Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Advent Vega Android tablet, part two

So, "tomorrow" kind of disappeared into a fit of preparation for carol services... but here is part two of my review of the Advent Vega (part one here).

At the end of Part One, I said that installing a custom ROM (such as the one from MoDaCo that I used) was the only sensible approach to the Vega. Without the standard wave of Google functionality the Vega is essentially crippled. With Market, Gmail, and the other Mountain View offerings in place, the Vega suddenly becomes a very powerful tablet indeed.

Having Market access naturally explodes the functionality of the Vega. Of the apps I've tried so far, nearly all have had no problems working on the 10.1" screen, though one or two insisted on rendering on a phone-sized portion of the screen, making them awkward to use. The rest seemed to make good use of the extra real estate, with the games Angry Birds and Air Control being great at that size; and the onscreen keyboard is big enough for me to type at a reasonable fraction of my usual speed, albeit with slightly lower accuracy without the tactile click of physical keys.

On the subject of keyboards - there's no need to stick with the Android default. I tried a couple of options, including Smart Keyboard and SwiftKey trials, before finally opting to pay a couple of quid for the full version of the latter. I still wouldn't choose to write an essay on it if I had a laptop with me, but for reasonably quick text entry it works well.

At least, it works well when the thing isn't plugged in. When it's charging, something seems to happen to the touchscreen; it seems to register phantom touches, and it can make typing impossible (when eevverrrry kkkeyy gggeettss mmuulltttipplee prreesseeesss). I've only noticed this when the tablet is plugged in, though (and mine isn't the only one to behave like this).

That leads me nicely on to talking about the Vega's battery life. I've not got any firm figures, just anecdotes from using it for a couple of weeks, and I can say that the battery will easily last an entire day of use - I think my colleagues and I managed to get it down from 100% at 9am to about 25% by the time I tore myself away from it to sleep that evening. Recharging to full normally takes a couple of hours, though make sure you have something small and opaque to place over the charging light if you charge it overnight as I do, or the purple blinking will drive you mad.

There are a couple of other limitations the Vega has over, say, the Samsung Galaxy Tab (on paper; not having the latter I can't really perform a true comparison. Donations welcome...!). There's no 3G, so if you're not in a wifi hotspot there's no data for you. There's no vibration (ahem) so Android's haptic feedback settings are redundant - though I don't like it much on my phone anyway. And there are no hardware "Home" or "Menu" buttons - though the latter is simulated with a long press on the physical Back button, and all three have buttons on the Vega's always-present notification bar, which mercifully has been made smaller in the MoDaCo ROM (if you pay for access to the custom "ROM Kitchen" - well worth it IMO).

Further - though it has a full size USB-A socket, which might imply that you could connect USB drives and such, the device is configured as a USB guest and not a host so you can't. Someone on the Internet has found a Korean rebadged version of the same hardware with USB host support, so it's only a matter of time before this feature arrives in a custom ROM for the Vega. This also means you can't yet get clever and plug in a 3G dongle for a data connection; and you'll have varying degrees of luck if you try configuring your phone as a wireless access point, since many phones can only manage ad-hoc and not infrastructure modes, and Android so far refuses to connect to the former.

There's been a lot of discussion about the display. People have complained about limited viewing angles, especially in portrait. Personally, while you can't by any means still read the screen through a 180-degree arc, the viewing angle simply hasn't been a problem or even that noticeable in normal use. The only time it's been an issue has been when it's sat on the desk in front of me - it needs to be propped up a little to make it readable - but my desk is cluttered enough that a jury-rig solution has always been to hand!

Use Cases

The question lots of people pose about tablets - be they the Cupertino fondleslab or any of the other variants around - is what are they actually for? So here are some situations where I either have found a place for the Vega or can see it would be useful, if those situations existed in my life...

  • Checking details on (eg) Bugzilla during our morning stand-up meeting at work
  • Checking details on (eg) Facebook during our morning stand-up meeting at work
  • On the bus/train as an RSS feed reader (with offline sync with apps like NewsRob)
  • "Hey, Mum, read this news article, you'll find it interesting" before passing her the device
  • As an e-book reader; the screen's no e-ink but it's more than adequate. (I also have the YouVersion bible application installed, though I haven't tested this in anger yet.)
  • Using VNC to interact with another computer - this is how I controlled the lighting for the church carol services last week. I could equally have controlled the sound desk
  • Sitting on the sofa watching telly with housemates, while flicking through Facebook or Twitter or chatting to someone over messenger
I'm sure I could think of more - I haven't even covered the possibilities for media (iPlayer works great), which a lot of people would see as a major role - and, certainly, there's overlap there with what netbooks, notebooks, desktops and phones could achieve. But I'm convinced that there's a definite gap in the market for this form of device - and if you can have it for half the price of the Apple offering, and without the draconian limits that Steve Jobs puts on his device, then why not?

To sum up: the Vega isn't the perfect tablet, but for the price I'm very happy indeed with the purchase. As Android gets developed more for the larger form factor, and as the online community continues to play around unlocking more of the device's functionality, then it can only become even better.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Review: Advent Vega Android tablet, part one

So, I finally got my Advent Vega yesterday morning as I arrived at work. As there's such a buzz of interest around this budget Android tablet, I figured I'd contribute my thoughts to the blogosphere and add to the discussion!

First, some backstory.

The Saga of Getting One

Stock's been arriving in dribs and drabs for the couple of weeks since the Vega first went on sale at an insanely reasonable £249. When they first launched via the Dixons, Currys and PC World websites, the initial batch sold out in less than an hour; and subsequent batches have been even quicker (I think twelve minutes was a duration bandied around on Twitter at one point). I was lucky enough to get my order in quickly enough for the second batch, and a couple of days later it duly arrived.

Sadly, while the rather reflective screen was a very good mirror, that was about the only functionality I could eke out of the 10.1", 750g tablet. Repeated attempts to reflash the thing all ended in failure; after all the hype the Vega was DOA and I returned it to the PC World a short walk from my office that evening, where Mandie was very helpful in arranging a refund.

Back to the waiting game... and I managed to order again the next Saturday. Or, so I thought.

Apparently the DSG stock system couldn't quite cope with the sheer volume of people all trying to buy the Vega at once, and it sold about 100 more than they actually had in stock. After a few days of limbo, I got an E-mail telling me to call the customer service line otherwise my order would be cancelled. Not wanting to join the hordes of F5-induced RSI sufferers for a third time, I asked the lady I spoke to (who, again, was very helpful) if I could have my order put in a queue for the next batch, and she happily obliged. (I'd been reading on the MoDaCo forums about others in the same situation.)

All good, or so I thought... the next batch of stock came and went, and nothing was mentioned of my order. A further E-mail to DSG gave the impression that somebody had been promising so-called "forward orders" even though it was against company policy, and now management had been left with the task of fulfilling their promises. The gentleman who phoned me back was the third of three very helpful employees I'd spoken to at this stage, and he promised that the scheduling team were working out how to match up orders and Vegas as they became available.

And so eventually, one was placed in the (not-quite-so) capable hands of DHL who, after accidentally ripping the box open and repackaging it with lots of tape, managed to deliver a fully-working Vega to my office on Tuesday morning. And the fun began!

Initial Impressions

It was shiny - literally; the screen was very reflective, and is a magnet for fingerprints. They didn't seem too noticeable when the Vega was switched on and in use, even under office lights, but switch the screen off and just try and resist the urge to clean it!

Boot time was a little tardy by most standards, but for a device pretty much designed to be always left in standby I can forgive that. The initial app selection was pretty dire, and a last-minute change by Advent meant there was no central package manager (oh, OK, "app store" in your Cupertino-speak or "Marketplace" as Google would have it). Out of the box, the Vega is basically a touch-screen web browser - yes, it is possible to hunt down the Android .apk  application packages manually and install them, but it's far easier to take the brilliant efforts of Paul at MoDaCo and get the full set of Google apps - Market included - with a custom ROM image.

For part two of this review (which I plan on writing tomorrow, it's late!) I'll talk about how amazing the Vega is with that custom image, and how you should really buy one if you're looking for a tablet but can't stomach the cost of an iPad. Just so there are no surprises. :-)