First Look: ELocity’s Android Tablet Makes Great Media Player
Stream TV is an unlikely player in the Great Tablet Race of 2010, but its new Android tablet might just find a niche among media-hungry consumers who want the option of throwing their games and movies up on a big-screen HDTV.
I got a chance to test-drive the eLocity A7 recently at Stream TV’s Philadelphia offices, and it looks like a solid, versatile tablet with a lot to offer, especially as a portable media player. (Philadelphia has plenty of telecoms and pharmaceutical companies, but not much in the way of consumer tech, so I was lucky that the company is just 12 blocks from my house.)
The three key phrases that will get geeks excited about the A7 are “Froyo,” “NVidia Tegra,” and “1080p output.” Translation: the A7’s shipping with the newest Android OS, a processor chip optimized for gaming, graphics, and video processing, and it spits out true HD video, so you can plug it into a TV.
Look at the hardware controls on the picture above: They are the standard control buttons that appear on every Android phone (plus a volume button), but they’re oriented for landscape mode. Some people knocked the iPad for being a media player rather than a portable computer, but eLocity is clearly aimed directly at media consumers.
One way to think about this class of tablets: imagine a more-versatile Apple TV, with a built-in touchscreen, that also plays video games, runs apps, and browses the web. Oh, and you can carry it around with you.
Because of the NVidia chip and 1080p, the A7 shines when it’s hooked up to an HDTV. (eLocity’s including an HDMI cable and Bluetooth-fob keyboard with the A7 in its $400 kit.) Because it uses Android, it can play almost any file format. You don’t have to worry about buying video in different resolutions for your portable device and your set-top box. We watched an HD trailer for Avatar, some clips from Shark Tale, including a Blu-Ray rip, and all looked great.
You can also play video games on the big screen while hooked up to your TV — we played the racing game Asphalt 5 — but here the HDMI cable was really awkward. Cables and accelerometers do not mix. The gameplay was much better when using the tablet like a PSP, without connecting it to a TV. It’ll be even better once there are more Android games that take advantage of the tablet form factor.
The other hurdle to clear when the A7 is hooked up to the TV is inputting data. You can walk over and use the touchscreen, but that’s very pre-remote. There’s the included keyboard, but it is just the teensiest bit awkward using a device that big when you’re not at a desk or conference table. It worked fine — I just wonder whether people who aren’t me will enjoy sitting back, relaxing, and pulling out a big keyboard to watch a movie.
Part of the problem is that there just aren’t many good peripherals for Android devices yet. The keyboard eLocity is including is branded for Windows (“We’ll include an Android sticker to put over the Windows logo,” company reps told me), and there aren’t any Bluetooth mice, trackpads, or remotes, although clever people might get something unofficially supported to work.
The hardware keyboard is also an acknowledgment that software keyboards for these tablets are fine for casual use, but not knocking anybody over just yet. My editor called it “a deconstructed netbook,” and that’s not far off. But again, part of the appeal is that it can alternately be a tablet, netbook, and set-top box as needed.
It also makes for a fairly slick e-reader. It’s not as light as a Kindle, but smaller and lighter than an iPad, and the touch controls and Aidiko e-book software worked great. You’ve can also get the Nook and Kindle apps for Android. Instead of using Pages to read PDFs, you’ve got Adobe Reader (or whatever other PDF app you can find). It also supports Adobe Flash. (Add your cheers/boos, as you’re so inclined.)
The company’s shipping the devices with Facebook, Documents to Go (the trial/read-only version), Twidroid, and other popular apps preloaded, so it’s ready to use out of the box. I didn’t see anything that looked like bloatware. Unless you really, really hate mobile Flash.
Now, some caveats. I did not get to test the device that’s actually shipping this fall. It will be available for exclusive preorder with Amazon after Labor Day (probably September 8), and will ship after mid-October. The demo unit was basically identical to the Compal- and Aigo-branded tablets that appeared at some consumer shows earlier this year, right down to the metallic red body and Android 2.1 OS. The unit that’s shipping will have 2.2, which has finally been pushed out. It will also be black/graphite, like the photos above.
It’s Wi-Fi only, since StreamTV still doesn’t have carrier deals in place. But it only has 802.11 b/g networking, not n. It outputs video in 1080p, but on-screen resolution is 800×480 — much less than the current iPad, and almost certainly much less than the next-gen iPad. There are some things it does not do well; there’s a 1.3MP front-facing webcam, which is pretty low resolution for video chat. (It looks way worse when you take video of me and blow it up on an HDTV.) But it’s there if you want it.
The A7 might be more comparable to the Motorola Stingray or Toshiba Folio 100 (née “SmartPad”) than the much-anticipated Samsung Galaxy Tab. The Stingray will also be sporting an NVidia Tegra II chip and will actually have better on-screen resolution than any other tablet we’ve heard of so far (1280×780). But it will also be huge (10″), packaged by Verizon, and isn’t coming out until after Android 3.0 is released (rumored as early as October, but nobody knows for sure).
There’s also the question of scale. StreamTV is not Samsung; they can’t crank out their own accessories, and there’s no way of knowing how many of these they’ll be able to ship. (“Not enough,” I was told.) But I can definitely say that if it’s any indication of what the Android tablet ecosystem is going to look like, this is going to be very exciting for makers, retailers, carriers, and consumers. You’ll see a lot of devices that will all be very versatile, some of which will be good at specific things. If it wasn’t already, tablets just became the new wild West.
Images courtesy of StreamTV.
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