- Review Date: 05/25/11
- Bottom line:
For artists and hand-writers, the HTC Flyer is a solid tablet thanks to its well-implemented pen-specific features. But if you're not interested in pen input, Android tablets with Google's latest tablet-specific Honeycomb OS are a better bet.
Fast performance. Clear, bright screen. Excellent pen input. Sense UI improves on Gingerbread OS. HTC's extra apps are solid.
Outdated, non-tablet-specific version of Android. Google Talk video chat isn't supported in Gingerbread. Slow browser performance. Cluttered default layout. Cameras are only mediocre.
Android tablets, HTC wants to remind us, are not one size fits all (or one OS fits all, or one processor fits all). Acer, Asus, LG, and Motorola have all followed a standard blueprint with their latest tablets—large screen, Nvidia Tegra 2 processor, and Android 3.0 Honeycomb with relatively few operating system tweaks. HTC is burning that blueprint and starting over with the Flyer, an Android tablet that doesn't use a Tegra 2 CPU (it packs a 1.5GHz Qualcomm processor instead), doesn't run Google's tablet-specific Honeycomb OS (it uses Android 2.3 Gingerbread), and changes nearly every aspect of how Android looks and feels. All of that, plus a heavy emphasis on pen input, makes for a bold gamble from HTC. For the most part, it pays off: This tablet certainly isn't for everyone, but it's a slate that's ideal for those who want to draw or write on their tablets. It's not going to unseat the top tablet, the Apple iPad 2 (4.5 stars, $499), and it's not even the best Android tablet you can buy right now, but for a certain type of user, the HTC Flyer will be the best choice.
In the U.S., right now, the HTC Flyer is available in one iteration: $499 for 32GB of on-board storage, and Wi-Fi-only connectivity. On top of that (at least at Best Buy, the only place to buy the Flyer at launch), the pen costs another $80. You don't technically need the pen to use the tablet, but as you'll see, if you don't want the pen, then you probably don't want the Flyer. According to HTC, 3G and 4G versions are coming soon (under the name Evo View), but release dates have not been finalized.
Design and Peformance
Best known for making well-designed cell phones, HTC brings much of the same smart design sense to the Flyer. The tablet is primarily aluminum with white accents on the top and bottom, and a black bezel around the 7-inch screen. It's not a particularly sleek or refined look, but it's still a fairly attractive tablet. At 7.7 by 4.8 by 0.5 inches (HWD), it's about the same size as the BlackBerry PlayBook ($499-$699, 2.5 stars) and the original Samsung Galaxy Tab ($399-599, 3.5 stars), and at 14.8 ounces it's a just a hair heavier than each. In my hand, it felt a bit clunky: The back is ridged on its white panels, and there's a big bump for the camera lens, and together they make the Flyer feel larger than it is.
On the front of the tablet, there's not much to see other than the 7-inch touch screen, surrounded by the aforementioned half-inch black bezel. There's an HTC logo on one side of the screen, and a camera lens on another. On the bottom of the Flyer is a proprietary port that's used for charging and PC syncing, and on top are a Power button and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side houses two buttons for controlling volume, and the back panel bears a large HTC logo, a big lens for the rear-facing camera, and two stereo speakers.
The Home, Menu and Search buttons that are standard Android fare aren't in a fixed location, but instead are just capacitive spots on the bezel that rotate as the screen changes orientation, so they're always at the bottom no matter how you hold the Flyer. It's a nice feature, but it took some getting used to; I kept looking in the wrong place for the Home key.
The display, the most important feature on any tablet, scores big points for the Flyer. Its resolution, at 1,024 by 600, isn't eye-poppingly sharp, but graphics are crisp and bright, and the panel is extremely responsive to touch (the 7-inch screen supports multi-touch, so you can pinch and zoom to move around). If you catch the screen in the right light, you'll see a grid of dots—that's courtesy of a company called N-Trig, which handles the pen input technology here. (More on that in a minute.)
Inside, the Flyer specs out a little more like a computer than a tablet—at least, the tablets we've seen so far. It's built around a 1.5GHz, single-core Qualcomm processor, rather than the more common dual-core Tegra 2 and you get a full 1GB of RAM. Bluetooth (3.0) and Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) radios are on board, and there's a full-fledged GPS antenna inside with a companion compass. You get 32GB of internal storage, and can add more via the microSD slot, which hides behind the removable, white panel on the back of the tablet.
To gauge general performance run all our Android devices through the same battery of tests, which determine everything from graphics speed and Flash performance to how quickly the device can calculate Pi (which is a good indication of its overall speed). The Flyer's performance was a mixed bag: its graphics results were excellent, as were its CPU scores (meaning it's a fast device, overall), but some of its other scores, like memory access, were just average. Its Flash and HTML5 browser scores were subpar. That means that, while the browser scores were solid overall , the Flyer won't do a great job with Flash videos or particularly intensive websites.
In general use, I was impressed with the Flyer. I was worried about the lack of a dual-core processor, but the extra CPU speed seemed to make up for that. The Flyer opened and switched apps quickly, and whether I was playing a game or reading a book, everything ran smoothly. As tablet apps get more complex and graphically intensive, the dual-core processors in the Motorola Xoom ($599-$799, 3.5 stars), T-Mobile G-Slate ($629, 3.5 stars), Asus Eee Pad Transformer ($399, 3.5 stars) and Acer Iconia Tab A500 ($449, 3.5 stars) could be an advantage, but the Flyer zipped along just fine with pretty much everything I threw at it.
HTC estimates that the Flyer will get 4 hours of video playback on a single charge—not a great number, especially considering real-world results are often shy of manufacturer claims. We're testing the tablet's battery life now, and will post them here soon.
Android Gingerbread and HTC Sense
As mentioned earlier, Gingerbread is not designed specifically for tablets, and putting the OS on a 7-inch screen means you'll see stretched menus, slightly warped graphics, and an overall look that's a little bit off. Still, while it's not clear why HTC used Gingerbread rather than Honeycomb in this tablet, it is clear that the company worked very hard to massage Gingerbread so it provides a good user experience.
Basic Android functions can be found here: The Home, Search, Menu, and Back buttons are in effect, the notification concept is the same as it is on other Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom or the Asus Eee Transformer, and many of the same stock, on-device apps remain. But HTC's Sense UI, the same skin used on many of the company's Android smartphones, changes and adapts nearly every element, to varying effect.
Take the lock screen, for instance, the first thing you see when you turn on the Flyer. Instead of dragging an Unlock button across the screen, you pull a giant ring out of its shell and onto the screen. Or, you can drag an app into the ring, which HTC calls the "activation circle," and the Flyer will unlock and open that app. In the notification bar, Sense gives you quick access to your most-recent apps, and common settings. Small tweaks like this abound; I liked some, and disliked others. The keyboard, which any Sense user has seen before, was my least favorite tweak of the bunch. Every button has multiple functions, and all are displayed on the keys, which, along with the unnecessary moving of some keys, makes the keyboard feel both cluttered and complicated. Overall, though, Sense mostly succeeds in taking a phone operating system and making it look like it was made for a tablet.
Apps and Web Browsing
HTC's greatest achievements with the Sense UI are in the core apps it redesigns to work on a larger screen, mostly through the split-screen design you'll find on many tablets—menu on the left, details on the right. Flip the calendar into landscape mode, for instance, and you get the actual calendar on the left with your appointments and details on the right. Calendar, Gallery, and others look like stretched phone versions in portrait view, but are nicely reworked for landscape mode.
For Honeycomb, Google redesigned most of its core apps—Gmail, Google Maps, Google Talk, and others—to take advantage of the extra real estate on a tablet's screen. Since the Flyer runs Gingerbread, though, you're still getting old versions of the apps, and there's no comparison. Gmail on the Flyer doesn't look as good as it does on a Honeycomb tablet like the G-Slate, since it's just a stretched version of the phone app. Also, for example, Google Talk can't handle video chat, as that's a Honeycomb-specific feature.
When you first load it up, the Flyer's main home screen looks cluttered. There are eight home screens, which you scroll through with a spinning, 3D effect, all filled with flashing, live-updating widgets. Luckily, it only takes only seconds to things clean up. The app drawer and settings screens are similar to any other Android device, with a few icon and animation tweaks.
All the standard Android apps are present on the Flyer, with a bevy of additions from HTC. Amazon's MP3 store is pre-loaded, and there's a link to the store in the Music app. There's an app called HTC Hub, which allows you to share your favorite apps with other HTC users. You get an ebook reader (powered by Kobo), a Twitter app, a labyrinth game called Teeter, the Polaris Office productivity suite, a number of social networking apps, and a navigation app called Locations, which lets the Flyer acts as a GPS (the Google Navigation app is also included, but Locations is a better implementation).
HTC Watch, one of the standout apps on the Flyer, is a video library, which lets you stream trailers, and rent or buy movies with only a couple of taps. During my tests, the service has only been live for a few days, and the library is still small, but it's a nice app with a simple interface, decent prices ($2.99-$3.99 to rent movies, $8.99-$14.99 to buy), and fast performance for watching trailers or streaming movies. If nothing else, you can use it until Netflix's Watch Instantly feature shows up on all Android devices.
Another of the Flyer's best HTC-added features is its OnLive integration. OnLive is a streaming video game service, which lets you play console games on the tablet. Though our test device didn't have OnLive features enabled, HTC promised that Flyer users will be able to play plenty of well-known console games on the tablet, or on an HDTV using the tablet as a controller.
Full access to the Android Market is enabled on the Flyer, though you won't find many tablet-optimized apps—that's the case with all Android tablets, not just this one. Apple really stands out when it comes to apps, with a store offering 65,000+ iPad-specific applications.
The integrated browser also benefits from Sense UI's touch, though it's not as good as the one you'll find on Honeycomb devices. It's a very basic browser with support for Flash 10.2. There's one significant change: Instead of the pop-up window that lets you switch between browser windows, it's a menu that drops down from the top of the screen and shows thumbnails of each window. It's useful if you tend to use a lot of panes simultaneously. It's also easy to change whether or not you want to see mobile sites in the browser, which is nice—the screen is large enough for full sites, but Android has a pesky tendency to default to mobile sites.
Cameras and Multimedia
As is now virtually required with tablets, the Flyer has two cameras. The rear-facing camera is a 5-megapixel shooter, and can autofocus. Unfortunately, there's no flash. The front-facing camera takes 1.3-megapixel stills, and is designed mostly for video chatting. Both cameras take decent photos, and work well for video chatting and recording (the back camera can shoot 720p video), but neither is any better than most cell phone cameras. The front-facing camera faces a particularly brutal path, given that the only decent video chat app for Android (Google Talk) isn't supported. Fring supports video in Gingerbread, but it's not a great experience. If video chat is high on your priority list, a Honeycomb tablet with Google Talk, or an iPad with FaceTime are much better bets.
As far as audio, the internal stereo speakers work well enough, but I was unimpressed. The two speakers didn't sound noticeably better than the iPad's single speaker. If you plug in a pair of headphones, though, you'll notice that HTC included SRS sound enhancement, which creates richer stereo output. It works well, but the speakers aren't good enough for that to matter.
There's really only one reason to buy the HTC Flyer over any other tablet on the market, and it's the optional digital pen. The $80 pen, which pairs with HTC's Scribe software, is all about drawing and doodling. (The pen isn't included with the tablet, and though for most interactions the multi-touch experience works fine, the pen is a must to get the most from this tablet.)
There's a dark, round button on the bezel of the Flyer. Tap it with the pen, and out pops a menu with two options: Scribble, and Note. If you tap Scribble, the Flyer takes a screenshot of whatever is on the screen at the moment, and lets you draw all over it. You can annotate a book, write a note to yourself, scribble on a picture, or whatever else you can think of. The Note option gives you a blank sheet of paper that you can draw or write on, and save or share. Both apps can share notes to a variety of applications, or can be automatically synced with Evernote whenever you create a note.
There are plenty of drawing options to choose from, too. You can change the color, width and style of your brush, undo and redo to your heart's extent, and more. There are two buttons on the pen itself, for quick access to two things you're likely to do often: Press the bottom button and move the pen to highlight text, or press the top button to erase. (This system is, by far, the best touch-screen highlighting tool I've ever used.)
The entire pen input process is fluid and intuitive, and the screen is extremely sensitive and responsive to the pen. There was but one problem I had: when you're in pen mode, some things still don't respond to the pen. You can draw all you want, but when you're done, hitting "Save" still requires your finger. The Notes app can record audio and sync it with your writing and drawings, a la Livescribe, but you can't press Record with the pen. When you're setting up the pen the first time, the wizard says a few times that "the pen is for drawing," and that's just slightly more true than it should be.
The question as to whether or not you should buy the HTC Flyer comes down to a simple question: How important is pen input to you? If you draw or doodle a lot, or like taking hand-written notes in your books, you'll likely be happy with this tablet. Its pen recognition and software are the best I've seen.
If you're looking for an all-purpose tablet, this probably isn't the device for you: You're better off buying a Honeycomb model to get in on all the tablet-specific OS enhancements like support for Google Talk. Though there's little to differentiate among the Honeycomb crop, I recommend the Asus Eee Transformer, or the T-Mobile G-Slate if you want a smaller screen. Even better, you could pick up the best tablet in the game, the iPad 2, and add a top-notch stylus, like the Wacom Bamboo Stylus ($29.99, 4 stars).