Netbooks have been the big story in computing over the last couple of years, but we now seem to have entered the age of the tablet. While Apple may have gained a head start on rivals with the gorgeous iPad, a whole host of manufacturers have started releasing competing Android-based devices. The latest in line is ViewSonic, with the ViewPad 7, which is priced at around £400.
The ViewPad looks very much like an enlarged iPhone 4. It has a similar glossy black finish on the front and rear, with a chrome band running around its circumference. It even shares the iPhone 4's rounded corners.
But, measuring 12mm deep, it's quite chunky, especially as the rear isn't curved like that of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and iPad. It feels relatively heavy too, weighing in at 375g. Its 7-inch screen, however, means it's smaller and more portable than the likes of the iPad, and you could, at a squeeze, fit it into a large jacket pocket.
On the bottom of the device, you'll find a single mini-USB port that's used for both charging and syncing it with a PC. ViewSonic has also, thankfully, fitted the ViewPad with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. There's a microSD memory-card slot tucked away at the top and tiny stereo speakers on the left and right edges.
The main controls comprise a column of four touch-sensitive buttons down the right-hand side of the display, but there's also a power button on the left-hand side that doubles up as a screen-orientation lock, as well as two volume buttons on the top right.
Big ol' phone
The ViewPad can essentially be considered a very large smart phone, as it runs Android 2.2 and has a SIM-card slot that can be used for data access on the move, as well as making phone calls. There's even a built-in mic so you can make calls without having to connect up the supplied headset.
ViewSonic has decided to go with a vanilla version of Android 2.2, rather than adding its own skin or fancy widgets over the top. That's fine with us -- often such extras just get in the way, and we've always felt that the plain Android interface is good enough.
As with smart phones that run Android 2.2, you'll enjoy some welcome interface perks, such as support for live wallpapers. Despite making significant strides forward over the last year or so, however, Android doesn't offer quite as slick a user experience as iOS on the iPad. The music-playing app isn't as good, for example, and the text-editing and cut-and-paste functionality is still clunky.
As the device conforms to the Open Handset Alliance specification, it includes all the features that you get on a standard Android phone, such as 3G Web browsing, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. This also means that, unlike the Toshiba AC100 netbook, it provides access to the Android Market, allowing you to download thousands of apps and widgets.
Flash! Aaa-aa... Oh...
The brain of the ViewPad is a Qualcomm processor clocked at a rather lowly 600MHz. The ViewPad also has only 512MB of storage, which is tiny in comparison to that of the iPad and Galaxy Tab. You can, however, expand the storage using cheap microSD cards. In use, the ViewPad feels quite responsive, but there are times when it'll pause momentarily before suddenly springing back into action again.
A much bigger issue is that the ViewPad doesn't support Flash, and probably never will, as the processor doesn't have the necessary grunt to handle Flash 10.1. As a result, you can't use the ViewPad to watch BBC iPlayer, and you'll miss out on CNET UK's amazing video reviews too.
The screen is also problematic. It supports multi-touch, which is great for quickly zooming in and out of maps or Web pages, but its resolution is rather low, at just 800x480 pixels. The Galaxy Tab's 7-inch screen is significantly sharper, with a 1,024x600-pixel resolution. The ViewPad's lower resolution is very noticeable when browsing the Web, as text looks pixellated and blurry when you're zoomed out.
Also, the screen's viewing angles are noticeably poorer than those offered by the iPad's IPS panel, especially on the vertical axis. For example, if the ViewPad is sitting on a coffee table in front of you, you have to bend over it to view the screen properly. Otherwise, colours descend into a sea of black.
Nevertheless, we found the ViewPad's battery life pretty good. Used mainly over Wi-Fi, it managed to keep running for around 4 days before needing to be recharged.
The ViewSonic ViewPad 7 is around £130 cheaper than both the 3G iPad and Galaxy Tab, which is a substantial saving. But, while it has a good range of features, its low-resolution screen, relatively slow processor and lack of Flash support mean you'll have to think carefully about whether it meets your requirements.
Edited by Charles Kloet