Velocity Micro has been making Android tablets since 2010 — which in this fast-moving space makes the company one of the older players in the consumer tablet space. While Velocity Micro may not be a household name, the company has shipped over 500,000 tablets under its Cruz brand so far thanks to distributors including Best Buy, Radio Shack, and Amazon.
Most Cruz tablets so far have been decidedly second-tier products, lacking some of the features found in higher-end products from Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Samsung, and other companies. But by relying on cheaper components, Velocity Micro has kept prices low.
This fall the company launched two new tablets which are actually well positioned to compete with budget tablets from Lenovo, ViewSonic and Amazon thanks to decent features and low prices. The company loaned me $200 Velocity Micro Cruz T408 and $300 Cruz T410 tablets to review and while they’re hardly perfect devices, they’re not bad products for the price.
Both tablets provide a decent web browsing experience, work reasonably well for playing music or movies, and can run thousands of third party apps including popular Android games.
The screens could be better, the processors could be faster, and the speakers could be louder. But unlike some earlier budget tablets I’ve reviewed, Velocity Micro’s latest budget devices get good battery life, offer decent performance, and most importantly are actually fun to use.
In this review I’m going to take an in-depth look at the Cruz T408 tablet. A review of the T410 will follow soon.
The Velocity Micro Cruz T408 tablet has an 8 inch, 800 x 600 pixel capacitive touchscreen LCD display with support for multitouch gestures. While many Android tablets have widescreen displays and are clearly designed to be held in landscape orientation, the T408 screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio and feels at least as comfortable in portrait mode as landscape.
The tablet has a 1 GHz Samsung ARM Cortex-A8 single core processor. It’s not exactly the same as the Samsung Hummingbird chip used in the original Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 inch tablet and Samsung Galaxy S smartphones… but it’s quite similar.
While the Cruz T408 is a budget tablet with 512MB of RAM and just 4GB of storage, there is a microSD card slot for expansion and the tablet does have a gyroscope and 802.11n WiFi. There’s a front-facing camera, but not rear camera.
Out of the box, there’s about 450MB of space available for installing apps, and another 2.5GB for storing media and other files.
You don’t get Android 3.2 Honeycomb with Velocity Micro’s latest tablet. Instead it runs Google Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which is designed for smartphones. But it plays reasonably well with the 8 inch screen and the company says the operating system is upgradable — which means that we may see Ice Cream Sandwich on the tablet after Google releases the source code for Android 4.0.
The tablet also doesn’t include the Google Android Market or the usual suite of Google apps such as Gmail or Google Maps. Instead it ships with the Amazon Appstore for Android pre-loaded. You can also use other third party app stores or sideload apps downloaded from the internet (or transfered from your phone). Most apps I’ve installed on the tablet have run without problems.
The tablet measures 8.5″ x 6.5″ x 0.4″ and weighs about a pound. I find that it’s much easier to hold in one hand while reading eBooks or surfing the web than a heavier tablet such as the 9.7 inch HP TouchPad.
On the other hand, the 800 x 600 pixel display isn’t nearly as sharp as, say, the 800 x 480 pixel display on my smartphone. If you’re looking for a tablet with a high pixel density for great-looking photos or videos, you might want to look elsewhere.
The screen has a glossy finish and it will reflect some glare when used outdoors or under bright lighting — but it’s not that glossy and I found the tablet reasonably easy to use while sitting next to the window of a coffee shop and reading an eBook.
Unfortunately the viewing angles aren’t that good. When the tablet is sitting on a table, I have a hard time viewing pictures or text from a chair. You can tilt the screen back a bit while holding it in portrait mode without the colors starting to wash out — but in landscape mode you really need to look at the tablet straight on — although as you can see from the image above and the one below, some angles are better than others.
Around the sides of the screen is a shiny black plastic bezel which actually reflects more glare than the screen. The bezel is also a a bit of a fingerprint and smudge magnet.
While “edge to edge” glass displays are becoming the norm for tablets, the Cruz T408′s display is inset a little below the bezel.
At the top of the bezel is the Cruz logo, and to its right you’ll find the front-facing camera and two status LEDs. One of these will light up when the tablet is charging, and I’m not entirely sure what the other does.
There’s a tiny microphone built into the bottom of the bezel. Thanks to the camera and mic you can use the Cruz T408 to make voice or video calls — but since there’s no rear-facing camera it would be difficult to use this tablet to snap photos or shoot videos.
At the top of the device you’ll find a mini-USB jack, a microSD card slot, and a headphone jack.
There are only three buttons on the tablet. On the right side you’ll find a power button and volume up and down buttons. Other Android function buttons for home, back, menu, and search functions are built into the tablet’s software.
If you’ve spent a lot of time with other tablets or smartphones, it might take a while to get used to pressing the power button on the side of the Cruz T408. Usually power buttons are located on the top of a device, further away from the volume buttons. If this is your first tablet though, I suspect you won’t have any problems in this department.
The back of the tablet has a matte finish which doesn’t reflect glare or show fingerprints. It’s not as pretty as the shiny black plastic on the front and sides of the device, but I kind of which the entire tablet was covered in the same material as the back. It’s also less slippery than the glossy plastic, which helps you keep a grip on the tablet.
There’s a tiny speaker built into the back of the tablet. It doesn’t get very loud, but if you’re in a quiet room it should provide enough volume for watching video or listening to music without headphones.
Velocity Micro clearly doesn’t expect users to open up the case. There are no screws and no obvious way to open the tablet without prying it apart and likely voiding the warranty. Since the battery is tucked away under the hood, it means there’s also no easy way to replace the battery without sending the tablet back for repair. Fortunately the T408 gets reasonably good battery life.
The Cruz T408 tablet ships with Google Android 2.3 Gingerbread. It’s a version of Android designed to run on smartphone rather than tablets. Right now there really aren’t all that many apps designed specifically for Android 3.0 and up, so most Android software runs pretty well on the Cruz T408.
I tested games, web browsers,office suites, and video apps and only had problems running one app. For the most part, if an app supports Android 2.3 doesn’t rely on hardware that the tablet doesn’t have (such as GPS or SMS capabilities), the Cruz T408 can run it.
On the other hand there are a few quirks that set this tablet apart from most other Android devices. First, there are no physical buttons for home, back, search, or menu functions. Instead Velocity Micro has desgined a custom toolbar which shows up at the top of most screens, showing software versions of these buttons as well as the time, battery meter, and any notification alerts.
The advantage this system is that the toolbar will show up at the top of the screen no matter how you’re holding the tablet. You can grip it in landscape or portrait mode, or even flip the tablet 180 degrees and the toolbar will always be at the top. If the buttons were built into the screen bezel this wouldn’t be true — and you might have a hard time reaching the buttons.
The bad news is that from time to time that toolbar will interfere with apps you’re running.
For instance, one of the first things I tried to do with the Cruz T408 was fire up the Amazon Kindle app to read eBooks. The app comes preinstalled on the tablet, and the 7 inch, 600 x 800 pixel display is just about the perfect size for reading books.
Unfortunately, the app wants to run in full-screen mode and hide the toolbar. In order to bring it up again and hit the back or home button, you have to tap the center of the screen. But you also turn pages in eBooks by tapping on the left or right side ot the display. I’d say I accidentally brought up the toolbar at least three times out of ten while trying to turn pages — and when the toolbar shows up in the Kindle app, it covers the top row or two of text, which means you have to wait a few seconds for it to go away before you can continue reading.
This isn’t a problem in most apps, but since the Kindle app actually comes with the tablet, I was surprised to see the toolbar interfere with it.
The other thing you really need to know about the Cruz T408 is that it does not come with the Google Android Market or other Google apps such as Gmail or Google Maps. Instead it ships with the Amazon Appstore. That means that out of the box you get an app store that lets you choose from around 18,000 apps. That’s not bad… by BlackBerry or webOS standards. But it’s a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of apps available in the official Android Market.
If there’s an app that’s not available from Amazon that you really want to run, there my be ways to install it anyway. You could try using a different app store. There are more than a dozen alternatives to Amazon’s offering.
You could also try scouring the web for the APK installer file for the app you’re looking for.
More advanced users can also copy apps from an Android smartphone. To do this you will probably need a rooted smartphone and a utility that lets you create backups of your apps. I used Titanium Backup to do this. Then I manually copied a few apps to the Cruz tablet for testing purposes.
Long story short, I had absolutely no problems running Angry Birds, Dolphin Browser HD, Fruit Ninja, Netflix, OfficeSuite Pro, or TuneIn Radio. I had the same problem with word game Wixel Lite that I have on most tablets — it’s optimized for 800 x 480 pixel and lower resolution displays, so the screen layout looks a little off-kilter on the Cruz T408. But it looks much better on this tablet than on devices with even higher resolution displays.
Clearly, you can chalk that problem up to the app rather than the tabet, or even the operating system. It simply wasn’t optimized for this screen size.
The Netflix app ran beautifully on the tablet, allowing me to login to my account and stream high quality videos without any difficulty. The only catch is that Netflix isn’t available from the Amazon Appstore — so if you don’t happen to have a rooted Android phone you may have a difficult time figuring out how to download and install the app yourself.
The one app I tried which didn’t run properly was Doodle Jump, a simple game that involves jumping from platform to platform by tilting your tablet or smartphone to the left or right. For some reason the start screen is hard to navigate on the Cruz T408 — in order to hit the “play” button, or enter settings or other areas you need to tap a half inch above the button you want to press. Once you do manage to start a game, it’s as easy to play on the tablet as on any other Android device.
This doesn’t appear to be a screen calibration issue, because I’ve found the touchscreen to be very accurate when I use any other app.
The Cruz T408 tablet comes with Adobe Flash Player 10.3 preloaded as well as Quickoffice, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube apps, as well as a few games and other apps.
Velocity Micro has also added a custom skin to the system settings, giving the menus a white background and custom icons that are a little different from what you’ll find on most Android 2.3 devices.
In a moment I’m going to show you the results of some benchmark tests — but before we get to that, I should remind you of a few things:
- The Velocity Micro Cruz T408 costs $199 — or less tan half as much as some of the more powerful tablets I’ve tested and reviewed.
- The Cruz T408 was able to run virtually every app I threw at it without complaint.
While the Cruz T408 certainly isn’t the fastest Android tablet around, it turns out you don’t need the fastest tablet around to play video, stream music, surf the web reasonably quickly, or play most Android games.
As more powerful apps hit the market and take advantage of the features in newer tablets, that will likely change. But for right now, there’s not a huge performance app between a pretty good tablet like the Cruz T408 and a very good tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1.
OK, that said, I did run a few benchmarks which are designed to test theoretical performance.
The CF-Bench test looks at overall CPU and graphics performance. I pitted the Velocity Cruz Micro T408 against the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet with a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor and Android 3.2 operating system the HP TouchPad with a 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snadpragon dual core CPU running CyanogenMod’s Android 2.3 alpha.
As you can see, both dual core tablets trounced the Cruz T408. Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to run this test on the original Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 inch tablet when I reviewed it last year though — it also had a 1 GHz Samsung ARM Cortex-A8 single core chip.
While 2195 is a relatively low score on this test, I’ll repeat that the tablet doesn’t feel particularly slow — especially when compared to truly low performance tablets such as the Augen GenTouch78 and WiiPad Slim Plus (which I regrettably reviewed before I started running benchmarks on Android tablets).
For comparison’s sake, my Google Nexus One smartphone gets a 2560 on the same test.
Next up, I looked at a slightly older test of overall performance, called SmartBench.
SmartBench offers two different scores — an overall score and a gaming score. While the Cruz T408 notched the lowest overall score of any of the devices tested in this benchmark, it actually came out ahead of the TouchPad in the gaming benchmark. I wouldn’t read too much into that though… the TouchPad is running alpha software, after all.
I also threw in the HTC Flyer tablet for this test. It has a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon single core processor and runs Google Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
But for under $200, the Velocity Cruz Micro certainly offers good enough performance for most tasks. Unfortunately what it doesn’t provide is great battery life.
I only managed to get 4 hours and 1 minute of run time while streaming music from Pandora with the screen turned on and set to maximum brightness the whole time. Once the battery level dipped below 10 percent, the WiFi turned off and there was no way to turn it back on, so if you need internet access, you should probably subtract a few minutes from that estimate.
You could probably improve battery life by dimming the screen, and you can certainly get more run time by turning off the display altogether. But the battery will probably run down more quickly if you’re performing CPU-intensive tasks such as playing games.
For listening to music, surfing the web, or reading eBooks, I’d say four hours is about as good as it’s going to get. That’s certainly better than some budget Android tablets, but it pales in comparison to tablet such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 or HTC Flyer which can run for 10 hours or more on a charge.
Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Cruz T408′s performance. It could certainly get better battery life, and the poor screen viewing angles could be problematic in some situations — especially if you want to watch movies or look at photos with a friend, but for $200 you could certainly do worse.
Velocity Micro also touts its US-based customer support as a selling point, but I haven’t had a chance to test that out. Still, if you’re the sort of person who’d rather not deal with internationally outsourced support services, that’s something you might like to know.
But while I would have been ecstatic to find a tablet this good for $200 last year, the Cruz T408 faces pretty stiff competition this year. Amazon, Lenovo, ViewSonic, Kobo, and a number of other companies are all putting out devices with similar features for similar prices this fall.
Velocity Micro is positioning the Cruz T408 as a bargain since it costs about $200 less than a tier one Android tablet — but that’s because it’s not a tier one device.
While it’s reasonably snappy and handles most apps, it has a relatively low resolution display with poor viewing angles. It notches lower scores on benchmarks than many higher-end tablets, which suggests that as developers write apps that do require a little more horsepower, the Cruz T408 may not be able to keep up.
The tablet also ships with Android 2.3 instead of the newer Android 3.2 Honeycomb operating system — although Velocity Micro says its tablet will be upgradeable, so there’s a chance you may eventually be able to run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on the Cruz T408.
Most importantly, since this isn’t a Google certified device, it doesn’t come with the Google suite of apps — including the Android Market. While the Amazon Appstore is probably the best alternate marketplace for Android apps around, the selection is very, very limited right now and I had a hard time finding some of my favorite apps.
Ironically, the Cruz T408 user experience might get better once the Amazon Kindle Fire hits the market. Amazon is expected to ship millions of tablets, and that will provide a strong incentive for developers to add their apps to the Amazon Appstore. Once that happens, tablets like the Cruz T408 which also use Amazon’s alternative to the Android Market will be also have a much wider selection of apps to download.
Somehow I doubt Amazon cares… as long as you’re downloading apps from Amazon the company is still getting a cut of revenue. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re using an Amazon tablet to do it or not.
But unless you really want a more standard Android user interface than the Kindle will provide, with a home screen and support for widgets, I can’t think of a lot of reasons why you would spend $200 on the Cruz T408 instead of the Kindle Fire which will have a faster processor and higher quality display.
The Velocity Micro Cruz T408 is a good budget Android tablet. I’m just not sure it’s a good enough budget Android tablet.