HTC makes some of the finest Android smartphones around, so we were intrigued to see how well its first tablet would perform. While it looks beautiful and its compact form makes it an ideal travel companion, we wonder why it doesn’t have a tablet OS.
The HTC Flyer is a 7in Android tablet that runs the Android 2.3 Gingerbread version of Google’s mobile OS, with the addition of HTC’s Sense 2.1 interface overlay. Curiously, it launched in the UK at around the same time as the likes of the Motorola Xoom and the Acer Iconia A500 tablets, both of which run the written-for-tablets version of Android known as Honeycomb or 3.0.
As we went to press, however, an Android 3.1 version based on the same hardware was being leaked online. We can only hope that this will lead to a price cut for the current HTC Flyer, which at £599 for the 3G version is one of the priciest tablets around. Here’s our take on the existing 16GB model.
Android 2.3 is the latest version of Google's smartphone software, and it runs well on the HTC Flyer. But some people will favour the smaller screen icons and multitasking that's standard on Adroid 3.0 'Honeycomb' models. The choice of Gingerbread is soon forgiven, though, as HTC’s Sense user interface ensures a slick navigation experience.
This is easily the best-looking 7in widescreen tablet we’ve tried out. Its multimedia credentials are impressive – you can even stream and download content via the HTC Watch portal – while under the bonnet is a 1.5GHz single-core ARM processor.
Judged purely aesthetically, the 420g HTC Flyer is not far off the Apple iPad 2’s unassailable standards. We were very taken with the slim profile and overall build of this tablet. We also liked the fact the Flyer comes with a smart, snugly-fitting white slipcover case that meant we had no issue taking it out and about with us with a fear of it getting scratched.
The screen suffers the usual fingerprints and glare that of so many tablet and laptops, but the capacitive touchscreen is responsive and has a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels. The auto-orientation works only one way though: you can’t turn it upside down, only from portrait (HTC logo at the top) to landscape. The bright screen and often better content handling compensate for the fact that the sharpness is not as good as the iPad. It’s very reflective, though.
Setting up the HTC Flyer for use involved entering Google user information or details of a Microsoft Exchange account. Importing several hundred emails was the work of moments. When in landscape mode, the email client previews the content of each message, including those of HTML newsletters. Icons denote whether a message has been responded to, is part of a conversation and so on.
Because we’ve downloaded apps to other Android devices, Google recognised this when we visited the Android Market, and we could see what we’d already bought as well as HTC’s recommended list of apps.
Web browsing experience
The HTC Flyer takes the standard Google Chrome Lite browser found on Android smartphones. It can be launched by dragging its cartoon-ish icon to the Sense Ring at the bottom of the Flyer’s screen. Web pages load quickly and text is sharply defined. You can pinch-to-zoom as required. Actual browsing isn’t always the smooth experience it ought to be, though. You can have multiple pages open at once, though these don’t appear as tabs in the Android browser. Instead, you press a + button at the top right to bring up a new page. Clicking the pages icon to the right of this presents thumbnails of all open pages.
When viewing YouTube video you get the choice of doing so in the browser or within YouTube. The latter doesn’t work however as the HTC Flyer is seen as a mobile device.
Instead you need to launch the YouTube app and navigate to video clips from there. We also found web pages sometimes ended up partway down the device and there’ no maximise icon to make them fullscreen again.
Viewing and listening
The speakers are plenty loud enough for personal viewing and the widescreen lends itself well to viewing, but we had to perch the tablet at an angle to get round the screen glare. When you’re holding it in your hands and gaming, this won’t be such an issue, though the lack of grip may be.
The rear camera protrudes slightly within a protective plastic bezel that covers roughly the top fifth of the Flyer’s rear. Another subtly raised piece of plastic at the bottom lifts the tablet off a surface on which it’s resting, ensuring the speakers along one side of the chassis aren’t covered up, muffling their output.
The HTC Flyer is short on physical connections. It has no SD card slot for porting content across from a PC. Instead, you can opt to stream content from a home network, view it online or download it via the HTC Watch service or Amazon MP3 (or install another music download service).
There’s a micro-USB port for charging, 3.5mm headphone jack and volume buttons, but no expansion slots in this unibody chassis. We got 3.5 days use from the Flyer (averaging 2.5 to 3 hours web browsing, email, music and video playback per day, with it sitting in standby at other times).
The 5Mp camera is a real draw. The autofocus is swift and gives a reassuring double-beep to show it’s locked on to the subject centre-screen. A tap elsewhere allows you to change the composition and focus on something else in shot. Again, the Flyer shows and audibly confirms it’s doing so. Auto-brightness and sharpness help you take usable shots, despite the awkwardness of trying to do so on a slab 195x122mm across.
The camera can also be used in a similar manner to FaceTime on the iPad 2. Fire up the preinstalled Snapbooth app and the Flyer switches to the 1.3Mp front-facing camera used for video chat with friends. Snapbooth lets you morph your face (or other objects) using Bulge and Mirror distortions, while Pucker can prove anything but flattering. This fun app also lets you add sepia, monochrome, glow or vintage (a greenish vignette) effects to your photos. These then appear in the Gallery ready for sharing.
Video recording is provided by a separate app on the Flyer (a drawback of this being an Android 2.3 tablet), so if you find you want to record something for posterity you need to head into the menu list on the home screen and choose Camcorder. As with the camera, you can specify an object on which to focus, but the camcorder doesn’t seem to compensate for the prevailing light conditions, making for some poor results in a room half-bathed in sunshine and half in shadow.
Holding the Flyer and trying to follow the action is also tricky as it’s larger than we can comfortably hold in one hand. However, we’ve only found video capture an easy experience on the smaller BlackBerry Playbook. If you’ve got a static subject to shoot, things are easier and we were able to capture plenty of colour and detail and found audio was picked up reasonably well.
Watch is the portal HTC provides for downloading films and streaming trailers. The concept is great and adds another dimension to the Flyer, but the £9.99 cost of a film such as The Social Network seems prohibitive. Some films, such as True Grit, can be rented at a more reasonable £3.49, but the overall selection appears to be in the low hundreds of titles so far.
The dimensions of the HTC Flyer are just right for reading. The screen resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels is plenty for text and we appreciated the fact that text displays with large print by default. Most e-book formats are supported, but there doesn’t appear to be an in-app option for acquiring more titles. Instead you download them and they then appear in the library.
Drawing HTC includes a digital stylus with the HTC Flyer so you can annotate photos or jot down notes. Click on the Scribe pen icon at the bottom right of the screen to switch to this input mode and add your thoughts your photos. Clicking on the Notes option from the apps list at the bottom launches Evernote (a secure notes app). You can create and save notes without needing to create an Evernote account, which is useful if you want to get straight to sketching.
We found the Scribe pen input lent itself poorly to actual note-taking and the pop-up keyboard that presents itself annoying. You get a good choice of pens, highlighters and an ink nib if you want to sketch. You can even exert some degree of pressure and see the effects of heavier colour washes and outlines.
Curiously, there are choices to attach your drawings or to go to the camera menu to take a shot to annotate, but saving notes happens only when you click the + button to create a new worksheet. Nonetheless, we like the possibilities the digital pen adds to the HTC Flyer’s arsenal of features.