I’ve been putting off reviewing the WiiPad Slim Plus for months because I had a rather frustrating experience with the company distributing this 7 inch Android tablet, but while support for the product is virtually nil, it’s actually not a bad device. Don’t get me wrong, this $150 Android tablet isn’t in the same class as the Samsung Galaxy Tab or any number of Android tablets hitting the market in recent months. But it offers a much better user experience than the similarly priced Augen GenTouch78 which I picked up earlier this year.
The WiiPad Slim Plus appears to be a rebranded version of the Chinese Haipad M701 Android tablet. It as an 800MHz (or possibly 720MHz) Telechips 8902 ARM11 processor, 256MB of RAM, 2GB of storage space plus a microSD card slot for expansion, 802.11b/g WiFi, 2 mini-USB ports (although only one seems to actually do anything), a front-facing VGA camera, a G-sensor and a 7 inch, 800 x 480 pixel resistive touchscreen display.
When WiiPad sent me the tablet, it shipped with firmware that made using the device unpleasant at best, since there was no way to trigger Android’s “Home” function. The tablet which is designed to resemble a large iPhone has just three buttons: one on the front, and two on the side which are grouped together in a way that would suggest they’re volume buttons — but they’re not. Instead, those buttons act as Menu and Back buttons, while the button on the front turns the display on and off. There’s also a switch on the base of the tablet to completely power down the WiiPad Slim Plus.
After a lot of back and forth with WiiPad, I wound up replacing the firmware several times trying to turn the front button into a Home button with no luck. At one point WiiPad sent me a link to a ROM for the tablet which used Chinese characters, making it pretty tough for me to navigate the user interface.
Eventually I figured out that the WiiPad was a rebranded Haipad tablet and found a more up to date ROM from the HaiPad web site, adding a software-based Home button to the status bar. For the purposes of this review, I tested the device with the 9-18PM15 firmware, although I believe there are newer versions available.
Despite the name, the WiiPad Slim Plus doesn’t look anything like a Nintendo Wii or an iPad. In fact, it looks more like an oversized iPod touch, with a thin black bezel around the touchscreen display and a single iPhone-like button gracing the center of the bezel below the screen. But while the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch have glass screens, the WiiPad Slim Plus has a cheap plastic screen.
As I mentioned, while the center button looks like the Home button on an iOS device, it actually just turns the display on and off. I haven’t found any software that will turn it into an actual Android Home button yet.
On the bright side, unlike the iPad, the WiiPad Slim Plus has a front-facing camera. On the down side, it’s a pretty lousy VGA camera without auto-focus, LED flash, or much of anything else you’d really expect from a camera. Still, it lets you take photos, and may even let you video chat with your friends as long as you’re in a well lit room.
On the right side of the tablet there are two buttons that are attached in a way that makes them look like they should be volume up and down buttons, but these are actually the Back and Menu keys. Interestingly, the Home icon corresponds with the button assigned to Android’s Menu function, while the Menu icon is under the Back button.
At the bottom of the tablet you’ll find the microSD card slot, power jack, a headphone jack, two USB ports, and a power switch. If you flip the tablet over on its back you’ll find icons corresponding with these ports, as well as a slit near the top where the speaker lives.
There’s no easy way to remove the battery or other components, so what you see is pretty much what you get, with the micoSD card slot offering the only simple path to expansion.
Overall, the WiiPad Slim Plus has a cheap plastic look and feel when compared to higher end devices such as the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab. The glossy sheet of plastic covering the screen and bezel seems to rise a bit around the edges, and reflects quite a bit of glare under bright lighting. The viewing angles are pretty poor, which means you’ll want to hold the tablet so that you’re looking directly at the screen whether in portrait or landscape mode, instead of setting it down on a tablet or holding it at a 45 degree angle.
On the other hand, the 7 inch tablet feels reasonably good in the palm of one hand, and while the glossy plastic on the back is a bit slick, I never felt like I was going to drop the tablet while holding it in one hand. The back of the tablet is curved a bit, which means that the tablet is a bit thicker toward the center than around the edges, but overall the Slim Plus lives up to its name, measuring just about half an inch thick. It weighs just under 12 ounces.
The speaker is reasonably loud and clear, but the computer has an annoying habit of sending an ear-shattering bleep when you connect a USB cable or perform some other actions.
The resistive touchscreen is relatively responsive and reacts quite well to taps with a fingernail or stylus. You can also use your fingertip or thumbs with the touchscreen, but you’ll have to press a bit harder on the WiiPad Slim Plus display than you would on a device with a capacitive touchscreen display. This makes the on-screen keyboard a bit awkward to use with your thumbs, but easy enough to use if you tap out letters with a single fingernail instead of two thumbs.
The touch experience is worlds ahead of that on the Augen GenTouch78, but I’ve used more responsive resistive touchscreen displays. The Archos 32 resistive screen, for instance, responded well enough to thumb input that I could almost have mistaken it for a capacitive touchscreen. That’s not the case here.
There’s a G-sensor in the tablet which can handle automatic screen rotation, which isn’t quite as fast on the WiiPad Slim Plus as it is on my Google Nexus One smartphone, but screen rotation is infinitely smoother on the Slim Plus than the Augen GenTouch78, since the Augen tablet simply doesn’t support screen rotation at all.
Software, performance, and user experience
As far as cheap Android tablets go, there’s a lot to like about the WiiPad Slim Plus. It supports automatic screen rotation, comes with a fully functional Android Market app for downloading third party apps, and features a nice big display which is great for watching videos or reading web pages or eBooks.
On the other hand, there are some things about the WiiPad Slim Plus that are rather frustrating. It doesn’t have enough physical buttons to fully support the Google Android user interface, some apps insist on opening “upside down,” or at a 180 degree angle from the way you’re probably holding the tablet, and it gets horrible battery life.
Google Android devices typically have hardware buttons linked to Home, Back, Search, and Menu functions. While some devices have just three buttons instead of four, the function that’s usually dropped is Search, which isn’t as crucial for getting things done in Android as the others. The makers of this tablet left out the Search and Home functions — which means that before I updated the firmware on the tablet, the only way to exit an application was to keep hitting Back until I got to the home screen. Unfortunately, sometimes I didn’t want to actually close a web page, kill an app, or perform another function linked to the Back button, but I didn’t have a choice.
When I updated the firmware, I got a virtual Home button in the status bar at the top of the user interface, which helps most of the time. But some apps open in full screen, blocking the Status Bar altogether, which means I still have to use the Back button to exit.
Long-pressing the Home button on most Android devices will also bring up a list of recently used apps. That doesn’t work when you long-press the Home icon in the Status Bar on the WiiPad Slim Plus.
There are also no hardware buttons for controlling the tablet’s volume, which means you either need to go into the Settings menu to adjust the volume or use the volume up and down icons in the status bar. This isn’t quite as annoying as the lack of a Home button, but it can be a little furstrating.
Without a doubt, the button layout is the most frustrating thing about using the WiiPad Slim Plus for me, but there’s another problem which rivals it, and which may make this tablet a non-starter for other users: the battery life.
Most Android tablets and smartphones go into a low power mode when the display is off, allowing you to get very good battery life if you rarely turn on the screen to check your email, make a phone call, or perform some other action. While I’m lucky to get a full day of battery life from my Google Nexus One smartphone while regularly using it throughout the day, if I unplugged it and let it sit on a table, I have no doubt that the battery would last for at least 24 hours, and quite possibly much longer.
That’s not the case with the WiiPad Slim Plus. The tablet uses a fair amount of energy, even when the display is off. I unplugged it this morning at 6:00 AM and stuck it in my bag for three hours. When I took the tablet out and turned it on, the battery meter was down to 60%. You’ll be lucky if the battery lasts half a day while the WiiPad Slim Plus is unplugged even if you don’t touch the tablet.
The manufacturer does provide a partial solution for the battery drain. In addition to the circular button on the center of the bezel, there’s a switch on the bottom of the device which allows you to shut off the tablet altogether. This means you’ll have to wait a minute or two for the OS to boot from scratch when you turn it on, instead of pressing the circle button which brings the screen to life almost instantly. But it should also keep the battery from dying when you’re not using the tablet.
OK, if you’re still reading, there are a few things that make the WiiPad much more pleasant to use than some cheap Android tablets. It runs Android 2.1 and can handle many excellent third party apps, including the New York Times app, Dolphin Browser HD, and Angry Birds.
Some apps run better than others. For instance, while Angry Birds looked great on the 7 inch screen, my favorite Android tower defense game Robo Defense, featured rather jerky motion. I couldn’t get the 3D MMRPG Pocket Legends to load at all, but less resource-intensive apps seem to run pretty well.
One strange quirk is that some apps open upside down. For instance, when I downloaded the Google Books eBook app and the SpeedTest.net bandwidth testing app and tried to run them, they both started running at a 180 degree angle. I tried rotating the tablet to no effect, and ultimately just had to hold the device upside down in order to use these apps, which isn’t as bad as it sounds because the tablet looks almost the same upside down as it does right side up.
I found surfing the web using the default browser or third party browsers to be decent, and eBooks look reasonably good on the display as long as you’re looking straight at the device. As I mentioned in the design section, the viewing angles aren’t really good enough to hold the tablet at a sharp angle while you’re reading.
I tried playing a few videos using the YouTube app and they also looked great.
Unlike many cheap tablets, the WiiPad Slim Plus comes with a fully functioning version of the Android Market preloaded, which makes downloading and installing third party apps a snap. It looks like the manufacturer may have used a trick to get the Market to work. Typically Google doesn’t license the Android Market and other Google apps like Gmail and Google Maps to device makers that don’t meet certain requirements, including 3G access.
As far as I can tell, the WiiPad Plus doesn’t actually have a 3G modem, but when you dig into the wireless & network settings, it says the tablet is linked to China telecom, and there’s an E icon in the status bar most of the time, suggesting that it’s connected to an Edge network (when it’s not).
It’s possible that Google could get wise to this trick and disable Market access at some point, but for now it seems to work, meaning you don’t have to sideload apps or rely on a third party app store to install software on the WiiPad Slim Plus.
The 7 inch, 800 x 480 pixel resistive touchscreen display is reasonably responsive and while I found entering text using the on-screen keyboard to be a bit more of a chore on the WiiPad Slim Plus than on a device with a capacitive display, it wasn’t that bad. I wouldn’t want to write long emails or the great American novel on this tablet, but entering web addresses isn’t that painful.
For $150, I doubt you’ll find a better Android tablet than the WiiPad Slim Plus. But if you’re willing to spend more money, you really can get a much better device that doesn’t have the same kind of button layout problems, horrible battery management, and atrocious customer support.
I could certainly see this tablet coming in handy if you’re looking for a cheap device for surfing the web, reading eBooks, or watching some videos. If you’re looking for an all-purpose Android tablet, you can certainly do better.
As with the Samsung Galaxy Tab though, I can’t help but think that if you already have an Android smartphone that there’s not much need for this tablet. There’s absolutely nothing it can do that you can’t already do on a phone, and at least while the Galaxy Tab has a higher resolution 1024 x 600 pixel display, the WiiPad Slim Plus has the same 800 x 480 pixel resolution found on most recent Android phones… it’s just bigger, which means the screen is actually less sharp (although it might be easier to read for users with less than perfect eyesight).
On the other hand, unlike the Galaxy Tab, the WiiPad Plus doesn’t have a 3G modem, isn’t sold by US wireless carriers, and doesn’t carry a high price tag or a monthly data plan. So if you’re in the market for a second Android device, you could certainly do worse… and if you don’t already have an Android phone and want a cheap toy to play around with the Android experience, the Slim Plus might fit the bill.
Just to be clear: This tablet is not for everyone. It’s the sort of cheap piece of consumer electronics that a casual user may pick up because it looks a bit like an iPad, and then stop using after a week when its limitations become clear. But if you’re either looking for a device for very basic use, or if you’re a power user looking for a device to hack and customize, you could do worse.