HTC Flyer £599.99
16th May 2011 | 13:11
Can HTC's 7-inch Android tablet reach the dizzy heights of the brand's smartphone range?
HTC Flyer review: Overview
HTC has always stood out among the raft of Android phone manufacturers. The company's been partnering with Google since the start, but still forges its own style, which has won it a lot of fans.
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The most notable change from the norm is the 7-inch screen and the touchscreen stylus, known officially as the Magic Pen. It connects wirelessly to the Flyer, and enables you to annotate, highlight and erase in supported apps. It offers a measure of pressure sensitivity (unlike most styluses on capacitive screens), so may pique the interest of artists.
Instead of Android 3.0, the Flyer uses Android 2.3.3, skinned with HTC's familiar Sense UI. In this case, it's Sense 2.1 for Tablet. We'll go into more detail about exactly what that means on the third page, but for now we'll just say it's HTC's way of trying make a version of Android designed for phones work a little better on larger screens.
Instead of the dual-core processors that have quickly become the standard for new tablets (particularly Nvidia's Tegra 2), HTC has gone for a single-core processor with a higher clock speed. The CPU is paired with 1GB of RAM, so there's great potential for multitasking.
There's a five-megapixel rear camera, as well as a 1.3MP front-facing camera. Both are capable of recording 720p HD video footage.
Initially, the HTC Flyer will be available in a Wi-Fi-only version with 16GB of storage, or a 32GB Wi-Fi + 3G version. The 16GB Wi-Fi model will set you back £479.99, while the 32GB Wi-Fi + 3G model is £599.99. In both cases, you get the pen in the box, along with a protective slipcase, a USB cable, a set of headphones and a mains power adapter.
HTC Flyer review: Design and features
HTC hasn't exactly left its comfort zone in the design of the Flyer. It's very close to the HTC Desire S, offering a similar design and unibody construction, but scaled up.
The front is black glass, with an HTC logo at the top (if you hold it portrait) and the front-facing camera along the right-hand bezel (and so is designed to be used in landscape mainly) with touch-sensitive buttons along the bottom for Home, Menu and Back. There's also a green button that activates the pen mode.
Around the edge of the glass is a lip, which curves forward at the top and bottom, making the device easier to hold in landscape mode. When you do turn the device on its side, the four buttons along the bottom also rotate, so they'll always be below the screen.
Unfortunately, this means there are definite right and wrong ways to hold the Flyer, unlike the iPad. It only works in portrait with the HTC logo at the top, and in landscape with the camera at the top. It's not a huge drawback, but it's a bit of a shame.
Along the right edge is a volume rocker, while the top houses the Lock key, a notification light, and the headphone jack. On the bottom is the micro-USB port.
The back is mostly metal from than unibody construction. There are two gaps for the loudspeakers, and the camera lens sits in the white plastic panel at the top.
To get to the SIM and microSD card slots, you need to pop this top panel off.
Weighing just 420g, the Flyer feels fairly light and comfortable in the hand, but with excellent build quality. It's one of the few tablets that can really stand up to the iPad 2 when it comes to feeling like a premium product. It's thicker than the iPad 2, but the curved back means it's not all that noticeable.
The 1024x600 panel is vibrant and is even fairly easy to see in sunlight (well, as much as these things can be). Videos in particular look crisp and smooth, with natural-looking colour.
Of course, the really interesting thing about interacting with the display is HTC's tablet pen. The pen itself is about 115mm long and about 9mm across. It's all aluminium, save for the tip and the two buttons, which enable you to highlight and erase, respectively.
The pen is quite comfortable to hold, though it's awfully easy to press one of the buttons accidentally, which can interrupt any drawing you're doing.
Support for the pen is built into Sense. You can use the pen directly in certain apps, while in others tapping the pen on the screen will take a screengrab, which you can then annotate or draw on and save to the Notes app.
One of the new features on offer is HTC Watch, which allows you to stream movies.
Other media support comes in the form of music playback, and the Flyer is compatible with all the usual flavours including AAC, AMR, OGG, M4A, MID, MP3, WAV and WMA files, while videos are recognised in 3GP, MP4, AVI, WMV and XVID formats.
As is usual with HTC devices, the five-megapixel camera comes with effects, but no scene modes. In fact, to have some fun with the front-facing camera, there's an app called Snapbooth, which allows to browse through the photo effects and watch their effect live in a manner NOT AT ALL like Apple's Photo Booth app on the iPad 2.
HTC has managed to get Google on board for its implementation of Android 2.3, which means access to Google's apps, including the updated version of Google Maps and the Android Market.
Unfortunately, HTC's decision not to run Android 3.0 means that the new tablet-friendly version of apps such as Gmail aren't available, and that you'll also be limited to phone apps on the Market – you won't be able to grab Google Body for instance.
However, HTC has updated its own apps to work slightly better on tablets, as we'll explain in the next section.
HTC Flyer review: Sense UI
The world waited patiently for a tablet-optimised version of Android, and it finally got one in the form of Android 3.0, which is used on the Motorola Xoom, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1V and Asus Eee Pad Transformer.
However, HTC clearly didn't want to use Google's new interface, having lovingly crafted its own. HTC Sense is a permanent fixture on the company's Android phones, and its gotten a size bump to appear here.
While the official version number given for the Flyer's interface is Sense 2.1 for Tablet, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Sense 3.0, which is soon to feature on the HTC Sensation.
Using Sense enables the pen to have support in many basic apps, and also allows HTC to offer its own tablet-friendly versions of apps that are designed for phones normally in Android 2.3.
In portrait mode, many apps look much the same as they would on phone like the HTC Desire S, but put them into landscape mode and you start to see the difference.
HTC's Mail app offers you a split view, much like Android 3.0 and the iPad do. On the left is a list of your messages, while the right displays the selected email. The app is fast to respond, and emails render quickly, though there can be some occasional fitting issues.
You'll notice from the screengrab that there are loads of buttons and options available here. For your inbox, you can choose to see in a conversation view, see your favourites, see unread or see attachments. On the right, you have all the options of what to do with a message. At the top, you can choose which inbox to view, as well options to search and compose a new message.
All well and good, but it takes up a vast amount of screen space on a pretty small screen. It's not just the buttons, though. There's an unnecessary black bar around the edge, and even the gap between the different windows in needlessly large.
Seven-inch tablets still divide opinions, with many thinking they're too small to really offer an advantage over phones. If you fill that small amount of space with unused black areas, that definitely becomes true.
Friend Stream, which offers an almost identical UI, but collects together your updates from different social networks, has the same problem. A long status update from someone will take up most of the left-hand pane, when there is more space that could be used.
It's a bit of an inconsistent social network client anyway. Select a Facebook status update and it'll load any comments, but choose a Twitter reply and it won't show the whole conversation. A Twitter update with a link in will load the web page underneath, but one with a hashtag won't do anything.
There are official Twitter and Facebook clients on the Flyer, but they're the usual Android phone versions, so don't offer a great experience.
Other changes to Sense include a new Lock screen that enables you to drag an app's icon into a circle to open that app immediately. It's nothing we haven't seen on other devices before, but is still welcome.
The Home screens are now arranged in a 3D cylinder, so they rotate around as you go from one to the other. There is no practical application for this, but it looks nice.
The HTC widgets have been optimised for the additional space of a tablet, though this mostly means they've just been given a little more space and controls made clearer.
The Music app has had the same upgrade to twin-pane view as the other HTC apps. You can still switch to a Cover Flow-style layout that takes up the whole landscape screen if you want, but it's far easier to browse in the other mode (and the wasted space is nowhere near such an issue here).
The Gallery app for viewing photos and images is another one in this template, and again it offers a good way to browse your photos and videos. Ultimately, a larger screen is always going to be an advantage for looking through lots of images.
On top of the redesigned apps, there's also those optismised for the pen. Notes is a general note-taking application that ties into Evernote seamlessly. If you take a screengrab from another app with the pen, Notes is where it will save to.
It's a comprehensive app, offering the ability to write by hand or type, record audio notes, import pictures manually, take new photos and add them, and tie a note to a day in the calendar.
We should mention that the audio recording is totally useless if you're taking pen notes, however. All you'll hear is tapping.
In the Reader ebook app, you can highlight passages of text using the pen, or make any annotation you like on the page. It's all pretty intuitive, once you get used to how the pen works, which we'll detail on the next page, along with our judgement of how well it works.
So was HTC right to stick with Sense on Android 2.3 instead of using Android 3.0? Those who love Sense will probably think so, and those who like the pen will probably find it a necessary price, but for most people we reckon it's a mis-step.
HTC may have optimised its apps for the tablet screen somewhat, but it hasn't done that good a job of it. This would be fine if you could replace them with other, better-optimised apps. However, being stuck on Android 2.3, all you've got are phone apps on offer from the Android Market.
HTC Flyer review: Performance
The part of the HTC Flyer that looks as though it could make or break it is the tablet pen. As we mentioned before, there's a small green touch-sensitive button below the screen, and tapping this with the pen brings up a small quarter-circle in the bottom-right corner.
If you're in an app that doesn't natively support the pen, this will bring up options to launch the Notes app or take a screengrab. In a supported app, it gives you access to the different pen types, colours and thicknesses, with your recently used pen types appearing around the edges.
It's not hugely intuitive when you first start using it, but follow the tutorial carefully and you'll get the hang of how to go back and forth between the options.
Actually using the pen is impressively responsive, and we've no complaints about the accuracy of writing or drawing. The pressure sensitivity is something of a let-down, though. It basically seems to be two settings: light and hard. We couldn't really get any nuance from it, which slightly spoils the whole point of having a fancy powered accessory.
The pen can be very sensitive, registering inputs from half a centimetre or so above the screen, so you'll have to get used to using it quite carefully.
Beyond the pen, the HTC Flyer is an able performer, but not one that we're blown away by. That said, browsing the web is generally smooth enough. Flash video plays back without a hitch, but having Flash elements on a page does hamper the smoothness of the general browsing experience. This is true of many tablets available now, however.
Navigating around is slick enough, and apps like the new 3D maps run smoothly, but it's nowhere near as fast as the dual-core iPad 2 or the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1V, and often doesn't seem as fast as the LG Optimus 2X, which is also dual-core, but runs a phone version of Android, like the Flyer.
Like the decision to use Android 2.3, we think use of the 1.5GHz single-core processor was a bit of a mistake. It's not slow, but it means that the Flyer can't playback 1080p or perform HDMI mirroring (it doesn't even have a video-out port), where many other tablets can.
What's most confusing, though, is why HTC would use this processor when it has access to the 1.2GHz dual-core CPU going in to the HTC Sensation. It's a bizarre choice, and really seems to be holding the Flyer back from matching its rivals when it comes to media features.
The other major disappointment from the Flyer is battery life. From our time with it, it looks like you'll get at least a third less battery life than the iPad 2, or about a quarter less than some of its Android 3.0 rivals. In some use cases, we'd think you'd get as little as half the life of bigger, better tablets.
We wonder if the choice of the high-speed single-core processor isn't the problem here again. In any case, it's a huge black mark for the Flyer when compared to other options.
Our final major gripe is the keyboard. The inclusion of arrows for navigation are actually quite welcome, but the reduction in key size is too much, as far as we're concerned. There's little space on a seven-inch screen anyway, and chipping away at the size of the keys just makes them too fiddly.
You can write something of a decent length on a good 10-inch tablet's keyboard (and we do, regularly), but we've never write anything longer than a short email on the Flyer.
Of course, you might be think that the pen is the key to fixing this, with some sort of handwriting recognition. But you'd be wrong, because there's isn't any.
We're a little surprised to see it missing, and though we wouldn't have considered it a major oversight if the keyboard were better, the fact that it isn't means we're ruing its exclusion.
HTC Flyer review: Benchmarks
HTC Flyer benchmarks
How it rates against the rest - higher is better
How we test
TechRadar aims to produce the most helpful tablet reviews on the web, so that you are able to make a more informed buying decision.
Part of this testing process includes benchmarking. It's a good way of measuring the overall performance of a product's internal hardware components.
We use Antutu System Benchmark to test tablets. It's a comprehensive Android benchmarking app and produces consistent results.
Antutu measures an Android device's CPU performance, 2D and 3D graphics performance, memory speed and internal and external storage read/write speeds. It combines the results for each test and gives the device a final score.
We test each device three times and take an average.
HTC Flyer review: Camera and video samples
HTC FLYER:Front-facing camera
HTC Flyer review: Verdict
The HTC Flyer is an oddly hesitant step into the tablet world for HTC, considering its unusual stylus selling point. HTC has stuck with its normal design, and hasn't strayed far at all from the UI its been honing.
The Sense UI overlay and pen are what set the Flyer apart from the competition, but it's awfully reliant on them to stand out at all, and we're not convinced it's enough.
The Flyer is an undeniably well-made device, with a unibody aluminium construction that rivals the iPad 2 for build quality. The screen is also nice and vibrant, with excellent viewing angles.
HTC's attempts to make tablet-friendly apps is welcome, and Sense UI is still very impressive technically, even if it isn't totally suited to the larger screen.
The pen is definitely a plus overall, even if we don't think HTC has made quite enough of it with the lack of handwriting recognition. There are lots of caveats in HTC's implementation of the stylus, including its very rudimentary pressure sensitivity and the fact that only a few apps support it, but it offers something different, and does it with HTC's usual sense of polish.
Despite some impressive moments, and its unique selling point, the HTC Flyer sits at the back of the pack when it comes to being an actual tablet.
The battery life is really poor compared to what else is on offer, while the 1.5GHz processor is generally fast enough, it doesn't seem as snappy as the likes of the Nvidia Tegra 2 in the Motorola Xoom or the A5 chip in the iPad 2.
We've also become accustomed to 1080p video output from our tablets, and its exclusion here stands out, especially since being able to work with the pen on a larger screen would have been great.
HTC Sense just isn't a tablet UI. The same goes for Android 2.3, and HTC's attempts to make it one fall short. As we said above, it's put in a good effort to make its apps work better on a larger screen, but there's a lot of wasted space.
Finally, the HTC Flyer is simply too expensive. The 16GB Wi-Fi version is the same price as a 32GB Wi-Fi iPad 2. The 32GB Wi-Fi + 3G version is £20 more than its Apple equivalent. That latter of those doesn't seem so bad when you consider that the pen is included, but also remember that it's quite a bit smaller, so really comes across as a poor deal.
There are a couple of particular reasons why you might want to pick up the HTC Flyer, including the pen, but it simply isn't that good a tablet.
It's missing some media features we've come to expect, it's expensive, it has relatively poor battery life and it doesn't have software suited to a tablet. If this had come late last year, we'd probably be raving about it, but things have moved on, and we have to recommend an Android 3.0 tablet or the iPad 2 over it.