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A GREAT little tablet, but mostly for artists and note-takers...
on June 14, 2011
There are many specifications-based reviews out there on the Flyer, so I won't repeat those, and instead base this write-up off of my experience with HTC's device over the last few weeks. I have to start this review by saying that I've been a tablet PC user for years, and have found many recreational and business related uses for computers that have active pen input. But even my current tablet PC, an HP Touchsmart, can get tiresome to carry around all the time. I work with kids, and needed a backup device that was small, quick to turn on, and could be loaded with fun activities for children. That's where the Android tablets come in. I rooted a couple of Nookcolors, and instantly fell in love with the 7" form factor. So when I learned that HTC was going to be releasing a 7" tablet with some kind of active stylus, it sounded like the best of both worlds (small android tablet with pen input), and I knew I had to check it out.
I have to say that when most people think of a stylus, they think of that plastic stick that they used to poke their old palm pilots with. That is NOT what this is, nor is it intended as a replacement for touch input. This pen input is intended as a replacement for pen and paper, as you might use when you draw or take handwritten notes. When you're talking about active pen input, you're looking for 3 things: Precision, pressure sensitivity, and palm rejection. I hate to be this blunt, but if you can't view a stylus as being anything other than that dead plastic stick from the old days of resistive screens, then this type of device just simply isn't for you.
When I learned that the Flyer used N-Trig technology instead of the Wacom digitizers I'm used to, I was initially hesitant. I do a lot of artwork and handwritten notes on the Touchsmart, and while it's not perfect on the HP, the Flyer would have a lot to live up to. I knew I had to test it first in a store before I bought it, because if it didn't work well, I might as well stick with the rooted Nooks which did many of the same things and were half the price. The local Best Buy had the Flyer on it's release date and so I tried it out.
I'll be the first to say that the pen experience on the Flyer is NOT up to the quality of the wacom tablet PCs. I don't know if it's the sensors, the N-Trig technology, or if it's simply how the Android OS handles pen input. It's not the size, as I have a Motion Computing slate that is near the same size, and the pen accuracy on that device is far better. However, having said that, it is worlds better than using a regular capacitive stylus on an ipad, galaxy tab, or other similar device. I tried using a nice capacitive stylus with my Nooks and it was no better than using my finger. The Flyer is a far better inking experience, and I feel comfortable drawing or taking notes with it. It only has a couple of levels of pressure sensitivity (thick and thin) as far as I can tell, but you can make a decent sketch with it if you concentrate. If you'd want it rated on a scale, I would say a finger is a 1, capacitive stylus a 2-3, tablet PCs a 7-8, and the Flyer would be a 5.
Obviously I liked the inking enough to actually buy a Flyer even though I already had the Nooks and the Tablet PC. And since purchasing it, it continues to impress me. It's responsive, versatile, and durable. I can use it for games, drawing, notes, word processing, watching movies, streaming music from home, and just about everything else I could need from a media-consuption device. Better yet, many things listed as cons by others who have reviewed it have actually turned out to be related more to device settings (e.g., a washed out screen is because the autodimmer is set to low by default) and inadequately documented capabilities (e.g., standard microusb cables *do* work).
As much as I like the Flyer, it's not perfect. Unfortunately much of that stems from the pen use...the main thing that sets it apart from the flood of other android tablets out there. The preciseness of the pen tip can only be used in a small range of preloaded apps that HTC included (the opposite end can be used as a regular capacitive stylus, but again, it's like fingerpainting). For notetaking, there's the Notes app, and for drawing you can either use the Notes app or the Kid Mode app through Zoodles. They're decent apps, but they're not great. Perhaps I have been spoiled by programs like Onenote and Autodesk Sketchbook on the PC. But even on android, there are better apps out there for drawing or notes, and yet the pen will not work with them at this point. I'm sure HTC had a reason for limiting the pen this way, but I've yet to hear what it is. Luckily, this is software based, not hardware based, so HTC and other developers may release apps and updates that would allow the pen to be used in a wider range of applications. And since the Flyer is so new, I would imagine that these kind of advances are right around the corner. So I could see the Flyer's "good" inking experience go to "great" pretty quickly if it's given the right kind of attention.
Overall, it's a great little tablet. But, if you are not someone who likes to sketch or take notes, I would strongly suggest you look elsewhere. That's not to say that the Flyer is not a great all-around tablet. It is. It's fast, has a nice screen, great battery life, and a decent camera. But the main point of the Flyer is the pen. If you don't plan on using it for that purpose, you'll probably be happier with something else.
HTC has just released their SDK to the public/developers which includes the Pen input. This means that other developers can now start integrating pen input into their apps, and we are likely going to see some of the well known drawing apps, like Sketchbook Pro, be updated soon. One developer, the author of the Fresco drawing app, started working on it shortly after it came out. This change might easily earn the Flyer another star.
In another development, it looks like HTC is working on a slightly larger Scribe-enabled tablet known as the Puccini, and it looks like it will ship with Honeycomb. Also, Lenovo is just about to release a Thinkpad Tablet (also with N-trig and Honeycomb), and by all appearances, the stylus appears to work across all apps as a form of input (not sure about the pressure sensitivity, though). My hopes are that the Flyer will get Honeycomb somewhere around the same time as the Puccini, and this update will allow the functionality of the Flyer's stylus to jump as it did with the Thinkpad.
Well, I had hoped that I'd be able to update this with a description of how much more Honeycomb unlocks the potential of this little tablet. Unfortunately it's been two months, and the official build of Honeycomb for the flyer hasn't been released yet. However, I'd never post an update if I had nothing good to say. For those who are adventuresome, there is a leaked build of Honeycomb that you can install on your Flyer. The process doesn't look terribly hard, but it's not for the casual user either. Personally, I've decided to wait til the official version comes out.
BUT, in even better news, the Flyer has dropped in some places (like Best Buy) to $299! I'm hoping this will mean that a lot more people can enjoy the tablet, and that will lead to greater interest in it by developers...which ends up being better for everyone.
The official Honeycomb update was released last week. What can I say...for me, this is what the Flyer *should* have been when it was released over half a year ago. Now the pen works across all apps at least the same as your finger, and in a wide number of apps, you have features like pressure sensitivity and palm rejection. One of these HC apps, Quill, does such a fine job of smoothing the ink that it nearly rivals the experience of a Wacom digitizer.
There are pros and cons for going over to Honeycomb, so for those Flyer owners who haven't done it yet, definitely weigh the benefits (the XDA Developers website is a great resource for this). It really depends on what you use your Flyer for. I would imagine that if you're a heavy pen user like I am, it will be a much easier decision.