what I've experienced. Its battery life dropped about 20 percent after only an hour of playing a 720p video. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)
HP Slate 7 6.6

Conclusion
Comparing every new 7-inch tablet to the Nexus 7, I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but the narrative remains the same: Google's $200 monster is an excellent tablet and unless the latest "great 7-inch hope" can match it in quality or heavily undercut it in price, making the right choice is a no-brainer.

The HP Slate 7 strips too much out to make its sub-$200 price and what's left isn't necessarily bad, it's just not exceptional in any way. The Nexus 7 offers a better screen, more storage, smoother performance, and a more streamlined OS. Yes, it costs more, but only $30 more. Not a bad quality premium. Unless a microSD slot is of the utmost importance to you, the Nexus 7 is -- once again -- the better choice.

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