Archos 101 XS £299.99
4th Sep 2012 | 13:15
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French tech manufacturer Archos have been banging out tablets since before you were in long trousers, Sonny Jim - although back in the early noughties, the likes of its AV series were simply considered big screen portable media players.
So the company has plenty of experience to draw on and, with its latest tablet range - the Gen 10 XS series - it has done just that, mixing a few different form factors to bring us three new hybrid Android devices.
The flagship device, the Archos 101 XS, sits alongside the Archos 97 XS and the Archos 80 XS, which are both listed as coming soon.
The 10.1-inch, keyboard-boasting Archos 101 XS is due to launch in the middle of September with an RRP of £299.99/$360.
It's a price tag that makes it a bit cheaper than its direct hybrid rival, the Asus Transformer Pad 300, much cheaper than the hybrid king - the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity - and also easier on your bank balance than mid-range Android rivals such as the Acer Iconia Tab A510 and the Toshiba AT300.
Unlike those tablets, however, this is not a quad-core Tegra 3-touting machine. Instead, it's powered by a multi-core Texas Instruments OMAP4470 processor. This multi-core setup equates to a dual-core Cortex-A9 CPU clocked at 1.5GHz, along with two much slower Cortex-M3 cores.
Throw in a PowerVR SGX544 GPU and you've an engine room more on a par with the mid-range Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 than the Android heavy-hitters.
Running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Archos is promising a Jelly Bean-flavoured update soon. So for Android fans looking for a cheaper ticket to the party, along with some physical QWERTY fun on the way, Archos hopes it is offering up a viable option. Has it succeeded.
Physical keyboard-packing tablets are becoming increasingly more popular and, with Windows 8 on the very near horizon, we expect to see many more Android devices packing a QWERTY punch.
The Archos 101 XS, like the Asus Eee Pad Slider, Asus Eee Pad Transformer and others that have gone before it, is a tablet that attempts to solve the puzzle of how to make a tablet more user friendly.
Like those Asus efforts, Archos has proposed that the answer lies in the use of a physical keyboard that attaches itself to the slate.
You can, of course, team up any Android (or iOS) device with a keyboard using Bluetooth connectivity, but Archos has chosen the docking keyboard option for the 101 XS. Its physical keyboard comes combined as part of what it calls the "coverboard", and is basically a lid that sits flush with the tablet's screen, using magnets, creating a netbook-like effect.
A very skinny netbook that is, since the tablet part of the Archos 101 XS is just 8mm thick, with the coverboard only adding a further 5mm. When you consider that its direct rival, the Asus Transformer Pad 300, measures a combined 20.1mm, its 13mm waistline is all the more appealing.
At almost 400g (0.88lbs) lighter than the budget Asus machine as well, it's definitely a much more portable friendly setup. On its own, the Archos 101 XS tablet weighs 630g (1.39lbs), and the coverboard only adds a further 270g (0.60lbs) to the mix.
But unlike Asus's hybrid tabs, which offer clever keyboard docks that expand connectivity and enhance battery life, the coverboard is pretty poor in comparison. Its only port is a micro USB one, which is used for charging the tablet when docked. When not connected to the mains, the Archos 101 XS's keyboard drains power from the tablet's battery.
And the build quality, not just of the dock, but of the whole device, is nowhere near on par with its competitors. Starting with the dock, its thinness works against it, feeling very weak, with plenty of flex and incredibly plasticy.
The keyboard keys have an incredibly shallow travel, so typing for long periods of time isn't too comfortable. And the kick-stand, which pops up to hold the tablet in place for typing sessions, is incredibly feeble.
In its most upright position it will hold the tablet in place - just - but try to adjust the angle (although we're not entirely sure you're supposed to) and you'll run into trouble, with it giving way under the weight of the slate.
The method used to hold the coverboard and the tablet together, using magnets, is also pretty basic. Sure, the twist motion that Asus suggests to separate the two pulls them apart easily enough but, on more than one occasion, we pulled the Archos 101 XS out of our bags only to find the tablet wasn't sitting flush with its partner.
The tab itself also suffers from appearing 'cheap'. The white plastic edges don't exactly blend into the mock (plastic, of course) brushed metal finish, and the lip between the silver trim and the 10.1-inch display is pretty sharp. It's a build that is also massively susceptible to scuffs and scratches - ours was a bit of a mess after only a short while of regular use and transportation.
The volume rocker and the power button, positioned on the bottom-right corner, are incredibly thin and fiddly to use, and the speaker grill up front is pretty incongruous.
On the left-hand side is your port activity. You'll find a mini HDMI port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a micro USB port and a microSD slot awkwardly positioned here. The bottom edge contains the dock connector and a couple of magnets.
The display is a TFT (MVA) one with a respectable 1280 x 800 resolution. Although, while the pixel count is on a par with its similarly priced rivals, the quality falls a little short. Even on full brightness the display is pretty lifeless, and the glossy finish makes it incredibly susceptible to fingerprints and smudges.
There's no auto-brightness function, which is a little odd for an Android tablet, but you'll most likely want the lights on full anyway.
Onboard storage is 16GB, and you can expand this by up to 128GB using the microSD option. Copying and pasting from microSD card to internal storage, and vice versa, is a piece of pie, thanks to the nice File Manager app that Archos has pre-installed. Data connectivity is Wi-Fi only; there is no 3G version of the Archos 101 XS.
Interface, performance and battery
Android fans will be pleased to hear that Android is in place on the Archos 101 XS in pretty much vanilla form. There are no major tweaks to the overall UI - although some of the menu and setting options have been altered by the French company.
The set up wizard, for example, is different to what you normally see with Google's mobile OS, with a raft of personalisation and calibration steps to take before the Archos 101 XS is ready to go.
If you do want to start all over again, you'll also see that the Factory Reset option is gone - replaced with a 'Full reinitialization' option within a 'Repair & formatting' sub-menu in the system settings. A 10 second hold of the power button also kickstarts a big reset.
As mentioned, the Archos 101 XS comes running Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich out of the box, although a Q4 2012 update to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is promised.
So, it's the usual mix of five home screens, customisable widgets and shortcuts on offer, with nothing out of the Android norm to see here. Flash support is there right from the off, with the latest version of Adobe's software pre-installed, despite Google's move away from the platform.
Running via the nippy 1.5GHz Texas Instruments OMAP4470 processor, backed up with 1GB of RAM and a PowerVR SGX544 GPU, menus and options are quick to load, the response time from touchscreen action is great and general performance is pleasing.
The keyboard control option is very useful, especially if you're desk-bound for any length of time, or you need to do a large amount of document editing. The tablet, once docked, gives you the option to default to the physical keyboard - a keyboard icon appears by the clock in the bottom-right corner, enabling you to fully customise the keyboard options.
The keyboard, as well as making it easier to type, also provides some nice quick-launch and shortcut keys. There's a home screen button, a search key, multiple keys to switch on or off settings such as Bluetooth, sound, change the brightness/volume and also, crucially, a home screen button.
While the Archos 101 XS could never be a laptop replacement (as perhaps the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity could) the keyboard dock does enhance the experience and you'll find you'll use physical keys even when a simple tap on the screen would do the same thing.
The boot up sequence is pretty straightforward - a couple of nice flashing Archos logos and then you're good to go after about 30 seconds.
Battery life and benchmarks
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Archos assures us that when it comes to battery life we can expect music playback of up to 40 hours, video for up to seven hours or web browsing for up to 10 hours.
We'll have to take its word for it, since we recorded just under six hours for our intense battery test, which combines all three by streaming an HD music video from the web. This result means the manufacturer's promises for the Archos 101 XS should be pretty accurate.
In raw benchmarking scores, it may not have scored as highly as some of its Nvidia-powered rivals, but we can assure you that in real-world usage, it is plenty fast enough. We had no issues with app loading, multitasking, graphically intensive gaming or HD movie playback.
As we always state, when it comes to browser options on Android tablets, you aren't stuck with the default version. Hopefully, with Google really pushing Chrome for Android hard, we shouldn't see too much more of 'Browser' and its dull globe icon. But, sadly, on the Archos 101 XS that is what you have for your web adventures - to begin with, at least.
We'd recommend hitting Google Play straight away to download Google's Chrome browser, or perhaps Dolphin HD or Opera Mini, which are all fantastic alternatives to the default selection.
Whatever browser you choose, you can expect a smooth experience on the new Archos flagship tablet, with the 1GB of RAM proving ample for multi-tabbed browsing.
Using the default browser for reference, pages loaded quickly, there was little lag when switching between tabs and Flash content ran without too much fuss - at least most of the time.
We did encounter some browsing crashes, but we'll put these down to the fact that the device we were using was actually an engineering sample, not the final product.
The default browser offers the usual array of personalisation tweaks, such as changing the text size, zooming on a double-tap and inverted screen rendering. Text reflow is supported, making it easier to read articles on the go, and text looked nice and clear when zoomed in to its maximum level.
Media and apps
Movies, music and books
Archos has done little to tweak the native Android user experience but, when it comes to media options, the French company has shuffled the pack a bit. Fortunately, it has dealt a strong media hand, with the digital playback aspect being one of our favourite parts of the Archos 101 XS.
The Archos Music app, which comes pre-installed, has a nice UI with a rotating carousel of album artwork alongside the library and server options, decent EQ settings, and a great breakdown of the file information of your tracks, including metadata and technical information.
The Video app looks just the same, with the same access to important data such as file types and codec information. And we're delighted to say it played back all manner of videos that we threw its way.
It batted through MP4s, WMV files, VOB videos, compressed AVIs, MKV trailers, HD and SD without any problems at all. Most Android tablets struggle to play such an array of file types without downloading a third-party player first, so it's nice that Archos has sorted this for you.
Playback, of all files and sizes, from standard resolution right up to Full HD 1080p, was smooth and stutter-free. But the display on the Archos 101 XS isn't the greatest, so some videos looked pretty uninspiring.
The sound from the single built-in speaker is terrible too - about the worst we've come across on a big screen slate. But stick your headphones in or hook up some external speakers and you'll have no worries.
And if that lacklustre display isn't doing it for you during your movie session, you can always output the action to your big screen TV using the mini HDMI port or the DLNA connections.
If you fancy tapping into the latter, you can make use of the easy-to-use Media Server app from Archos, which makes it a cinch to find compatible devices to stream to.
Adding your digital media onto the Archos 101 XS is also straightforward, since the tablet supports drive mounting and drag and drop with your PC or Mac.
You can, of course, also load up a microSD with digital delights and pop that in. We had no bother playing back music or video directly from a memory card.
Finally you can, of course, beef up your Archos 101 XS with media directly through Google Play, which offers movies from 99p/$0.99 (new releases cost around £3.49/$3.99, or £4.49/$4.99 for HD titles) and electronic books. Other digital stores are available in Google Play.
Apps and games
We are always worried when firing up a new tablet about what apps and games a manufacturer believes we simply can't live without.
In the case of the Archos 101 XS, those apps and games are: Angry Birds, Asphalt 6, BBC iPlayer, BBC News, News Republic, Office Suite Pro, Spiderman HD, Top Games and Zinio.
OK, so this isn't the worst collection of bloatware we've seen, and you'll more than likely make use of a few of them, but - as with new Windows PCs - it still annoys us that we seemingly can't be trusted to make our own app and software choices.
Apps that are native to a specific device or manufacturer - such as the Music and Video pairing on the Archos 101 XS - are fine, but we'd love to see an end to the pre-installed for our pleasure ethos.
Rant over; you do of course have access to Google's wealth of apps such as Gmail, Maps, Latitude, Drive and People, as well as a choice of over 600,000 apps from Google Play.
People looking to get their game on with the Archos XS 101 won't be disappointed because, despite not packing a Tegra 3 CPU, gameplay is still incredibly smooth with little or no stutter, even on graphically demanding titles such as Temple Run and Riptide GP.
Often in tablet reviews, particularly reviews for tablets that don't sit at the top end of the market, we bemoan the quality of the rear-facing camera and question its worth to the device as a whole.
So, it's with some pleasure that we can report that Archos has decided not to offer a digital snapper to the 101 XS, with the only camera in place being a front-facing webcam that's capable of shooting 720p HD action.
Sure, it means that any augmented reality apps are a no-no, and you won't be able to take fun snaps when you're out and about, but - and this is a big plus point - it will prevent you from using your tablet to record video at a gig or event, and thus save you from looking like a complete idiot.
In all seriousness, for us the lack of a rear facing camera isn't that big of a deal on a tablet, but we can understand that it might be for someone forking out £300/$360 when similarly priced tablets do offer one.
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The Archos 101 XS is a decent mid-range tablet that offers a native Android experience, with the added bonus of a hybrid keyboard.
The build quality and design certainly won't win any prizes, and the display and sound are pretty disappointing but, overall, it's still good value for money, and a decent alternative to what the big boys are offering up.
The keyboard, while not the most ergonomically friendly or comfortable, does without doubt make the Archos XS 101 much more efficient when it comes to document editing or long typing periods.
The speed and performance is also great, proving that quad-core Tegra 3 power isn't your only option when looking for a slick Android tablet experience.
Archos has also pre-installed a great media playback platform, with the Music and Video apps able to handle pretty much any file type you throw their way.
The build quality isn't great, with an awful kickstand, poorly placed buttons and ports, and a design that looks a little bit cumbersome compared to some of its rivals.
Despite the media playback software being a strong point of the Archos 101 XS, this aspect is let down somewhat by an average-at-best 10.1-inch HD TFT display and a ridiculously bad onboard speaker setup.
There's also no rear-facing camera, and we're sure that will be a sore point for some, especially given this is becoming a standard inclusion on big-screen Android devices.
It's hard to dislike the Archos 101 XS, despite its shoddy build and mediocre design, but equally hard to fall in love with it too, despite its nippy performance and its useful hybrid control setup.
We can't help that feel, even at a penny of shy of £300/$360, the Archos 101 XS is slightly overpriced. Given that the far superior Asus Transformer Pad 300 - with its much better hybrid keyboard system - can be yours for not much more, and the keyboard-less but much nicer looking Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 can be bought for the same price, we feel a price tag closer to £250 may have made Archos's 10-inch tablet more attractive.
Ultimately, if you're looking for a modern Android tablet with an OS experience just as Dr Google prescribed, and a keyboard dock to boot, and you've got £300/$360 and not a penny more to spend, then this is your only option.
And it's not a terrible option by any stretch. Although, if you could somehow cough up a bit extra, we'd urge you to tread the well-worn Asus path instead.