When we first received the Archos 101, it was running the Android 2.1 OS, but a quick online download and update later we had it running Android 2.2. Updates for the tablet are downloaded directly within the device, from the Settings menu.
There is a custom UI laid on top of Android 2.2 (FroYo), but it's very simple. On top of Android's basic home screen nav structure, its main component is a row of touchscreen shortcuts that sits static along the bottom of the screen when held upright, or to the right when held lengthways - it's not affected by the screen's optional auto-rotate function unless you turn the device 180 degrees.
Whichever way the Archos 101 is held, this icon dock feels well-placed, and is particularly easy to operate with your right thumb when held in landscape mode with two hands. There's also a thumb-friendly button that takes you to the main apps menu in the home screens, and a corresponding home screen button within the apps menu.
These custom tweaks aside, you're free to fill the five supplied home screens with widgets and shortcuts as you please. As we experienced with the Samsung Galaxy Tab, though, the oversized 1,024x600 pixel resolution means that not all widgets display as intended, as the majority of Android 2.2 apps and widgets are produced with a maximum of 854x480 pixel screen resolutions in mind.
No widgets we tried failed to load, but because the Archos 101's home screens are six icons wide, as opposed to the four icon-wide home screens of smarpthones like the HTC Desire HD, widgets designed to fill the width of the screen won't here. This is a symptom of Android 2.2's "not for tablets" nature, but the effect is much less irritating than in the Samsung Galaxy Tab - with its five icon-wide screen you maddeningly can't even centre widgets properly. You can here.
The main sacrifice of the Archos 101's custom UI is that it doesn't include the Android Market, instead offering Archos's own AppsLib. This is only a brief drawback though as it's blissfully easy to get the real Android Market installed on the tablet. All you need is an app from AppsLib.
ArcTools installs both the Android Market and a handful of Google apps including Calendar, Talk and Contacts within a couple of minutes. Predictably, it's one of the most popular apps on AppsLib, popping-up on the Archos app store's opening page.
We were surprised at how smoothly standard apps perform on the Archos 101. The tablet's screen resolution may be non-standard for Android 2.2, but in the twenty or so popular apps and games we tried out, looking for graphical issues and other blips, we found no problems. Everything worked perfectly, filling the device's screen without any problems. The same wasn't true when the Samsung Galaxy Tab launched last year. Those app developers catch on quick, it seems.
App-wise, there are few compromises here once the Android Market is installed. Some textures within games look a little ugly on the big screen, with tower defence game RoboDefense a key example, but nothing's technically going wrong.
The Archos 101 also benefits from one of the key features of Android 2.2, Flash 10.1 support. This means you'll be able to watch flash videos embedded into websites, and interact with fancy flash websites, though the tablet's slowish CPU means that not all content is realistically available, unless you like long waits.