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Vizio Tablet Review (8-inch)

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Vizio, a company known for its low-cost televisions has just launched its first 8” Android tablet (model VTAB1008), probably hoping to gather significant market-share (in the longer term), just like it did in the HDTV business. At $329 (street price at Costco), the Vizio tablet hits a price point that is significantly lower than established competitors, but the obvious question is: how good is it?

Now that the first tablets have hit retail stores, we have been able to get one and have taken a first look at it. In this review, we will go over the design of the tablet and its user experience. Hopefully, by the end of it, you will have a good feel for what it is and how it feels to use the Vizio tablet in the real world.

Design

With a price of $329, it was hard to forecast what the final build quality is going to be. Upon unboxing the Vizio Tablet, we have been positively surprised by the level of quality that Vizio’s design has been able to achieve, given the budget.

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On the front, the tablet is nice, with a clean design. The Vizio logo is relatively discreet and the slightly curved bezel makes it easy to hold. The device is lighter (and smaller than the iPad 2), but it maybe a bit heavier than you may think (relative to its size). The Galaxy Tab 10.1 has a slightly better size/weight ratio.

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The back has a nice faux-leather feel that is often found on smartphones. It feels less “plastic” than the Galaxy Tab 10.1 (which still has a stellar design), and it reminds me of the Blackberry Playbook.

Stereo Sound x3: The Vizio tablet has the particularity of having three (3) speakers. Why would you ask? Well, the extra speaker is there to maintain the sound’s stereo properties when the tablet is used in a vertical or horizontal orientation. On paper, it’s a neat idea and it actually works pretty well, especially when listening to audio in a portrait position.

Display: The display is very decent, I was a bit worried about this because it is one of the most expensive part of the device. It is bright and the colors are fairly accurate. I have noticed only one thing that you should be careful about: when looking at the screen from a top angle, the colors become dark fairly quickly. This may be a small issue when playing games that require tilting the screen, but overall, it’s pretty good.

Technical highlights

1Ghz Marvell 600 Series processor (SoC)
Display: 8″, 1024×768 multi-touch
Front-facing camera, 640×480, 30fps
WiFi B/G/N
2GB of user internal storage
input: Micro USB, MicroSD
output: micro HDMI, 3.5mm jack
1.2lbs [?]
Dimensions: 6.6″W x 8.1″H x .48″D

Software/Apps

Although the custom user interface (called V.I.A plus) somehow resembles Android 3.x (aka Honeycomb), the tablet is running Android 2.3.2.

Universal Remote: As usual you can install most (smartphone) Android apps, but we have noticed that Vizio has included a universal remote control, that works not only with Vizo televisions, but with thousands of TVs as well. How? First, the Vizio Tablet has an infra-red (IR) blaster that lets it communicates with TVs and set top boxes. Secondly, the app itself uses a third party database that has thousands of presets ready to use. When compared to other tablet remote apps, there is no need for the TV to be a “smart TV”. Keep in mind that universal remotes are always tricky and they would deserve a separate review.

Keyboard: Upon entering a text edit box, I have noticed that the Vizio 8″ Tablet is using a customized version of swiftkey, a very good multi-language virtual keyboard that I recommend checking out.

User Interface: At the moment, the only complaint that I have concerning the software is the user interface (UI) performance. It is noticeably slower than most tablets and smartphones that I have tested recently. The most probable cause is that the custom user interface doesn’t fully use hardware acceleration. This may be because of the tight deadlines, or a missing driver.

If you try using an app like launcher pro (which is another UI “skin”), things do get much faster. The good news is that there’s a solution in sight. The bad news is that today, the Vizio UI is slower than it should be.

Gaming: I tried to run a game like Raging Thunder 2, and it runs pretty decently, although not at the fastest frame rate seen on Android tablets. Yet, it is playable and I bet that many people will enjoy it. The Vizio tablet is good enough for casual gaming, including some action games, but it won’t compete on high-end 3D games in my opinion.

Automatic updates: most tablets require the user to activate the update process. That’s not the case with this tablet. When a firmware update is ready, the tablet will update itself during the boot sequence. Vizio is making sure that even if things go wrong (loss of connectivity, crash during the install, loss of power), the tablet keeps at least one copy of the previous firmware so that it can go in recovery mode. Updates happen over-the-air (OTA).

Storage

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This is where the MicroSD goes

The VTAB1008 Vizio Tablet relies on Micro-SD cards for storage. This partly explains why it is less expensive. Of the 2GB of internal storage, I have 0.68GB left. However, I could (and should) add a MicroSD card to extend the storage.

When I checked, a 16GB MicroSD did cost about $30 online. I’m not sure if there are any performance impact for not using internal flash (additional bus data transit etc…), but right now, I don’t see a reason to be worried. If 1080p movies can play properly, then the other apps should be fine.

1080p Movie decoding

Because the Vizio tablet has been designed to connect to HDTVs, it’s critical that it can play 1080p movies without a sweat. I’ve downloaded a couple of 1080p official trailers: StarCraft II – Ghosts of the Past Trailer Grand Turismo 5. They both played flawlessly with bitrates of 3.5Mbps to 9Mbps.

Hardware: Marvell Armada 600 Series

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This is the first U.S device featuring Marvell's Armada 600

The Vizio doesn’t say what chip powers this tablet, but upon dis-assembly, it turns out that the system on a chip (SoC) is a Marvell Armada 600 Series. We’ve previously talked about it when it was just announced, but as far as we know this is one of the very first tablet to use this chip, and certainly the first in the U.S (who knows what’s going on in Asia…)

In our previous coverage we had shown that this chip is capable of running classic game like Angry Birds, so, it looks like legacy software should be handled properly. We’ll have to see how it will handle more recent or demanding applications.

For now, we can only vouch for the SoC‘s ability to play media very well. Upon closer inspection of the online specifications, we have noticed that it was also compatible with Microsoft’s PlayRead DRM, which means that it might be able to handle services that others don’t – which remains to be determined, but Netflix is one of the companies to use PlayReady.

Overall Performance (mixed)

We already know that the UI performance should be better than what it is, but what about the rest?  A $329 tablet will surely not break any records in synthetic benchmarks, but I did run a few numbers to give you an idea.

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Sunspider measures the browser javascript performance

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BrowserMark also measures the browser javascript performance

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Linpack measures synthetic CPU performance.

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The Vizio Tab does very well in the Flash test. Please read my notes below. This is not an Apples-to-Apples comparison

Yet, despite an obvious disadvantage in synthetic benchmarks, the Vizio tablet holds its own in tasks like HD video decode and is actually very good at Flash playback.  Both are usually very intensive, and it is very likely that Marvell and Vizio have worked on this quite a bit on both the hardware and software side.

In some benchmarks (like GUIMark2), the Vizio tablet has the advantage of having less pixels to process as it has a lower display resolution than the Galaxy Tab 10.1/Xoom and other recent Honeycomb tablets.

That said, 1024×768 is the iPad/iPad 2 resolution and it is largely usable and can provide a good user experience. Not look as sharp, but comparable to a 1280×800 tablet.

In terms of video decoding, I found the experience to be very good, and I wish that I had an adequate benchmark on hand. The Vizio tablet performs very well, and certainly well enough so that most people won’t see a difference with more expensive products.

Battery Life

I’m still running some battery life tests, and i plan on updating the post later today, so please be patient. I just did not want to hold the post for another day, while waiting for the results.

Misc

Charging: although it has a micro-USB port to sync and charge, the Tablet requires 5V and 2A to charge at normal speed. The USB standard on computers is 5V and 0.5A, which will charge the tablet, although at a much slower speed.

Conclusion

Thanks to its aggressive pricing, Vizio contributes to bringing tablet computing to a much broader audience. Given its strict budget requirements, the tablet has a surprisingly good build quality and can play high-definition movies without a sweat. It is also one of the rare tablets equipped with an IR-blaster which turns it into a universal remote.

Obviously, the design has some tradeoffs and it won’t be able to rival more expensive competitors in terms of absolute performance, or absolute design coolness, but such competitors can be $170 more expensive ($145, if you take into account a 16GB microSD), which is a *very* substantial difference. Would buyers still prefer to spend more? I truly don’t know, but the market will decide quickly.

Vizio will also have to fend off competition from older products like the original Galaxy Tab or the Dell Streak 7, which aren’t as good in my opinion. The ViewSonic gTablet is the most dangerous competitor, as it is priced even lower ($260 on Amazon) and uses a faster SoC. Unfortunately, we have not reviewed the gTablet yet, so this is based only on the specifications.

Today, the weakness of the Vizio tablet is its user interface (UI) performance. It is easy to work around it by installing Launcher Pro, an alternative UI skin. However, it’s tough to ask that from mainstream users. Vizio needs to fix this as soon as possible to make the “out of the box experience” better and hopefully, things will be better for the next update.

For its price, the Vizio VTAB1008 8″ Tablet is a very interesting product, one that may just be great for home users, the education market, and those that are both cost conscious and tablet enthusiasts. Do such users exist? You tell us! Drop a comment.

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Of the tablets that we have reviewed, the Dell Streak 7 would be the closest competitor. We have also mentioned more expensive tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, the iPad 2, the Motorola Xoom and the Blackberry Playbook.

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