HTC Flyer review

HTC’s a company that normally is first in the industry. Not so with the HTC Flyer. It’s HTC’s first Android tablet, but plenty of others, including Asus, LG, Motorola, Samsung, beat it to the market. The HTC Flyer just landed exclusively in Best Buy stores on May 22nd for $499. Sure, it’s packed with HTC’s Sense UI, a 1.5GHz processor, and can be purchased with a stylus accessory that allows you to use the Flyer as a notebook, but can it hold its own against more powerful Android Honeycomb tablets? I spent the last few days with HTC’s 7-inch tablet, and the full review is after the break.

Hardware

The HTC Flyer looks like a giant EVO or Inspire. It has the same aluminum unibody design which means it can feel a bit heavy at almost 15 ounces, but it’s obviously very sturdy. The backside has a white plastic area surrounding the tablet’s 5-megapixel camera, and there’s another removable hatch at the bottom where you can insert a microSD card. I wish HTC carried over its solid build to these two areas, as both appear that they would crack or snap easily under pressure.

The 7-inch display has a 1024 x 600 pixel resolution and text, images, and videos, looked sharp for the most part. Similarly, the screen was bright enough for viewing under sunlight, although I mostly found myself using the Flyer indoors. I love that there’s a small chin above and below the screen — when the tablet is placed down on a table, you can clearly see from the sides that the display won’t make any contact with the surface. This should help prevent scratches and other damage to the screen, though my mind goes back to the build quality of those two plastic pieces I mentioned and how they’ll hold up.

If you’re holding the tablet in portrait mode, there’s a power button on the top right of the device — next to a 3.5mm headphone jack — the volume buttons are on the upper right side, a microUSB charging port is on the bottom, and two speakers are on the back left. I love that HTC chose to go with a microUSB charging port, instead of a proprietary one; that means you can pack just one charger whenever you leave home. The back of the Flyer is home to a 5-megapixel camera, sans flash.

You know those three Android buttons for menu, home, and search, that are on every Android phone and tablet? HTC did something amazing with them. When the tablet is in portrait mode, those three buttons — as well as the stylus key — are on the bottom of the display. Tilt the Flyer into landscape mode, and they suddenly reappear below the screen. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner?

Lastly, the Flyer packs support for 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networks — the 4G version is known as the EVO View 4G on Sprint — and I didn’t have any issues using it on my home network for extended periods of time.

Software

The HTC Flyer runs Android 2.3 with a flavor of HTC’s Sense user interface that was specifically designed for use on tablets. There are a few unique touches here and there, some of which we’ll see carried over in the next generation of Sense for smartphones, too. There are eight different home screen panels to customize, and I love that HTC has included newer, larger widgets for the weather, viewing photos, seeing your eBook library, viewing your contacts, and more. It’s easier to rotate around home screen panels now, too — the carousel now completes a full loop, which means you can jump from your far right home screen panel to the left one with just a quick flick. The 1.5GHz processor under the hood handles all of Sense’s eye candy with nary a struggle, save for the unlock mechanism, which, oddly, lagged at times.

My biggest issue with Sense on a tablet is the home screen in landscape mode. HTC wasted a ton of space here. I understand that it may have been necessary in order to display icons or widgets appropriately, but it feels like over half of the screen is taken up just showing the panels to the left and right of the current home screen. That’s space that could have been used for more widgets. You know Android users just love widgets.

The Flyer is free of bloatware since it’s a sans-carrier device. In fact, most owners will find all of the pre-installed software useful for one reason or another. There’s a Kid Mode option that’s powered by Zoodles for playing games that take advantage of the touchscreen, drawing and painting, reading kids books, sending email to family, and more. A Press Reader application can be used to subscribe to a number of global newspapers. I checked out an issue of The Washington Post and, while it’s far too hard to read zoomed out, I appreciated getting to see the current day’s articles after clicking them from a view of the full newspaper. Press Reader includes 7 free issues, too, so you can get a feel for whether or not a subscription is worth it.

We’re all used to the photos that Mac users take of themselves in Photo Booth on OS X, and the Flyer has a similar option. Using the front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, you can take photos of yourself with silly effects such as bulge, mirror, pucker, and others. It’s a fun, but mostly useless feature.

The Reader application, powered by Kobo, is decent. After reading a few pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland I was convinced reading an eBook on the Flyer is as good as the Galaxy Tab and other Android tablets I’ve used. I prefer reading with Kindle, however, as it’s easier to adjust the brightness on the fly.

Stylus

The Flyer supports a a stylus input system, which HTC has dubbed “HTC Scribe.” The stylus itself is an insanely expensive $80 accessory, and that’s a lot to swallow for access to new features that are natively supported on an already-not-inexpensive $500 tablet. These days I’m more apt to taking notes on my phone than writing them down on a a piece of paper. Admittedly, I was no different in college when I opted for writing on my hand. So why should I write on a tablet? Sure, the stylus works well, and I like that there are options to draw anywhere on the screen — yes even the home screen — and that the tablet will automatically take a screen shot and sync with Evernote. Ultimately, my handwriting is still as messy as it ever was (the reason why I don’t write with a pen in the first place), and it’s not worth the extra $80.Worse yet, there’s nowhere to actually attach the stylus to the Flyer. I’ve probably misplaced it handful of times in the couple days I have spent with the Flyer.

Camera

The Flyer’s 5 megapixel camera took decent photos, though I prefer the shots taken with Samsung’s most of the time. It’s also capable of recording 720p video, although it doesn’t come with HDMI-out cables in the box, which is mildly shocking given that even many high-end phones offer that accessory. Recorded video looked decent when I played it back on my computer screen, however it lacked continuous auto-focus. I’m also unsure why HTC chose to eliminate a flash option — there’s plenty of room — so low light shots didn’t come out very well. There’s a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front of the Flyer for video chats, and the quality was solid during a quick test call with a friend.

Battery Life

The Flyer offered up decent battery life, but it wasn’t on a par with the larger 8.9-inch or 10.1-inch tablets that pack in huge batteries capable of idling for days. I’ve been using the Flyer for a while, but since tablets’ battery cycles are much lengthier than smartphones, the verdict is still out on the Flyer’s battery performance. It’s been able to endure my rigorous testing just fine, and with normal usage it’ll likely hit 2 days on a single charge without any problem. I was able to get through about 7 hours of hardcore use just fine, which means you should have no trouble with music and light video playback on a longer flight.

Wrap-up

I love the HTC Flyer’s sturdy build, but I’m not a fan of the extra heft it adds to the device. People are split on tablet sizes, but I like the Flyer because that size delivers an excellent web browsing experience, eBook reading, and much more without having to fumble with the tablet too much. The Flyer offers a superior experience to the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, but it’s also more expensive. I prefer the 8.9-inch LG G-Slate and 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab overall — both offer better battery life,  dual-core processors for extra speed, and support for Honeycomb. My fear is that the HTC Flyer won’t advance much in terms of software, while other competing tablets loaded with Honeycomb will continue to offer more robust features as they’re updated to Android 3.1 and beyond. Similarly, I’m worried that the Android Market will begin populating with more compelling Honeycomb applications, and anyone using the Flyer won’t ever have access to them. The Stylus worked well, and it’s fun and useful, but I wouldn’t pay $80 for it and think it should have been included in the box. I have to say that I’m actually a bit disappointed that a company like HTC released a product like the Flyer. HTC is an innovative company, but there unfortunately just isn’t anything innovative about this tablet.

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