- Large screen
- Can access Android Market
- Unresponsive touchscreen
- Patchy performance
- Utilitarian design
- Review Price: £249.99
- 10.1in 1,024x600 pixel screen
- Android 2.2 OS
- 8GB internal memory
- miniHDMI output
- Capacitive touchscreen
The tablet’s 16:9 aspect ratio makes the Archos 101’s body very long – a whopping 270mm. That’s 30mm longer than the iPad 2 and 20mm longer than the Motorola Xoom. The pay-off is that it’s narrower, but this only serves to emphasise quite how odd this tablet feels to hold upright. Holding it this way feels more like grasping a small app-ridden skateboard than the virtual book or magazine that the tablet form factor essentially emulates.
At 480g, it’s much lighter than the 600+g iPad series devices but the odd weight distribution of its elongated rectangular design makes one-handed operation uncomfortable. The Archos 101 wants to be primarily held as a landscape device, with two hands, and it’s not afraid to make that clear.
It’s made of both metal and plastic, using a process that Archos calls its patented plastic overmoulding technique. The screen surround and two plates on the Archos 101’s back are made of brushed metal, while the rest is plastic. With the seams of these different sections very visible, this tablet’s not the best-looking slab of gadgetry currently available, though there is a certain charm. It is slim as well – at 12mm thick, it has the same chunk factor as the Samsung Galaxy Tab. There are two models available, coming with either 8GB or 16GB of flash storage on-board.
Only one side of the Archos 101 has any ports or sockets on it. This leaves the left side (assuming it’s held lengthways) crammed with buttons and holes, including the power button, volume control, headphone jack, full-size USB port, microUSB port, microSD slot, miniHDMI and power socket. There are no plastic covers for any of these, further adding to the slightly utilitarian vibe supplied by the two-tone look of the metal-and-plastic design.
There are benefits to a largely function-led approach to design though. On the back of the tablet there’s a metal flip-out kickstand that’s sturdy enough to hold the Archos 101 up at an angle, rather like an oversized photo frame. You wouldn’t see something like this adulterating the beautiful lines of an iPad – not when Apple could sell you an accessory to do the same thing for £30 – but then you also miss out on this useful function.
It’s a strange combination, the rather practical approach married with the non-straightforward shape. An acquired taste, it demands some nerve if you’re going to take it on a morning commute stuffed full of iPad users, sure to throw the occasional condescending glance your way.
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 1,024×600 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 854×480 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.
The Archos 101 is powered by a 1GHz ARM A8 Cortex processor, the same type used in several of last year’s top-end Android smartphones including the Samsung Galaxy S. However, performance here doesn’t quite match the standards set by these smartphones.
With Android 2.2 installed, there’s still some lag throughout the tablet’s interface, and the occasional multi-second loading blip as the Archos 101 does the computing equivalent of counting its coppers at the post office counter. It demands more patience than an iPad, but there are ways to tweak the tablet’s performance. With the custom UI LauncherPro installed, this lag decreased slightly – to an extent that we quickly learned to live with.
Performance within apps is solid though. Android doesn’t have the same level of high-end games as Apple’s iPhone does, but the 3D games we tested had no problems running here.
Touchscreen performance is disappointing. Archos makes a big fuss about the 101’s multi-touch capacitive touchscreen in the tablet’s marketing blurb, but its performance is mediocre. We spent the first few hours of use convinced we were prodding a resistive panel, so limited is the responsiveness of the touchscreen. Whether it’s the software or hardware at fault, the touchscreen is not sensitive enough to compete with the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab.
There’s a grid pattern overlaid across the whole screen, visible when it catches the light. It’s presumably part of the device’s touchscreen layer and is not visible at other times, but is another indication that you’re using an “affordable” device rather than a premium tablet contender.
The multi-touch gesture does work as expected though, zooming in and out of web pages, and photos within the gallery app. When browsing, the benefits of the large 10.1in screen quickly outweigh the quibbles of the less-than-perfect touchscreen – and while performance isn’t exemplary, the level of lag is acceptable. This is a very good device for browsing the net while lounging in front of the TV – home ground for any ~10in tablet.
Archos’s product history is firmly wedged in the personal video player sector. Before the iPod Touch offered an affordable solution for buyers looking for a small-screen video player, Archos was the top video PMP player, for a while at least. It is reassuring then to see the Archos 101 includes a wide array of codec compatibilities, including MKV, H.264 and VOB DVD rips.
Performance is good, with DVD-quality files playing with no issues. Picture quality is less impressive. Decent quality files still showed significant digital artefacting, much more than Creative’s rival Ziio 7 tablet, negating the benefits of the tablet’s widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio and generous screen real estate.
The screen itself is unusually dim too, with the standard brightness setting not far off the maximum. Ropey viewing angles matched with iffy brightness mean you have to be careful about how you angle the tablet. Thankfully, the commuter’s video-watching pose, with the Archos 101 resting on – or held down nearby your – knees while seated gives good results. That said, the screen needs to be angled away from your face slightly to avoid losing most of the picture’s detail due to the flawed viewing angles.
Archos claims that the 101’s battery will last for seven hours when playing video, or up to 36 hours for music. This is significantly below the iPad’s rock-solid 10 hours of battery, but Archos’s figures aren’t too far off the real-life results. It managed between six and six and a half hours of video playback, with Wi-Fi enabled. It’s enough for two or three movies, and this was just off the tablet’s highest brightness setting – although this is what you’ll want to use for movie playback anyway.
The Archos 101 arrives at a tricky time. Not only are the first waves of Android 2.3 Gingerbread and 3.0 Honeycomb tablets about to arrive, the first iPad has also been given a price cut ahead of the iPad 2’s arrival.
Now £329, the iPad retails for just £50 more than the recommended retail price of the 8GB Archos 101, and just £30 more than the 16GB version. This makes the Archos a tough sell. It offers greater flexibility than the iPad, with expandable memory, a built-in miniHDMI slot and virtually all of the customisation available to a vanilla Android device. However, in the trade-off you also get an inferior screen, equipped with a much less responsive touchscreen, a less attractive design and more problematic performance.
It’s also stymied by its video-playing issues. When video-watching is one of the key functions of this device, why is its playback quality so mediocre? We can’t think of a decent excuse – while this is an early tablet, it’s also part of a wider Archos video-player series that has been about for years.
Now is not a great time to buy a tablet, but even with its array of problems the Archos 101 is a reasonable, if lesser, alternative to the first-gen Apple iPad and one of the best 10in Android tablets available. If you can stand to wait a couple of months before buying a tablet, though, do.
The Archos 101 is a little unwieldy for one-handed use, has an average screen and slightly unresponsive touchscreen, for a capacitive model, but with a tweak or two it’s a very versatile and useful entertainment device. We’d recommend waiting for the next generation of tablets to arrive before making a buying decision though, especially when the first-gen iPad’s price drop shows that prices could tumble significantly.
Score in detail