Computing

HP Slate 7 Review: Great Price, Poor Screen

Google’s Nexus 7 has been ruling the cheap tablet market with its budget-sourced iron fist. But HP’s now giving it a crack with an upcoming bargain-basement 7-incher, also running stock Jelly Bean, and priced just $199 in Australia (currently pre-orders only).

What Is It?

A 7-inch Android tablet, that trades all the mod-cons of higher-end tablets for a very small number on the price tag.

Who’s It For?

People who can’t afford a Nexus 7.

Design

The Slate 7 is about as generic as generic black rectangles come — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You get a 16:9.375 (more on that in a moment) 7-inch screen on the front, covered by something that isn’t Gorilla Glass; flat metal-lookalike edges, and a fairly pleasing grey soft-touch rubber on the back.

The combination of the wide bezels and flat sides make the Slate 7 pretty easy to one-hand, and while the soft-touch rubber on the back isn’t quite as grippy as the stuff found on the Nexus 7, it isn’t going to spontaneously fly out of your hands any time soon.

Fit and finish is pretty good, for something that costs $199: sure, the materials are pretty cheap, but the build is solid enough, only creaking if you really stress it.

In terms of ports and buttons, there aren’t a lot. The usual micro-USB port is in its traditional position at the centre of the bottom side, flanked by two speakers. Moving up, there’s a volume rocker on the right-hand side, while the left is bare naked (apart from a tiny and slightly annoying QR code that sits next to the serial number).

Rounding things off are the headphone port, power button and micro-SD card slot on the top side.

Using It

Let’s get the biggest problem with the Slate 7 on the record: the screen is terrible. The resolution is 1024×600, which people with long memories might remember as being the same as on the original Samsung Galaxy Tab — yeah, the one from 2010. That’s 169 PPI, compared to the 215 PPI of the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD. Real world, that means text and icons just aren’t as sharp as anyone who’s accustomed to current-gen smartphones would expect.

It’s more than just a problem of pixels, though — the viewing angles and brightness aren’t great, and the screen has that washed-out look that makes it appear like the actual pixels have been bleached, with blacks appearing as more of a sickly lying-on-their-deathbed grey. That said, the screen is at least fairly matte, so watching stuff outdoors or on strip-lighting-lit tube trains is actually possible.

But the screen’s biggest problem isn’t any of those things. No, the real problem is that the pixels aren’t square. The screen’s resolution is 1024×600, which your maths should tell you is an aspect ratio of 1:1.706. But the physical screen gives an aspect ratio of 1:1.737, which, according to some sums I made earlier, is four per cent bigger.

Therefore, the screen is essentially stretched by four per cent lengthways: the pixels are taller than they are wide; rectangles instead of perfect squares. But every app and element of Android is designed for a screen with square pixels, so everything on the Slate 7′s screen appears stretched vertically. You can see that in the image above: while the Chrome logos from the Nexus 4 and Slate 7 are the same width, the Slate 7′s Chrome logo is taller. It’s not such a massive difference as to be immediately obvious, but there’s a nagging feeling throughout the whole tablet that things are being squeezed.

Using It

Screen aside, using the Slate 7 is a relatively pleasant experience. It’s packing a no-name Cortex A9 dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM, which is enough to make Jelly Bean hum along decently enough. In fact, the only real niggle with day-to-day performance is the RAM, which just doesn’t seem to be enough — webpages and apps often have to reload when you fast-switch in and out of them, which kinda kills Android’s normally excellent multitasking vibe.

HD videos (not that you’ll notice the difference thanks to the screen) play just fine, as do simple games like Temple Run 2 or Angry Birds. More exciting things like Asphalt 7 or Real Racing 3 leaving it gasping for breath, however.

The only connectivity option here is Wi-Fi, which works exactly like you’d expect, although the antenna deserves a mention for being pretty good, managing to hold a connection in the well-known Wi-Fi blackspots in my house.

Internally, the Slate 7 only packs 8GB of storage (boo), but that microSD card slot up top lets you expand that by up to 32GB (yay!). Of course, we’d prefer the option for one with more internal storage, as SD card storage isn’t quite the same as in-built stuff — running apps off the SD card, for example, requires going nine rounds with the OS.

The software, as mentioned, is a pretty blemishless Android 4.1.1. The changes made by HP are tiny and few: a control panel for the Beats Audio, an HP ePrint app, and incredibly annoying typewriter noises for the keyboard. As a result, you can (hopefully) expect updates on a regular basis, though it’s still a disappointment that it’s not shipping with the latest Android 4.2 version.

Oh yeah, and there’s a camera on the back. It’s 3MP, and you’ll hopefully never use it. The pictures it spits out are more or less what you’d expect — blurry, noisy, and totally not worth looking like a camera-tablet-wielding-prat for.

Here’s a Lego baseball player looking at me disapprovingly for being a tablet photographer.

The camera on the front works fine for Skype and the like, or even selfies if you’re that narcissistic.

The Best Part

It’s a working, usable Android tablet for $199 in Australia. Despite the flaws, you can still do all the wonderful things that tablets let you do, without paying much money.

Tragic Flaw

In case you hadn’t picked up on this already, that screen. It’ll do you fine for watching SD-quality films and casual app usage, but unless you’re as chronically short-sighted as I am, any protracted e-reading sessions will have you clawing at your eyeballs.

This is Weird

In the process of the relentless austerity drive, the Slate 7′s acquired a few quirks. There’s no auto-brightness sensor, so you’ll have to keep adjusting it manually, which is a bit of a pain, but hardly a deal-breaker. More annoyingly, it seemingly refuses to charge off most USB chargers — only the official HP charger, an iPad charger and, weirdly, a laptop USB port are capable of giving it juice. Even chargers for other Android tablets, with the same voltage etc, can’t revive a dead Slate.

Testing Notes

• Battery life’s on the average-to-low end for a 7-inch tablet. In a rundown test against the iPad Mini and Nexus 7, streaming video over Wi-Fi with the screens set to 200 nits brightness, the Slate 7′s 3500mAh battery managed 7 hours 12 minutes, compared to the Nexus 7′s 8 hours 45, and the iPad’s 12 hours 17. Real-world usage backs this up — you can expect somewhere between five to ten hour’s usage, depending on what you’re doing and how much you’re abusing the poor screen’s brightness control. It’s not quite enough to get you through a transatlantic flight, but it’ll see you through a daily commute. Charging takes about 4 hours 30 minutes.

• Beats Audio is its normal self — that is, it’s nothing but a bass-heavy EQ. In the Slate 7, Beats Audio is really confined to the headphone jack; you can’t turn Beats on and off for the speakers (which are pretty terrible, by the way). As software gimmicks go, it’s fairly harmless and non-intrusive, but it’s certainly not a reason to buy the Slate 7 over anything else.

• If you’re the sort who likes rooting and tinkering with devices, the Slate 7 won’t be the one for you. HP hasn’t even released USB drivers for the Slate 7, so any tinkering over ADB requires a solid few hours of messing around just to get the Slate 7 talking to your computer. And with no unlocked bootloader on the horizon, you’re almost certainly better off plumping for the Nexus 7.

Should You Buy It?

Can you afford a $249 Nexus 7? No? Can you save up a little more over the next few months, and then afford a Nexus 7? Still no? Then buy the Slate 7. Otherwise, you’ll be much better served by the Nexus. Aside from the markedly better screen and better battery life, the Nexus 7 also has NFC, auto-brightness, GPS (teamed up Google Maps it makes a pretty killer satnav), and it’s thinner and lighter to boot.

If you want much better speakers than the Nexus 7 (or slightly cheaper), there’s also the Kindle Fire HD, which aside from Amazon’s Android skin (which can be removed) is a pretty stellar movie-watching device, with a far better screen and speakers the HP Slate 7 would die for.

Taken as a stand-alone device, the Slate 7 is tremendous value for money. A totally usable tablet for $199 is a serious achievement. But with much better options just a couple of forgone pints away, it’s difficult to recommend the Slate 7 to all but the most skint. [HP Australia PRE-ORDER]

HP Slate 7

Price: $199
Screen: 7-inch 1024×600
Processor: 1.6Ghz Cortex A9 dual-core
RAM: 1GB
Connectivity: Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1
Size: 116x197x10.7mm
Weight: 370g

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