A Review of the Viewsonic gTablet

The Android 2.2-based ViewSonic gTablet has beendisappointing consumers for a couple of months now. The mostcommon complaint being that the custom overlay it hosts is asoftware abomination.

So I just knew I just had to have one, after finally finding aseller willing to ship it toCanada (sending it from their US warehouse).

The device is a very powerful piece of hardware. It isTegra2-based (dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 running at 1Ghz with the ULPGeForce GPU), providing the same platform that a number of top-tiertablets (the Xoom, Galaxy Tab 10.1, among others) will be basedupon. As mentioned ina prior entry, I’d been trying fruitlessly to order a Tegra2development kit, so having an actual T2 device is welcome.

The higher-end tablets are obviously the superior option, but itwill be months before they’re available in Canada.

The gTablet only has 512MB, versus the 1GB in the developmentkit. It is actually a superior development choice given that it hasan actual display and touchscreen (where I would be simulating thesame with the nvidia kit).

My expectations were very low, and my use is not typical.Nonetheless I thought it worthwhile helping out prospectivepurchasers by posting a quick review of the unit.

Firstly note that I only saw the default interface for mereminutes. It is so widely and viciously panned that the first stepafter unpacking the unit was to install one ofthe alternative ROMs.

Installing an alternative ROM is a brainless, low risk process.It is not an advanced operation by any measure of the imagination.Tutorials such as thisone take an absurdly simple process and make it seem complex bydecorating it with font sizes, weights, colors, and asides (why doso many tutorial pages go to such a headache inducing format Thehodge podge of attention grabbers make it impossible to focusattention on anything).

So I tried TnT Lite. I was disappointed. Frequent crashing.Flash never worked properly. Quirks abound. Still that crappyreplacement browser with the bookmarks that didn’t work half thetime. I applaud the authors, but the results were not pleasant.

I swapped out to VEGAn-Tab5.1. What a delightful change! VEGAn-Tab seems to besurprisingly solid, it’s the stock (excellent) browser, andeverything (including the market) just works. It actually makes fora very, very good software experience. There has been one quirkwith audio, but aside from that it has been flawless.

From a software perspective, VEGAn-Tab makes this is anexcellent Android platform. It is actually far more enjoyable andusable than I imagined.

I quickly loaded it up with some purchases and some freebies:Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, Kongregate, IMDB and Flixster, and RagingThunder 2. Everything runs brilliantly, and of course becauseAndroid has long been resolution independent, they all make use ofthe extra screen real estate.

Which actually leads to a related segue. In a number of Xoomdiscussions there are rampant claims that there is “no software”for the Xoom (meaning no software that takes advantage of thetablet form). That betrays a basic misunderstanding of Android, andof the use of tablets. From an apps perspective, there are a hugenumber of apps that alter their display based upon the aspectratio, size, and resolution of the display. In no way is theAndroid ecosystem in the state that the iPhone ecosystem was whenthe iPad was first released, where hack solutions likepixel-doubling had to be performed. Varying profiles have been anative part of Android for some time.

Further, one of the most common uses of tablets is as aninternet appliance, browsing the rich, open web. With this muchcomputational horsepower you don’t need to dumb down the webthrough a simplified app (the days of apps as surrogates for websites will thankfully be short lived) or mobile interface, and ofcourse the web is the ultimate user of rich displays. The stockAndroid 2.2 browser is superb and in VEGA-n-Tab form actuallyidentifies itself as a desktop browser to avoid the curse ofcrappified mobile sites.

Back to the gTablet, the speed of the device is shockinglygood. In the browser it quite literally is the full webexperience (with Flash set to ondemand instead of always onenabling cycle-robbing ads). I quickly found it much more enjoyableusing the full web site instead of the mobile versions. Sites likeTechCrunch work better on this device than they do in Firefox onthe desktop. The Flash implementation is close to perfect.

Gaming on the device is superb. Browsing the web is amazing.Playing MP4 videos is, well, flawless, and fit well on the 16:9screen.

With VEGAn-Tab installed, I’m actually delighted by this device.My young children took minutes to master it (children are remarkably capable of understanding new technology), and mytech critic wife has already been asking if it’s available for somecasual gaming.

Didn’t expect it to be a lifestyle thing. Just a developmentthing.

But it has a critical hardware flaw that leads me to verystrongly discourage its purchase for tablet buyers (those whomight see it as a much faster, more capable, open variant of theiPad): The screen is terrible.

It actually has a slightly lower resolution than the iPad, owingto it’s lower pixel density (115ppi versus the 132ppi on the iPad.The Xoom, for comparison, features 158ppi), and its somewhatsmaller screen. That might sound wrong, given that the iPad is a”9.7″ screen” while the gTablet is offered up at 10.1″, howeverthat’s the lie of the diagonal: The iPad is 45.19 square inches,while the gTablet is 43.56 square inches, and the diagonals reflectthe aspect ratios (4:3 for the iPad versus 16:9 for thegTablet).

The resolution on the gTablet is simply too low for somethingheld relatively close to the user. The same number of pixels on a7″ screen would be much more palatable.

Far worse, however, is the incredibly poor viewingangle of the screen. It harkens back to very cheap laptops from adecade ago. This surprised me the most given that Viewsonic islargely a monitor company, so it’s strange to see them bungle thisso badly.

Held in a landscape position the viewing angle from left toright is decent. Up and down, on the other hand, is terrible, withjust a few degrees leading to a complete inversion in the screen.Just trying to hold the device to play a game or view a video andyou have to be extremely still or there are massive variations inthe visibility of the screen. The sweet spot is actually at anawkward angle in most sitting positions.

Held in a portrait perspective and its worse, with slightvariations to the left or right leading to washout orinversion.

I’ve seen plenty of TN monitors with close-to-IPS qualities. ThegTablet display is not one of those. Instead it has the worstviewing angles I’ve ever seen (on a device where varying viewingangles is inevitable), and significant onscreen dithering andposterization.

I consider this a deadly defect of the device. I’m still overthe moon with it as a development target (and marvel at theeffortless speed of the unit), but in searching for replacementROMs I encountered a lot of commentators who are, shall we say,overselling the device, claiming that with a better ROM it is aperfect tablet. It would be if the display wasn’t absolutegarbage.

If Viewsonic replaced the stock software with VEGan-Tab or asimile, and replaced the horrifically bad display panel withsomething less unbearable, this would be a killer discount device.As is, however, I would definitely discourage its purchase outsideof development uses.

For me, however, it’s a delightful holdover until I can get myhands on a Galaxy Tab 10.1 or Motorola Xoom (both of which offer analmost 40% DPI density improvement, not to mention dramaticallybetter viewing angles, colour reproduction, contrast ratio, and soon. Basically a dramatically better screen).