Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ainol Novo7 Advanced II Review

Tablets are all about the Apple iPad. At least in North America they are. However, there are alternatives, both here and in Asia, and usually those alternatives are much cheaper. An astonishingly large number of generic tablets are showing up here in discount stores and under various no-name brands at the lower end of the electronics retailing spectrum. The question then, what can you do with a generic budget Android tablet, and will you still be wanting and iPad when you're through?

Ainol is a well respected Chinese maker of personal media players (PMP's) and tablets. Until the tablet craze, they were known for a line of  players that were in the 5 to 7 inch screen size range, usually with a resolution of 800*480 pixels. Though not cutting edge, these devices and, and a lot of their competitors, are very serviceable, and reasonably well built. However, let's first get over the company name. Ainol. Read up on any forum and you'll get the requisite snickers about how much it sounds like anal. Go ahead and giggle, let's all get it out of the our systems... And did I mention that the logo next to word Ainol looks like a starfish? (Insert Beavis and Butt-head laugh)... Oh wait, it gets better: the company slogan is "Enjoy life, enjoy Ainol"...
So with that in mind, you can understand why the company chose to launch a separate brand, Ainovo, for the U.S. market. However, mine was bought in Asia, which is what I'll be reviewing here. Even more confusing, they've launched another site, Ainol-Novo. At this stage in the game, I really don't have much to complain about Chiunese brand quality, it's not top notch, but it's competitive. However, they're miles behind the rest of the world in terms of branding and communications. It's hard to find any one particular Chinese brand that has a clear and consistent message that is simple for consumers to understand, and multiple on-line presences don't help. The same situation carries over to the model naming scheme, where the company offers multiple tablets with similar sounding names, one of which help guide the the consumer towards deciding which price level they would want to arrive at.
This tablet comes loaded with Android 4.0 (with a 4.0.3 update available), and runs on 1.5GHz Allwinner A10 CPU. It comes with 8GB of on-board storage memory. The is basically the ARM Cortex-A8 processor with a Mali 400 GPU attached to it. This is similar in spec to the A4 chip used in the iPhone 4, but clocked slightly faster. Since the screen resolution is less than the Retina display, you'd think that this would be fairly speedy, but it's only so-so. I don't know if it is because of hardware or if it's because there is more overhead to the Android operating system, but there's just enough lag to things that it doesn't quite have that joy-of-use feeling that the iPad gives you. The screen is capacitive, but again,  lacks responsiveness that you would get in an Apple device. In comparison, if you have an iPhone, you have to be just a little more deliberate with your presses and swipes, but not overly so. Though I haven't gotten around to sampling everything, it does a decent job of running the 3D game The Last Defender, albeit with agonizingly slow load times. It also runs Angry Birds just fine.
The build quality of this device is okay. The construction is plastic, but it doesn't creak, and unlike traditional Chines PMP's, it's not just a square slab, the back has soft rounded corners that hand holding it a comfortable. If you imagine the build quality of the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, in a less clunky package than the Acer 7-inch Iconia tablet, and marry it with just a hint of Apple minimalism, then you'd have rough idea of what this device is like.
Virtually all Chinese media devices share one feature that give them a cult following on this side of the world: they'll play almost any video format codec you throw at them. DIVX, H.264, WMV, you name it, they'll probably do it. And they'll handle multiple container formats like .avi, .mp4, RMVB, and .mkv. Having one of these machines means saving hours of transcoding time. This Ainol tablet is in many ways like a scaled up PMP with Android functionality. However, a downside is the screen, because it is a budget device, it's still only 800 by 480, and to be honest, it's not a great screen by today's standards. The viewing angles aren't great and there's a lot of backlight leakage between the pixels. The same resolution on a 5 inch PMP device is perfect, but here, it's obvious the pixel density is being stretched a bit. By comparison, a Blackberry Playbook is 1024*600, and is much easier on the eyes.

The second killer feature that Chinese devices have over North American market products is that they don't skip on the expandability. Virtually everything you buy in China is microSD card expandable, and everybody there thinks that North Americans are gullible for paying obscene amounts of extra on-board memory.Of course, the content industry isn't as developed over there as it is here, so nobody's trying to trap you in a digital sandbox the way that iTunes is.
From left to right: Power, mini-HDMI, mini-USB, microSD, and headphone jack.
The third knockout feature is the built in HDMI output. Despite the low on-board resolution, the tablet will spit out HD-quality output over a HDMI cable. That makes this an incredibly versatile media machine, great for watching movies over a friend's house, or putting up a presentation on big screen TV. However, inexplicably, the table does not have volume buttons, nor is accessing the volume control by settings easy. This is a strange oversight considering all of Ainol's PMP's have dedicated volume controls.

You get pretty much everything you need inside the box, with the exception of an HDMI cable. The power adapter has it's own adapter for North America, so you can charge it by wall socket. This is more of a blessing than you would realize, as USB charging with is device is for all intents and purposes, impossible. If you have the device turned on and plugged into the computer, the rate of charge is slow slow that if you are using it at the same time, the battery drain is faster than the recharge rate. To be honest, wall charging is not terribly fast by today's standards either.

There is one lonely front-facing camera on this thing, which makes it impractical for taking snapshots, but it does work with the latest version of Skype. The picture quality is very much at dumb-phone camera levels, though.

Now to the downsides, and there is one significant one. As you would guess, a Chinese market device would have spotty English documentation, and for that, it certainly does. You can flip the menu to English and get it operating, but it comes with Chinese language apps, and on my build at least, no Google Play (or Android Market at the time when this was released.)  In the true spirit of Android, I had to resort to a few forum posts to get Google Play onto this thing. It took a while to sort out the USB connectivity, but thereafterwareds, it was pretty smooth sailing. More than anything, this is the most frustrating aspect of owning the device, as the information about upgrading this tablet is spread over multiple posts all over the internet, and is often poorly written.

So in the end this device is good for the following:
  • Showing pictures, but not presentations. The image quality drops off considerably with viewing angle,this is a device that woks if one person at a time is looking at it, but you can't give a PowerPoint presentation on it like you would with a more expensive tablet.
  • Movies on the go, either on the device, or if you want put something up on a TV.
  • The screen quality makes it passable as an eReader, but you'll reach eye fatigue faster than on other devices.
  • A manga viewer. The low resolution isn't as much a hindrance for manga as it is for text. If you're a manga fan, there are a number of terrific Android apps out there that will turn this thing into a manga reading machine. (Well, literally it would be, but I meant that in a figurative sense!)
  • Gaming. The 7-inch form factor is still struggling find it's niche, but it's a lot easier paying Angry Birds on this size of a device than on the the larger and heavier 10-inch devices
  • Occasional web browsing. The screen resolution is a hindrance, but you can still use it in the way that you would use your phone browser, but not in the way that you can surf endlessly with an iPad.

The big elephant in the room, though, is the Google Nexus 7. For $200, you're getting a much more substantial device. Think of the Nexus 7 as all of the things that the Ainol should be... not cutting edge resolution, but enough to actually make the device usable in more situations. Just a bit more horsepower to make using the device a bit more comfortable. Looking at the price point, the re-branding of Android market, and the build of the Nexus 7, I have no doubt that it;s gongi to be big. Why? Because it's the new Sony PSP... portable gaming systems are going to be in deep trouble in the next two years, 7inch tablets are the new on the go gaming platforms. However, with the Nexus 7, you loose the microSD slot and HDMI output, which are two very big pluses in favour of the Ainol. And of course, there's the much rumored iPad mini that's coming down the line; something that is sure to come in at a higher price still, but which is tempting if you're already deep into the iOS ecosystem.

If you're adventurous, the Ainol is not a bad device to add to your arsenal. If you want to give it to a non-computer savvy family member... stick with Apple.  The Novo7 Advanced II has just enough power to do it's core functions well, and it's so inexpensive that you won't have to be watching over it like it was your firstborn. I don't give much thought about chucking it into my backpack or messenger bag when I head out the door, which is not the same mentality I have about bringing along a more expensive device like a laptop. However, the question remains, can this exist in an iPad world? The answer is still a maybe. I'm very new to the Android ecosystem, but I do miss the content that exists on iOS. The other thing is that Apple has radically redefined what we consider acceptable screen quality with its Retina displays. For me, that's the biggest limiting factor, and it limits the amount of serious work that you can do with this device. Still, as a recreational product, it's pretty good for the price that you would be paying. Prices for these things tend to vary, but they'll all generally fall under $130 USD. Cheaper if you bought it in China, of course.

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