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Archos 101 review - tablet fun on the cheap

Alex T.
1

You're probably wondering why I'm reviewing a Froyo 2.2 tablet in the wake of the release of an entire fleet of Honeycomb tablets. For one, I just got the chance to play with this tablet (though I've been eyeing one myself for a  while), but also, if you've kept up with the news, you'll know that pricing for the new generation of uber-tablets is anything but pleasant. For those that need a basic tablet for browsing, Youtube and some gaming, Froyo tablets are a good alternative. The Archos especially is a good candidate because of its attractive price and good feature set. Read on to find out if  you're better off saving your money for a Honeycomb tablet or get a cheap tablet  at a discount price.

Towards the end of last year, Archos launched a fleet of Android 'tablets', ranging from 2.8" to 10.1". The small screen devices are really more web-enabled media players than anything else and are competing with the iPod touch and Zune more than anything else. The 7" and 10" models are worthy tablets, however. The latter packs a single-core a GHz processor, 256 MB RAM, 10.1" 1024x600 screen, front-facing camera along with a full-sized USB port for keyboards/mice/external hard-drives, micro USB for data transfer and mini HDMI so you can output to a TV or monitor. 

An interesting addition is the build-in stand in the back that lets you prop the Archos up for media viewing or push it all the way back for a comfortable typing position. The build quality is good, generally, though there is quite a bit of creaking when you hold it and press against the back. The bezels around the screen are generous when held in landscape mode, but merely adequate when held in portrait. The device alternates between nice polished chrome metal around the screen and on the speaker panels on the back and pretty cheap glossy plastic everywhere else. This allows for a very thin and extremely light device that you can use for hours without getting tired. 

One drawback to the cost-cutting, however, is the screen. If you read my review on the Viewsonic GTablet, you'll see that I ranted about the screen's poor viewing angles and limited contrast. Archos threw in the same screen, according to people familiar with their supply chains, but chose to mount it 180 degrees off. This gives you better usability when looking at it from the bottom, but portrait viewing is still unpleasant. After getting used to my Nook Color that has a 7" screen at the same resolution (so much more DPI) and 178 degree viewing angles, reading an article in Pulse in portrait mode was bearable, but nothing more. Viewing richer content such as pictures or videos is even less impressive; then again, for the price, it's unfortunate, but understandable. The VGA camera on the front is another casualty, and outputs mediocre pictures and videos. 

Onto the good parts: the speakers are massively loud, they can easily fill a medium sized room, even with people talking. The OS is generally snappy once you upgrade to Froyo 2.2 and use if for a day or two  (not sure what the deal is with that, but it was noticeably slower for a day after the update). The port selection mentioned above is also great, since you've got all your bases covered. Mice and keyboard work well and you can even hook up a USB hub and use both at the same time (you get a cursor on-screen and the scroll wheel works as expected). It recognized a  40 GB external harddrive instantly and played a 480p video off a 4 GB USB stick without problems. Also, it comes with some cartoon movie at 720p preloaded, and scrolling through is instant and without hitches - impressive for 256 MB of RAM.

The Archos also has DLNA and other network streaming capabilities, a redesigned media application complete with fancy Archos designed widgets. The market takes a few minutes to install and it's available on a bunch of forums as an .apk file that just installs your normal Google Apps alongside the newly redesigned market. Not all apps show up, but that can probably fixed by force quitting and removing app data a few times. On that note, I looked for Swift Key to replace the keyboard, but didn't find it; the keyboard it comes with is fine in portrait, but in landscape it's not tall enough and the function keys are weirdly placed. I did try some other keyboard but it had the same issue of maintaining its regular height and not scaling to the bigger display. 

Overall, the Archos is a good tablet with some solid features, but also some pretty big drawbacks. Other than the mediocre display and keyboard and the creaking you're also dealing with a fully locked down tablet that hasn't yet seen any fully custom ROMs. Birdman, the guy who originally broke the Droid X wide open despire the eFuse chip that Motorola used tweeted when he first used the Archos 70 that the lockdown is worse than Motorola and HTC all at once. This means that you'll either have to wait for longer or may in fact never see custom ROMs (Honeycomb, for example) running on it. 

If all you're looking for is a well priced tablet that can do browsing, Youtube and gaming, the Archos is probably your best bet if your'e not into tinkering with the Nook Color or Advent Vega/GTablet. If you're looking for rock-solid performance and a tablet to do more than just basics, hold on to your money until some more competitively priced Honeycomb tablets hit the market. 

Image: Archos.com