Archos 9 pctablet – First Impressions

Posted: January 15, 2010 in Apple, Archos, first impressions, PCTablet, Tablet
Tags: ,

They say that all good things come to those who wait.  Well, I’ve been waiting for an incredibly long time for a really usable, portable but powerful, lightweight Tablet PC.  My earliest experiences have been with portable media players (PMPs) mostly from Archos, who has generally been in the forefront of the technology.  Of course in the years that followed, Apple has come along and essentially revolutionalized the market in this category, but only in the small iPhone/iPod Touch screen size.  As all eyes are on Steve Jobs and the big A now with the impending (rumored) announcement of a Tablet computing device, numerous competitors have been making their own announcements and trying to release their products.

The Archos 9 PC Tablet is touted on their website as “The Ultimate Mobility Experience”  which allows you to watch videos (including Full HD format), browse the web, “video chat”, email, documents, etc. – as far as I know it’s the first full-featured Tablet in such a light (1.76 pounds) and thin (0.67″) package capable of running Windows 7 (Starter edition is included).  It features a 1.1GHz Atom processor, 1GB of RAM 60GB hard drive, integrated webcam and a 8.9″ LED backlit touch-screen.  There is a single USB port, and input can be made via the touch screen (both fingers and stylus) and with a small finger “trackpoint” navigation system.  So essentially you have a low end Netbook that has been carved into a thin handheld unit all for roughly the cost of what Netbooks started out at ($550); it all sounds great on paper but how does it fare in the real world?

The Packaging: really pretty nice, it appears people are finally learning from Apple that style in packaging can also go a long way to impressing customers. Everything was neat and simple and classy and the unboxing process went flawlessly. I give it a thumbs up.

The First Look: picking the Tablet up for the first time, it felt very slick and looked very nice, better than I’d expected.  Certainly the best looking Archos device (from the exterior) that I’ve personally owned (this now being the 4th portable device I’ve purchased from them).  Again, they are clearly looking at Apple for inspriation, as the hardware has very few external buttons or ports, and interface buttons are kept to a minimum to keep the product looking sharp and sexy.  Another big thumbs up.

Weight/feel:  This is a big deal and often overlooked with devices of this type.  If you build an incredible portable device but it’s just unwieldy, there’s very little point to it.  As competition you have to acknowledge the competition, from netbooks and the Macbook Air that come in at 3 pounds vs. Archos’ own 705 Wifi 7″ unit that weighs 1.4 pounds.  On first pick up the weight felt almost exactly right, until I realized the battery was not installed. With battery in, the weight is just a tad bit over what I’d like ideally, but all in all serviceable, and very much on par with what you’d expect given the competition.  I’d say a target would be half a traditional netbook, and they are getting pretty close with this design.  Strong Pass (still needs testing in different environments over time).

Physical Interface:  The trackpoint mouse function is definitely serviceable but a little too small for my fat thumb. I like the relative position of the mouse buttons on the left side, but I think I would have preferred them in a horizontal left/right positioning instead of top/bottom vertical.  All in all a very decent secondary control scheme if no mouse is available, and I found myself using it more often than not for precision.  I like that on the back side of the unit, you have easy access to a built-in removable stylus, and there is a  prop/kickstand that works nicely to allow you to set the unit facing up.  Unfortunately both of these feel a little cheap in quality, but they do seem to work well.  I’m just worried they may break sooner rather than later.

All in all I give the physical interfaces a Pass.

Touch Screen: looks very nice overall, but still need a lot more testing for a real review in terms of touch sensitivity vs. graphics quality and look.  Thus far I’ve tried numerous calibration schemes and drivers but haven’t really got a good feel for the touch interface.  Sometimes it seems fine, other times it is frustratingly awkward.  Compared to the beauty and simplicity of the iPhone, this is a major Fail.

On-screen Keyboard:  this is where things start to get a little iffy.  There are multiple options for the keyboard, but none of them seem ideal.  While you are able to resize and reposition the keyboards, the overall effect given the size of the main unit makes everything awkward.  It’s too big to allow you to do iPhone or Blackberry thumb style typing, but too small to do true full-hand typing.  I found myself using the stylus more often than not, and in truth I’d really rather just avoid typing as much as possible.  I ordered a Bluetooth keyboard for this, but really it’s not an ideal solution if you want to see how the unit stands on its own.  Because this is really a software/interface issue, and compared to what I know works well on the iPhone, I’m going to have to give this a solid Thumbs Down.  (After a few more days of usage I made some headway into getting a better feel for the on-screen keyboard options, but all in all it’s been rather hit or miss, nothing like the ease of use and intuitiveness you get with the iPhone.  Just as an example, often if you want to put a search term into Google, you bring up the keyboard and it shrinks your browser in half, leaving you seeing…. nothing.  This can be circumvented somewhat with some things I’ll mention later, but it’s just an example of the lack of thought that went into the design.)

Documentation:  incredibly skimpy and poor. You are given the bare minimum info, and it comes in multiple places and different sheets of paper or on a sticker on the screen.  Poorly executed given that the device is just not simple plug and play. If you want to go minimalist like Apple does on docs, your device better be up to the task.  Sadly, the Archos is not.  I do not need the same 5 pages of skimpy information printed on a tiny booklet in 10 different languages.  Reeks of cheapness and/or laziness.  Fail.

Startup:  First off you have to press and hold the power button (about 2 seconds) to get it to start. I don’t remember how it was documented but it wasn’t clear to me.  Not to mention one of the mouse buttons says “ON” on it and I originally thought it was the power button. You can say I was foolish for not reading the manual but I would counter by saying there is a lack of intuitiveness to the setup.  And yes it is slow as people have complained about.  The initial bootup and setup is kind of excruciating given that most people probably want an iPod Touch/iPhone like experience – there is nothing near “instant gratification” with this device.  Instead you need to charge the battery for at least 2 hours before you even hit the on button, and then you get to go through the tired Windows 7 startup, which takes quite a while given the slow processor.

At various points you need to enter information in. Somewhere in the docs it mentions to press a small onscreen icon to bring up the keyboard, but it was definitely not intuitive for me.  Typing in the Windows 7 serial number was also a bit excruciating, as you have to keep flipping the unit upside down to read the numbers, and then tapping them in with stylus or finger.  I also had to drag the keyboard around to access the correct portion of the window to type in, etc.  It’s little details like this that make for an overall unfriendly experience.  You wonder if Archos quality department ever sat and watched a real person just try the initial procedure, because nothing on the unit or in the documentation prepares you for the subtle details.  After the long Windows initial bootup, I did what a second sheet of doc told me to do, and ran the backup. This was also a long and excruciating wait to complete.  So after about 5 hours (including battery charging) I was theoretically ready to begin using the unit.  But by then it was way past my bedtime, sigh.

The next morning, I decided to try the Windows Anytime Upgrade before diving deeper, but I had to leave as it was taking a long time and I needed to get to work.  I left it running and when I got back from work I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that the upgrade had failed and the system had reverted back to Windows 7 Starter.

Day 2 Impressions:

I spent around 5 hours the second evening working on the Tablet.  I use the word “working” purposely  because it really did feel like work for a majority of the time.  I must have rebooted over 20 times over the course of the evening.  For those interested in such things, the approx. boot time was about 2 minutes, maybe a bit more.  In comparison, my HP Mini 311 netbook (spruced up with an SSD) has a boot time of 45 seconds.  The time is actually not horrible or unexpected given the processor and hard drive speeds, but when you are trying to get drivers and such squared away it can feel like a lifetime.

I was finally able to get Windows 7 Ultimate “anytime” upgraded after following the advice on the Archos Fans forums.  I then started updating drivers to try to get better performance from the touch screen with mixed results. I was able to get Flick support installed but it didn’t seem to work right, or maybe I am flicking incorrectly. I calibrated using my thumbs as that seemed the easiest way to do it, but it may have been a mistake as afterwards when I tried to use the stylus everything was always offset. As far as the popup keyboard, I’m still a bit confused with it. I know the button on the left is supposed to bring it up but it seemed hit or miss for me. I then tried starting the “Touch” keybaord program directly and again it was hit or miss whether it started. Once it was on, I found it kind of aggravating that it would often shrink my internet window into a worthless long skinny rectangle.

In any case, these are the kinds of things that I find baffling and a bit disappointing. Can you imagine how cool this product would have been if it came out of the box and just…. worked? Touch interface, multimedia, full featured Windows? Clearly it is capable of delivering a decent internet browsing experience as well as playing certain formats of media (with the right codecs installed). And clearly some folk have been able to adjust the user interface to their liking, so it is all possible. But instead, it seems like Archos was content to just build the hardware, slap Windows 7 Starter on, and let the user community itself try to figure out how to actually use their product effectively.

One piece of good news. It found my home network server without issue, and I was able to get in and stream a video from it without incident. The video was a tad choppy from the streaming but all in all I was happy with it.

In any case, I will continue to forge on as boysie suggests. In the following days, I’ll likely mess with Office and iTunes and see if I can get any netbook level games to run on it. Should be interesting.It certainly appears to be perfectly capable of most of the things I wanted in a full Win 7 device. Just looks like a lot more “work” to get it all the way I want it.Day 2 Impressions:

I spent around 5 hours last night working on my Tablet. I use the word working because it really did feel like work. I must have rebooted over 20 times over the course of the evening. BTW for those interested the approx. boot time was about 2 minutes, maybe a bit more. In comparison, my HP netbook (spruced up with an SSD) the boot time is 45 seconds. The time is not horrible given the processor and hard drive speeds, but when you are trying to get drivers and such squared away it can feel like a lifetime.

I was finally able to get Windows 7 Ultimate “anytime” upgraded after following the advice on the Archos Fan forums.  (This forum is a wonderful resource for anyone looking to purchase the device.)  I then started updating drivers to try to get better performance from the touch screen, with mixed results.  I was able to get “Flick” support installed but it didn’t seem to work right, or maybe I am just “flicking” incorrectly.  I calibrated using my thumbs as that seemed the easiest way to do it, but it may have been a mistake as afterwards when I tried to use the stylus everything was always offset.  Again, this is nowhere near the incredible ease of use with Apple’s Trackpad gestures or on the iPhone, all technology that has been available for 2 years now.

In any case, these are the kinds of things that I find baffling and a bit disappointing.  Can you imagine how cool this product might have been if it came out of the box and just…. worked?  Touch interface, multimedia, full featured Windows?  Clearly it is capable of delivering a decent internet browsing experience as well as playing many different formats of media (with the right codecs installed).  And clearly some folk have been able to adjust the user interface to their liking, so it is all possible.  But instead, it seems like Archos was content to just build the hardware, slap Windows 7 Starter on, and let the user community itself try to figure out how to actually use their product effectively.  

Archos is clearly of the traditional hardware manufacturer’s mindset.  Build the hardware and let the users do whatever they want with it.  It’s very much the opposite of the Apple mindset, where they put as much (if not more) time into the end-user experience development as they do the hardware itself.  Imagine the iPhone if it released without the brilliant touch OS (yes yes I know it was missing things), plus iTunes/App Store in its back pocket.  It would just be a cool device but people would struggle to figure out how best to use it. 

All that said, while I’m an Apple fanboy, I also enjoy having devices like this where I get to decide what to do, and I can tinker and optimize and have complete freedom to play with it.  Whatever else one might say about the device, this Tablet has full Windows 7 running on it, with all the opportunities and baggage that that capability brings with it.

One piece of good news on night 2.  It found my home network server without issue, and I was able to get in and stream a video from it without incident.  The video was a tad choppy from the streaming but all in all I was happy with it.

Conclusions:  Oddly enough, I’m really starting to like the product going into the 4th and 5th days of ownership.  There have been definite disappointments, and a lot of restarts and baffling “why the heck didn’t they do such and such?” moments.  But for the most part I am finally starting to get a grasp on the pctablet and how it might fit into my usage patterns.  Yesterday morning I realized I could easily rotate the screen 90 degrees and go vertical.  With the keyboard locked on the bottom, browsing was much more manageable.  With the keyboard  shrunk and locked at the bottom of the screen, it was no longer intrusive on the browser size, and the keys were close enough that thumb typing similar to the iPhone was possible.  I then downloaded Kindle for PC and within moments was reading a book I had purchased for the iPhone a while back; it looked great on the much larger screen. Very very cool.

I’ve now installed the base Office products but haven’t tried them out yet.  Three games I installed ended up not working correctly (one was 1024×768, the other kept having weird purple glitches) but a 4th (Spectromancer) seems to run fine.  iTunes installed without incident but as others have mentioned the video can be pretty choppy; I still need to check the audio.  I tried playing a number of different wmv, mp4 and mov files I had, old and new, and it was a pretty mixed bag.  The larger HD resolution files were very choppy, but others worked great.  Quicktime files were equally hit or miss, but since I am not anything close to an expert on encoding and video files, I’m not sure what was what.  Same goes for streaming directly off the internet.  Choppy to good depending on what it was.  Too many variables to say whether it’s solely the tablet’s issue or not.

My conclusion on video?  It’s an obvious point but sometimes hard to accept: the hardware (and software) is limited (surprise!).  But the fact is you can pretty much convert anything you download (or DVDs or even HD) to something the device will like, once you figure out the formula.  Yes it’s more work but realistically, what portable/tablet-style device is out there that you don’t have to adapt in some way your video content to it? Maybe there’s something I don’t know about, but for something in this form factor and weight, I think it’s fair to expect that video content will need to be adapted for best performance.  Even Apple’s Tablet will have some kinds of restrictions on what video content is playable (keep in mind wmv is still not directly playable on a Mac without flip4wmv), and users will simply adapt to it through conversion or other means.

Ultimately this mindset is what you really need to enjoy and exploit the device’s potential. Understand your own goals, the hardware’s limitations and help yourself by not trying to constantly overcome them.  Archos advertises the unit as a next gen style of Netbook, so from a usage standpoint you have to get a sense of what a 1GB, 1.1GHz (about 50% slower) Netbook is capable of.  And then adapt your expectations to what you can get out of the Tablet form factor to maximize the unit’s potential (shifting to a vertical perspective is a great example of this; it’s something you could theoretically do on a netbook but you wouldn’t normally, but it’s perfect for the Tablet).

As you can probably tell, this is not a consumer friendly device at the outset, so it’s hard to recommend to people without the caveat that it’s going to take quite a bit of work to get it to do what you personally want.  It’s a very nice, solid piece of hardware, fairly priced, but without the seamless user experience to back it up.  My sense is that it can still capture its own niche in the market, as Apple will likely not release a product that is going to be Windows 7 capable.  PC users may want a tablet but still prefer to stick with what they know, and the Archos 9 could easily fill that void.

My recommendations to Archos:  install 2GB of RAM, provide an SSD option, and install Windows 7 Home Premium (possibly streamlined with all the frills and unneeded elements removed).  Change the keyboard button to one that automatically rotates the perspective 90 degrees (including the mouse pointer).  Re-structure the initial user turn-on experience with better documentation.

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