Michael Smith received his Camangi WebStation tablet yesterday, and spent all night turning out a review. If you were at all considering buying one, you'll definitely want to hear what he has to say.
While the world waits for Apple to release official news about their new tablet computer, a few smaller (and lesser known) companies are releasing their own touchscreen tablets. Archos has a few models out, there's the viliv, and then there's the whole CrunchPad thing which is now called the JooJoo. And I've never played with any of them. I have however been (for some reason) drooling for an iSlate for the past year or so. And in my impatience I prematurely ordered a Camangi WebStation and am ready to report the bad news.
First let me do the whole reviewer disclaimer thing. On what can only be described as a moment of weak ignorance, I ordered a Camangi WebStation. That was December 4 and I paid full price. Normally I wouldn't plop down almost $US400 for a product that no one has seen or tested yet, one that in the early videos looked quite questionable, and one from a company that I've never heard of before. But I did. Against all common sense I hoped that it would be a decent solution to use until Apple gets theirs out.
At the same time I also contacted Camangi in an attempt to get an early "review unit". We did correspond back and forth a bit but ultimately they decided to not supply me with a "free" unit but rather promised to simply ship my purchased unit to me via a faster method than everyone else's – so that I could review it (hopefully) before they start arriving to the thousands of people who ordered them. Therefore the unit I reviewed here is the one I paid full price for, and my buyer's remorse is certainly adding to the sting here a bit. But then again most things I discuss on this site are items that I've purchased. So take that bias in to account if you feel it's relevant.
My Couch Computing Concept
Our previous current couch computer is the hackintoshed Dell Mini 9. It works well, is fairly fast (for an Atom processor running OS X), it's fully a Mac, and cost about $US300-$400 retail. And it's small. We mostly use it for quick IMDB look-ups while watching TV and movies, and my daughter plays flash games on it. So in my perfect world, the ultimate couch computer would be a smallish tablet, no keyboard to get in the way, easy to stow between couch cushions, but would be as fast and responsive as the Dell or as an iPhone. It needs to have full web capabilities, support flash video (unlike the iPhone), YouTube and all that. It should also act as a PMP so that my daughter can watch videos on it in the car or wherever. It needs to be multi-useful.
So I've been excited about getting this unit in – and I spent all Christmas watching the DHL tracking reports to see when it would arrive. But on the other hand I didn't have high expectations for it. It has very little RAM and a tiny processor. In my correspondence with Camangi I asked over and over about its capabilities, specifically with regards to playing video – but they would not answer those questions. This made me begin to think that the reason they were avoiding my questions (and didn't want to send me a review unit) was because they didn't like the true answers.
What's in the Box
The package arrived via DHL in a small brown paper box, inside which was the retail box. The box contains the WebStation, a carry sleeve/pouch, a pair of cheap earphones that appear to have a microphone attached, a cloth to wipe the screen, a quick start guide, another booklet containing legal disclaimers, the power supply, and the stand to use it as a picture frame, which is basically a suction cup on a stick.
My first impressions were that the WebStation hardware seemed sturdy enough. It has three physical buttons on the front: home, quick menu and return. On the right side there are ports for headphones, mini USB, a reset button, a normal sized USB and DC in. On the left side are physical volume buttons, on the top is a power button, and on the top back is a micro SD card slot preloaded with an 8GB stick.
(same side from the back…)
One major thing lacking in the box is a real user manual. The quickstart guide does tell you how to unlock the device, something you'd probably never figure out on your own. But it's very slim on details and instructions. For example, I still have no idea how to load music on the device. I assume that I need to add a "Music" folder to the memory stick, but that is a complete guess. Another example is that I was surprised to discover that it would charge off the USB cable when it's plugged in to my Mac. But also baffled by the meaning of the "beep-beep-beep" when the screen went to sleep while plugged in to my Mac.
Powering It On
When you first press the power button at the top, it takes about seven seconds before you see the word "ANDROID". Total boot time is 54 seconds. You are then presented with a lock screen that shows the time/date. Unlocking it takes you to the Launcher, which is a menu of app icons.
Speed and Responsiveness
You have to admit that we're all used to the way the iPhone works and in a way it is the standard upon which all other touch based gadgets are measured. Since the loss of my 3GS iPhone I've been back to using my old original Edge phone and have been struggling with the comparative slowness of that old thing. But the old Edge phone screams in comparison to the WebStation. Actions like touching and dragging to scroll windows are taken for granted on the iPhone, and the WebStation does do that touch scrolling thing, but seems to skip along the action. One way to describe it is if the iPhone operates at 30 frames per second, the WebStation probably runs at about 5-10. I also found myself accidentally triggering buttons when trying to scroll. Something that does happen on the iPhone occasionally, but was happening a lot on the WebStation. And with the overall slowness of the unit, getting into the wrong menu is a pain because then you have to slowly navigate out of it as well.
Here are some speed/usage comparison examples between the WebStation and my old first-gen iPhone:
Photos – First off, it's not a multitouch display, it is a resistive single touch screen. So zooming in and out is done via on-screen zoom icons, not multitouch pinch actions. The fair comparison here is the responsiveness of touch-dragging scroll around on a photo. When you first touch and start to drag, it takes several seconds before the unit seems to know that you're dragging. Then it catches up and does it's best to keep up with your finger, updating the screen about 5-10 times per second. This sluggishness is generally felt everywhere in the UI.
Typing – When you click on a field where text can be entered, a virtual touch keyboard appears on the bottom of the screen. Typing is best done one letter at a time, making sure that the UI has got your letter before moving on to the next. If you type too fast sometimes the keyboard will just go away. It seems to not be able to keep track of touches faster than about five per second either. Of course this kills my couch computer concept as it's sort of frustrating to even enter text.
I'll cover web browsing and video playback in their own sections.
But first I have to say that I was excited about the WebStation being Google Android-based. I don't even mind it NOT being multitouch. I think the overall interface is good, but the processor just can't keep up with a real user. If this was powered with the Atom processor from my Dell Mini 9 it would be a completely different story. But the way it is now the sluggishness is just too much of a factor.
I think the biggest test should be basic web browsing. After all, the product is called the WEB station, and therefore should be optimised at surfing the web. The first test was to simultaneously launched both the WebStation and my old first gen iPhone to the home page of this website (tomorrowland.com). Both devices were on my home Wi-Fi network. The iPhone loaded the page about 20 seconds quicker than the WebStation. Then trying to test scrolling on the WebStation I touched and dragged the screen and instead of it scrolling it launched a link. In order to ensure that you're going to scroll you have to touch and hold until you see that it's scrolling, then drag your finger. Something that I would find hard to do when going back and forth between using my iPhone and this thing.
The next test is what sites work and what doesn't. Well, just like the iPhone, flash does not work. This wipes out Hulu and YouTube and even my own tomorrowland.com/podcast page, and unlike the iPhone there is no YouTube application. This also wipes out all flash games, which was one of my desired uses for the WebStation.
I've already complained about the typing and the scrolling. But one other thing I noticed is that most apps are web apps. The ebook reader, and the app marketplace both use the web browser to do their thing. So if one is slow they all are.
All my hopes and dreams are crushed when it comes to video playback. It's no wonder the people at Camangi completely skirted all of my questions about video playback. My big question to them was can it play full screen video at 30fps. The answer is a big fat no way! Not even close. With the lack of a user manual to detail the specifications for the most compatible video formats I guessed and loaded a couple of samples. The unit did come preloaded with the promo video from this page, but looks atrocious when playing back. It seems a shame to not make use of that 800x480 pixel screen with movie watching.
The first video I tried was a three-minute, 22MB H.264 video running at about 1Mbps. Frame size was 480x324 at 30fps. I suppose it was encoded to work on an iPod. The audio played fine but the picture lagged very far behind, causing it to be grossly out of sync. The video frames that played did so at about 5-10fps. Skipping to the middle of the video did catch it up, but it's clear the device is not powerful enough to play video.
The second video I tried was a movie that was encoded to play on a PSP. It also played very slow visually while the audio played normally. It was also very much out of sync right from the beginning. Very disappointing.
My suspicion is that the unit is basically a digital picture frame loaded with a mobile phone version Google Android with a touchscreen. It came with a phone headset complete with a mic and answer button. All through the menus there are mentions of things like "baseband" and "ringtones" but it's not a phone. And the weird thing is that I don't think the processor in it is even powerful enough to run a phone. Had they marketed it as a touchscreen digital photo frame with a web browser and sold it for about $US100 it would be somewhat reasonable. And before you think about complaining about how hard I'm being on it, consider this: The WebStation is $US390. For $US199 you can get an iPod Touch. If Apple made a 7-inch iPod touch it would blow this thing out of the water. Completely. Or for about the same price you could get a Dell Mini 9, or an Archos 7 – which are completely different products, but still something to consider. Or you could save your money and wait for Apple to release the iSlate and I suspect that will be the CES product of 2010.
Of course there is more to the WebStation that I didn't have time to cover, but to be honest the rest really doesn't matter. The weather app is nice and works well. So far I haven't figured out how to load music on it and so haven't been able to try out its ‘cover flow' mode. But essentially it's about as powerful as a digital picture frame, and that's very sad. Basically my plan at this point is to call American Express and find out what I can do to return and refund. In my opinion the Camangi WebStation is a total fail and I can't recommend it to anyone at any price.
Reprinted with permission from Tomorrowland.com.