- Review Price: £399.99
If you’ve read our extensive hands-on preview of the larger ViewPad 10, you may remember that in some regards, its smaller, cheaper 7in sibling is actually the superior tablet. For one thing, it comes with the latest 2.2 version of Android instead of the outdated – and not (officially) upgradeable – version 1.6 that accompanies Windows 7 on the larger tablet. As ViewSonic has only made minimal alterations to the stock Android OS, it should receive a rapid update when Gingerbread (AKA 2.3) comes out.
It also features a front-facing camera, quad-band GSM (allowing you to use it as a smartphone) 3G connectivity, and access to Android’s Marketplace, all features placing it near the top of the tablet game. Combined with its stylish – if rather chunky – looks and fairly solid apparent build quality, initial impressions are certainly positive.
Another immediately obvious advantage over not only its bigger sibling, but also most competitors, is that the ViewPad 7 comes with a very well-thought-out case. This is a classy black affair with a tough, patterned leatherette exterior and soft, suede-like, anti-slip interior. It has three hard clips which securely hold the pad and a broad elastic band that holds its covers closed.
Perhaps the case’s best feature is that it acts as a flexible stand. It cleverly folds in on itself to support the tablet either at a fixed angle (with the soft finish on the outside, great for slippery surfaces like glass) or flexibly (with the leatherette finish on the outside). The only disadvantage is that, either way, it’s unsuitable for holding the tablet in portrait orientation. Regardless, the case is a genius default addition and a significant value-add, considering a decent equivalent for a rival tablet could easily set you back £30 or more – if it’s available at all.
Onto the tablet itself, as mentioned its construction looks very solid at first glance, and for most of it this holds true. Essentially, its front and back are finished in slices of clear glossy plastic over piano black, with a faux-aluminium band running seamlessly around the edge to join them. This is in contrast to having glass panels front and back with a stainless steel band like the iPhone 4, which this device clearly takes its influence from. Despite the inferior materials, though, it feels pretty solid, and that case should keep scratches to a minimum. However, we did notice that we could press the back in ever so slightly where it met the silver strip, as the back ‘slice’ had come out a little from its frame.
Visually, the ViewPad 7’s design is sharp and clean. At the back only a camera and the silver ViewSonic logo disturb the black finish, while the front features four touch controls marked by minimal icons and a front-facing camera that’s subtly integrated. It isn’t nearly as good at resisting fingerprints as some premium devices either, meaning you’ll want to give it regular wipe-downs.
Unlike its bigger ViewPad 10 cousin with its rounded edges, the ViewPad 7 suffers from the same ergonomic problem as the iPhone 4, in that its somewhat sharp edges don’t make it the most comfortable device to hold. Also, because of its bulk it feels heavier in the hand than Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, though in actual fact it’s 5g lighter (375g to the Tab’s 380g), slightly thinner (11.5mm compared to the Tab’s 12mm) and offers a smaller footprint (179.4 x 110mm compared to the Tab’s 190 x 120.5mm).
Further indications of the ViewPad 7’s more wallet-friendly aspirations are revealed when we get to specifications. For rather than the 1GHz CPUs regularly found in high-end tablets such as the iPad and Tab (or indeed large smartphones like the Dell Streak and Samsung Galaxy S), here we’re dealing with an ARM11 running at a relatively paltry 600MHz. Thankfully the effects of this aren’t felt too often in average use and productivity. However, fire up a more intensive game and you’ll soon notice the difference. More damningly, though version 2.2 of Android natively supports Flash, the CPU just can’t cope and even 720p HD video will play like a slideshow. So if these are important to you, this is not the tablet you’re looking for.
It’s a relief to find that further specs are more robust. There’s 512MB of memory, and the paltry 512MB of integrated flash storage can be augmented with MicroSD cards of up to 32GB. It has a G-sensor for detecting orientation, an E-compass (in case you feel like taking a voyage of discovery to unknown continents) and even an ambient light sensor to dynamically control the screen’s brightness. For wireless connectivity we have Wi-Fi G, Bluetooth 2.1, A-GPS, quad GSM bands and tri-band UMTS (3G). Video calling is also on the can-do list, with a front-facing VGA camera and a three megapixel model at the back.
Connectivity is decent enough, with all ports and slots integrated into the silver strip surrounding the tablet. Along the top are two well-spaced, flush volume controls and slots for both the MicroSD memory card and a SIM. Both of these are protected by a single semi-flexible, hinged cover.
Along the bottom you’ll find a pin-hole reset button and microphone, as well as a headphone jack and mini-USB port for charging and data. Though this doesn’t comply with the now almost universal micro-USB standard found on most phones, it’s easy to find cables for and is a sight better than the proprietary connector used by Samsung’s Galaxy Tab.
Aside from its somewhat underpowered processor, the ViewPad 7’s only other significant compromise is its screen. We’re not surprised that it uses a TN panel, as most other alternatives also offer this, and indeed the iPad is still the only easily available tablet to sport a superior panel technology. Even so, despite good horizontal viewing angles (with the tablet in landscape mode), vertical ones are very poor indeed, and considerably inferior to those of the Galaxy Tab.
However, a more significant disadvantage is the screen’s low 800 x 400 resolution. This is less than you get on some high-end smartphones such as the Motorola Milestone XT720 (854 x 480) or iPhone 4 (960 x 640), and markedly inferior to the Tab, which crams 1,024 x 600 pixels into the same screen area.
Consequently, images and text are visibly grainy, tiny fonts can be difficult to read, and video never looks as sharp as we would like. Don’t get us wrong, it’s certainly usable and half the time you might not even notice, but other tablets (including ViewSonic’s own ViewPad 10) give a better experience in this regard.
It’s quite a pity too, as sonically this 7in tablet is surprisingly decent. Its stereo speakers produce clear and reasonably sharp sound at higher volume levels than you would expect, though to get any bass you’ll still need to resort to a pair of headphones.
Getting to the interface, ViewSonic hasn’t significantly altered Android 2.2’s stock effort (arguably a good thing) but has added the useful Documents to Go app. However, one immediate annoyance is that, unlike Samsung’s tablet, the ViewPad doesn’t support a portrait mode when viewing the homescreen, navigating menus, or using the dialer. A statically-oriented home screen is acceptable on a phone, but it simply doesn’t work here, especially as portrait is the only comfortable way to hold the tablet one-handed. In landscape mode, the buttons along the right side can also be accidentally pressed with your palm.
Speaking of usability, despite sporting a relatively hard surface the capacitive touchscreen is, as we often find with plastic displays, not quite as responsive as those on other devices we’ve used. You have to be a little bit firmer with swipes than usual, and during typing there’s the odd occasion where a light press doesn’t register.
Haptic feedback doesn’t feel as ‘solid’ as we’re used to either, with one staff member describing it as “tinny”. The slightly sluggish response of the device also means it trails your typing by some considerable distance, even if you’re not a particularly fast typer. All told, we’re not surprised that ViewSonic has it turned off by default for the keyboard.
In landscape mode, the virtual keyboard is very usable, with the 7in screen size ensuring keys are almost as large as on the real, physical peripheral. However, you will need long thumbs for two-handed typing and it’s quite tiring to hold after a while. In the more comfortable portrait mode things are more manageable, but the slightly unresponsive feel of the screen and the response lag means you can’t really get up a head of steam.
Call quality on the ViewPad 7 is very good, with excellent clarity from both the speakers and the microphone, though ideally you do need to orient the latter towards you. Speakerphone is the only option, but we can’t imagine many people holding this tablet against the side of their head like a mobile phone. The bundled ViewSonic in-ear stereo headset is actually surprisingly decent, including a built-in microphone and two sets of extra tips. Or you can just use a Bluetooth headset like the Jawbone Icon.
Unfortunately, as with the Galaxy Tab, the cameras on ViewSonic’s tablet are pretty much an afterthought. Stills from the three megapixel rear unit are of mediocre quality while its standard definition video is edging towards dreadful, with plenty of smearing, noise, artefacts and loss of detail. It’s just about adequate for video calling, but certainly not ideal for capturing memories.
Battery life from the non-removable 3,240mAh unit is decent. Though you won’t get 10 hours like the iPad, ViewSonic’s claim of around six hours seems to be spot-on, as the ViewPad 7 gave us just over six hours with average use (with the screen set to Auto – i.e. using its ambient light sensor to determine brightness – and usage alternating between web-browsing, downloading over Wi-Fi, document creation, gaming and video playback). Obviously your mileage will vary with use, but especially with the screen brightness lowered, it could last you all day.
Finally we get to value, which is by no means straightforward. Though the ViewPad 7 is available for £400, if you have any unwanted netbook or laptop lying around you’ll get £100 cashback from ViewSonic’s trade-in program. That’s not “up to”, it’s £100 for any working machine up to four years old, bringing the price for the tablet down to £300.
At £300, if you can live with its limitations the ViewPad 7 offers halfway decent value, with its Android 2.2 OS, 3G, official App Store support and its long battery life (not to mention a two-year collect and return warranty) setting it apart from the cheap £150 tablets being sold by many lesser-known brands online. Arguably you would be better off buying a similarly-priced Android smartphone, but the larger form factor does have a niche appeal.
For the full £400 though, we just don’t feel ViewSonic’s smallest tablet offers the kind of quality you would expect for that kind of money. Samsung’s Tab was also overpriced, but at least it offered Full HD video playback and HDMI video out (albeit with an optional dock that costs extra), a higher-resolution, better screen, and hardware specifications that were powerful enough to run every Android application out there.
Despite its proprietary nature, even Apple’s iPad easily justifies its £30 premium, and the competition isn’t exactly standing still, with Dell’s intriguing little Inspiron Duo coming in at £450. Unfortunately, the best aspect of the ViewPad 7 is its case.
ViewSonic’s ViewPad 7 Android tablet looks good, is fairly well built and has plenty of features, not to mention a great case. However, it’s seriously let down by its uncomfortable shape, slow 600MHz processor and a low-resolution, slightly unresponsive screen.
Score in detail
|Memory (RAM) (Gigabyte)||0.512GB|
Unlike other sites, we thoroughly test every product we review. We use industry standard tests in order to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever accept money to review a product. Tell us what you think - send your emails to the Editor.