If you stuck me on a desert island and handed me a stack of paper and an unlimited supply of pens and pencils, I would probably attempt to fashion a typewriter out of rocks, sticks, and mud. My handwriting is bad enough that I’ve often been told that I should have been a doctor. I have a hard time reading things I’ve written myself, and my signature barely passes for lettering at all.
Yet somehow I find myself writing for a living. Keyboards have made that possible. I can type a hundred words per minute on a good keyboard, and every word is clearly legible, a few typos here and there notwithstanding.
It’s not just that my handwriting is bad that drives me toward keyboards, printed text, and ultimately the digital word though. It’s the fact that pen and paper writing isn’t easily indexable and searchable. When I was a kid I kept a journal. I filled volumes of paper, and while I can sift through it by date to see what I thought of junior high school at the time, I can’t search by an old friends’ name or a particular meal my grandmother used to make.
Touchscreen devices such as smartphones and tablets represent an interesting crossroads between a computer interface and a pen and paper interface. When I started using Windows Mobile PDA devices 10 years ago, I thought I would find it easier to tap out letters using the on-screen keyboard and a stylus to use the handwriting recognition software. But you know what? Even though my handwriting is so bad that it could pass for abstract art, Windows Mobile actually did a pretty good job of recognizing what I was trying to write and translating my scribbles into real numbers and letters. It wasn’t as fast as typing on a laptop — or even making chicken scratch markings on a piece of paper, but the end result was printed text that could easily be indexed, searched, copied, pasted, or printed.
Over the past few years there’s been a move away from the stylus in mobile computing. You can pretty much blame the iPhone for that. Or thank the iPhone. Some people never liked the idea of a stylus — a separate piece of equipment that you needed to use a PDA or Windows tablet effectively, and which was always a little too easy to misplace or lose. Enter the iPhone, with it’s all-touch display, on-screen keyboard, and support for finger input and multi-touch.
A lot of people laughed when the iPhone was introduced, figuring there was no way an on-screen keyboard could be as good as the physical keyboard on mobile devices such as BlackBerries. And they were kind of right. Some people still prefer a tactile sensation when pressing a key. But it turns out the iPhone keyboard has been pretty good since day one. Not only does it offer keys that are just large enough to be easy to press, but the keyboard follows you whether you hold the phone in landscape or portrait orientation. Certain apps will require different forms of input, and the keyboard can change to meet your needs, showing .com or @ symbols when appropriate.
Apple isn’t alone in the virtual keyboard space anymore. Google, Windows Phone, webOS, and even BlackBerry all have them. It turns out they’re even more useful on a tablet-sized device. You can actually touch-type using all 10 fingers (or at least 8 of them) on an iPad. And thumb typing in portrait mode on a 7 inch tablet is so much faster and easier than on a 3.5 inch smartphone that it almost makes 2-finger typing look like a viable option again.
That brings us to the HTC Flyer. It’s a mobile tablet with an excellent on-screen keyboard, a larger-than-smartphone 7 inch display which makes typing easy and which makes reading web pages or watching movies a very different experience, and an optional digital pen. That’s right, you can use the tablet with only your fingers or with a pen.
There’s one big problem with this dual-input system: the tablet runs Google Android, an operating system that really wasn’t designed for a stylus or pen. It turns out that even if you shell out the extra cash for an optional pen, you might not find yourself using it very often. But there are a few apps where it can be very useful — especially if you’re the sort of person who prefers writing to typing. I’m not, but having talked with some folks who are, I can see why the Flyer makes sense for them.
For everyone else, here’s the short version of the rest of this review: The Flyer is a very good 7 inch tablet with a sturdy build quality, decent software, and very responsive performance. It’s also rather expensive because even if you don’t buy the optional $80 digital pen, the $500 tablet has an active digitizer built-in which is designed to work with that accessory, driving up the cost of components. If HTC was going to make the pen optional, I don’t see why the company didn’t also make the digitizer optional.
The HTC Flyer features a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon single core processor, a 7 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel capacitive touchscreen display and an N-Trig digitizer. The tablet has 1GB of RAm and 16GB of storage. There’s also a microSD card slot for additional storage.
There’s a 5MP camera on the back with auto focus capabilities and a 1.3MP front-facing camera.
The WiFi model supports 802.11b/g/n wireless networks and Bluetooth 3.0. It hasa GPS antenna, G-sensor, digital compass and ambient light sensor.
The device includes native support for a variety of media formats including Xvid, WMV, MP4, OGG, MP3, WMA, and WAV.
The tablet runs Google Android 2.3.3 with a heavily modified user interface courtesy of HTC Sense. While you might think that the Android 2.x operating system and single core processor would put the HTC Flyer at a disadvantage when pitted against the latest devices with Dual Core processors and Android 3.x Honeycomb, the Flyer is one of the fastest Android devices I’ve tested to date. I’ll get into this a bit more in the performance section, but in a nutshell, the Flyer matches or exceeds the Motorola XOOM in most benchmarks.
The Flyer measures 7.7″ x 4.8″ x 0.52″ and weighs 14.8 ounces, or about 0.93 pounds. I’ve handled Android tablets that felt lighter. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 inch tablet, for instance , weighs about 13.6 ounces. But the HTC Flyer feels pretty good in your hand thanks to aluminum and plastic case design.
That said, I’ve been reading eBooks in bed on a 3.5 ounce iPod touch for the past year and my arm has never fallen asleep from holding the little little gadget. The first time I tried to read an eBook on the HTC Flyer my arm fell asleep. 14.8 ounces might be reasonably light when compared with larger tablets such as the Motorola XOOM, Asus Eee Pad Transformer, or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, but the Flyer isn’t exactly a featherweight.
Another thing to note is that while the tablet is more comfortable to hold in a single hand than larger 10 inch devices, one-handed navigation is somewhat awkward. I’ve grown accustomed to sitting at the breakfast table each morning and reading the news on my smartphone. I can do this by holding the phone in one hand and flipping through pages and pressing links with my thumb while using my free hand to handle my food and coffee. Like its larger 10 inch tablet siblings, the HTC Flyer is just a little too large to do this comfortably. Instead it’s easiest to hold the tablet in one hand and use the other to navigate.
The tablet has a 1024 x 600 pixel display which gives it a higher resolution than most Android smartphones, but a lower resolution than newer tablets running Google Android 3.x Honeycomb. Most smartphone apps scale up properly to fit on the larger display, but some apps appear to be just a bit too busy when there’s extra room for more text, more menus, or more pictures.
While most 10 inch Android tablets feel like they’re designed to be held in landscape most of the time, the Flyer is well balanced and well designed for use in either portrait or landscape orientation. The tablet is easy to hold in one hand when you grip the bottom edge in either orientation. If you have large enough hands you can also reach across the back and grip the Flyer like a very large phone in portrait mode.
There are two sets of capacitive touch buttons built into the bezel around the display. In portrait mode, one set of buttons lights up. When you rotate the device those buttons will go dark and landscape buttons light up.
The front-facing camera is in the center of one of the long sides of the tablet. It works best in landscape mode, but it’s positioned so that you can shoot video or engage in a video chat in any orientation. Likewise, the rear camera is located at the of the tablet when you hold it vertically, but you can hold the device any way you like to snap a photo.
There are only three hardware buttons built into the sides of the HTC Flyer — a power button and two volume buttons. On the top edge next to the power button there’s a headset jack. And at the bottom of the device is a USB port. Unfortunately HTC uses a non-standard USB connector, so you’ll need to get the appropriate cable if you want a spare or two.
The glossy display is bright and offers excellent viewing angles, with colors looking good when you view the tablet from the left, right, top or bottom. It also looks surprisingly good in direct sunlight — but not perfect. If I had a choice between reading an Amazon Kindle or Nook outdoors on a sunny day or the HTC Flyer, a dedicated eBook reader with an E Ink display would win hands-down.
You can find the reasonably loud and clear stereo speakers on the back of the tablet. If you’ve noticed that there’s no microSD card slot around the edges, that’s because it’s hidden below that white piece of plastic covering the camera. You can press your thumbs against the plastic door and slide upward to remove the panel and access the card reader. I had to press quite firmly to do this and it’s the kind of thing you’re not going to want to do very often, because as sturdy as the tablet is, it feels like you’re liable to break something if you push too hard.
It feels a bit silly to call the HTC Flyer a bit on the chunky side. It only measures about half an inch thick, after all. But thin is in these days, and when compared with the Apple iPad 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 which are closer to a third of an inch thick, the Flyer does actually seem a bit fat. Part of that is due to the plastic bump at the bottom of the device which gives you something to grip. Without it, the tablet would be mostly smooth aluminum on the black and shiny glass on the front, so it’s nice to have something to hold onto so the tablet doesn’t fall out of your hands.
The 7 inch form factor is a mixed bag. On the one hand, tablets in this size class are small enough that some people can successfully slide them into a pocket, and they definitely take up less space in a purse, briefcase, or backpack than a 10 inch tablet. But the same can be said of a 4 inch smartphone. Since the HTC Flyer runs similar software, you might be wondering why you would bother spending $500 on a device that’s basically an oversized phone.
There are a few good reasons to consider the Flyer. One is that while there’s not an enormous difference between a 4 inch screen and a 7 inch display, you can fit more content on the Flyer’s higher resolution screen. That’s true for web pages, newspapers, eBooks, and just about any app that supports the 1024 x 600 pixel screen. A second reason is that some content would look better on a larger screen even if the Flyer didn’t have a higher display resolution than most phones. If you’ve ever tried looking at Facebook photos or watching YouTube videos on your phone with a friend, you might appreciate a 7 inch or larger tablet.
But there’s another feature which makes the HTC Flyer stand out from pretty much every other 7 inch tablet.
The Digital Pen
For $79.99 you can pick up an optional digital pen to use with the HTC Flyer. At least that’s the case in the US. HTC is expected to bundle the tablet and pen together for sale in other regions. Honestely, that makes a lot more sense, because the tablet-free version of the Flyer that retails for $499.99 in the US includes all the hardware you need to use the pen. There’s an active digitizer and a set of buttons built into the bezel for triggering pen functions. If HTC was going to offer a version of the Flyer without a pen, the company should have stripped out those features as well and cut $50 or $100 off the price.
Fortunately I didn’t have to spend $580 to try out the pen. HTC loaned me a demo unit to test for a few weeks, so while I still think the system is overpriced compared with other tablets, I can tell you how it works.
Unlike Windows tablets and Windows Phone devices of yore, you don’t navigate the HTC Flyer with a pen or stylus. Instead you use your fingers to tap, swipe, drag, pinch, and perform all the other touch-based Android gestures we’ve come to know and love. Tapping an icon or hyperlink with the pen will not cause a program to launch or a web page to open.
There are two ways to use the pen. You can tap a little green icon on the bezel next to the “back” button with the pen to bring up a context menu which lets you launch the Evernote app or you can tap anywhere on the display to create a screenshot which you can then write or draw on.
The screenshot app is called Scribble and it allows you to do thins like save a photo, picture of a web site, or high score in a game, write a note on top, save it, and share it with your friends. You can do this from almost any application on the Flyer.
I suppose this is something you might want to do from time to time, but it’s a bit strange that this is the default action when you tap the screen with the pen. In order to actually save, share, print, or discard the snapshot once you’ve put your mark on it, you have to tap the screen with your fingertip to bring up a context menu. It feels a bit odd to keep switching back and forth between finger and stylus input.
The good news is that since the only way to draw or write on the screen is by using the pen, you can place your palm on the screen as you write. Scribble, Evernote, or other applications might bring up context menus, but you won’t cause a big palm-shaped smudge in the picture. The bad news is that there’s no handwriting recognition support, so the tablet won’t turn your scribbles into searchable text.
That might not matter so much in the Scribble app, but the HTC Flyer has one almost-killer app for pen input: Evernote. When you want to create a note, just tap the little green pen icon to the right of the home, menu, and back buttons with the pen. This icon won’t react to finger input. You have to use the pen to bring up a context menu. From there, you can either take a screenshot using Scribble or open the Evernote app.
Evernote is an online note keeping service that lets you store photos, notes, web pages and all sorts of other content. The mobile app that comes preloaded on the HTC Flyer lets you draw or write a note, type using the on-screen keyboard, record a voice memo, or attach a picture, audio or video file, document, or other file. You can either access your files locally or if you login to an Evernote account your files will all be synchronized with the online Evernote service.
It’s actually pretty cool to be able to write a note and know that it will be available from the Evernote web site almost instantly. And while the HTC Flyer doesn’t have any built-in handwriting recognition, Evernote does. It’s not very good, but it’s there. I uploaded three different short handwritten notes to the service and searched for text that I had written. My handwriting is pretty bad, but I was surprised that Evernote literally failed to recognize most of the word’s I searched for.
You can adjust the pen styles and “ink” colors by tapping the pen icon when you’re using the Evernote or Scribble apps. There are also two buttons on the pen itself. You can press one to highlight text or hold the other two use the stylus as digital eraser rather than a pen.
I haven’t spent a lot of time using tablets with active digitizers, but I have to say I’m not all that impressed with the inking experience on the HTC Flyer. While it does support pressure-sensitive input you have to press quite hard to get a thicker brush stroke, although some pen styles are more sensitive than others. Scraping a piece of plastic across a smooth glass screen also doesn’t feel anything like using a pen or pencil on paper, so it might just be something that takes a little getting used to.
If you prefer taking handwritten notes to using an on-screen keyboard in general, the Flyer’s note-taking application could be a major selling point for this tablet. But if you’re hoping for handwriting recognition or complete control of the device using a pen instead of a finger, the Flyer may not be for you.
Honestly, I didn’t find the pen features all that helpful, but I did speak to one Flyer owner recently who says he used to burn through two notepads per week taking old-school paper notes. He absolutely loves the pen input features of the Flyer which not only let him put his thoughts into digital ink right away, but which also sync those thoughts with his Evernote account making it easy to access them from any computer.
I could probably write a book on the small differences between the HTC Sense software used on the HTC Flyer and the basic Android software you get with some Android phones and tablets. There’s a lot to take in if, like me, you’ve mostly spent your time with vanilla Android devices such as the Google Nexus One and Motorola XOOM. Some of the extra features feel like overkill, but others are quite nice. And while some features look complicated, HTC actually makes them easy to understand.
For instance, my wife has been borrowing my Windows Mobile, iOS, and Android handheld devices for years. She’s never had a hard time trying to figure out how to turn them on. But when she picked up the Motorola XOOM a few weeks ago it took her a few moments to find the power button and even longer than that to figure out what gesture she needed to perform to unlock the display.
The first time she picked up the HTC Flyer she was up and running in a few seconds. The power button is easy to find at the top of the device, and while the lock screen looks kind of confusing, when you tap the screen you’ll see instructions telling you what you’re supposed to do. You can either drag one of the icons on the lock screen to the ring at the bottom to launch them right away, or pull at the ring to go to the home screen.
While most Android smartphones can be used in landscape or portrait mode, the home screen is usually locked in portrait orientation. That’s not true for the HTC Flyer, which has a home screen that adjusts depending on how you’re holding the tablet.
HTC has also developed its own version of the notification bar. As on other Android 1.x and 2.x devices, you simply pull down from the top of the display to see details status messages from any apps trying to get your attention. But the Sense UI also provids you with a list of apps you’ve run recently and a Quick Settings tab which you can use to adjust the screen brightness, auto-rotation, and wireless settings.
Sense also features several unique home screen widgets. An HTC staple is the time and weather widget which is placed on the primary home screen by default. Tapping the time or weather portion of this widget will bring up full screen clock or weather apps which look amazing on the Flyer’s 600 x 1024 pixel display.
There’s also a social widget called FriendStream which displays the latest updates from your Facebook and Twitter contacts, a Mail widget, a larger weather widget, and “My Shelf” for displaying a list of ebooks in the HTC Flyer’s Reader app, just to name a few more widgets. You can remove any widgets you don’t need and replace them with widgets or icons of your choosing.
The web browser has all the basic features we’ve come to expect from WebKit-based mobile browsers. It loads pages quickly and supports pinching or double-tapping to zoom. Pages load quickly and look great on the 7 inch tablet with a netbook-like screen resolution. Some pages which are formatted for mobile devices look a little funny on the browser’s higher-than-typical resolution display, but I found that double-tapping on the Google Reader or Gmail mobile web apps actually allowed me to zoom in and get a more phone-like view. When you actually visit those web sites on most Android phone browsers, zooming isn’t supported.
This isn’t quite the standard Android browser. HTC has added a custom toolbar to the top with a search button (to make up for the lack of a search button at the bottom of the tablet), a tab icon, and buttons for creating or viewing bookmarks.
When you tap the tab button you’re not redirected to a whole new screen the way you are with some other Android browsers. Instead the browser window is pushed down a bit and a new bar opens up showing thumbnail icons of all the pages that are currently open. You can close pages from this window or create new pages. For some annoying reason switching windows doesn’t automatically minimize the tab bar though. You need to do that manually. Other than that minor quirk though, the web browser is great. I didn’t feel the need to install a third party browser at all during the three weeks I was testing the Flyer — although if you want support for bookmark and password synchronization, add-ons, or other features you might still prefer Dolphin Browser HD or Firefox Mobile.
The on-screen keyboard has nice large keys that make thumb-typing a quite easy, especially in portrait mode. If you’ve ever found a 4 inch or smaller smartphone to be just too small for comfortable two-thumb typing, the Flyer could be the perfect answer. The keyboard looks kind of busy thanks to all the special functions mapped to each key. But if you can look past that, typing is a breeze — and the fact that you can tap and hold any key to bring up a number or symbol instead of hitting the special character button first makes things go a little faster.
I also really like the arrow keys located below the keyboard. Early Android phones shipped with a trackball which you could use when composing text to go back a few letters without fumbling with the screen using your big fat finger. Most recent phones don’t have trackballs, which makes precise text editing a little more difficult. The arrow keys more than make up for the lack of a trackball here, allowing you to easily go forward, backward, up or down line by line or character by character.
The keyboard is also reasonably good for thumb-typing in landscape mode, but it’s not nearly wide enough for comfortable 10-finger typing. I have yet to find an Android tablet that matches the Apple iPad in this respect. It’s the only touchscreen tablet I’ve found so far that lets me type almost as well as I could on a physical keyboard.
HTC’s Reader application offers a good experience for reading digital books. It supports Adobe DRM, which means you can read books purchased from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or a number of other stores — but not Amazon. You can also read digital library books using the OverDrive system. The Reader app allows you to adjust screen brightness, font sizes, and background colors among other things. But one of the coolest features is the ability to take notes using the digital pen.
Reader allows you to highlight text or scribble notes in the margins (or on top of any page in a book). This is one application where tapping the screen with the pen doesn’t automatically create a screenshot. Instead, you can start writing or highlight right away.
While your handwritten notes won’t be converted to text which means they aren’t searchable per se, the app does allow you to see a list of annotated pages, which could make it even easier to find highlighted or marked up pages than it would be if you were flipping through a physical book. This feature alone could make the case for using the HTC Flyer or a device like it as a digital textbook reader.
One more app that makes good use of the digital pen is Polaris Office, which lets you open office and PDF documents and take notes with a digital pen. You can also save documents as new files after taking notes.
This lets you do things like sign contracts on the HTC Flyer quite nicely. In fact, it’s probably a more elegant way to digitally sign a document than my default method which involves printing a page, signing it with a pen, then scanning it as a new PDF file.
HTC also offers an online video store called “Watch” which allows you to purchase or rent TV shows and movies. But the selection is pretty small at the moment and the prices aren’t all that impressive.
Once I spent some time with the HTC Sense software I grew to appreciate it — but after three weeks there are still personalization options and other features I haven’t even tried. Like I said, there’s a lot to take in, but you can do it at your own pace because Sense doesn’t feel like it’s demanding your attention all the time — and anything that could be confusing, like figuring out how to unlock your device or use the stylus for the first time is explained by the software itself.
I do have one minor issue with Sense though: It’s yet another layer of software that you need to create an account for. It’s nice that HTC can save your account preferences online so that you can get quickly up to speed if you acquire another HTC device. But Google already does that when you login with your Google ID. It also feels cumbersome that even if you login to the official Twitter and Facebook apps on your device, you still need to login again in order to link the FriendStream social widget to your social networking accounts. But honestly, this isn’t that big a deal. It’s something you go through once and then forget about. In fact, I had to look up my notes while writing this review before I remembered that I was annoyed by the setup process a few weeks ago.
Here’s what you need to know about the HTC Flyer’s overall performance: It’s fast. In fact, the Flyer is one of the fastest Android tablets with an ARM-based processor on the market today. While it has a single core chip at a time when some companies are pushing dual core chips, the core count isn’t everything. The HTC Flyer with a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor managed to best a Motorola XOOM with a 1 GHz NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual core processor in most of the benchmarks I threw at it:
These benchmarks are often criticized for their inability to measure real-world performance, but when you combine a few artificial benchmarks you at least get a tool for comparing two devices.
In day to day use, the HTC Flyer never felt slow or unresponsive. The screen rotates from portrait to landscape mode about as quickly as it would on an Android phone — which is to say perhaps not quite quickly enough for my tastes, but a little faster than the Motorola XOOM.
The speakers are reasonably loud and clear, especially when compare with the speakers on a typical Android phone. But don’t expect to hear much bass. These are tiny speakers tucked into a device that’s just half an inch thick, after all.
It’s tough to gauge the battery life of an ARM-based tablet, because things can vary quite widely depending on whether you’re listening to music with the screen off, watching HD videos, or doing something in between such as surfing the web occasionally throughout the day. But I’ve seen reports of people getting up to 12 hours of run time while using the tablet heavily, and I have to say I believe them. I used the Flyer lightly for several days at a time without plugging it in, and the battery meter was still more than half full.
You’re not going to get Barnes & Noble NOOK or Amazon Kindle-like battery life with weeks or months between charges. But I wouldn’t worry about taking a cross-country, or even international flight with the HTC Flyer and running out of juice while reading eBooks or even watching a movie or two.
The HTC Flyer may be the best 7 inch Android tablet on the market today. It has a fast processor, excellent build quality, and a good display. It also has some features you won’t find on any other tablet including the HTC Sense user interface and an optional digital pen.
But there are a few things to consider before forking over $500 or more on this tablet.
- There are only a handful of things you can actually do with the digital pen, and while you’re using it you’ll have to constantly shuffle back and forth between using the pen and using your fingertip.
- If you don’t want the pen you still end up paying a premium for the active digitizer in the tablet.
- While I didn’t miss Android 3.x Honeycomb in the slightest while using the Flyer, in the coming months we’ll start to see more and more apps written specifically for Android tablets — and most of them will target Honeycomb, not Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
While the 16GB WiFi-only HTC Flyer seems overpriced at $500, the tablet does come with an active digitizer. That actually makes it relatively cheap compared with the 32GB Motorola XOOM WiFi which runs closer to $600. The 7 inch Samsung Galaxy Tab can be had for a much lower price, but that tablet which was released last year has a slower processor and no digital pen.
This also seems like as good a time as any to point out that tablet makers have a habit of charging way too much for additional storage. Seriously, when did it become standard practice to charge $100 more for the jump from 16GB to 32GB or from 32GB to 64GB? Flash storage isn’t nearly that expensive.
Anyway, setting that aside for the moment, here’s the deal: The HTC Flyer is a great device that runs the risk of being outdated quickly and which might cost more money than it’s worth. But that’s arguably true of many of the Android tablets available today, so I’m not sure I’d hold either point against HTC.