HTC is carving itself a slice of tablet pie with the Flyer. But this 7-inch device doesn't run the latest, tablet-centric version of Android, instead using an older version of Google's operating system. So is this tablet's downfall its software?
The Flyer will be landing in shops in mid-May. It's available for pre-order from vendors like Dixons for the fairly steep price of £600 for the 32GB version, and £480 for the 16GB version. Both versions have Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity.
Behind the times
The Flyer isn't part of the pack of tablets that run the latest version of Google's Android software, 3.0 Honeycomb, which has been optimised for such devices. Instead, HTC has slapped its Sense custom user interface, seen on the company's smart phones, over the top of Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
Sticking to the older version of Android has given HTC time to customise the interface significantly. Like the HTC Sensation, the Flyer sports the Sense 3.0 user interface, which makes quite a few changes to Android. For example, the widgets on the home screens have a 3D effect, which lets you swipe between them as if they were on a rotating carousel. They also appear to have layers and depth as they scroll out of sight.
The lock screen has also received a revamp. You can choose four shortcuts to launch apps, such as the camera, straight from the lock screen. There's also the option to show the weather on this screen, as well as the time.
Android on the Flyer features a heap of tablet-specific changes too, taking advantage of the big screen. For example, the email app has two panels, showing your inbox and the contents of a particular email at the same time.
The tablet also features HTC's new video store, Watch. You can rent or buy films for screening on your tablet, as well as up to five other HTC devices. An ebook store is also available if you prefer the written word.
In person, the Flyer's user interface looks good. Compared to Honeycomb's dark, blue wire-frame design, the Flyer's screens are bright and playful. The result is an attractive interface that enticed us into tapping and touching the screen, rather than targeting our geekier side.
Despite running an operating system that was built for phones, the Flyer doesn't feel like an oversized mobile when you're using its built-in applications. The Web browser, for example, handles multiple browser windows well -- at the top of the screen, there's a horizontal list of thumbnails representing each open window, so you can easily track what's going on.
The Flyer feels less like a tablet, though, when you're using apps that weren't designed by HTC. For example, Android handles Gmail in a separate app from other email, and the Gmail app on the Flyer doesn't have any tablet tweaks. That means it looks stretched out and ill-suited for the 7-inch screen.
We had the same problem with apps downloaded from the Android Market. It's pot luck whether an app that's been designed intelligently for a smaller screen looks good when scaled up to tablet size. Some survive the transition, but some look awkward, with blurry icons and massively stretched-out buttons.
You'll have the same problem with Market apps on a Honeycomb tablet, until Google makes it easier to find tablet-specific apps. But Google's own apps, such as its calendar and Gmail client, are fantastic in Honeycomb, and you'll miss out on those on the Flyer. At least we know that the Flyer is scheduled to get an update to Honeycomb soon after it hits the shops.
Besides the user interface, the Flyer doesn't lack many other features of Honeycomb tablets. The Android browser renders Web pages quickly and accurately. It supports Flash Player too, which means you won't miss out on online videos, and you won't have to rely on the separate YouTube app. Even if you have no interest in the latest cute cat videos from Japan, having Flash support in the browser is fantastic just for moving around the many sites that use it for menus and navigation.
The Flyer also has a unique treat -- a stylus. But don't fear -- the Flyer doesn't have a dark, unresponsive resistive touchscreen. The special stylus works with the capacitive touchscreen.
The stylus can be used for highlighting text in ebooks or taking notes. The tablet also comes with a note-taking app that allows you to write, type, insert photos and recordings, and connect it to your calendar. You can even draw right on the Flyer's user interface, including the home screens and any app. When you take notes in this way, they're saved as an image file.
In our tests, the stylus worked a treat. Not only was it accurate and responsive, but swapping between colours and pen types proved intuitive. Combined with the tablet's big screen and pocket-friendly dimensions, we think the stylus makes the Flyer a great choice for students who want to jot down notes in lectures or annotate digital text books.
Get yourself connected
The Flyer supports Wi-Fi and HSPA+, which should keep you connected wherever you are. But, despite its 3G data connectivity, there's no voice-calling capability on the Flyer, although you can send text messages. We also had no trouble making voice over IP calls on Skype, and, with a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, video calls are possible too. There's also a 5-megapixel camera on the back for taking giant snapshots.
The Flyer's physical connectivity isn't hugely impressive. There's one micro-USB port on the bottom, a microSD card slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack, but no HDMI port. For that, you'll have to turn to the Motorola Xoom.
The Flyer's 1.5GHz, single-core processor is no slouch, although it doesn't quite compete with the dual-core chips in other recent tablets we've tested, such as the Motorola Xoom. We found scrolling through menus to be a whisker less smooth on the Flyer, and the tablet occasionally struggled when we pushed it to the max by, for example, streaming video with multiple apps open.
Overall, the Flyer's speed is good, but not spectacular.
Easy to handle
With few ports and a sleek aluminium case, HTC has kept the Flyer light enough to live up to its name, at 420g. The combination of white plastic, aluminium and a black bezel divided opinion among the CNET UK fashionistas, with some calling it "better-looking than the iPad 2", but others deeming it "cheap-looking".
In terms of build quality, the Flyer is a mixed bag. The metal back feels solid, but the removable cover on the top flexed slightly under our hands when we were using the tablet in landscape mode.
The Flyer isn't the thinnest tablet, at 13.2mm thick. But its height of 195mm and width of 122mm make it easy to hold in one hand, and it can even fit in big pockets. That makes it a good choice if you fancy taking your tablet on the road, rather than mainly using it for browsing the Web at home.
Sadly, HTC hasn't managed to pack much battery life into the Flyer. Unlike the iPad 2, which has a battery that easily lasts for days, we only got one day of light use out of the Flyer before warnings started popping up. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy Tab, a similarly sized tablet, the life of the Flyer's battery feels shorter than that of a mayfly.
On the plus side, the Flyer can charge over a normal micro-USB cable, so it's easy to plug in wherever you are. This sets it apart from most other tablets, such as the Xoom, which requires a hefty power adaptor.
The HTC Flyer's user interface does a good job of making Android more appealing to less techy users. But non-HTC apps in the Android Market can provide a rude reminder that most apps available for the Flyer were designed with phones, rather than a tablet, in mind. The device's comparatively short battery life is a major drawback too, which is a shame, as this is otherwise a sleek and highly portable tablet.
Edited by Charles Kloet