The Android operating system first appeared on smart phones, but it's now showing up on larger touchscreen tablets. With the right implementation, the combination of Google's versatile platform and inexpensive handheld slates will be a potent mix, but there's still plenty of work to be done. Nowhere is this more evident than with the $399 Camangi WebStation, the first 7-inch Android tablet to come to market. While this device offers a good Web surfing experience and offers a decent number of apps, its multimedia faculties aren't yet ready for prime time.
If not for its white color, the 4.7 x 7.9 x 0.6-inch WebStation could be the iPhone's big brother. The design is reminiscent of Apple's device, from the rounded corners to its thin profile. A chrome border accents the WebStation's facade. Overall, the device feels solidly constructed, fitting comfortably in our hands both when held horizontally and vertically. Since it weighs just under a pound, we were able to use the tablet for long periods of time without our arms or wrists getting tired.
The front of the WebStation is dominated by a resistive glass touchscreen that defends against fingerprints smudges far better than the Archos 5 Internet tablet. Three navigation buttons sit to the right of the screen: Back, Home, and Settings. When held in landscape mode, a covered SD Card slot and the Power/Sleep button sit on top, volume controls are on the left, and a stylus is housed securely at the bottom left corner. On the right is a standard USB and a mini-USB port, plus the D/C, headphone jack, and reset button. There are also two small speakers integrated into the back on the left and right top corners.
Included with the WebStation is a stand that attaches via suction cup that locks securely into place. This allowed us to adjust the angle of the display when resting the tablet on a table and also gave us the freedom to place it in portrait or landscape orientation.
Display and Audio
The WebStation's 7.0-inch glass touchscreen display has a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels, the same resolution as the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. This provided enough screen real estate to view the content on most Web pages without scrolling horizontally, but we still had to zoom out on some sites to see the full width. We were able to see the display just fine in direct sunlight and under fluorescent lights in the office, though these weren't the ideal environments for the screen.
We were disappointed to find that viewing angles on the device are poor. When in landscape mode, tilting the screen just past 45 degrees vertically resulted in color distortion. Horizontal angles were better; three people could watch a video while sitting together without much trouble. In portrait mode the vertical and horizontal angles are better--we only encountered distortion at severe angles--but here users are less likely to tilt the screen as much anyway. Colors on both videos and still images were just decent.
The resistive touchscreen accepted input from both the pad of our finger as well as the included stylus; however, we prefer capacitive screens because they provide much greater accuracy. We experienced more accurate navigation when using the stylus or a fingernail than we did with our fingers, though overall the tablet isn't very responsive. We had to press the screen harder than we expected in order for our inputs to register. Plus, the device often accidentally registered a scrolling gesture as a selection of a Web link or app in the market.
The two speakers on the back of the device deliver decent volume. At 75 percent we could easily hear songs in a small room with a high-power fan running. At 100 percent, the audio was loud enough to hear across a small room.
For a multimedia device, the WebStation supports a limited number of formats. When it comes to video, the tablet can only play 3GP and MP4 files. No AVI, QuickTime, or WMV files. The eBook viewer can only handle EPUB and TXT files (no PDFs or other popular formats). Most mainstream audio formats are supported--3GP, MP3, MP4, OGG, MID, WAV--but AAC is conspicuously missing. The photo viewer at least supports the four major formats casual users are likely to load on the device: BMP, GIF, JPG, and PNG.
Click to enlargeFrom responding to inputs to loading apps, the WebStation's 624-MHz Marvell PXA303 processor and 128MB of flash memory didn't add up to a snappy experience. This was most evident when we used the on-screen keyboard: the time between tapping a letter and seeing it show up on the screen could be as long as one to three seconds. This often led to us tapping letters a second time, thinking that the first tap hadn't registered, and causing us to incorrectly enter passwords several times before we learned to compensate for the delay.
There isn't much onboard storage on the WebStation--just 265MB of flash memory--but the microSD slot can take up to 16GB cards (an 8GB card is included with each unit). This may also factor in to the slowness of the system, as almost all of the data has to be stored on the SD Card.
Another weakness of the WebStation lies in video playback. When we first tested this feature while watching the promotional video included with our review unit, the film did not play smoothly all the way through. A Camangi representative suggested that there may have been too many apps running in the background, so we tried again after a fresh reboot. This time video played smoothly.
However, the major issue lies in video quality. All of the videos we played on the tablet seemed pixelated. This was true not only for the 480 x 360 promo clip, but also several 640 x 360 resolution videos we created with a webcam. To be sure, it wasn't an issue with the videos themselves; when we watched the promo video on a PC, we didn't see any of the pixelation we noted on the WebStation.
Android and Apps
Those familiar with Android phones will have no trouble getting around the WebStation's UI. Aside from a custom dock along the bottom, the home screen is about the same as on other Android devices, though there's no tab to show all of your installed apps. All icons live on the home screen, and are arranged by installation date. We weren't able to re-order the icons the way we can on most Android devices.
The dock on the bottom links to the Digital Frame, E-mail, eBook, Market, and Music apps, along with the settings menu. The usual suite of apps that come with the open-source version of Android were also available, which includes Alarm Clock, Browser, Calendar, Gallery, Gmail, and more. A 3G Wizard app comes preloaded to facilitate connections with a USB mobile broadband dongle. (More on that below.)
None of the apps from Camangi are very robust or complex, including those associated with the multimedia and entertainment functions. The Digital Frame app lets you scroll through all of the pictures on the tablet or a specific album, but other than that features are limited. Users can choose how long the app pauses before changing the images, but it doesn't include any slideshow effects.
The eBook viewer can read EPUB titles and TXT files, but not PDFs. We liked that it included Night mode, which inverts the color scheme to white text on a black background. Not only does this make reading in the dark possible, but it's easier on the eyes. However, the app curiously doesn't allow users to read text in portrait mode--only landscape--even though the tablet has an accelerometer. Other than bookmarks, Day/Night mode, jumping to the table of contents, and Library, there are no other features in the eBook viewer, including the ability to search within a book.
The Music app also just includes the basics, such as Playlists and Cover Arts.
Since this device isn't certified by Google, it doesn't have access to the Android Market and its over 20,000 apps. However, Camangi has its own Market with about 60 apps so far. There are some decent ones for productivity (released by OpenIntents.org) like a file manager and a notepad, plus some entertainment apps like Androids Fortune and a few games. However, none of the top 15 free apps from the Android Market are available, including Facebook, Pandora, twidroid, or even PicSay. Camangi's Market is lacking in entertainment, social networking, and customization apps. Like any Android device, users can install apps not found in the market by installing a program's APK file, but finding these files is often complex and involved.
Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity
Click to enlargeWhile the WebStation was always able to detect nearby networks, we couldn't always get it to connect. It wasn't an issue of signal strength--multiple tries at connecting while standing right next to the router would still result in failure--and the software didn't give us any indication as to why we kept encountering this problem. Unsecured or secure with WPA or WEP, none of these factors seemed to matter.
When we were able to connect to wireless networks, signals were decent but slow, even when the device was near our router. The stock Android browser loaded Laptopmag.com in 17 seconds, and NYTimes.com in more than 37 seconds. In both cases we were able to start reading text in about 10 seconds, but it took longer for the pages to fully load the images and ads. CNN and ESPN's Web sites detected the browser as being on a mobile device, and loaded the pared-down versions automatically in 5 and 7 seconds, respectively.
We tried to connect two mobile broadband USB dongles from Sprint and Verizon Wireless to the WebStation to test 3G connectivity, but neither worked with the tablet. Only two dongles--Huawei models E180 and E220--are certified by Camangi for use with the device at this time, and neither appears to be available from a U.S. carrier.
Battery Life and Heat
To test battery life, we ran the digital frame slideshow app while playing music on a constant loop in the background with Wi-Fi on. The WebStation lasted 3 hours and 50 minutes, close to the rated life of 4 to 5 hours (rated standby time is up to 4 days). That's not bad when compared to similar devices running the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi); the Archos 5 Internet Tablet lasted around 4 hours, the Viliv S5 lasted 6 hours and 49 minutes.
During the battery rundown test we noticed that the back of the WebStation got a little warmer than was comfortable. We measured it at 98 degrees Fahrenheit after 20 minutes of music playback--noticeable but not egregious. We consider anything over 100 degrees unpleasant.
The Android tablet market is still in its formative stages, but there are a few key features and attributes these devices have to get right in order to appeal to consumers: speedy performance, accurate touch input, good multimedia playback, and easy expansion and personalization through apps. Unfortunately, the $399 Camangi WebStation doesn't do any of these things well. Compared to the speed and multimedia capabilities of the $379 Archos 5 Internet tablet, it's worth giving up the screen size for a better overall experience. And if you can wait a few months, tablets boasting Nvidia's Next Generation Tegra chip will offer superior overall performance in similar designs.