Hands-on With the EFUN Nextbook Next3 Tablet

Last week at CES we saw a lot of tablets and I met with a lot of tablet makers. I was fascinated by the differing philosophies among these companies. While some preferred to wait and release their tablets when Google finally released Honeycomb, others were looking to get to market faster and were just fine with sending tablets bearing Android 2.2 or even 2.1 into the world. One such company representing the second stance was EFUN, makers of the Nextbook tablets.

The Nextbook Next3, which recently arrived in our offices, resembles a lot of the Android tablets we've seen in the past 18 months or so since this recent slate craze began. What sets it apart is its size -- 8.4-inches instead of the more popular 7 or 10-ish -- but otherwise the plastic chassis and the resistive screen are all too familiar. At $299 it's certainly less expensive than the iPads and Galaxy Tabs of the world (unsubsidized, anyway), but is it worth a look?

On the design front the Next3 is somewhat non-descript. The glossy black chassis is not plain, but instead has flecks of metallic blue that sparkle a bit in the light. It's not something a Twilight vampire would envy, just a bit of flair to an otherwise plain design. The thing I noticed most was the lack of buttons. There are only two on the right side -- up and down -- and those are for turning pages in the eReader apps or paging through files or media, such as in the photo viewer. Unlike most Android devices, there's no Home, Back, Menu or Search buttons. Instead, Home, Back and Menu are found on screen (sometimes accompanied by Search) in most apps, but they're not always visible.

I realize that this is a trend several hardware manufacturers are going toward, and I'd like to take this moment to ask them to stop. Having physical buttons may offend some aesthetically, but they're very useful. Especially in instances where an app stops working or the display stops responding to taps. As happened several times when using the Next3. Of course, there is always the chance that the entire system is frozen and it needs a hard reset. However, the Back or Home button would have sufficed for most of the problems I encountered.

Other than lack of buttons, the main cause of frustration was the Next3's screen. The 8.4-inch display is resistive, not capacitive touch enabled. This doesn't automatically indicate a terrible screen, and this model is definitely easier to use than the Augen Gentouch78. Still, the display wasn't very responsive to touch from the pad of our fingers. Using a fingernail or the included stylus was better, but even then we had to press far too hard at times to get the tablet to register the input. Also, no matter how many times I calibrated it, I couldn't get the touch sensitivity to be as accurate as I needed to to tap small icons or lines of text.

The 800 x 600 resolution on the display may be too low for some, but I found it plenty big enough for surfing the web and reading eBooks. Also, unlike many of the 7-inch tablets we've seen recently, the Next3 has a 4:3 aspect ratio. This makes sense for a larger tablet, and offers more vertical pixels in landscape mode. The screen's vertical viewing angles aren't very wide, but enough to share the screen with a friend. Horizontal angles are better, which means you can prop it up on a nearby table and watch video with little problem.

Performance-wise, the Next3 had few problems. The dual-core ARM processor isn't blazingly fast, but it looks like the manufacturer didn't add anything on the software side to slow the system down. When taps registered, the system responded right away. When typing on the on-screen keyboard, I didn't have to wait for the system to catch up with me. The included standard-def video played without hitching, and SD YouTube videos were similarly smooth when the connection was good. The Wi-Fi on board isn't very strong, but when close to the router websites downloaded in good time.

Given this, we were surprised that we couldn't get Angry Birds to work correctly. It never did load fully, just showed a blank or static screen and sometimes played the theme music. This is when a Home button would have been useful. To get out of this never-ending loop, I had to shut down the tablet completely.

If you've been following tablet news and developments at all it will come as no surprise that the Next3 doesn't come with the official Google Market on board, nor some other core Google apps just as Gmail and Maps. (There is an email app, though.) Instead, EFUN included the AndAppStore, a third-party market that acts just like the Google Market. Users can browse for apps within categories, download, and install right from the AndAppStore app, just as with the Google Market. The selection is not as vast, though. There look to be under a thousand apps instead of the over 10,000 available to certified Google devices.

The Next3 comes with the standard Android apps pre-loaded, plus the Borders app (with 25 free eBooks already on the tablet). Most consumers will get their first look at the Nextbook Next3 in a Borders store, as that's one of the retail outlets set to carry it.

If you see the Next3 in the store, should you buy it? It's $200 less than the least expensive iPad, after all. Still, $299 is a lot to pay for a basic tablet. And while the Next3 certainly doesn't suffer from all the same drawbacks as other lower-tier tablets we've seen, it also doesn't offer anything beyond stock Android. Plus, for some, the resistive touchscreen is a dealbreaker.

It may take some patience, but I recommend waiting for a newer crop of tablets to come to market before making the decision to spend your money on this one.