Saturday, January 28, 2012

Testing an Android ICS Tablet

As Android's latest incarnation - Ice Cream Sandwich - had just hit the market, there wasn't a lot of choice in tablets in early December, 2011 when I was looking for an Android tablet to play with.  The Asus Transformer Prime hadn't hit the market, most existing devices were promising updates by around mid-2012, and, well, I wanted something to have a look at in December 2011, not in June 2012 - that's why I decided to buy the Ainol NOVO7 Basic ICS tablet and see how it held up.

Initial Thoughts

First, let me say that this is a $99 ICS tablet so I didn't expect much - not in the way of physical build quality nor in the implementation of ICS.  I bought mine directly from and paid their overpriced $60 shipping cost (which, due to a number of issues on their end, didn't result in the tablet arriving at my doorstep until 5th January, 2012 - definitely the worst $60 on freight I have ever spent in my life and the communications from Ainovo, well, let's just say they left a lot to be desired).  Right now, Ainovo have no stock available of any of their tablets.  What I *would* recommend people seriously looking at getting one of these tablets do is to head on over to McBub and buy it from there - not only is it a mere US$110, but that also includes freight to Australia!

The Ainovo tablets, being cheap, have cut a few corners.  One major one is their choice of CPU.  The average Android tablet runs on one of the many ARM implementations, however the Ainovo NOVO7 Basic (and Paladin) tablets run on a MIPS implementation - an Ingenic JZ4770 CPU clocked at 1GHz with a GC860 graphocs co-processor.  The existing NOVO7 Advanced and the upcoming NOVO7 Elf and NOVO7 Aurora tablets run an Allwinner A10 CPU that is ARM based, so these more expensive tablets will have a slightly different (read: better) ICS experience than the cheaper Paladin and Basic tablets.

Having said that, the Ingenic CPU is no slouch - I wouldn't like to compare it with an i5, but then I wouldn't like to compare the power consumption with an i5 either!  :)  As far as usability for a cheap tablet goes, this Ingenic MIPS-based CPU definitely handles well.  The biggest issue it has is that most Android developers are expecting their applications to run on ARM-based CPUs and their code seems to have been written with ARM-based extensions, meaning that certain applications such as Skype, Facebook, Flash and World Of Goo are not available for the NOVO7 Basic tablet.  This is a bit annoying, but there's often workarounds or alternates - unfortunately this isn't the case with neither Flash nor Skype. :(

There's 512MB of RAM installed and 8GB of Flash storage.  There's a MicroSD card slot, inbuilt microsphone and speaker and standard 3.5mm headphone socket as well as B/G/N Wi-Fi, however there's no provision for a 3G/HSPA SIM nor BlueTooth.  A 3G USB device can be connected, and there's an adapter provided that you can plug your USB 3G dongle into.  The screen resolution is 800*480 and there's also a mini-HDMI connector that can deliver up to 1080P60 output - I've not yet tested this output.

Android ICS 4.0.1 (as shipped)

The version of Android that's supplied with the NOVO7 Basic is the 4.0.1 release, which means that there's already a newer release of ICS available - however there's no official NOVO7 Basic ICS 4.0.3 ROM upgrade available yet (as at the date of this post, 28 Jan, 2012).  I found this unofficial NOVO7 Basic ROM at Pandawill Forum, however the download is glacial and you'll need to rename the .zip file to "" and follow the upgrade instructions on the Ainovo support site to upgrade your NOVO7 Basic tablet.

On the stock ROM, I found issues with both Dolphin Browser HD and Pulse new reader - when trying to browse anything, they both displayed heavily corrupted text and images, to the point that they were both utterly useless.  The vast majority of applications, however, that would install on the NOVO7 Basic ran without a hitch.  They weren't mindblowingly fast, but they ran decently enough.

The touch screen was a little insensitive at times and a little too sensitive at other times - the experience with it was far from slick.  I've used a number of touch screen devices and this was the least enjoyable to deal with.

The single speaker is placed on the back of the unit and isn't all that loud - you can definitely hear it, but you'd struggle to hear anything it was outputting in anything other than a moderately quiet environment.

Video performance is quite good - there's a couple of included video files in both .wmv and .rmvb format and it plays all of the Quicktime sample files with only "Sorenson" showing any artifacting as well as the DIVX and MP4 encoded Shark Tale trailers (the .ogv file will not play).

The "Spiderman" game is shipped with the NOVO7 Basic, and being a non-game player, I couldn't care less, however for the review, I rane the game, had it download around 300MB of updates/data, and ran it.  It played well - no issues with speed, however the sensitivity of the touch screen was the only issue I had with the playability of the game.

Android ICS 4.0.3 (unofficial)

When I upgraded to the unofficial 4.0.3 ROM, I found the touch screen immediately more responsive and predictable - it now works like I would have expected it to - a big improvement.

I also noticed a whole pile of apps installed that are Chinese-only, including the AnZhi "GoMarket" app that can be used to update the apps that are pre-installed with the 4.0.3 ROM.  I've not found much use for any of the other pre-installed Chinese apps as they are, well, basically in Chinese and I have as much comprehension of Chinese language as the modern US Republican Party has of social responsibility - so I'll likely uninstall them to gain some space back.

Apps that worked poorly on the default 4.0.1 ROM - in particular Dolphin Browser HD and Pulse news reader - work well under 4.0.3.  This is excellent news for me as I'm a huge fan of the Pulse news reader app and running it on the NOVO7 Basic is a much better experience than on my iPhone 3GS.  Apps that don't suport MIPS CPUs obviously still will not install (I'll out Skype, Facebook, Flash and World Of Goo here again).

I can't be sure, but the performance of the tablet under the unofficial 4.0.3 ROM seems a little snappier - nothing major, but it does feel a little more responsive overall.

Spiderman needed to re-download its updates/data/whatever and when finished, was as playable as before with the addeed bonus that the more responsive touch screen made the game better.

Angry Birds is included with this 4.0.3 update as well and it, too, plays rather fluidly.

Android's Biggest Letdown

The default mail client in Android, whilst it does actually connect to Exchange servers and allow connections to multiple Exchange servers, is a dog.  It is a very, very basic mail client and needs a lot of improvement.  One of my biggest gripes is that when moving an Inbox item to another folder, the folders are listed in alphanumeric order, not in the order that I have under my Inbox - which makes the subfolder structure you have in Outlook totally invisible to Android's mail client.  That's right, if you have multiple folders called "Newsletter", say from multiple vendors, then you will see a number of "Newsletter" folders when attempting to move an email with no sane way to work out which one actually is.  That's utterly and mindnumbingly useless!

TouchDown, for US$20 resolves many of the issues with the native Android ICS email client and will most be definitely be an application I'll be purchasing in the very near future.


The NOVO7 Basic is quite usable - the Labtech, Mobile Noter, Documents To Go, Foxit Reader, DropBox, SpiderOak, SugarSync, and Trillian apps work, various Wi-Fi and network scanning apps such as Wifi Analyzer and Fing work, Mobile Noter and SharePlus apps work, Kindle runs well...  All up, even though there's no Skype nor Flash support for the MIPS CPU this tablet is built around, the tablet is a decent tablet with a few small quibbles - especially at the price.


The Outspoken Wookie


fwilt said...

I like you updated to 4.03, and have a much improved tablet. An earlier version of facebook (found link on android website) runs well. Some users have android flash 11 running, I have flash 10.1, but not all apps are happy with it. I've found lots of apps which work happily and lots that don't. The microphone pickup on 4.03 is very poor - and I'd like to see a reasonable voip client such as skype which would recognise the cameras, Skype Lite beta will work on voice only. Google apps are a mixed bag, Android Market is fine, as are Maps, Places and Gmail etc. But Calendar is not syncing happily. Apps I've found useful are File Expert, Evernote, Moon+Reader, Music Wizard, The Weather Channel, YouTube, and ES Task Manager. Incidently Words with Friends locks up, but Angry Words runs without a hitch. All in all it's a good little cheap tablet running icecream 4.03.

Anonymous said...




Hilton Travis said...

On the other hand, anonymous, I know quite a few people who have bought from them and have had no issues whatsoever. I suppose, like anything, it depends on who you talk to and what experience they had.