The Skytex Primer Pocket is a portable device with a 4.3 inch, 480 x 272 pixel display that’s best described as a portable media player. But it also happens to run Google Android 2.2 Froyo, which means you can also use the PMP to surf the web, play games, and run a number of Android applications.
The Primer Pocket won’t be giving the iPod touch a run for its money anytime soon. While it can handle many video codecs that Apple’s portable media device cannot, the iPod touch is smaller, lighter, sturdier, and features a higher quality display. It can also handle far more applications — not just because it runs iOS instead of Android, but because the Primer Pocket has an unusual screen resolution and processor, so many Android apps simply won’t run on the device.
But the Primer Pocket certainly holds its own when it comes to video playback capabilities — and there’s one area where the Skytex media player comes out ahead of almost any competitor: price. You can pick one up for as little as $89, making it one of the cheapest Android products available.
Skytex sent me a demo unit for the purposes of this review.
The Skytex Primer Pocket is a budget device, with inexpensive components. Don’t expect a capacitive touch panel, Gorilla Glass screen, or 1 GHz dual core processor here. But while the specs are pretty basic for an Android phone or tablet, the device has pretty much everything you need for audio and video playback (although a better screen and higher quality audio would be nice).
Here’s a rundown of the specs:
- 4.3 inch, 480 pixel capacitive touchscreen display
- 600 MHz MIPS processor = 400MHz DSP
- Google Android 2.2 Froyo
- 4GB storage (about 2.6GB free)
- 256MB DDR2 RAM
- 802.11b/g/n WiFi
- 1 Watt speaker
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- mini USB port
- microSD card slot (up to 16GB)
- 1400mAh battery
- Support for 720p HD video in a wide range of formats
While the Primer Pocket doesn’t work with the official Google Android Market, it comes with the GetJar app store preloaded and I was able to install other app stores including Amazon and SlideMe — although not all third party apps from those stores can run on the device.
Like most Android phones, tablets and portable media players, the dominant feature on the Primer Pocket is the display. From the front, the device is almost all display, with a relatively small black bezel around the sides and the Skytex logo on one edge.
The widescreen, display is 4.3 inches when measured diagonally. It has a display resolution of 480 x 272 pixels — which is the same as what you get with the PlayStation Portable. Unfortunately that’s a rather unusual resolution for an Android device, and some apps don’t display properly on the Primer Pocket because of it.
The screen is touch sensitive, and can even recognize two simultaneous touch points, which allows you to perform pinch-to-zoom and other two-finger gestures. But you won’t be confusing this display with a high quality screen found in higher end phones and tablets.
Skytex saved money by going with a plastic screen and a resistive touch panel. That means that while you can sometimes tap the screen with your fingertip if you press hard enough, the easiest way to interact with the screen is using a fingernail, stylus, pen tip, or other pointed object.
The screen also has limited viewing angles. While photos and videos look reasonably good when you’re looking directly at the screen, the colors start to wash out if you tilt the device. Some angles are better than others though.
When you hold the mini-tablet in landscape mode and view it from the left or right you should have no problem making out the image — although it won’t look as good to the person sitting next to you as it does when you’re looking directly at the device. But if you try tilting it backward or forward it doesn’t take long before the images simply disappear.
In other words, you can hold the Primer Pocket in your hands or prop it up with some sort of a stand to watch a movie — but you’re not going to want to lie it down flat on a table unless you want that movie to turn into a radio play.
The Primer Pocket is a little thicker and wider than a high-end portable media player or smartphone. But it’s still small enough to easily fit into the palm of your hand or slide into your pocket. It measures 4.5″ x 3″ x 0.47″ and weighs just under 5 ounces.
While the screen has a slick, shiny finish, the plastic around the sides and bottom has a soft, almost rubbery feel to it. The screen shows fingerprints (and scratches), but the rest of the device has a matte look. Fingerprints don’t show up all that easily.
Like most devices that run Android 2.3 and earlier, the Skytex Primer Pocket has a couple of hardware buttons for Home, Menu, and Back functions, as well as volume controls and a button you can press to turn the display on or off or press-and-hold to power down or startup the device altogether.
But while most phones place these buttons below the display, the Primer Pocket’s buttons are all on the side of the tablet — with the labels printed on the back of the device. This means that you won’t be able to see the name of the button you’re pressing unless you turn the Primer Pocket over and look at the back.
It takes a little while to get used to the button layout, but while you can’t see the labels from the front you can see the buttons, which means that once you remember where each button is located it’s not that hard to press the right one. This is in sharp contrast to the Augen GenTouch78 and a handful of other cheap tablets that literally place all the function buttons awkwardly on the back of the device so that you can feel them, but you can’t see them at all.
One one of the narrow sides of the mini-tablet (I’m tempted to call it the top, because if you hold the little guy with this end up your fingers can easily access all the buttons) you’ll find a mini-USB port, microSD card slot, and a headphone jack.
By the on/off button there’s a mic, a reset jack (which you’ll need a pretty tiny pin to use), and a third hole which probably does something, but I have no idea what that something is.
On the back you’ll find a speaker, plus explanations for all the ports and buttons. When you tack on the logo and FCC info, the back of the Primer Pocket starts looking pretty cluttered.
Software and apps
It’s probably best to think of the Primer Pocket as an Android-powered portable media player rather than as a full-fledged Android tablet. While it ships with Google Android 2.2 Froyo, it suffers from a number of limitations.
First, it doesn’t include the official Google suite of apps including Gmail, Google Maps, or the Android Market. Out of the box you do get a web browser, calculator, clock, file explorer, media player, and an unofficial YouTube video player. It also comes with Angry Birds preloaded.
But the lack of official Google apps wouldn’t be so bad if that were the only problem. There are plenty of other ways to find and download apps for Android, and the Primer Pocket even comes with the GetJar app store preloaded.
No, the problem is that even if you do manage to find the app you want and download it to your device, it may fail to install. That’s because the Primer Pocket has a MIPS-based processor, while most Android apps are compiled to run on devices with ARM chips. At least 75 percent of the apps I tried to install spat out an “application not installed” message.
Other apps did install properly, but when I tried to run them, they didn’t display properly because of the Primer Pocket’s unusual 480 x 272 pixel display.
The Aldiko eBook Reader, for instance, wouldn’t install at all. While I was able to install word game Wixel Lite, one row of letters was cut off, making the game nearly unplayable. While there are other eBook apps that do work with MIPS devices, Wixel is my wife’s favorite word game, and we’ve learned that there’s no substitute for the real thing.
The long and short of it is that most Android apps just don’t work on the Primer Pocket. But the good news is that there are hundreds of thousands of apps for Android, so if you spend enough time digging you can probably come up with a few apps that will meet your needs that do work. I don’t know how well this little device will sell, given its limitations, but if a user community does form around it, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a user-generated list of apps that are confirmed to work one day.
Here’s another tip: You may not mind the fact that most apps don’t run on this device, because even if they did, most probably wouldn’t run well. The Primer Pocket has no problems playing 720p HD video files without stuttering thanks to some decent graphics capabilities. But overall it’s a pretty slow machine, and some apps are Slow with a capital S.
Angry Birds is playable on the tablet, but as you pull back your slingshot to aim your bird, the graphics are just choppy enough to make it difficult to line up your shot.
The web browsing experience is painfully slow. I can’t remember the last time I used a device that took as long to fully load web pages as the Primer Pocket. It was probably back when I had a 56k modem. In this case it’s not the internet connection slowing things down though, it’s almost certainly the processor.
I tried installing alternate web browsers, and while the Dolphin HD and Dolphin Mini browsers are a little nicer to use thanks to support for tabs, full-screen mode, and other options, they weren’t any faster. I had high hopes for the Opera Mini web browser, which uses remote server compression to speed up surfing on devices with slow processors, but unfortunately Opera Mini failed to install.
The resistive touchscreen display is reasonably responsive, but it’s still a bit tricky to use an operating system designed for fingertip input with your fingernails or another pointed object. For instance, good luck typing on the on-screen keyboard with two thumbs. For the most part I had to hold the mini-tablet in one hand while tapping letters one at a time with my other. This may be good enough for entering URLs or search terms in the web browser, but I wouldn’t want to use this touchscreen to compose email messages.
As I’ve mentioned, the one area where the Primer Pocket actually outperforms many more expensive devices is multimedia playback. I tested a handful of video files on the tablet including a 720p DivX video and a 480p Xvid file and videos played smoothly.
According to the manufacturer, the device also supports 720p RMVB, H.264, RMVB, and MKV video files at reasonably high bitrates, although I didn’t test each of those formats myself.
Audio performance is acceptable, but not particularly impressive. The speaker is reasonably clear and sounds a little better than you might expect from a 1W speaker on such an inexpensive device. But it’s not particularly loud, and talk or news radio or podcasts sound a little better than music when blasted from the spaker, since the sound is a little tinny.
The good news is that you can plug in a pair of headphones instead for fairly decent sound quality. With a good pair of headphones you can also crank up the audio volume to rather unhealthy levels, so proceed with caution.
During a two hour bus trip recently I listened to a few songs and a couple of podcasts. The podcasts made for much more pleasant listening, since it’s a lot easier to get the human voice right than rich instrumentation.
Battery life is a mixed bag. Skytex estimates that you should be able to get around 20 hours of battery life while listening to audio with the WiFi and display off, 4 to 5 hours of video playback, or 6 to 8 hours of mixed use including surfing the web and playing games.
I ran a simple test by streaming internet radio over WiFi for as long as I could while keeping the screen on at about 50 percent brightness.
The battery only lasted for about 2 hours, 45 minutes.
That seemed kind of low, so I ran another test. This time I kept the screen at 50 percent brightness, but turned off WiFi and played video files for as long as I could. This time the battery died after 3 hours, 27 minutes. That should at least give you enough time to watch a movie or a couple of TV shows on the go, but it’s still not all that impressive.
You should get better battery life if you’re only listening to music with the WiFi and display turned off, but my results don’t exactly inspire confidence.
I have noticed a few good things about the way the Primer Pocket handles power management though.
The first is that if you don’t touch the device for a long enough period of time, it will shut down completely. This prevents the battery from running down if you leave the Primer Pocket on overnight while you’re not using it. But it also means that you’ll have to wait a good minute or so for the device to power up the next time you turn it on.
The Primer Pocket also doesn’t seem to lose too much of its charge when it’s sitting idle with the display off — especially if WiFi is disabled. This stands in stark contrast with some low cost Android tablets such I’ve used which seem to run out of juice quickly whether you’re using them or not.
If you think of the Skytex Primer Pocket has a portable media player, it’s not a bad device for $89. It can handle a wide variety of audio and video codecs and while audio quality isn’t spectacular, it’s certainly passable if you want to use the device for listening to music or podcasts.
As an added bonus, the device can run some apps and surf the web — but it doesn’t do either of those things particularly well. If you’re looking for a device that’s first and foremost an Android mini-tablet rather than a glorified media player, you might want to look elsewhere.
Fewer than half of the apps I tried to install on the Primer Pocket ran properly. The touchscreen can be difficult to use. And the viewing angles are pretty poor.
Archos, Cowon, Samsung, Apple, and several other companies offer pocket-sized devices that offer a much more polished (and powerful) experience. Unfortunately those devices also tend to cost a bit more than the Primer Pocket, but this is one of those cases where you certainly get what you pay for — and the fact that the Primer Pocket offers even as much capability as it does for $89 shows just how much technology has advanced in recent years.
There was a time when the idea of a portable media player with a 4 inch screen and a 600 MHz processor for under $100 would have been inconceivable. Now that it’s available, I’m still not convinced it’s a great buy. If you can afford to spend a little more money you can get a much better device. But if you’re on a budget and looking for an Android PMP, it’s nice to have an option in this price range.