Novatech nTablet review: first look
The tablet trend is in full swing and while we’re used to seeing these machines sidle up to the iPad with either Windows or Android in tow – we’re trying to block the JooJoo, with its proprietary, Linux-based OS, out of our minds entirely – devices that include both of these operating systems are rarer beasts.
Despite their relatively scarcity, the Novatech nTablet seemed instantly familiar – and a few minutes with the device revealed why. While it has a shiny Novatech logo along the bottom bezel, it’s actually the same device as the ViewSonic ViewPad, which we examined back in September.
Not that relying on that hardware is a bad thing. The 10.1in device draws inspiration from the iPad with its glossy black bezel and brushed aluminium rear and, while it can’t match Apple’s build quality, there’s still a reassuring lack of give across its 14mm-thick body.
Novatech claims that the device’s screen is built at the same facility Apple uses but, despite the 1,024 x 768 resolution across both devices, there’s a distinct gulf in class between the two: while the nTablet is reasonably bright, it’s afflicted with the kind of grain we’re used to seeing on cheaper netbook panels and details just aren’t as sharp.
The nTablet is kitted out with more ports and sockets than Apple deems necessary. The right-hand side of the screen provides power, home and back buttons, and the left-hand bezel offers a pair of USB sockets, a headphone jack, mini D-SUB to DVI-I adapter and SIM card slot – although you’ll need to purchase a 3G-enable SIM if you want to surf away from Wi-Fi. There’s also room for a 32GB SD card along the top bezel. However, there is no volume control.
The netbook-style screen is partnered with netbook hardware. Processing grunt is provided by the Intel Atom N455, and it’s partnered with a single gigabyte of RAM, 802.11g wireless and Bluetooth 2.1 along with an accelerometer and 1.3mp webcam . Novatech’s test model included a 16GB SSD, but the company assured us that retail models will provide double this capacity.
A tricky pill to swallow?
That netbook processor isn’t the most powerful, though, and was found wanting in Windows 7. It’s fine running basic applications, but open several programs and it starts to struggle: with Windows Media Player open in the background, we loaded the BBC homepage and found that scrolling, which was previously smooth, became sluggish and unresponsive.
Demanding web pages proved similarly difficult to navigate, with YouTube especially frustrating to use, and we weren’t able to approach iPad-like typing speed on the on-screen keyboard simply because Windows couldn’t keep up with our tapping. The accelerometer took a couple of seconds to switch the screen’s orientation, too.
Media playback, though, could be an issue, thanks to the lack of power on offer from the integrated Intel GMA 3150 graphics chip. That’s fine for playing 720p content, but previous tests have shown that it’s not capable of handling 1080p content, and our tests with YouTube and iPlayer also proved sluggish when running in Windows 7.
Novatech’s got an answer for that, too, although you’ll have to wait until the new year. The firm plans to upgrade the hardware inside the nTablet to take advantage of Oak Trail, Intel’s new range of tablet processors. They’re allegedly capable of handling 1080p content with ease, and their reduced TDP of 1W – down from around 6W with the current hardware – should improve battery life, too: at the moment Novatech claims up to five hours, but promises around twenty-four hours away from the mains with upgraded hardware.
The reduced power demands should also ensure that the next generation of nTablet is passively-cooled, too, although it’s worth noting that we couldn’t hear the cooling fan included in the current model.
We weren’t able to test out Novatech’s implementation of Android as the firm hadn’t been able to secure any units with Google’s open source OS installed – but we’re reasonably confident, having used the ViewPad, that Android will run without incident on the Atom hardware.
We were able to prise some information from Novatech’s technical team about the firm’s future plans. It was revealed that the nTablet will launch with Android 1.6, with an upgrade to Android 2.1 coming with the second iteration of the device next year. It’s a limitation of Intel’s Atom hardware but, nonetheless, it’s still disappointing to see the nTablet running such an old version of the OS.
Novatech also plans to offer a couple of neat accessories alongside the nTablet. The first, a leather-effect stand and case, includes a lightweight USB-powered keyboard, designed to increase the nTablet’s appeal to the education and business sectors, and will set you back £21 exc VAT. The second, the metal stand seen in one of the pictures here, costs £17 exc VAT.
And then there’s the price of the unit itself. A machine with Windows 7 included – and Android, if you’re that way inclined – is available now and costs £373 exc VAT, with a machine just running Android or without an OS priced at £297 exc VAT and available mid-November. On paper, that’s far less than the €500 price of the ViewSonic ViewPad and, of course, it undercuts the iPad by quite a margin.
That’s not to say we’re entirely convinced. While the addition of a USB keyboard makes Windows 7 more palatable, the Atom processor limits power and, at its core, it’s a desktop OS. As such, it’s not specialised for finger-prodding and, thanks to slow boot times and the like, it’s just not as slick or responsive as iOS.
The inclusion of older Android 1.6 is disappointing, but we’ll reserve judgement until we’ve given the nTablet a proper going over in the PC Pro Labs. We’re not sure if it’s a viable contender at the moment, but if those promised hardware and software upgrades materialise in the new year it could certainly prove tempting.
It’s since been confirmed that the Novatech nTablet will run Android 1.6, rather than 2.1 as originally stated.