The poor man's iPad?
By Alun Taylor
Review Despite the iPad being upon us and plenty of Windows 7 and Android tablets on the horizon – not to mention whatever HP's tablet plans are for webOS – the question: "What's a tablet for?" remains a question without a definitive answer.
A touch of PC and PMP: Archos' 7 Home Tablet
Archos presumably thinks basic home web connectivity and media playback is the answer, as these are the main pitches of its new 7 and 8 Home Tablets – the French PMP maker's latest attempt at desktop-cum-handheld connected gadgets, after the disappointing Archos 9  tablet.
Like the Archos 9, the 7 has a fold out leg to prop it up but, thankfully, this time the leg doesn't fold up and collapse if you nudge the device to the right. The slightly curved ends of the device make it comfortable to hold with both hands and at 388g single-handed use isn't a worry either.
The 7 eschews the 9's HDD for a choice of 2GB or 8GB flash storage, with MicroSD expansion good for another 32GB. That said, currently, the 2GB version doesn't appear to be available in the UK. Usefully, the various media menus aggregate the contents of both on and off board storage.
Dominating the front of the 7 is a resistive 16 million colour 800 x 480 7in LCD screen with a matt finish. Archos has a tradition of quality displays and the 7 Home Tablet doesn't disappoint; it's crisp, bright and colourful although the viewing angle is not exactly robust in the vertical plane.
Built-in camera and mic for compatible apps
The touch screen UI isn't on the same planet as the iPad's in terms of speed or fluidity but it does the job reasonably well with taps and drags registering first time most of the time. Multi-touch is wholly absent, but the on-screen navigation and zoom controls don't make this a significant failing.
The virtual keyboard is a decent bit of design that makes typing pretty painless, however, key presses can become a bit wayward close to the periphery of the screen. I managed to type faster using an old HTC Touch stylus I had lying around than using my finger, so Archos should perhaps have considered including a pointy stick.
A useful collection of apps, but no Flash support
The 7 runs Android 1.5 and the three panel home screen will be instantly familiar to any Android smartphone user, with the applications tab dragging out from the right. Not being a Google approved device, you can't simply sign into your Google account and gain access to the full Android Market . Instead, there's Archos' own and far smaller apps library called AppsLib  which still includes some handy applications like the K9 e-mail client.
My Archos 7 came loaded with the eBuddy IM client, Aldiko ebook reader, Daily Paper news feed and Deezer radio application, a file browser and the usual Android e-mail, web and media playback apps, as well as bespoke video, music and image playback applications from Archos. More apps are available from the likes of the Android Freeware site  but that can be a bit hit and miss. Google Maps wouldn't instal and while Fring  did, it couldn't access the speakers. More worryingly, several of the applications I downloaded from the AppsLib refused to instal including the Weather Channel app, which, ironically, is shown working on the box artwork.
The combination of a dated version of Android and a stunted apps store will doubtless raise howls of derision from El Reg readers but not, I suspect, from the 7's target market that Archos, no doubt, presumes wants affordable and simple out-of-the-box functionality, rather than the ability to ape the latest Android smartphones.
With the Android Market out of bounds, on-board is access to the AppsLib site
Archos clearly sees the 7 Home Tablet as a device more akin to the shortlived O2 Joggler  or a cross between a digital photo frame and a connected PMP, rather than a netbook stand-in, so you need to modify your expectations accordingly. Something the Joggler can do is act as a UPnP media streamer. Alas, the 7 doesn't have this capability, which is a little disappointing nor does the 7's web browser support Flash, so no YouTube or iPlayer.
Fire up the e-book reader and the screen flicks to portrait but there's no auto or manual rotate option, so even web pages have to be viewed in landscape. Another omission from the 7 is a web cam, but the circular blanking plate on the right side of the device suggests one may be coming in a future version or Archos changed its mind to save a few quid.
Does the business as a media player
Skype video calling is one of main uses I put my netbook to, so this rules out me ever replacing it with an Archos 7 – until a Skype Android app appears that supports video. With the Archos 7 Home Tablet featuring a built-in microphone and two decent little speakers, it seems this model is certainly equipped, whenever Skype decides to launch a cam-friendly version for Android.
The 7's file support runs far beyond the Android norm extending to DRM-free MP3, WMA, WAV, APE, OGG, FLAC and AAC audio, H.264, Real and MPEG-4 video. To put it another way, it plays most files with an avi, mp4, mkv, mov or flv suffix up to 720p in resolution – along with JPEG, BMP, GIF image files. With no DRM support, iPlayer downloads are out of the question.
Size isn't an issue, neither is the weight
I've always been impressed by the quality of AV playback on Archos devices and the 7HT is no different. Attach a pair of speakers or headphones and you have a cracking portable desktop cinema, though its ability does throw the lack of an HDMI port into sharp relief. Alas, there is no support for subtitles. Content can be synchronised using an MTP media player – as well as drag and drop from either Linux, Mac or Windows machines – however, the only way to set up playlists is from within the device.
Of course, these are all failings that a timely firmware update could fix in short order. Archos reckons a full charge of the battery pack will get you 42 hours of music playback or seven of video. I struggled to match those numbers getting only 5 hours of video playback even with the screen brightness turned down to 50 per cent.
Inexpensive and worth a look if you need something more than a phone and less of what a netbook can offer
Direct comparisons to the Apple iPad  or Dell Streak  are pointless when, at under £130 for the 2GB model, the Archos 7 will set you back less than a third of the price of either and makes no pretense to cellular connectivity. Given that price point I can see many people thinking it's a better value for money proposition than Apple's magical gizmo or Dell's big phone.
The Archos 7 Home Tablet has to be taken on its own merits with both price and target audience in mind. For £130 you get a decent little connected device that will let you access the web, send e-mails, read ebooks and chat over IM, albeit without video. It's a decent media player too. Sure, it's no iPad, but at the entry-level, it is £300 cheaper. ®