This week in Mobile News Manor #20: Deep dive into the HTC Flyer

Summary:This is a peek into a technology writer’s home office, aka Mobile News Manor, discussing gadgets, apps, best practices using same, and ebooks. This week I take a deep dive into the HTC Flyer tablet.

One of the primary benefits of being a technology writer is the ability to work in my home office, aka Mobile News Manor (MNM). It is a bustling place, with evaluation gadgets constantly arriving and going back to the vendors. As part of my daily work I spend a fair amount of time testing these gadgets for review, and also looking at new apps for various platforms to streamline my work methods.

This column is my look back each week to share pertinent experiences that I believe you might find useful. There is no telling what you might find in this column, but you’ll definitely get a feel for what it is like testing gadgets for a living. Welcome to the Manor.

Gadget of the week -- HTC Flyer with magic pen

This week was all about the HTC Flyer for me, the 7-inch Android tablet that is HTC's first offering in the tablet space. The Flyer doesn't have the latest and greatest hardware or operating system, but it proves it doesn't need that to be a solid performer.

I am getting asked a lot when I will write a full review, and to tell the truth there are lots of reviews all over the web. I already published my first impressions of the Flyer, complete with a full photo gallery of the tablet (accessed below). For those looking for a good review of the tablet look no further than my buddy and fellow ZDNet blogger Matt Miller's review. Matt details the HTC Flyer in his usual grand style.

Check out the HTC Flyer with magic pen photo gallery


Image Gallery: HTC Flyer -- with comparisons to Galaxy Tab and BlackBerry Playbook
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge

What I will do in this column is take a deep dive at how I have been using the Flyer this week, and explain what sets it apart from the growing crowd of Android tablets. I will answer the most common questions I am receiving about the Flyer, so if you are interested in the device read this entire column.

I have a preference for the smaller 7-inch tablets over the larger devices. I dropped my iPad for the Samsung Galaxy Tab months ago as the size of the Tab suits the way I live better. The HTC Flyer is the same size as the Galaxy Tab so it has fit right in to my life.

The Flyer is a tad thicker and heavier than the Tab, and that does make it get a little heavy in the hand during long sessions. Long sessions are common for me as the Flyer can do everything I need when not working at my desk. The software that HTC as included with the Flyer makes it the most useful tablet I have tried yet, right out of the box.

This Flyer is a Wi-Fi model without 3G connectivity. It is a 16GB model as sold at Best Buy for $499. HTC was kind enough to send the pen along for my evaluation, which is an $80 option at Best Buy. I think it's a shame that Best Buy has not included the pen, as it is the feature that sets the Flyer apart from the other Android tablets.

The HTC Flyer ships with the Gingerbread version of Android which according to Google is not optimized for tablets. I find it works well on the Flyer and I actually prefer it to Honeycomb. The 1.5GHz processor is a snappy performer even though not a dual-core model, and I see no lags in performing common tasks as I've seen in other tablets. The touchscreen is very responsive, and the Flyer operates equally well in both portrait and landscape orientation.

There are three buttons below the screen: Home, Menu and Back as found on all Android devices. HTC has enhanced them in a unique way, when the screen is rotated into the other orientation, the buttons reappear magically in the new orientation. This transition is instantaneous, and is so useful I now look (in vain) for other Android devices to make this change. It is far more useful than you would think, until you experience first-hand.

The Flyer has a front-facing camera, but doesn't have any chat app installed that takes advantage of it. It is a 1.3MP camera, and the one test video call I made was of decent, not outstanding quality. The 5MP camera on the back of the device is nothing special. HTC doesn't make great cameras, and the Flyer upholds that tradition. There is no LED flash for low lighting conditions, and no continuous auto-focus during video recording. Stills and video shot with the Flyer are OK but won't win you any photography awards.

The rear camera sits in a white plastic cover on the back of the unit. This cover is removable and covers the microSD slot and guts of the camera. The Best Buy SKU doesn't come with a memory card, as do many other models. The rest of the unit back is brushed aluminum and is very solid. I have dropped the Flyer (about two feet to a tile floor) once which generated no damage, not even a scratch to the tablet. Sorry HTC, didn't mean to do it.

The Flyer has a microUSB port used with the power adapter for charging and also for connecting to PCs. The tablet connects fine to both my Mac and a Windows 7 laptop, and charges while connected. The device appears as a standard disk drive when connected to a host computer.

HTC ships the Flyer with a UI optimized for the tablet screen, Sense 2.1 for Tablet. This is essentially the same as Sense 3.0 for smartphones, but with better handling of the larger tablet screen. The UI works well in either screen orientation, with 3D used to nice effect. I should note that the screen can only be rotated to two of the four possible orientations, due to the transitioning buttons I have mentioned. This is not an inconvenience during usage.

It's all about the pen and Evernote (with screen shots of inking) »

It's all about the pen and Evernote

The Flyer is the first Android pen to attempt to duplicate the pen input found on Microsoft's Tablet PCs. HTC calls this pen handling ability Scribe, and it is limited to provide pen input in just a few apps. It is obvious during usage that a lot of thought went into making the pen feature useful. A fourth button at the bottom of the screen is a soft button that activates a rotary menu for handling the pen for inking on the screen. This soft button doesn't react to fingertip touch, only when touched with the pen tip, a smart move.

One of the most unique implementations of the pen by HTC is for taking screen shots. Many Android device owners lament the lack of native screen shot capability in Android. On the Flyer taking a picture of the screen is as easy as tapping any screen with the pen tip. A shutter sound signals that an image has been captured, and the Flyer instantly presents the Scribbles app. This lets you draw and mark up the screen shot with the pen, after which it can be saved or shared like any other Android app. This procedure works so well I find myself using it all the time for sharing information with others, via Twitter, Facebook or email.

The Kobo Reader app also works with the pen, permitting ink notes and highlighting text right in the ebook. These notes are saved with the book and always available when the book is opened. I am a Kindle fan myself, so other than testing to make sure this function worked I haven't used it much.

The star of the show for me with the HTC Flyer is the Notes app, which is Evernote for the Flyer. Evernote is the cloud-based note taking app where all user notes are stored, making them accessible from virtually any mobile device or desktop computer. Notes for the Flyer is fully pen-enabled, making it possible to jot quick ink notes on the fly.

This use of the Flyer has become the primary one for me, which surprised me as I didn't anticipate this. It has become a common sight to see me sitting somewhere with the Flyer and pen in hand, jotting notes for writing projects. I find taking notes with the pen stimulates the creative process, and I am often scribbling away.

The Notes app on the Flyer syncs wonderfully with Evernote in the cloud, so moments after jotting a note it is visible on every single computer and mobile device I use. When the time comes to sit at the desk and write the article, I can refer to my ink notes using any device that is convenient. I can grab my EVO 4G phone and look at the notes in my own handwriting. This is simply liberating, and describing it doesn't do it justice. I can state emphatically that the HTC Flyer with the pen has improved my efficiency at writing. That is hefty praise from someone who makes a living doing this.

A reason this works so well is the Notes widget that HTC includes on the Flyer. This is a standard Sense widget that works with the Notes app, showing notes without having to open the app. I can set the Flyer by the laptop when I am working, and tap to the appropriate notes page for reference. It is quick and easy, the way a good tool should be.

The HTC Flyer has consumed a good portion of my mobile work week. The Galaxy Tab has been largely forgotten, sitting in its stand forlornly. I am strongly leaning toward buying the HTC Flyer to replace the Tab, due to positive experience it has given me.

My Galaxy Tab was purchased through Sprint with a 3G data plan, and since they are going to be carrying the Flyer (Sprint EVO View 4G) I will probably wait until their model is available. I could probably upgrade from the Tab and get a subsidy.

Ebook of the week

This week I continued the newly discovered Laura Cardinal series with Dark Side of the Moon by J. Carson Black. This second novel fleshes out the characters nicely, while spinning an interesting mystery of many levels. I am enjoying Black's series quite a bit.

Wrap-up

That's the week as it went down in Mobile News Manor. The HTC Flyer has obviously made a big impression on me and was worth sharing with you. Those of you in the U. S. have a safe and happy Memorial Day, the rest of you a great weekend. See you again next week with the next column.

Topics: Legal, Hardware, IT Employment, Mobility

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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