Long before anyone ever heard of an iPad, Archos was churning out media-centric touchscreen devices that, while not hugely popular, were well designed. While the company's stab at a Windows 7 slate flopped, the company has developed a range of Android tablets, from 2.8 inches (really, a tablet in name only) all the way up to 10 inches. The Archos 101 ($299) is the top-of-the-line model, and it's the thinnest and lightest 10-inch tablet on the market with a capacitive display. It also offers HDMI output and a front-facing camera. Although the Archos 101 is far from perfect, it's a solid value-priced alternative to Apple's device.
You could be forgiven if, at first glance, you mistook the Archos 101 for its older Archos 9 PC Tablet. With the exception of a few buttons, the two devices are practically identical in looks. The chassis is made of a black plastic, but the screen is bordered by black brushed aluminum, as are two panels on the back. Despite its slimness, the Archos 101 has a sturdier look and feel than the Viewsonic G Tablet.
With a footprint of 10.6 x 5.9 inches, the Archos 101 takes up nearly the same amount of counter space as the Archos 9 as well as the Viewsonic G Tablet. However, the Archos 101 is just 0.47 inches thick, compared to 0.7 inches for the Archos 9 and 0.5 inches for the G Tablet. The Archos 101 weighs just 1.1 pounds, a good deal lighter than the G Tablet's 1.55-pound heft, not to mention the Archos 9's 1.8-pound bulk. Plus, the 101's tapered sides make it look as light as it feels.
Unlike the Archos 9, there are no physical buttons on the face of the Archos 101. All of the 101's ports and buttons are on the left side; from the top, there's a volume rocker, power, headphones, USB, microUSB, microSD card slot, and a mini HDMI port. At the bottom of all this is a port for the power plug, the only way you can charge the 101. We wish you could simply use a USB port instead. To the left of the screen is a VGA webcam.
On the back is an adjustable kickstand that makes it easy to prop up the 101 on a desk; it's so convenient we wish all tablets had this feature.
For the most part, the Archos 101 remained cool to the touch, with one exception. The rear of the device near the power port exceeded 90 degrees, even idling. Considering this is where you put your left hand, it became a bit uncomfortable.
The Archos 101 features a 10.1-inch capacitive touchscreen display. Its size and resolution (1024 x 600) are the same as the G Tablet and Samsung Galaxy Tab. However, you can clearly see the diagonal sensor grid on top of the screen, which occasionally proved distracting. Colors were bright, but sadly the display is reflective, and viewing angles are limited to those sitting more or less directly in front; tilt the Archos 101 just a little vertically or horizontally, and the on-screen image begins to wash out.
The multitouch screen supports gestures such as pinch-to-zoom; we found it worked fairly smoothly and quickly in the browser as well as in games such as Angry Birds.
User Interface and Keyboards
Unlike the G Tablet, the Archos 101 runs an unadorned Android 2.2 operating system, and that's mostly a good thing. As we've seen, having a skin can tax even powerful processors such as the G Tablet's Tegra 2 CPU. The 101 comes with all the Android live wallpapers; seeing the sky behind the moving grass change from day to night is a little touch that's even more appreciated on such a large screen. What you don't get are tablet-optimized apps with dual-pane views, which Samsung's Galaxy Tab offers.
Since there's no physical buttons on the 101, the typical Android buttons (Search, Home, Settings, and Back) are displayed as virtual buttons along the right side in landscape mode, and along the bottom in portrait mode. They remain there regardless of what app you open.
In landscape mode, the width of the 101 made it difficult to use the slightly modified Android keyboard; we had to really stretch our thumbs to get to the center. A split keyboard, a la the G Tablet, would be welcome here. In portrait mode, though, we found it much easier to type on the 101.
When Archos announced its slate of tablets, it knew that not all would be approved for use with the Android Marketplace, so it went and created its own. At 18,000 apps (and growing) Archos AppsLib is about a fifth the size of Google's--there's no Pandora app, for example--but we found plenty of content to keep up content, such as Angry Birds, Slacker, and Talking Tom. Moreover, searching AppsLib was as easy and seamless as using the Android Marketplace. Content is divided into categories, such as Lifestyle, News & Weather, and Sports, and you can search by most popular free and paid apps.
While all the standard Google apps aren't preinstalled, we found Maps in AppsLib, and Gallery was already on the desktop. There's no YouTube app, which is all the more unfortunate because the Archos 101 can't play Flash videos as of yet (the company says a plug-in will be available in 1 to 2 weeks). We did, however, download FreeTube, which let us download and play YouTube videos.
Pre-loaded apps include Aldiko (an eReader), Deezer, eBuddy (a universal messaging client), Quickpedia, Touiteur (a Twitter app), and World Newspapers (RSS feeds from just about every periodical you can think of) .
The VGA camera is good for very little. Photos taken indoors using the standard Android Camera app were blotchy, grainy, and dark. We tried to use the video-conferencing app Fring, but all we saw was pixilated, choppy video, and audio was nothing but static.
As befitting Archos' legacy, the 101 supports a wide range of media formats, including MPEG-4, H.264, WMV, and MPEG-2. However, it only supports video up to 720p, even when outputting to a larger display.
Supported audio formats include MP3, WMA, WAV, AAC, OGG, and FLAC.
The stereo speakers on the back of the device cranked out loud audio, but were of netbook quality. At full volume, U2's "Beautiful Day" filled a small office easily, but sounded distorted and tinny.
Unlike the vast majority of tablets, the Archos 101 lets you output its screen to a larger display. It's neat to be able to not only view videos this way, but also to play games such as Raging Thunder 2. Unfortunately, this feature's execution leaves something to be desired.
We successfully connected the Archos 101 to a large TV not just with an HDMI cable, but were able to take advantage of the 101's full-size USB port to use the HP Wireless HDMI accessory. Even though it's bulky, it was great to be able to use the Archos from across the room. Even with a 46-inch Samsung HDTV. Videos, such as The Magic of Flight and Big Buck Bunny, played smoothly at full-screen, and games such as Angry Birds and Raging Thunder 2 scaled well. We didn't notice any pixilation.
When you select TV-Out in the Settings menu, the Archos' screen goes blank; the center area remains a touchpad, while the left and bottom edges become scroll bars. The right edge can still be used to for the Android buttons. A cursor appears on your TV screen to show you what you're selecting; we'd rather that the Archos 101's screen remains on, to give us a better idea of what we're choosing. For some reason, the touchscreen became much more erratic in TV-Out mode: It would select items by mistake, or not register our input at all.
Multitouch is a bit tricky in this mode, too; you must hold one finger on the screen for a second or two until the cursor disappears, then use a second finger to pinch to zoom, for example. Zoomed out, it became a lot more difficult to control the slingshot in Angry Birds.
While the 1-GHz ARM Cortex A8 processor and 3D OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics accelerator in the Archos 101 were able to keep up with all of our tasks fairly well, we noticed some lag at times. For example, it took the tablet 5 seconds to launch the Gallery app and 4 seconds to launch the multitasking menu while playing music in the background. On the plus side, the accelerometer was quick to recognize when we had rotated the device.
In the Linpack benchmark, which measures how many calculations a processor can do in a set time, the Archos 101 scored 10.26, which bested the Viewsonic ViewPad 7 (7.5), but was well behind the Samsung Galaxy Tab (13), which uses a 1-GHz Hummingbird processor, and the ViewSonic G Tablet (36.6), which has Nvidia's Tegra 2 CPU.
In An3DBench, which measures 3D graphics performance, the Archos 101 also trailed the pack, scoring just 4,200 to the category average of 6,575; the Galaxy Tab notched a category-high 7,123.
Despite its ultra-slim profile, the Archos 101 had excellent endurance. On our LAPTOP Battery test (web surfing via Wi-Fi), the device lasted just around 11 hours. Archos estimates that the 101 should last up to 10 hours web surfing, up to 7 hours while playing video, and up to 36 hours playing music.
Among 10-inch Android tablets, the Archos 101 is the slimmest, most solid, and, at $299 ($349 for the 16GB version), the best value thus far. However, that doesn't mean we don't have reservations. For such a large screen, the viewing angles are too narrow. Also, you don't get access to all of Google's apps or the Android market, and the pricier Galaxy Tab offers faster performance. Still, with 8GB of storage, two USB ports, HDMI, and long battery life, Archos delivers good bang for your buck.