Specs are for fools; HTC’s Flyer and its “outdated” single-core processor and “old, sad” Android 2.4 OS was the best Android tablet in Spain last week. Flyer’s the best Android tablet I’ve seen to date, period.
Why? The software is not only usable, but it offers useful things to normal people of the sort who think “rooting” has to do with trees and tooth canals and “honeycomb” is a cereal they routinely gorged on as kids. LG, Motorola and Samsung all showed Android tablets with bigger screens, faster dual-core processors and Google’s new tablet-optimized operating system, Android 3.0 “Honeycomb.” HTC instead showed something that looks like it’ll do things right out of the box instead of resembling a 21st century science project for DIYers with time to kill.
Does that mean Flyer will still be the best Android tablet in six to nine months when Honeycomb has been updated with spit, shine, and a bunch of dual-core optimized apps? Maybe not. Does that mean that Flyer is a better long-term investment than a Moto Xoom or LG G-Slate with more horsepower inside? Not necessarily. Does that even mean that there aren’t a ton of nerds … er, fanboys … er, tech enthusiasts currently writing me off as an aging fool who lost his mind in Spain and doesn’t understand that single core inherently means failure in The Great Tablet Wars of 2011? Nope.
I don’t care. Flyer was the best thing going when it came to Android slates in Barcelona.
Personally I’m really tired of Google shipping half-finished products, playing the “Open Source, not our fault” card (even if only passively) when it comes to Android users waiting for OS updates, and generally acting like they couldn’t just make it all better if they wanted to. They could. They’re Google. They’re insanely big and powerful and could right at least 90% of what’s wrong with Android if they wanted to step in and address everything from OS fragmentation to lingering issues with UI/media syncing/marketplace/et al to whether or not it’s in consumers’ best interests for Android to become the new lowest common denominator platform for carriers to load up with bloatware. Don’t give me that line about Android being open source and thus out of Google’s hands. It’s Google, their CEO just dined with President Obama, they can fix it if they want to.
Now we get Honeycomb and the new wave of “They All Do Exactly The Same Thing” Android 3.0 tablets set to beat tech reviewers over the head into submission this Spring just as Android 2.x smartphones did last Summer and Fall. Don’t get me wrong, Android 3.0 tablets hold a ton of promise. Google’s done a lot of work to enable all sorts of great stuff including support for multithreading and GPU accelerated UI elements. There’s no good reason why we shouldn’t see a ton of whiz bang stuff running on 3.0 devices come this Summer or Fall, and by “whiz bang” I mean useful and cool to use.
But right now Honeycomb is a science fair that everyone’s rushing to get a ticket to just in case the Next Big Thing (i.e. iPad Fighter) is waiting inside the doors at some developer’s stand. When I first saw 3.0 in a hands-off demo at CES (Consumer Electronics Show), I was all excited by its futuristic UI, next-gen Maps and YouTube apps. Now that I’ve messed about with a few 3.0 devices, that futuristic UI seems like not much more than the old Android UI run through Tron’s visual design team. Maps and YouTube still look cool, but ultimately do the same things they do on 2.x devices, namely help me find places and watch videos. As with 2.x, 3.0′s actual utility will be dependent on what app and widget developers do to support it.
Which brings me back to HTC’s Flyer.
Instead of rushing to get a 3.0 device readied, HTC took what they’ve already been doing with Sense for 2.x and applied it to the tablet concept. Yes, HTC’s in a bit of a pickle thanks to chip supplier Qualcomm’s lagging behind NVIDIA in the dual-core mobile chip space, so it’s fair to argue that HTC was forced to develop for 2.x and single core instead of 3.0 and dual core instead of having chosen to do so. Then again, HTC’s long been about developing their custom user experience (“Sense”) to add value to Android smartphones, so why would they approach a tablet any differently?
More than one Android fanboy today called Sense “HTC’s bloatware” in conversation with me. You take the science fair, I’ll take a bloated device that comes straight out of the box with HTC’s “Watch” video download service and OnLive’s cloud-based gaming service (including multiplayer support and an optional Xbox-style gaming controller). I’ll take the outdated tablet with note taking functionality that syncs to EverNote and utilizes fingertip and stylus, handwriting and drawing, and HTC Timemark for time-based recording of multimedia notes that sync to meetings on my calendar so I can find them later within context. I’ll also take HTC’s Scribe handwriting technology and tap-to-screenshot commands designed to be annotated and shared via Email, social networking, bluetooth, and so on … on the device built on “yesterday’s technology.” You take the brand new OS that’s ready for GPU accelerated UI elements, I’ll take the old one that’s already got a 3D user interface -a 3D UI with a cutesy weather widget to boot!
Flyer may fail simply because its got last year’s specs in this year’s world. That’d be a shame, but no doubt HTC is already hard at work on Sense for Honeycomb and a tablet (or two) to show it off. And yes, I’m excited to get my hands on a shipping version of a 3.0 tablet like Xoom, but in all honesty my expectations are kind of low until someone points me to some really sweet, really useful applications that just plain work better on Honeycomb than on anything else. Until then Honeycomb ain’t much more to me than bigger screens and flashy benchmark scores.
In the meantime, HTC’s got my interest piqued not with their spec sheet, but with the experience they’ve dreamed up and all but brought to life in Flyer (it’s not yet shipping, in all fairness). Science fair types like their devices clean and fast, ready to be rooted and tinkered with. Me, I want something that’s ready to enhance my life right out of the box. If I can tweak it in my spare time, too, all the better. But I’m not about to drop $800 on a promise in tablet form – it’ll take something that can help me right now to part me from my money.
UPDATE: Correction made in paragraph nine. Qualcomm is HTC’s “chip supplier,” not “parent company,” as pointed out to me by an HTC representative.