HTC Flyer Review

When I first heard off the HTC Flyer (also know as the HTC View 4G on Sprint) in Barcelona during Mobile World Congress I wasn’t really sure what to think about the product. HTC didn’t allow the press to handle it and the device’s specification left me puzzled about it competitiveness compared to all the more powerful Android Honeycomb tablets all over the show floor.

With Honeycomb tablets being all the rage this year it was definitely surprising to see HTC launching a relatively small Gingerbread tablet powered by a single core CPU with the main differentiator being its n6trig active digitizer and Stylus. I admit, the Flyer didn’t look good on paper. I quickly dismissed this as a dead on Arrival product that only saw the light of the day because HTC was willing to use nVidia’s Tegra 2 SoC and decided to stick with Qualcomm which ultimately resulted in the company only being able to use Gingerbread instead of honeycomb (Android 3.X is only now being made “compatible” with SoC’s other than the Tegra 2).

Hardware

HTC Flyer / Samsung Omnia 7

HTC has been making a lot of effort lately in terms of overall hardware quality and the materials used in manufacturing theirs devices. The HTC Flyer is no exception thanks to its anybody aluminum chassis and great 7” screen. I first thought that the screen would probably be to small especially after having used an iPad and tried several Honeycomb tablets but I quickly found out that 7” may be the sweet spot for those who wish to have a ultra-portable device that they can carry around whether they go to browser the net and watch movies. The device does feel heavy in the hand after a minutes of use so it’s best to handled it with both hands (just like most tablet). 420g doesn’t sound like a lot but sure feels like a ton if you try to carry the device single handed exclusively. Because of its relatively small package the Flyer seems dense and solid in the hand.

Check out hardware tour of the device:

Powering the HTC Flyer is a Qualcomm MSM8255 clocked @1.5Ghz for the GSM/Wifi version and a APQ8055 for the WiFi only version. This may not sound like much compared to all the dual-core device’s launched this year but remember that hardware alone doesn’t make the whole product. The CPU is clocked 500Mhz higher than when it was first introduced in the HTC Desire HD more than six months ago and this isn’t negligible. The Adreno 205 GPU performance seem to scale alongside the CPU clock according to the benchmarks results I came up with. The Flyer also comes equipped with 1GB of Ram and 16 or 32GB of storage depending on the model.  It is also worth noting that the HTC Flyer has a microSD expansion slot so you can add even more storage to the tablet.

The 1024×600 7” screen is surprisingly good in terms of color reproduction, brightness and viewing angles but the really novelty here compared to all the other Android tablet on the market is the N-Trig active digitizer and N-Trig G 3.5 chipset that allows the use of a pressure sensitive stylus but more on that later (I unfortunately don’t know if it’s an IPS, PLS (or something else) panel). I initially feared that 1200×600 would be a bit too low of the 7” screen but frankly it’s good enough. The only drawback was that my review sample seemed to suffer from a broken digitizer which registered touches all over the place even if I only had one finger on the screen (depending on which part of the screen I was in touch with.)

Around the screen are located 6 capacitive buttons: 3 in landscape and 3 in portrait plus 2 HTC Scribe dedicated buttons that are only activated by the Stylus.  This unfortunately means that you can’t rotate the Flyer in all direction given that the there are no capacitive buttons on the 2 other sides. The Flyer also packs 2 microphones on one side and 2 stereo speakers on the back.  There’s no Gyroscope in the device but all other sensors and connectivity features commonly found on HTC’s devices are found in the tablet (the HTC Sensation is currently the company’s only model with a Gyroscope).

HTC has also decided to put a low quality 5Mp camera on the back (more on that later) and a 1.3Mp camera on the front, both capable of shooting video in 720P.

Besides the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top the only other connector found on the Flyer is HTC’s proprietary ExtMicroUSB connector at the bottom. As you can in the picture above HTC has once again decided to go dumb a not use a regular connector. The result is that most micro-usb cables work with it (to connect to a PC) but the only way to charge the device is to use HTC’s own power plug or HTC the HTC Flyer Dock.

Software

Unlike most of this year’s Android tablets the Flyer doesn’t run Android 3.X but instead feature the Android 2.3.3 Gingerbread smartphone OS with HTC’s new Sense 2.1 for Tablet UI (not to be confused with Sense 3 for smartphones as found on the Sensation, even though they look nearly identical).  Thankfully HTC Sense UI is GPU accelerate so you shouldn’t worry too much about bad framerate when navigating the device. On the other hand there are still parts of the OS that aren’t so just like with any Android device on the market right now once you get out HTC’s software performance can sometimes be spotty. I will repeat myself here but this once again highlights the weakness of Android and the strength of Windows Phone 7 and iOS in this department (both OS are fully GPU accelerated). It should also be noted that Honeycomb tablets powered by NVIDIA’s dual-core Tegra 2 SoC suffer from the same fate even though the tablet OS is supposedly more GPU friendly and ironically thanks to HTC’s Sense the Flyer sometimes smooth, snappier that some 3.X slates.

Watch my 20 minutes long software tour to see the new Sense UI in Action:

This newest version of Sense now features a new lock screen with a ring at the bottom that has to be dragged to the center to unlock the device. Four application shortcuts are located above the ring to allow you to quickly access them by dragging the icons into the ring. You can obviously choose which application shortcuts you wish to have here. The lock screen background can be set to show a simple wallpaper, the weather, the stocks you are following, your freindstream, a clock or a photo album.

Once you’ve unlocked your device you will be greeted by the new 3D carousel UI that really doesn’t differ from the previous version of Sense besides the new 3D effects and some tweaked widgets. As I said earlier this is not Sense 3.0 but Sense 2.1 For Tablets and there are quite a few tablet specific features that are found on the Flyer.

The first and most obvious one is that the whole UI can operate in landscape mode which means that every single HTC widgets is correctly re-sized for this orientation. The most commonly used HTC apps like the Gallery, Weather, Stocks , etc also have landscape specific versions which are really pleasant to use.

The other difference between Sense 2.1 For Tablets and Sense 3.0 is that instead of have a phone icon at the bottom of the screen (because the Flyer can’t operate as a phone, even the 3G version) HTC has decided to put 3 user selectable application shortcuts in the middle, the application list shortcut on the left and the Notes shortcut on the right. I recommend that you watch my software tour video below to see it all in action.

Performance

Application performance on the HTC Flyer is really good. There are no surprises here and I didn’t encounter any major compatibility problem related to the device’s screen resolution. One thing that you have to remember though is that the Flyer is not running Android 3.X so you won’t have access to the tablet compatible application on the Android Market but only the smartphone apps.

In terms of raw performance the HTC Flyer isn’t the slowest device around but not the fastest either. One thing to remember when comparing it to other handsets and tablets, is the screen resolution.  Looking at the GLbechmark results below shows that it has roughly the same results as an HTC Desire HD which is rendering at 800×480. This means that the Adreno 205 GPU’s performance scaled in line with the CPU clock. 1024×600 = 1.6X more pixels than 800X480 and 1.5GHz is 1.5x more than 1GHZ on the Desire HD.

GLBenchmark 2.0:

The HTC Flyer is slightly slower than the HTC Deiser HD here but is rendering more pixels than any of the devices against it.

Electopia OGL2.0:

This is Qualcomm’s own benchmark so it shouldn’t surprise anybody to see that the PowerVR SGX540 in the Galaxy S shows up poorly here.

NenaMark 2.0:

Quadrant:

The results really vary depending on the bench being used so it’s always better to measure a device’s overall performance based on everyday usage and not synthetic test results. Ironically, because most applications and usage scenarios are single thread the 1.5GHZ Scorpion CPU is sometimes faster than dual-core powered devices. What will be interesting though is how things will compare later on when HTC finally rolls out an Android 3.X firmware for the Flyer (promised for later this summer). As of right now, the Flyer feels in most cases snappier than a Honeycomb tablet as long as there isn’t a ton of threads and applications running in the background.

Web Browsing

Web browsing is where the HTC Flyer really shines. It’s simply the fastest handled device in this department. Page loading time is often under 2 secs even when the cache has been flushed and I must say that I was really impressed by the HW accelerated Flash 10 performance. The Flyer is the first portable device that, in my opinion, gets the job done with Flash on the web. It’s still not perfect and it finally doesn’t bog down the whole handset like on most other devices, even Honeycomb tablets. Qualcomm’s chipset are definitely the most Flash friendly SoCs on the market right now and it really shows on the Flyer (TI’s SoC isn’t bad either in this department especially on the Blackberry Playbook). I unfortunately  no longer have a Desire HD in my possession but I wonder if HTC made some improvements on it since last year (flash was still horrible on it when I had it) because the Sensation also doesn’t seem to break a sweat on Flash heavy pages either (it does have a dual-core CPU tough..).

HTC also made some changes to the browser UI and added a really nice tab menu on the top that really makes switching between them an easy task.

 

The only downside to all of this nice browsing experience is that scrolling and panning is still choppy and laggy. I have yet to find a single Android powered device (Honeycomb tablets included) that can rival with iOS and Windows Phone 7. This is frankly starting to get really annoying especially when those Android devices are vastly more powerful than iPhones and Windows Phones. And I still hate the fact that I can easily disable text-reflow too.

HTC Scribe

HTC Scribe is the name of the software associated with the Flyer’s N-Trig active digitizer and battery powered Stylus. So what’s the fuzz all about? Well, let’s be clear: don’t even think of replacing your Windows 7 tablet (with active digitizer) with the HTC Flyer. Compared to a “real” tablet HTC Scribe is simply a fancy note taking feature more than anything else.

Simply taping on the screen with the stylus will automatically take a screenshot of what’s currently being rendered and you will have the choice to either save this picture, annotate / paint on it then share.

Taping on the stylus buttons located on the bezel will give you the choice to either create a new note or take a screenshot. If you are familiar with the Evernote service then you should feel at home because this is what HTC decided to use. Evernote is basically the device’s notes app so once you create one it will automatically be synced with you other Evernotes in the cloud. You can include images, voice, typed text, handwritten text etc.. It’s a fairly nice system but still miles away from Microsoft’s Onenote on Windows.

The Stylus can also be used to annotate pages in the e-book Readers application and also PDF files. To highlight test just press the first button on the stylus. Pressing the second butting will turn it into an eraser.

The on-screen pop-up menu lets you choose between several brushes, colors and also include a history so that you can easily undo change’s you’ve done to one of your documents. The stylus supports several levels of pressure which is really great (but for from any regular Wacom system) but there’s unfortunately no palm detection/rejection system.

That is unfortunately all you can do. You can’t use the stylus in any other application and this really a bit disappointing but also expected given that the device is still running Android 2.3.3 which was never designed for this kind of usage. Hopefully Android 3.X will improve this in the coming months.

HTC has also launched an on demand video service called HTC Watch which is accessible via WiFi and 3G. The video quality seems to be quite good but the but the movie prices can sometimes be a bit much. I admit that I’m not a huge fan of VOD services though. Check it out in action in at the end of the the software tour video above.

Camera

The 5MP pixel camera with auto-focus on the back is totally useless for taking quality pictures and videos even at 720P. Thankfully this isn’t much of an issue for augmented reality applications but HTC really dropped the ball here. Every single picture or video taken with it either looks muddy or blurry.

The 1.3mp front facing camera ironically has better color reproduction compared to the main sensor on the back and shoots better HD videos which are unfortunately mirrored as seen in the video below.

Battery

Like most ARM based tablets being released this year the HTC Flyer battery is not user accessible unless you want to void your warranty. The downside here is that we don’t know its capacity unless somebody disassembles the device. Given that the Flyer is smaller than most android tablets (besides the first Samsung Galaxy Tab) its battery will also logically be smaller in size and capacity too. I didn’t do any scientific testing here but after a full charge and intensive usage it took me around 6 to 7 hours to fully deplete it. With normal usage the battery could last approximately 2 days (unless you go into airplane mode which will save tons of battery). HTC has also added a Power saving feature into Sense which is user configurable and allows the device to go into a power-saving mode (it disconnects from the data networks, lowers the screen brightness etc) during a user selectable time frame (for example between 8PM and 8AM).

Conclusion

I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the HTC Flyer as I wasn’t expecting much after its initial announcement which I thought was underwhelming. Now after having spent more than 10 days with it I’m still left with mixed feelings. Is the HTC Flyer the right device for those who wish to jump into the tablet bandwagon? Personally I think that this device will strictly appeal to the early adopters or geeks (same for the other Android tablets) because it lacks a coherent ecosystem unlike the iPad and it’s relatively high price (especially the 3G version).  HTC really did a great job on the hardware (beside the camera), the software  and has to be applauded for trying to bring something new to the table with the Stylus unlike other OEMs who decided to ride the Honeycomb bandwagon and ship products that barely differentiate themselves from each other. But we also have to keep in mind that the Flyer is still running Android 2.3.3 and that even though the company promised to upgrade it to 3.X in the near future nothing is set in stones and we will have to keep a close eye on the company to see if they deliver here.

Pros:

- Build Quality and design
- Overall Performance (UI and Web)
- Sense
- Screen quality
- HTC Scribe

Cons

- Camera
- Camera
- Waiting for Android 3.X update
- Price