Review by Sunetra Chakravati,
6/13/2011 10:02:42 AM
Excellent digital notebook feature, fun stylus features such as drawing on photos, Sense interface is a breeze to navigate, good web and social apps
Email is not tablet-optimised, HTC?s interface could mean a while before update to Honeycomb is possible, average design that harks back to its smartphones
Was releasing a tablet on a phone version of Android a schoolboy error? A year after Samsung did just that with the underselling Galaxy Tab, HTC has joined the fray with the Flyer, a seven-inch tablet that runs on Android Gingerbread rather the tablet-optimised Honeycomb version. It's packed with features including a unique digital pen-and-notebook, but with two Honeycomb tablets already on market, has the fast-moving tech world already left the Flyer in its wake?
In many ways, the Gingerbread OS feels fresh enough. HTC has skinned it with a new version of the Sense interface that makes its smartphones such a breeze to use. Sense 3.0 is a swish, animated interface with 3D effects and even more of the design flourishes that make you want to show your friends your awesome new toy. Instead of a pedestrian unlock screen that simply frees the Flyer for use, new-look Sense features four customisable lock-screen shortcuts that you can drag into a ring at the base of the screen. You're then taken directly to that app, while pulling the ring upwards just unlocks the device. Eight customisable homescreens are arranged on a 3D-looking carousel, where there's actual physics involved - the harder you swipe, the faster the homescreens rotate. That famous weather-clock widget is even cuter in 3D, designed to look like a retro digital clock from the side. Its MacBook-esque silver chassis is accented with matt white rubber at the top and bottom - like many of HTC's phones, you'll either find it retro or cheap. At 420g and 195.4x122x13.2mm, it's denser than you'd expect, though still easily palmed. Along the base of the screen are four touch-sensitive areas for home, menu, back and the stylus icon. Yes, the Flyer comes with a bundled digital stylus that works with the capacitive touch-screen in many apps, including the notebook and photo gallery. Unlike the fiddly pen-sticks of yore, this full-bodied silver one feels substantial and comfortable to use.
There's a five-megapixel lens on the back, while a front-facing snapper technically allows video calls (though this isn't a native feature; you'll have to download a separate app).
Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that you're holding a blown up HTC smartphone, when the icons, widgets and screens look and work the same, just bigger. That said, the Flyer will be updateable to Honeycomb - there's just no word on when.
Using the Flyer for the first time, you're greeted with all the setup screens you need to sync your email and social network accounts. This gives you an uber-connected contacts book where all of each friend's details are pulled together, and also populates HTC's Friend Stream widget, which aggregates feeds from Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. As with any Android device, you need a Gmail account to link the tablet too - this also acts as an easy contacts backup service.
When it comes to web browsing, social networking and email, the Flyer is just like any HTC Android phone, which is fine for the first two, but disappointing in the last. Email on Honeycomb is displayed in a two-column view with inbox on one side and reading panel on the other, which is useful on a larger screen. The Flyer only offers a single-screen view, which looks over-large on this bigger display, and is that extra bit less efficient.
Compared to last year's Galaxy Tab, which was referred to by Google as a 'giant phone' for running on Android 2.2 Froyo, the Flyer is smoother and friendlier - but it has taken more than one leaf out of the Tab's book: a keyboard that lets you write by dragging your finger from letter to letter, particularly useful on a device this size. It's not called Swype, but the 'trace' keyboard is mighty similar. Hey, if it ain't broke... We worked up excellent speed typing with it, and as authors of epic emails, found it a must-have that we wish more tablets came with.
The Flyer might ape a phone, but it's also packed with a gazillion new services (most of which are actually part of Sense 3.0, also available on the incoming HTC Sensation phone). But the coolest - and unique to the Flyer - is Notes, the digital notebook that we, at least, have been waiting for since this whole tablet malarkey started. It's awesome.
The sensitivity of both touch-screen and stylus means you can write as you would on a paper notebook. There is a teeny lag but writing appears almost like it does on paper. It's a great feature that makes perfect sense on tablets as portable media devices. Notes is powered by Evernote, so whatever pages you create will be backed up online, at your Evernote account (which you need to create to use this app.) Tapping the pen icon in the bottom right with the stylus brings up a selection of pen types and colours, while on the stylus itself, one button erases, the other one highlights text, where supported.
And where is it supported? Well, quite a lot of places - but it should be noted that the stylus is strictly for drawing, so you can't use it to select icons, and you can't use it in the email app, for instance. One great use is in the ereader, where you can use it to make notes on the text you're reading, or highlight important bits.
In the photo gallery, you can create all sorts of visual hilarity by drawing on your friends' face and adding speech bubbles of inappropriate comments. If you tap the stylus on a screen where it doesn't have an official use, you'll automatically create a screengrab that you can then draw on and share - perhaps if you want to draw a friend's attention to something on a webpage, or your home screen.
As an Android Gingerbread device, the Flyer isn't privy to tablet-sized Honeycomb apps - which to be fair are arriving more in dribbles than torrents. Though it packs a 1.5GHz single-core rather than the dual-core 1GHz chips that are in so many tablets now, there's no difference when it comes to tasks like web browsing or multitasking. This could change as more demanding apps are released to take advantage of increasingly powerful devices.
The Flyer can also stream or download movies at HTC Watch, which offers HD movies for a not unreasonable £3.49 to rent, £9.99 to own (less for older vids), and free trailers. For now, the selection isn't amazing, but it's a first stab at an alternative to iTunes.
Powered by Kobo - like the Samsung Galaxy series - the new Reader app offers two million ebooks, many free. Though the Flyer is about the size of a paperback, it isn't the most natural ebook viewer, as pages on screen look a touch too thin.
Was the Flyer a safe, rather than blow-your-mind, effort? Definitely. Will HTC sell a ton? Maybe. Either way, the Flyer should be taken as a first feint from HTC, not its flagship tablet. Its web and social features are top-notch but no different from its smartphone brothers. Email is distinctly lacking when we have tablet-email to compare it to. Though Sense 3.0 adds a lot of the 3D look and feel you get with Honeycomb, it's missing some of the functionality. The Flyer has the usual HTC flair that makes it a pleasure to use, but it's not all that a tablet can and should be - yet.