Nvidia might be better known for its graphics cards and processors, but it’s stepping out into the hardware world with its first tablet, the Tegra Note. Nvidia is working with different partners over the world who’ll be bringing its slate to stores -- in the UK, it’s bearing the Advent Vega name and will be sold in Currys.
The 7-inch slate packs in the latest Nvidia Tegra 4 processor for demanding games, a 1,280x800-pixel display, a stylus for handwriting notes and a 5-megapixel camera. It’s not a bad lineup of specs and it’s made even better by the extremely affordable £100 price tag.
Does it do enough to make it a worthy purchase over the excellent new Google Nexus 7?
Should I buy the Advent Vega Tegra Note?
If you crave a portable Android slate with plenty of power for games like Real Racing 3 and Asphalt 8, and you don’t want to spend a lot, it’s worth checking out. Its Tegra 4 processor is astonishingly powerful and easily outstrips anything else at even twice this price. The Tesco Hudl is slightly more expensive, but its lesser processor gives a much more sluggish experience.
Its display, however, is neither high resolution nor has brilliant colours. That’s something of a disappointment for a tablet designed to tackle the latest, most cinematic high-definition games. If display quality is important, check out the new £199 Full HD Nexus 7 or the £319 iPad mini with retina display -- it’s vastly more expensive, but its pin-sharp screen might be worth it.
It's got some software bugs too that can quickly become frustrating -- its insistence that a gamepad controller is connected stops you playing some games. The Nexus 7 is the tablet to go for if you want a more hassle-free experience. Neither the Nexus nor the iPad mini come with a proper stylus though, so if hand-writing notes or doodling is paramount, then the Tegra Note is the one to opt for.
Design and build quality
With its chunky black plastic casing, multi-textured back panel and wide bezels, the Note isn’t the prettiest of tablets around. Its design is far removed from the minimalist, plain panels found on both the new Nexus 7 and the iPad mini. If you like the sort of modern, aggressive designs found on Alienware laptops, you’ll probably quite like the Note.
Still, it’s hardly an offensive design and it’s at least small enough to hide away in a bag if you’re going anywhere posh. It measures 120mm long, 190mm wide and is 9.4mm thick -- small enough to pop into your pocket, although you might find its 320g weight could pull your jeans a little low. It has roughly the same dimensions as the original Nexus 7, although it manages to shave a little off the thickness.
Although made entirely from plastic, it still feels quite well put together. The casing has no flex to it, there are no noticeable gaps around the joins and the volume and power buttons all have a satisfying click to them. It certainly feels hardy enough to put up with a few drops from the sofa.
Around the edges you’ll find a microSD card slot for expanding the 16GB of internal storage. There’s also the usual micro-USB port for charging and data transfer and a micro-HDMI port for hooking it up to a big TV -- ideal for properly enjoying shows on Netflix.
Hidden in the bottom corner is a stylus, allowing you to sketch some doodles when you’re bored or hand write notes in meetings. Like the Samsung Galaxy Note range, the stylus on the Tegra Note is specifically designed to work with the tablet, instead of just being one of the third-party pens that will work with any tablet and generally don’t offer the same level of accuracy.
The Tegra Note’s stylus has a slightly spongey tip, unlike the Galaxy Note’s fine, plastic tip. It does narrow to a small point though, which manages to be reasonably accurate. It’s at least good enough for quick notes, although for fine detail on drawings, the hard tip of the Galaxy Note’s stylus -- as well as its ability to show a crosshair on screen when the tip gets near -- makes it better for very fine details.
Nvidia reckons that the stylus only needs to make use of one of the lower-powered cores of the tablet, so is therefore less demanding. I can’t say I ever found using the stylus to be a massive drain on the Galaxy Notes, but anything to increase battery life is definitely a good thing.
The 7-inch display has a 1,280x800-pixel resolution, which is the same resolution you’d find on the original Nexus. It’s a perfectly acceptable amount of pixels, given the very cheap price. It's reasonably sharp, but it doesn’t have the same crispness around icon edges or on small text that you’d see on higher resolution slates.
If you really want your photo collection to look brilliantly sharp, you should consider the £200 Nexus 7. If you’ve got even more cash to throw around, the new iPad mini has a whopping 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution that makes even tiny details look crystal clear.
The display doesn’t make up for it in its quality either. It’s not particularly bright, resulting in a lot of reflections and its colours are much less bold and vibrant than you’d find on the Nexus. It also has quite a cold colour cast to it, which I wasn’t keen on. For everyday tasks like Facebooking or even watching a bit of YouTube, it’ll do fine.
The Tegra Note comes running Android 4.2.2 that Nvidia boasts is completely pure Android, with no extra additions. That a company states it’s not put any extra effort into the software might seem an odd boast, but many companies’ Android skins can be very bloated and cluttered, slowing down the processor and making the interface needlessly complicated. A stock Android experience is a refreshing change.
As Nvidia hasn’t had to spend time skinning Android, however, there’s not much of an excuse for the older version of software on board. Given that Android 4.4 KitKat has made its public debut, I’d at least like to see version 4.3 on the Tegra Note. Nvidia hopes to have an upgrade to 4.3 in the coming months, but there’s no word on KitKat arriving yet.
It does at least mean that the user experience on the Note is much the same as it is on other Android devices. That’s handy if you’ve used Android tablets before as there’s no learning curve for you and it’s fairly easy to get to grips with if you’ve yet to take the leap into the Android world. You have the usual multiple home screens to fill up with apps and live widgets, while six app icons sit in the tray along the bottom, giving immediate access to your favourite apps and games.
In my initial testing, I found a few software problems with the Note, including the navigation buttons randomly becoming unresponsive and the tablet not waking up from sleep mode. Nvidia believed these to be an isolated issue on my first review model and indeed on my second unit, these problems didn't surface.
A problem on both however was the tablet's insistence that I had a wireless controller connected, even when I had never connected one. Games like Asphalt 8 and N.O.V.A 3 would not let me use the normal touchscreen controls as it believed I was using an external controller and the settings menus wouldn't allow me to change the inputs. It made those games completely unplayable and I'm sure there will be others that suffer from the same issue.
While the worst of the issues I originally found don't seem to be continual problems, the gaming controller problem suggests that there are still quite a few cracks in the software that really need to be smoothed out. No matter how cheap the product is, problems like this seriously dampen its appeal.
Power and performance
The Tegra Note runs on the latest mobile processor from Nvidia called the Tegra 4. Like the Tegra 3 before it, it’s a quad-core processor with a fifth power-saving core that’s used for background tasks when the tablet is idling. It’s clocked at 1.8GHz and is backed up by 1GB of RAM. I was very impressed with the power of the Tegra 3 in the original Nexus 7 so was looking forward to seeing what the new chip can achieve.
To start, I fired up the Geekbench 2 benchmark test and was given the extremely healthy score of 4,037. Compare that to the 1,536 achieved by the Nexus 7 and it’s easy to see the power boost from the new chip. It’s a satisfying step up from the Samsung Galaxy S4 (3,087) and the new Google Nexus 5 with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor (3,864).
It’s a very impressive start, but benchmarks certainly aren’t the be-all and end-all. I fired up Asphalt 8, and -- with a controller connected of course -- was shown extremely smooth gameplay. With the settings cranked to the max, the tablet was still able to achieve a very high frame rate. Bear in mind though that its lower resolution is less demanding to run games at full screen.
I found similarly impressive results with Dead Trigger 2. It’s possible to set the graphics quality to “ultra high”, which gives gorgeous reflection details in pools of water on the floor and dynamic shadows as you’re walking around.
When outputting to a bigger display over HDMI, the gameplay on Dead Trigger 2 was still incredibly smooth. Hook the tablet up to a TV and use a wireless controller and you’re effectively just using the tablet as a games console. It easily challenges the graphics you’d find on some console games from a couple of years ago.
General use of the tablet was very swift too. Loading apps and menus and switching between currently open apps using the multitasking carousel was extremely swift, with very little noticeable delay. All icons and widgets loaded immediately when flicking back to the home screen. There’s no question that it’s an extremely potent tablet that, in power terms at least, easily outstrips anything else at this price.
Nvidia reckons you can squeeze about 10 hours of life from the tablet, thanks to the fifth power-saving processing core. In my own use, I reckon that’s just about an achievable time, but you’ll have to be pretty careful about what you do. If you keep the brightness on full and spend the time playing demanding games, don’t expect anything near that.
Keep the screen brightness down and avoid anything too intense like video streaming and you shouldnt need to recharge throughout the day. If you’re using it as a work tool, I recommend whacking it on charge whenever you’re working at a desk for any length of time -- it might not need it, but you will feel far more relaxed knowing that you’re hitting the road with a full battery.
It doesn’t seem to hold its charge very well when not in use though. While my iPad mini can be left for days without use and only lose a few per cent of power, the Tegra Note would quickly diminish throughout the day when on standby in my bag. It dropped so much in fact that I feel that a software issue might be at fault -- perhaps some background processes are not shut down when it goes into standby. Either way, I wasn’t impressed by the battery.
Around the back of Note is a 5-megapixel camera. Cameras on tablets don’t tend to be up to much, as they’re really not designed to be your main camera when you’re out and about. So long as it can achieve some decent snaps of your kids when you’re at home, it’ll do the trick.
My test shot over a wonderfully grey West London came out a little dark, as the tablet was evidently compensating more for the bright sky. There’s still enough detail in the shadowy parts on the road though, and I’m pleased that the sky isn’t completely washed out. It’s got a decent amount of detail too. While I’ve certainly seen more clarity in other cameras, at this cheap price, the Tegra Note’s is among the better ones.
The camera app packs in a few extra features too, including a burst mode, a panorama mode, a self timer, an interval mode (that automatically takes photos at preset intervals) and an HDR mode. At a briefing, Nvidia also showed me an ‘always-on’ HDR function that, as the name suggests, renders an HDR scene in real-time on screen. It’s not on the tablet yet, but Nvidia says it’ll be arriving as a software update within a few weeks, so I’ll check back later to see how that performs.
It might not be the prettiest slate around, but the Nvidia Tegra Note packs in a superbly powerful processor to tackle all the latest games and asks for an incredibly small amount of money in return. It would be the gamer’s ideal slate if it wasn’t for the lacklustre display and software issues that really take the shine off an otherwise good piece of kit.