Tablets right now aren’t business ready. They are great for media, games, and basic mobile communication. As tablets become more powerful, the complexity of applications will expand and the overall ability of these handheld devices will work for more situations. Today, even the best tablets are still highly limited. I agree with Bill Gates’ original premise: tablets need a pen. His mistake, basing operating systems around the mouse-like stylus, was Steve Jobs’ success. But we still need a pen.

The HTC Flyer attempts to remedy both of these issues with a tablet that works with a pen stylus and specialized software to run both Android and the company’s proprietary Scribe Technology software to write anywhere, anytime. In theory, this may seem superfluous to current tablet owners, but in reality it is the holy grail. Students could write notes in digital textbooks, professionals can work without requiring a keyboard, doctors can walk around the hospital and keep up-to-date on patients with a tablet, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Does the Flyer live up to the hype?

Hardware

The Flyer side by side with the Samsung Galaxy Tab

HTC built the Flyer small, with a 7” display, but packed it thick. The tablet runs on a 1.5GHz single-core Qualcomm processor and 1GB of RAM, with 16GB of space to play around in. The build is akin to a handful of HTCs smartphones, and in fact looks like a larger version of the Sensation 4G. On the right is a volume rocker, on top is the power/standby button, and the single proprietary charging port is on the bottom.

The 1024×600 glossy display is surrounded by a silver bezel that protrudes above the glass, a smart detail if the capacitive display extended all the way to the bezel. A 960×720 front-facing camera is seated on the right, while three navigation buttons light up on the bottom when the Flyer is activated. Like recent handsets including the Droid Incredible 2, the Flyer is designed for one landscape mode, 90° counterclockwise, and the navigation keys on the left light up when the tablet is turned. A fourth pen button is also accessible on the far right, but only reacts to the pen-stylus and not to touch.

From top to bottom: Sony Reader Wi-Fi, Samsung Galaxy Tab, HTC Flyer

The back panel is an aluminum plate with two white plastic slabs on the top and bottom, the former which hides the 5MP rear camera and microSD slot, and the latter which is inaccessible. Like the iPad 2, the Flyer is comfortable to hold and doesn’t feel cold to the touch for more than an instant, though the aluminum plate feels thinner. The overall design is very light at just 420g, much lighter than larger competing tablets but still heavier than the older Galaxy Tab. In the hand, the Flyer feels solid. Good to hold and comfortable one- or two-handed.

Pen & Writing

When it comes to the pen, the design feels completely different. The once firm and light tablet suddenly becomes small and cumbersome. Writing on a digital display has always been one of the biggest challenges for tablet designers over the past twenty years, and even today there hasn’t been a serious competitor to good old fashioned paper and the friction of a pen or pencil. Using the stylus on the Flyer has a number of problems, some of which likely couldn’t be solved by HTC at this time (such as making the display feel more like writing on paper), and some of which could have been easily remedied.

The biggest problem stems from the small display. As a culture we’ve accustomed to writing on 8.5×11” paper, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Some differences in size are fine, but moving to a 7” diagonal display is a huge change. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1, or even the iPad 2’s 8.9” display, would be far better suited for handwriting. On the Flyer, I found every handwritten note hindered by the dimensions of the screen. HTC could have easily made the Flyer a larger tablet. Rumors are that HTC is currently planning a 10” Flyer, but the company has released no word on it thus far.

HTC’s Scribe Technology is also severely handicapped. When I heard about using a tablet with a stylus, I imagined all of the troubles with signing documents to fax/scan and send, writing notes on PDFs, and all the other activities so many of us don’t need on a daily basis. I imagined them gone, easily remedied with a pen-tablet system. The Flyer doesn’t fix anything.

For a quick example, I often sign loan agreements for products to review. These are usually PDF or Doc files, which I print, sign, and fax. I’m also given the option to print, sign, scan and email, or even digitize my signature and email that. The latter has security issues, and plenty of professionals won’t use digital signatures except on secure systems. I tried using the Flyer to sign a loan agreement, but it’s not possible. That’s because the Scribe Technology software only takes a screenshot and then allows users to edit it in a Microsoft Paint-esque app. When finished, the image is saved on the device or stored in the cloud through Evernote. There is no option to save it on the PDF or Doc directly.

That means if you want to write directly on documents, pictures, or even websites, too bad. All users can do is take a screenshot and edit that, which is frankly a poor man’s excuse for tablet software. There’s nothing intelligent or revolutionary about it, and hardly anything useful either. Only through the include eBook reader software (see below) can users write on individual pages and have those notes saved on specific pages, without saving a screenshot image. Students taking notes may enjoy the easy Evernote synching, but professionals won’t have any reason to ever use the Flyer for work.

Software & Performance

The Flyer runs on Android 2.3 with HTC’s TouchSense, though updated for the Flyer and stylus. The bottom of the display has five buttons: apps, Notes, Reader, Watch, and Personalize. Notes is the selection of saved pen-written notes, while Reader is Kobo-driven eBook reader store and application, which works in conjunction with the stylus. Pages written on will retain notes, and the Flyer ships with eight classic titles like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Art of War. Finally, Watch is a video-viewing app.

Overall the software itself isn’t very different from what is available on HTC smartphones, let alone Android devices as a whole. There are some graphical differences, like the spinning home screen in landscape, which don’t improve on the design but are nice touches. Some applications have a tendency to crash, like Notes, while others won’t run at all, including one of the new benchmark suites I’ll be employing for future Android reviews.

If you plan on using the Flyer like any standard tablet, to use apps and view media, the software and performance is good, but not great. With a firmware update the Flyer would be much more stable, though for now it won’t be a problem for most users.

Performance on the Flyer is very good. It consistently posted high scores on benchmark tests thanks to the 1.5GHz processor and 1GB of RAM, though some more recent smartphones have already begun to overshadow it in graphical performance. Take a look at the graphs below to see performance comparisons.

The Flyer performed very well, though it couldn’t beat out the iPad 2 in a number of tests, both at processing standard web functions and javascript (Browsermark and Sunspider, respectively), and actually was slightly slower at processing basic graphics than two newer handsets, the Motorola Droid Bionic and Samsung Galaxy S2. However, in single thread processing, the Flyer’s 1.5GHz processor smoked the competition by a wide margin.

In graphics processing the Flyer also has strong performance, though the 1024×600 display is unique, and it can’t accurately be measured when framerates on GPU-focused benchmarks rely heavily on similar display resolutions. However, when it came to more detailed graphics processing, the Flyer was far under 30 frames per second, the standard requirement for games.

Everyday performance has proven to be sufficient for a tablet and current Android device. However, it runs Android 2.3 and not the current standard for tablets (3.1 or higher). The upcoming Android 4.0 (codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich) is expected to release later this month, presumably for both smartphones and tablets, and because of the Scribe software, the Flyer likely won’t see such an update. However, performing every tasks and running apps that don’t require two cores (which are rare already) is a fast and smooth process. If you’re interested in an Android tablet that is quick, and don’t care about the rest, based solely on performance the Flyer is an excellent option.

However, if you plan on using the Flyer for heavy gaming or graphic-intense processes, every GPU-heavy benchmark I’ve run has ended with poor results or crashing the tablet entirely.

Poor Camera and Battery Life

Tablets are not viewed as devices which require a camera at all, but the Flyer is one exception. Because of the promise to take notes with the device, and the option of easily taking photos and dropping them into notes, camera quality should really be there. However, this 5MP shooter is very poor. Certainly good enough for the device, much like the Nintendo DS cameras are, but put them on a computer screen and colors are washed out and noisy, and overall picture quality is poor to awful. Take a look specifically at the fountain image, one of the standards I use for all camera tests.

Battery life on the Flyer is decent, about a week’s worth with moderate use. With no 3G option, even on Wi-Fi the Flyer only needs a charge about once a week, though under heavy use I did need to charge it every other day. That’s with 4-5 hours of continuous use.

Conclusion

The HTC Flyer is a tablet with a lot of promise, and it’s also the fastest CPU available (albeit with just one core). However, the pen software that was meant to revolutionize tablets has failed to do so, and unless you buy all your books through the special Kobu store and really like writing notes on those books, there is little reason to purchase the Flyer for writing alone. It has no practical applications outside of book notetaking.

However, if you’re looking for a tablet that is quick and capable of running general apps, the Flyer is a great option. The Android Marketplace still doesn’t stand up to Apple’s App Store, especially for tablet-specific apps, but I’ve found one demographic that HTC hasn’t marketed towards that would particularly enjoy the simplicity of the Flyer’s design: children. Kids between the age of 2-7 can easily enjoy many of the functions built directly into the Flyer, such as the drawing application, and even the included Kid Mode app, by Zoodles. This one simple web-based app offers games, its own drawing app, books (which can be created and voiced by parents), and even a rudimentary email service that supports video mail.

For that audience, the Flyer is capable of being even stronger than the iPad 2, which can be too big and clunky for a child to handle. Adults, however, may struggle to find adequate uses for the Flyer, but young parents may come to love it, especially with more and more kid-friendly apps coming out daily.

Pros:

  • Small form factor and pen design is excellent for children
  • The 1.5GHz processor is blazingly fast, even for a single-core CPU
  • The pen ($50 add-on) functions well and is highly accurate

Cons:

  • Software doesn’t solve any pen-tablet expected functions, and is not suitable for professionals
  • Small size makes writing on the device more of a hassle than it’s worth
  • There is nowhere to keep the stylus on the Flyer
  • Prices vary greatly between retailers (from $300-$500)
  • Pen is sold separately, also for varying prices

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Fair

Bottom Line: The Flyer is a solid tablet, but professionals shouldn’t confuse it with a serious business tool. It’s a solid media device, and has the neat pen, but it isn’t going to help you work or run a business. Kids, however, will love it.










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.