Despite a number of notable exceptions, such as the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer and Slider, adding a physical keyboard usually requires the outlay of some additional cash on top of a tablet's purchase price. Not so the Archos 101 XS, a 10-inch budget Android tablet that comes supplied with its own combined cover, dock, stand and keyboard in the shape of the very thin Coverboard. The 101 XS the first of a new series of extra slim tablets to be released by the French company and I managed to spend a short time getting to grips with a pre-production unit at the Archos booth in Berlin.
As you might expect for Europe's biggest consumer electronics show, there were an awful lot of Android tablets being displayed at IFA 2012. The new Gen10 XS Series budget-friendly Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) tablet brought along by Archos has a few tricks that help it stand out from the wealth of others flooding the marketplace. Chief among these is the included keyboard stand/dock and its thickness, or rather the lack of it. The 101 XS is just 0.31-inches (8 mm) thin, which is mighty slim indeed.
The tablet features a 10.1-inch, 1280 x 800 multidomain vertical alignment (MVA) LCD display that supports up to five simultaneous touch points. It's not in the same league as the iPad 3's beautiful retina display or even the ASUS Transformer Infinity, but it's usable and is not wholly unexpected given the price point.
The lack of IPS is rather obvious when viewing from an angle but it's not too shabby. The onscreen image is not the brightest I've come across and the glossy display does mean that you have to get the angle just right in certain lighting situations to avoid only being able to see yourself.
The eye-pleasing silver and white design is provided courtesy of white fiber casing and a strong 0.1 mm thin steel frame that does seem to have added some welcome sturdiness. However, the units on display at the Archos booth didn't seem to be taking visitor punishment very well at all, and were already showing some signs of wear before IFA had even opened to the public. Might it have been more sensible to include scuff-resistant hard plastic? Possibly.
Just so onlookers are not left wondering what you're holding in your hand, the 10.7 x 6.7 x 0.31-inch (273 x 170 x 8 mm), 21 ounce (600 g) 101 XS has Archos branding both front and back.
The tablet is powered by an ARM Cortex smart multi-core A9 processor (OMAP4470) running at 1.5 GHz with a PowerVR SGX544 GPU, supported by 1 GB of system memory and 16 GB of onboard solid state storage (with microSD card expansion). Opportunity didn't allow for much in the way of performance testing but booting from cold took well under a minute and the 101 XS appeared to handle multi-tasking and multimedia very well.
Archos has included tailor-made Media Center apps and says that the screen supports video playback at up to 1080p Full HD at 30 fps and 1080i/720p at 60 fps and can play AVI, MP4, MOV, 3GP, MPG, PS, TS, VOB, MKV, FLV, RM, RMVB, and ASF file formats so long as the 101 XS has been loaded up with all the necessary codecs. There's audio playback support for MP3, WAV, AAC3, AAC+, OGG Vorbis, FLAC and an optional software plug-in for AC3 5.1, popular image and subtitle formats are included for good measure, too.
While I didn't have the time or opportunity to sit back and relax, I did watch a short HD movie clip and had no issues with the image quality (viewing angles and brightness issues aside).
Unusually for tablets nowadays, there's just the one front-facing 720p camera on the 101 XS and a built-in microphone. There's a micro-USB 2.0 port for both charging and data transfer/external connectivity, a mini-HDMI for outputting content to an HD television or monitor, an included speaker and a 3.5 mm headphone jack.
Wireless connectivity is represented by Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi (with Wi-Fi Direct). Archos says that the Li-Pol battery should offer up to seven hours of video playback or ten hours of browsing.
The new extra slim Archos tablet on show at IFA was running on Android 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) but it will be upgraded to 4.1 during Q4 2012. It benefits from a performance-friendly unskinned interface with full access to Google's Play Store.
As mentioned above, like all of the new Gen10 XS tablets from Archos, the 101 XS comes supplied with an ultra-thin magnetic Coverboard that can protect the device while traveling, and provide a movie viewing stand, dock or QWERTY keyboard when using the tablet. As you might expect on something that's just 0.2-inches (5 mm) thin, the chiclet-style keys have a little less travel and feel a good deal more cramped than those you might find on a netbook or laptop, but I found the keyboard a joy to use.
The 101 XS is physically docked to the Coverboard rather than wirelessly connecting to the keyboard and features a hinged, magnetic kickstand that attaches to the back of the body and keeps the Coverboard and tablet firmly together. This means that when you pick up a docked tablet, the keyboard goes with you. The two-part hinge lies flat against the Coverboard when not in use.
When out and about, the docked tablet supplies power to the keyboard/stand but the Coverboard can also be plugged into the mains to charge the 101 XS while you type.
Thoughts after walking away...
At the end of my short introduction to the 101 XS, I walked away with mixed feelings. The white edging seemed to actively seek out ways to become irreversibly marked so the tablet is unlikely to remain pristine and proud for very long. The display is not the best budget tablet display around but, for the most part, it's gets the job done.
The inclusion of, rather than accessorizing, the physical keyboard is a good move and I found the Coverboard keys to be a little on the cramped side but still a pleasure to use. I do worry slightly about the two-part magnetic kickstand being left open to damage as it doesn't automatically return to its resting position when there's no tablet attached to it, but it seemed to keep a good grip on the docked 101 XS.
The tablet was fairly fast to boot and responsive to tasks when fired up. I'm rather pleased by the French company's decision not to skin ICS, the naked Android experience proving to be quite snappy as a result.
Doubtless Archos will find both friends and foes with the release of this eye-catching Android tablet in November for a suggested retail price of US$399. As for which side of the fence I've chosen to jump over to, I think I'll just have to loiter at the gate for a while and remain uncommitted.
The Archos 101 XS will ship with a charger, USB data cable and will come with OfficeSuite Pro 6 pre-installed and ready to use at no additional cost. The 10-inch tablet will be joined by the 80 XS and 97 XS later in the year.