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Caption by: Mary Branscombe
Don't confuse ViewSonic's Galaxy Tab-sized ViewPad 7 with its bigger and more frustrating brother, the ViewPad 10. Instead of trying to give you the best of both worlds and managing neither, the ViewPad 7 sticks with Android (and almost the most recent version, Android 2.2, at that). It has integrated mobile broadband, so it qualifies to have the Android Market (it's bring your own SIM). It's got GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a standard headphone jack, stereo speakers and two cameras, all in a stylish glossy black casing with a metal bezel and rounded corners. And it comes in a carrying case that makes it look like a Moleskine notebook (which also doubles as a stand for watching video).
Even without a mobile contract, the £399 (inc. VAT; £339 ex. VAT) price is less than the launch price of the Galaxy Tab. On top of that, ViewSonic is offering £100 trade-in deals.
As usual with Android, you'll have it set up and working in a few minutes and you can start downloading apps and browsing the web, and there's no custom skin to learn your way around; apart from fixing the home screen (rather awkwardly) in landscape orientation and preinstalling the Aldiko e-book reader and the full version of Documents To Go, ViewSonic has left Android to show its own strengths.
The 7in. ViewPad 7 runs Android 2.2, but its 600MHz processor can't handle Flash 10.1
But the feeling of disappointment starts when you discover that instead of familiar icons for the obligatory search, back, home and menu you're confronted with stylish but cryptic hieroglyphs (the home button is probably an artistic interpretation of the Android 'droid). You'll get used to that, but not to the fact that the 600MHz processor can't actually cope with Flash. The frugal processor does deliver good battery life though — you can easily get six hours' continuous battery life and with occasional use it will last three or four days on Wi-Fi.
Another reason for the price tag is that the ViewPad 7 has 512MB of memory but there's no microSD card bundled with it (and you'll need one to download e-books, put music or videos on the tablet, take a photograph or work with documents).
The on-screen keyboard (TouchPal) is disappointing and frustrating. A 7in. screen should be large enough to almost touch-type on, but the bizarre layout (the Backspace key is a row below the comma and the Shift key is pushed up a row by a key for switching to a different language layout) and lack of multi-touch make it frustrating. Type too fast and you can end up swiping across to another keyboard layout entirely. In landscape mode the keys are too big, and you have to have very large hands to be able to hold the device and type with both thumbs; in portrait mode the keys are far too small. If you're only going to use the ViewPad 7 sitting down or at a table it's less of a problem, but we expect a 7in. screen to be more mobile and we'd rather ViewSonic had invested in something like Swype or ThickButtons.
With a 7in. screen and few apps that expect that size, having the same 800 by 480 resolution as the HTC Desire (rather than the 1024 by 600 of the Galaxy Tab or the 960 by 640 of the iPhone 4) makes for a slightly disappointing experience. Some apps make great use of the extra space — including the browser and Google Maps, or the spreadsheet and PDF reader in Documents To Go. The screen is an excellent size for GPS navigation in a car (if the ViewPad is mounted in a suitable bracket) and it's an ideal size for watching video. But other apps, such as contacts, text messages and the file browser, look strange when stretched to such a large screen size; images and text can seem grainy, and even 720p video tends to look slightly disappointing compared to other devices.
That's a shame given the fact that the stereo speakers give you a fair sound, but the viewing angle is poor — unless you watch it in the case, you have to keep your wrists at exactly the right angle. Unlike the Galaxy Tab or the Archos Android tablets, there's neither an HDMI connector nor a DLNA client — so this isn't going to be the heart of your media experience.
The 3-megapixel main camera takes typical camera-phone shots; they're fine in daylight but there's no flash, so pictures extremely grainy after dark unless you're right next to a bright light. Macro shots are good but autofocus takes two seconds. The front-facing camera is fine for the size of video you can do on a smartphone screen.
A 7in. tablet is really too heavy to hold up to your mouth smartphone-style (and the microphone is on the side — or the bottom, depending on how you're holding it). As a result, voice search was particularly poor on the ViewPad 7 even though phone calls were clear (on speakerphone or using the supplied headset).
We don't dislike the ViewPad 7, even when you remember what it really is: a 7in. smartphone with a slightly disappointing spec (especially the lack of Flash). As a tablet, it pushes Android to limits that version 2.3 and 3.0 may deal with anyway (and with so few customisations, ViewSonic should be able to deliver updates fairly fast). As a device for doing everything you can do on a smartphone but with a bigger screen (which you want for e-books, web browsing and media), it's flexible and fun to use. However, to compete with the iPad, it needs to be rather more.
Caption by: Mary Branscombe