There’s no disguising that this is a budget option. While none of the design is unpleasant, it’s definitely on the cheap side. Still, it’s light and easy to handle
Android is a straightforward and usable system, though the edge-mounted buttons don’t make things any easier
The absence of a camera and GPS limits the HomeSurf’s use while the Wi-Fi-only connectivity means it’s less useful on the road
It’s not a complete slowcoach but the tablet lacks the blazing speed of pricier tablets
The HomeSurf lasted less than a day on moderate use – it’s wise to keep the charger handy
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,12/12/2011 4:00:13 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
An Android tablet for very little money
Low specs and missing ingredients, plus an early version of Android, limit usefulness
Fancy an iPad but think it’s too big to carry around? Like the Samsung Galaxy Tab but really don’t like the price? Binatone would like to show you its HomeSurf tablet range. At around £100, it’s a fraction of the cost of its posher cousins. But is it worth it?Open the box and the device is light and comfortable in the hands, though there is something low-end about the black frame that surrounds the screen, which compares unfavourably to the flush glass surface we’re used to with smartphones like the HTC Desire HD or Palm Pre 2.
That’s because the HomeSurf uses a resistive touch-screen instead of the pricier capacitive kind found on the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. No surprise, really, but it does make the screen look grainier and less pin-sharp than a capacitive screen would, and it also means multi-touch interactions like that pleasant pinch-to-zoom effect are off the menu. On the other hand, because it’s pressure-sensitive you can use it with your gloves on or with any old stylus. In fact, the HomeSurf even has a stylus tucked into the corner. Given the size of the machine, the stylus feels disappointingly thin and fragile.If you’re familiar with Android phones, you’ll recognise the screen background and layout, with a Google search box and a side tab that slides across to launch all your programs. And if you are familiar with Android you’ll know that you can’t go for more than 30 seconds before someone asks which version it runs. This is a problem that Apple iPhone and Windows Phone 7 users do not share – all products that can be updated receive the latest software instantly, and at the same time. But if you’re using an Android handset you may have to wait for months before its manufacturer or your network gets round to updating the device. Android users are frequently made to suffer from version envy.So the news isn’t good – this tablet runs Donut, that’s version 1.6, which dates from September 2009. Why this matters is that each iteration adds extra features and conveniences (see page 32 for more). These are of varying importance, but this tablet misses out on some important elements. Like Android Market, the app store equivalent. There’s no shortcut to the gallery of 160,000 apps available to download. Instead, if you want more apps – arguably the lifeblood of smartphones and tablets – you have to browse the internet, find what you want and download it from there. It’s a counter-intuitive process that’s not made any easier by the convoluted instructions in the manual. And since there’s no camera on the HomeSurf, a number of apps are unavailable on the tablet to boot. So you might end up using the tablet mostly for the apps on board. We’ll get to what’s included in a moment, but first a word on how usable the HomeSurf is. Resistive touch-screens take some getting used to – too little pressure and your touch or slide gesture isn’t noticed, too much and you get irritable. And the HomeSurf isn’t quite as fast in its responsiveness as, say, the iPad, which is instant. Mostly it’s just behind you, so if you wiggle your finger from side to side at speed, the image is moving left while you go right and vice versa. It’s not bad, but just enough to be evident.
Meanwhile, there are the Android buttons to consider. Home, Menu and Back are on the top edge of the screen when you’re holding it in landscape orientation. Usually, these are on the bottom of a phone, visible on the front, but here they’re out of sight. The Menu and Back keys helpfully have icons on the tablet screen’s bezel so you can see where to press, but Home has no such helper so you have to tip the tablet up to see the edge-mounted button or else risk hitting one of the volume buttons that are just alongside. Ultimately, it’s not as enjoyable a user experience as some other tablets, not least because the edge buttons are rather clicky to use.On the home screen, Binatone has plonked a shortcut for turning Wi-Fi on and off and to control on-screen contrast. This is handy, though to select which Wi-Fi network you want to connect to, you still need to go into settings. There’s no 3G connectivity on the HomeSurf either, only Wi-Fi.There’s also a shortcut to Aldiko, an Android ebook reader. Two books are included, HG Wells’ The Invisible Man and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Reading books isn’t so bad: the fonts are sharp and easy to read and the page turning animation, though lacking the finesse of Apple’s iBooks, is functional enough. Of course, being electronic, you can do things you can’t with paper like searching the text for keywords. This works well, though if you’re thinking of buying a tablet primarily for reading books, the Amazon Kindle offers a much better experience than other machines, as its screen is not backlit and Amazon has lots more books on offer.Like early Android phones, battery life on the HomeSurf isn’t great: it flew from full to completely empty in less than a day. Recharging seemed to be quick, though the battery meter was unreliable: it claimed to be full again after half an hour’s charge but within minutes had sunk to three quarters empty again. A longer charge yielded better results. You can only recharge using the dedicated charger, not via USB. Video playback was slightly jerky and lacked the vivid colours a better screen could have offered, while headphones are absolutely essential – the single speaker on the back is rather puny.
Although it’s clearly excellent value for money, the limited power and capabilities of the HomeSurf make it hard to recommend wholeheartedly. There are similarly priced budget Android phones which offer more in every direction except screen real estate, and while the Galaxy Tab is prohibitively expensive in comparison, it offers a lot more. If you really can’t wait for other lower-priced tablets to appear and you want a big-screened smartie now, there are things to enjoy here, but its imperfections may tire your patience.