Which company was already releasing Android tablets back before Apple released the first iPad? No, it’s not Samsung, HTC, Sony, or even Asus; it’s Archos, a plucky French firm you may never have heard of before.
Back in 2009 it was the first out of the gates with the Archos Internet Tablet – a tablet PC which was powered by Google’s Android operating system. It never took off like the iPad, but Archos has been a stalwart of the tablet market ever since, knocking out affordably-priced Google Android touchscreen PCs for the masses.
Now it’s back yet again, and this time it’s trying to play with the big boys at the high-end of the market. The £300 Archos 101 XS is the most lust-worthy device it’s ever created and comes with an unusual accessory in the box – its own screen cover that flips to reveal a QWERTY keyboard.
Archos’ last tablet efforts in the G9 Series were a bit of a shambles, built from bulky cheap black plastics and featuring some of the worst screen displays we’d seen on any tablet at that point.
Thankfully, Archos seems to have learned from its mistakes, as the 101 XS is a rather beautiful device. It’s just 8mm thin and shows no sign of the creaks and groans of its predecessors.
The polished white aluminium chassis is cool to the touch and very sturdy. Around the sides are the various ports and buttons you’d expect, including lock, volume, a 3.5mm audio jack, a MicroSD slot for adding extra storage, Micro USB for charging (that’s right, no proprietary charger to lug around), and a Mini HDMI port for outputting photos, videos and more to an HDTV.
They all seem well positioned and we never had any problem accessing them. Although it should be mentioned that this tablet is Wi-Fi only, so there’s no 3G unlike the Archos G9. There’s also no rear-facing camera. That’s fine by us, as taking photos with a tablet is completely impractical anyway, but it’s worth noting.
The 10.1-inch screen features an 800 x 1280 resolution, which is par for the course for an Android tablet. It does present a problem that’s been bugging us for a while, however. The 16:10 aspect ratio, when compared to an iPad, results in a form factor that’s excessively wide or excessively tall, depending on which way you hold it. Archos actually has a model with a 9.7-inch, 4:3 aspect ratio display – just like the iPad – in the pipeline, which may solve this niggle.
Far more problematic, however, is the screen’s quality. It’s relatively sharp, although nowhere near the 264 pixel per inch density of the third generation iPad. But colours are washed out and viewing angles shallow. When the gorgeous display on the iPad 2 will set you back only £29 more than this device, it’s a bit hard to stomach.
Though it’s pleasant enough, what makes the Archos 101 XS stand out in the sea of Android tablets isn’t its build. Instead it’s because it’s one of a select few devices to run Android as Google designed it, without any massive visual changes.
What you’ve got here is Android 4.0 pretty much as Google intended and it’s very welcome. Android 4.0 on tablets is beautiful and easy to use, with a clever predictive keyboard, easy multitasking button and notifications for all your apps that subtly pop up in the right hand corner. And if you don’t like it, you can change almost any feature of Android, from your email client to your internet browser.
Archos says it is planning an Android 4.1 update for November, but that wait time is by no means a deal-breaker on a tablet, since many of the features, such as smarter notifications, are of more benefit on a phone’s small screen anyway.
And even without the benefits of the Android 4.1 OS, this tablet is fast. It’s packing a Texas Instruments OMAP 1.5GHz processor, and it flies through everything. It’s not too hungry with battery either – with email syncing switched on we got about about six hours of prolonged use.
Archos has added a few things to the Android OS, however. Since Archos’ reputation was built on producing affordable portable media players that could open absolutely any file, that tradition continues with the custom video player app which the company has created for the 101 XS. Built by the company’s designers in Paris, it fits right into the Android design scheme but does much more than the stock Google video player.
Side load a video on to it and it’ll pull down an image for it as well as cast-lists and synopses from the internet. It’ll also happily pull videos from computers on your home network and stream them directly to the Archos’ screen.
It easily handled every video format we threw at it, from a lowly AVI clip to a high-definition MKV container. It can even play back 3D videos if suitably connected to a 3D-compatible TV.
Of course, the pre-installed custom video app would be rather redundant given the poor quality of the screen, but the Mini HDMI output saves the day. Videos output to an HDTV look smooth and stunning. And, happily, Archos has even considered how fiddly it is to control media on a tablet when it’s plugged into a television.
It already has an app that lets you control the tablet from another Android phone connected to the same Wi-Fi network. The Archos Remote Control app is available free from the Google Play app store and we found that it works seamlessly. All in all, it’s an excellent addition to Android, but if you were just planning on watching videos online, it might possibly seem like overkill.
We’ve been saving the standout feature until last – the keyboard. It’s included in the box and differs considerably from the keyboard dock seen on Android tablets such as the Asus Transformer Prime. It’s not a chunky add-on, stuffed with USB ports and an extra battery, but is a 5mm thin clip-on screen cover with a QWERTY keyboard fitted on the underside.
Pop it off, push up the stand, then drop the 101 XS in and it’ll start recognising keyboard commands right away. You can then get stuck into writing documents on the preloaded Polaris Office suite software or any other app you like.
It’s a wonderful productivity idea and one that’s been endorsed by Microsoft’s own upcoming Surface tablet with an almost identical QWERTY screen cover. Clearly companies great and small are thinking along the same lines.
As a screen cover we can’t really fault it. Magnets help guide it into place, so you can pop it on when you want to take the 101 XS out and about. It’s the same white shade as the tablet itself and, when combined, the whole affair measures only 13mm deep – nice and portable.
As a keyboard, though, it’s got some problems. Unfolding the stand and locking it into place involves a few too many steps for our liking. It’s rather like putting together furniture from IKEA.
Then there’s typing. The keys spring down and pop back up nicely, but they’re minuscule. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher when 10.1-inch netbooks can pack near-full-size keyboards. The lack of a full-size right Shift key is also sure to displease touch typists; not that they’d be able to build up much speed on the small keys anyway.
Archos tells us that two smaller versions of the 101 XS are on the way, in the shape of 9.7-inch and 8-inch models. The latter will use an even smaller keyboard, so we dread to think how you’ll be able to type even short emails on that without losing a large percentage of your hair.
It’s this slight failure to execute on a good idea that sums up the problem with the Archos 101 XS. While the tablet is full of ambition and has some great ideas, the hardware isn’t quite there yet. We’ll be watching future models with interest, though, as there’s certainly potential.
Archos is heading in the right direction with the 101 XS. It’s innovative and a more premium product than its predecessors. The price tag puts it in a dangerous middle ground, however. Crushed between the stunning Google Nexus 7 and the iPad 2, the tiny keys and poor screen mean it doesn’t stand out from the crowd.
The fantastic video compatibility, easy HDTV connectivity and decent usability mean it’s a good choice for anyone seeking a usable and well-made tablet for watching videos, though.