Vizio Tablet VTAB1008 Review: A Pleasant Surprise at a Value Price

TV maker Vizio has always followed its own course, and its first foray into the growing tablet market is no exception. The company’s awkwardly named Vizio 8” Tablet with Wi-Fi (VTAB1008, $ 330 as of 9/23/2011) is the rare tablet with an 8-inch display, and it’s one of the few to market to eschew Google’s Android 3.x Honeycomb operating system for the older Android 2.3. That said, this bulky tablet could be a good value choice for those who want to get a taste of life with a tablet, but who have no grandiose expectations for high performance or high design.

In some ways, the Vizio tablet is a refreshing surprise. The company provides its own overlay on top of Android 2.3 which makes the interface feel fresh and friendly—and more tablet appropriate. The company didn’t do wholesale revisions of core apps, though, so the Google Mail app feels clunky compared to the multi-pane approach in Honeycomb, for example. Ditto for the Music app. Oh, and the Web browser, while we’re grousing. But the Apps Menu is better presented than on stock Android 2.3, and overall, I liked what Vizio did better than what I’ve seen with the HTC Sense UI overlay on the HTC Flyer.

Vizio’s special sauce includes its rework of Android’s notification system to simplify their presentation; the widget board for aggregating all widgets in one place (instead of placing them on separate home screens, as is the case on other Android tablets); and providing a cleaner App Menu design, with persistent tabs at the bottom for browser, market, e-mail, gallery, and music.

The company says its interface customizations, seen here as the application launcher (with all app and subsets of apps based on categories), notifications, and the tab dock at the bottom, will be consistent with how its interface will look on the company’s new Vizio Internet Apps Plus platform HDTVs and Blu-ray players coming later in 2011 and beyond. The V.I.A Plus platform will bring Android apps to your TV; the company says it will have future services and products that will tie into the tablet and other V.I.A. Plus platform devices together.

Overall, though, I found the Vizio interface refresh pleasing. From the changing orientation of the three capacitive touch buttons that run along the bottom of the screen—regardless of whether you hold the tablet in portrait or landscape modes, to the well-designed lock screen and well-defined power button up top, the Vizio was not just another value tablet.

Vizio’s attention to interface extended to the company swapping the stock keyboard with the SwiftKey X keyboard. This highly responsive keyboard makes typing more natural than with the standard Android offering, and customizations like two functions assigned to a key, and a split thumb-keyboard design for use in landscape mode are convenient touches.

Inside the Vizio Tablet

Physically, the Vizio tablet looks chunky, and it feels that way, too. The tablet measures 6.6 inches by 8.1 inches, and it’s 0.48 inches thick. It’s heavy given its size, too: 1.2-pounds, which feels too heavy for one-handed-holding, and is comparable to what Samsung’s slim Galaxy Tab 10.1, with its, natch, 10.1-inch display, weighs.

At this price, you don’t get powerhouse components. The company doesn’t specify which processor it uses, but it does reveal that the tablet has a single-core 1GHz Marvell 600 Series ARM CPU and 512MB of memory. The tablet achieves its relatively low $ 300 price by keeping built-in storage to a bare minimum: It comes with just 4GB of built-in storage. That’s half the storage that comes with Lenovo’s upcoming IdeaPad A1, a 7-inch, $ 200 tablet with 8GB of storage. Worse still, only 2GB of space is available to users on the Vizio Tablet, according to the company. But at least the tablet has a microSD Card slot for expanding the storage to up to 32GB. Unfortunately, the slot is hidden beneath a hard plastic flap on the bottom left of the tablet (in portrait mode); you’ll need fingernails to pull the tight-fitting flap aside.

The front-facing camera is low-resolution, just 640 by 480 pixels, though it can capture 30-frame-per-second video. The Wi-Fi radio supports 802.11 b/g/n, and the tablet has both micro HDMI and micro USB ports at the bottom.

Preloaded apps include ones for various Google services such as Android market, Google Maps, YouTube, and Gmail, as well as Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader.

The tablet’s display measures 8 inches diagonally, making it an uncommon specimen in a sea of Android sameness. It packs in 1024 by 768-pixel resolution, which made for sharp text, though some fonts were more prone to showing pixilation than others. Images looked okay, but didn’t impress: My test images lacked detail and sharpness, and skin tones lacked natural browns.

One point of distinction: The tablet has a 4:3 aspect ratio, like the Apple iPad 2 and the now-discontinued HP TouchPad before it; most all other Android models are going for the 16:9 aspect ratio. Vizio notes that, as compared with a 7-inch tablet with a 16:9 aspect ratio, the extra 1 inch combined with the 4:3 aspect ratio translates into about 30 percent more surface area for the display. The company also said that, in its testing, Android 2.3 apps optimized for phones can scale up better to a 4:3 aspect ratio than to the 16:9.

I will say that the random apps, including games and news apps, I downloaded from Android Market did seem to scale reasonably well,–certainly far better than such apps typically fare on Honeycomb tablets with their 16:9 aspect ratio. While it’s hard to recommend a tablet that’s running an operating system that isn’t intended for tablet use, Vizio’s implementation is fairly appealing, and at least this way, you’ll have more apps to choose from today. That said, it’s unclear how the coming release of the Android operating system, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich, will impact the long-term app story for the Vizio Tablet. At this writing, Vizio could not say whether the company will offer an update to Ice Cream Sandwich.

A Mixed Entertainer

Thanks to the built-in IR blaster and an included app, you can use that tablet as a universal remote. That’s an unusual feature for now; only Sony offers this on its upcoming S1 tablet. It’s a novel idea, but I found the Vizio remote app poorly designed. I liked that I could have setups for different rooms, but inputting my gear was a pain, the on-screen button positions were awkward(especially given the size and weight of the tablet), and I didn’t have luck getting the database to cough up critical features for one of my components, a Pioneer DVD recorder (others worked fine, though). Vizio says its app should cover 95 percent of home entertainment devices, but apparently, mine was not one of them. Sony’s remote control app, by comparison, was far better designed in layout and configuration, and it recognized my device without a problem.

The tablet handles Adobe Flash playback. The YouTube videos I played tended to have macroblocking artifacts not seen on other tablets, though.

I liked Vizio’s thoughtful use of three speakers for the audio; this is so that you get stereo (left/right) sound no matter how you hold the tablet. In landscape mode, the speakers at the upper left and right edges; in portrait, the two speakers are at top, porting upwards. This design allows for greater flexibility in how you use the tablet, and proved effective. I wish there were a way to use the third speaker to improve the audio, or even give a surround sound effect, but alas that is not an option. Still, audio sounded better than it does on most Android 3.x tablets; it still had some tinny qualities, but it was nonetheless tolerable–even enjoyable by comparison to most of what I’ve heard on tablets before it. Whether the credit goes to Vizio’s use of SRS TruMedia, or to Android 2.3′s player codec remains to be seen.

The bottom line about the Vizio Tablet is that it’s neither sleek nor cutting edge, but it is usable. The universal remote feature may not be the best implementation I’ve seen of this, but it is still a compelling extra not found on most of the competition. If you’re constrained by budget, like the idea of a universal remote, and want a tablet yesterday, the Vizio tablet is worth a look. Like many things in life, this tablet is a compromise. How long you’ll be satisfied will depend in large part on how Google handles Ice Cream Sandwich.

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