It’s smaller than most current tablets, runs on an older OS and includes an old-fashioned stylus-like pen…how on earth will the HTC Flyer compete?
It might seem a little late in the day to launch a new tablet that isn’t running on the made-for-tablet Android OS 3 (aka Honeycomb) but it hasn’t dissuaded HTC from doing just that.
Unlike Samsung, which launched its Galaxy Tab running Android 2.2 last year, with the result that it looked much like an oversized Galaxy S, HTC has at least used its Sense UI to attempt to bridge the gap between 2.x and 3.x.
With most tablets having gone down the 10-inch screen route, it’s nice to see something more portable, even if it will make people think the same as the Samsung: that the HTC Flyer is really just an oversized Desire S.
Most manufacturers are hedging their bets and even HTC is rumoured to be working on a 10-inch model of its own, but for something that mixes a large display with improved portability, the Flyer strikes a good balance.
With its 7-inch screen displaying 1024×600 pixels, matching that of Samsung’s first Galaxy Tab, it’s not far behind the iPad (the Apple coming with a 4:3 ratio screen against the Flyer’s 16:9 one), but with the smaller physical size of the device, the Flyer screen looks far slicker.
The only problem here is that HTC’s flagship Sensation smartphone, with a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, has a 960×540 pixel resolution on a much smaller 4.3-inch screen. This means the Flyer has a little over 18 per cent more pixels, on a screen that’s over 60 per cent bigger. It seems that if you’re after the highest definition display, you’re better off looking at the smartphone.
One lump or two?
However, this review isn’t trying to discuss the merits of buying a tablet over a smartphone (HTC would likely want you to buy both), especially when iPad owners seem content with a tablet that has a screen that’s little bigger in resolution terms to an iPhone 4.
A tablet is bought for its larger screen, where resolution isn’t necessarily as important as the ability to view from a distance, or look at content with others. You won’t make calls on the Flyer, but rather watch movies, surf the net and play games. The thing is, that describes every tablet on the market, so what chance does HTC have with one that hasn’t got the latest Android operating system, nor a dual-core processor that is quickly becoming the norm? (The Flyer has a 1.5Ghz single-core processor).
HTC has come up with something that it must believe gives it a real edge. Besides the tablet version of Sense UI that has 3D scrolling panels that look good, as well as more tablet-friendly version of its native apps (more on them later), the tablet also comes with a ‘Magic Pen’ that allows you to draw and write on the screen, as well as highlighting text and making notes. It’s a feature that could make or break the success of the Flyer, simply because it’s the only device to support it. But there might be a reason for that.
It’s a first for the latest generation of tablets, even though the first-generation tablets (back when the likes of Microsoft thought they would all be for people working on shop floors to use when going around taking inventory) all came with a pen, in the form of a stylus.
Now, these old tablets weighed a ton and used resistive touchscreens. This meant a pen was just a glorified pointed stick. The Flyer has a capacitive screen, which means you need a special pen – in this case one with its own battery and buttons to perform different tasks.
And while a stylus would usually slot into the side of your tablet, the Magic Pen is too big to fit inside the Flyer. You must carry it separately, or put it in the holder that’s part of the bundled case.
The pen drops
For a while I nearly had to write this review without testing the pen, as I mislaid it. You could call it incompetence on my part, but I suspect it’s going to be a problem that will be experienced by everyone at some stage. Luckily I soon found it, which is just as well given the fact you won’t find any spares in the box.
Once you have the pen safely in your grip, there’s a special way to use it. At the bottom right of the tablet, in both portrait and landscape modes (as you swap, the illuminated soft keys switch automatically), is a green pen icon that you can press to activate the pen input mode.
Whenever you’re using the pen, the Flyer stops responding to your own touch to ensure you won’t make a mess of things while trying to write, like accidentally switching apps or scrolling around and messing up drawings.
You are shown an on-screen palette, with multiple pen sizes and other options to enable you to do things, like highlight text within certain applications (limited at present to a limited number of functions such as the web browser). You can also take a grab of screens that contain your annotations.
HTC has included a very detailed tutorial on how to use the pen, along with examples of why you might actually want to use it. However, for all the best intentions in the world, I fail to see how this is going to be enough of a must-have feature to help boost sales.
The Flyer also allows you to take notes at the same time as recording audio, thanks to Evernote Livescribe, which may prove more useful for taking notes in a meeting (or an interview). The visual notes are synchronised with the audio, so if you write a note or comment at the same time that someone says something, you can then hear that bit of audio by simply selecting that note. It’s a very handy way of finding sections of audio without having to scan back and forth through an audio file.
This gives the Flyer a purpose for some business users, but would anyone else really care for using the pen? Probably not. It’s too much of a gimmick and I am not sure HTC is really pitching the Flyer to business. In fact, Microsoft and others have tried hard to get people working with tablets, without much success, and the Flyer is far more geared towards leisure use.
Fortunately, it doesn’t all hinge on the inclusion of a fancy pen. HTC Sense is the one feature that puts HTC ahead of its rivals in many areas. The version for tablets (V2.1) uses the same 3D homescreen panels as the HTC Sensation, but in landscape mode they actually remain in the same layout as portrait – with the two adjacent panels showing at the edges. This means your layouts aren’t redrawn, as well as enhancing the UI. Honeycomb tablets can show more information, but invariably this leads to tiny shortcut icons and miniscule widgets.
You can still change scenes (a different selection of shortcuts and widgets), skins (colour schemes), wallpapers and the lock screen shortcuts. Unlike the HTC Sensation, you can’t adjust what information is shown on the lock screen (Sensation users can, for example, choose to have the weather forecast shown, or the latest status updates from your friends), but you can change the four applications that can be loaded without first unlocking the phone.
To launch these you simply hold your finger on the app and drag it into the circle at the bottom of the screen. To simply unlock, drag the circle up. It’s a very simple and effective idea that is just one of the many things that helps HTC to promote its ‘quietly brilliant’ tag-line.
With the smaller font size, you can pack a lot of detail on the screen. However, non-Honeycomb apps don’t really use that space too well. This is the same problem that afflicted the Galaxy Tab and all other Android 1.x and 2.x based devices. HTC has, once again, saved the day with its own email client that has a split-screen view, the same as Apple’s iPad email client and the Samsung produced one for the Galaxy Tab.
Sadly, I prefer to stick with the native Gmail client and this just fills up the whole screen. Android Market and the default web browser is also not as nice as the Android 3 version.
Notifications are improved, especially in landscape mode, with recently used apps and standard notifications stacked on the left and Quick Settings on the right. These settings let you quickly adjust the brightness, fix the device in portrait or landscape, toggle Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, activate the Wi-Fi hotspot and so on.
Watch this space
The Flyer also supports the newly launched HTC Watch service, allowing you to buy and rent movies and TV shows. It might make more sense to watch a film on this than the Sensation, but it makes a lot less sense for HTC to try and get into the movie business, when others (like Samsung) have failed to make much of an impact.
Google is launching its own Movies service, but none of the Android devices yet have anything to compete the choice of media as Apple iTunes. The choice of material on HTC’s service is, at least for now, pretty restricted.
Another pre-installed app is the Kid Mode app, by Zoodles, that lets children use the device without messing up the main tablet for adult use. The app has a child-friendly interface and usage can be monitored and controlled. Adults can even promote what subjects are promoted to their children, as well as letting them play games and watch videos in a highly controlled environment.
Take away the pen and HTC’s new video streaming service and you’re left with a pretty ordinary Android smartphone, however you try and look at it. The HTC Flyer is quite heavy too, although that’s mainly down to the very large battery pack that means you can go for days without charging the device.
HTC is likely to roll out an update to Android 3.x in the future, but for some this might do more harm than good. Honeycomb is quite a radical departure from the Android look and feel most existing users will be used to. Even with Sense UI sitting on top, the change from V2 to V3 could be quite a shock.
Perhaps HTC should have waited until it could ship the Flyer with Honeycomb on it from day one, as it would have enhanced the standard apps considerably and allowed users to run apps designed purely for the next-generation OS.
As it stands, the Flyer is an improvement over Samsung’s original Galaxy Tab, but not by much. It still feels like a smartphone with a bigger screen. However, the HTC enhancements will prove popular with existing HTC owners who want to stay loyal to the brand when entering into the tablet market.
However, I do feel a duty to point out that if you can make do with a similar sized tablet running the slightly older, but still very capable, Android 2.2, the outgoing Samsung can be picked up at some excellent knock-down prices on the net. The Flyer starts at £480 for the Wi-Fi only version and rises to £600 for a 32GB model with 3G (prices taken from Expansys). Either that, or wait until HTC releases its second generation tablet.
With many new tablets opting for a 10-inch screen with an increased footprint, the HTC looks like a breath of fresh air and the digital pen gives it an edge. However, it doesn’t come with the designed-for-tablet version of Android, nor a dual-core processor. Performance is actually very good, but Android 2.3 wasn’t made for big screens.
Ratings (out of 5)