HP's Slate 7 breaks new ground for 7-inch Android tablets, but it sacrifices far too much in order to keep the price tag down.
Google set the new benchmark for 7-inch Android tablets with the $249 Nexus 7, raising the bar in terms of price, performance and features. The Nexus 7 was launched 12 months ago this week, but since then we've seen some interesting rivals such as Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0), Acer's Iconia B Series and Asus' Fonepad, not to mention Apple's iPad mini if you're that way inclined.
Now HP has thrown its hat in the ring with the Slate 7, starting at AU$199 for the 8GB Wi-Fi-only model and going up to AU$249 for the 32GB Wi-Fi-only model. Compare this to AU$249 for the 16GB Wi-Fi-only Nexus 7 and $299 for its 32GB Wi-Fi-only model.
Coming from HP, I expected the Slate 7 to be more of a business-focused device, as the HP Slate name is associated with Windows tablets. Instead HP is aiming at the heart of the Android consumer space, where the competition is tough, while trying to put the TouchPad debacle behind it.
Until now sub-$200 consumer Android tablets have generally been woeful no-name offerings that you'd hesitate to even hand to your young children as a plaything. The $199 Acer Iconia B Series is perhaps the only one worth mentioning, although it only features a 1024x600 pixel display. Its real Achilles' Heel is that it packs a mere 512MB of RAM and these days I'd be reluctant to recommend even a budget Android device with less than 1GB of RAM.
Google should unveil the Nexus 7's successor in the next few weeks, and it will be interesting to see if it can bring down the price as well as improve the features. For now it seems something has to give in order to break the $200 barrier. HP's Slate 7 doesn't skimp on RAM but it does still skimp on the screen -- offering 1024x600 resolution when the 7-inch Android standard is considered 1280x800. This is preferable to skimping on RAM, as the lower resolution still offers 169 pixels per inch -- similar to the iPad mini.
Unfortunately low resolution isn't the only drawback of the Slate 7's display.
The Slate 7 relies on a High-transmittance Fringe Field Switching (HFFS) LCD display, which is a change from the IPS and AMOLED displays generally found on tablets. It offers fair colours and decent viewing angles, while doing a reasonable job of handling outdoor glare. Colours could be more vibrant and the screen brighter, as the whites look a little dull. The blacks could also be much blacker, as images don't look nearly as rich and deep as the top-of-the-line IPS-LCD screens.
Combine dull colours with disappointing contrast and low screen resolution and you're left with fuzzy test and murky, washed out images compared to the Nexus 7, not to mention a Samsung or Apple tablet. You wouldn't describe it as shocking, but if you've an eye for detail and you're familiar with the top-of-the-line IPS-LCD and Super AMOLED screens then you'll certainly be underwhelmed by the Slate 7.
The real killer is that the Slate 7's aspect ratio is out slightly, so when you turn the tablet sideways to portrait mode everything gets stretched -- distorting the picture and making people's faces look a little fatter. That's simply just not acceptable and the final straw for me -- at this point I'd scratch the Slate 7 from my shortlist even if I was on a tight budget.
Underwhelming under the bonnet
Things also look underwhelming under the bonnet, where you'll find a dual-core ARM A9 1.6GHz processor accompanied by that all-important 1GB of RAM. Once again enough to satisfy many people but not on par with the Nexus 7's quad-core Tegra 3. The Slate 7 comes up short on performance benchmarks, handling day-to-day tasks but struggling to smoothly play graphics-intensive games such as Real Racing 3.
The Slate 7 comes with a vanilla version of Android 4.1.1 and still hasn't received the Android 4.2 update available for the Nexus 7. There are no exclusive apps to get excited about, as the preinstalled Movie Studio and HP ePrint are available to all in the Google Play store. The improved sound of Beats Audio support is the only key selling point, although it won't appeal to everyone.
The design of the Slate 7 also feels a generation behind. It's 30 grams heavier and .25 mm thicker than the Nexus 7, which doesn't sound like much but is noticeable and gives it a slightly bulky feel.
So what are the Slate 7's strengths apart from price? It sports a lowly 3MP rear camera, which is still 3MP more than the Nexus 7 -- although a rear camera will likely come to its successor. The Slate 7 also features a microSD card slot, offering an extra 32GB of storage -- the Nexus 7's other glaring omission which is unlikely to come to the next model from Google. In return you're stuck with a VGA front camera on the Slate 7 and you're missing the Nexus 7's Near-Field Communications (NFC) chip.
Aspect ratio aside, none of the Slate 7's shortcomings alone are necessarily deal-breakers. But once you combine them all together you're left with a tablet which just makes too many sacrifices in order to save a mere 50 bucks. HP needed to deliver something special to wipe the slate clean after the TouchPad WebOS debacle, but this disappointing effort doesn't bode well for the once-proud tech giant.
HP's Slate 7 certainly raises the bar for the sub-$200 Android category, but you still only get what you pay for. Do yourself a favour and pay for something else.