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REVIEW: Archos 101 XS Android tablet with Coverboard keyboard case

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archos-101xs-03.jpgreview-line.JPGName: Archos 101 XS

Type: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich tablet, with "Coverboard" keyboard case

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £299.99 direct from Archos

review-line.JPGOffering up a full 10-inch Android tablet experience alongside a nifty keyboard/protective cover for under £300, the Archos 101 XS looks a bargain. But can value for money help you overlook a string of bugs? Read on to find out!

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Design

With its white plastic bezel, metal backplate and chrome highlights, the Archos 101 XS is quite an attractive Android tablet. Packing in a "Smart" dual-core OMAP4470 processor clocked at 1.5GHz, 1GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, it manages to keep itself in trim shape, measuring 8mm thick. For a 10.1 inch tablet like the Archos 101 XS, that's ridiculously thin; the similarly sized new iPad, for instance, measures 9.4mm, while the comparably-specced ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 measures 10mm thick. With dimensions measuring 273mm wide and 170mm tall, the Archos 101 XS proves particularly comfortable in the hand, with its 600g weight feeling light and well balanced for a tablet this size.

Held in landscape orientation, you'll find on the left hand side a 3.5 mm headphone jack, mini HDMI output, miniUSB port and a microSD slot. The right hand side has a volume rocker and the power button, which we found a little too small to easily find in a hurry, while the lower edge has a magnetic dock connector, used with connecting the supplied Coverboard keyboard case, which we'll talk about in a second. A 720p front-facing webcam is onboard, which is really only designed for making Skype calls, though you could take some really rubbish photos with it if you liked. The right hand side also houses a speaker grille, facing forward. It's awkwardly placed though, as its exactly where your hands naturally fall in a landscape orientation, muffling the sound. There's no SIM card slot in the Archos 101 XS, so you're limited to Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi hotspots if you're using this tablet on the go. GPS, compass, and G-Sensor sensors are all built in, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.archos-101xs-02.jpgMoving onto the screen, it's running at a 1280 x 720 resolution. It's not up there with the 1080p Transformer Infinity, or mind-boggling 2048 x 1536 Retina display of the new iPad, but it's still one of the higher resolution tablet screens available. It's not quite the draw for fingerprints as other screens are, but it's not particularly bright either, which is a shame. It's lacking detail in colour and sharpness too, with fuzzy text and a strange, slightly blue hue cast over everything. You won't notice it in isolation, but place it next to another Android tablet and there's a definite difference.

It's no, the most polished finish of all time too. On the back, there are visible joins and bumps where the metal backplate meets the plastic bezel, and some joins around the edge of the tablet that could have done with a closer finish too.

Having tried out two separate Archos 101 XS tablets, we've encountered a handful of bugs. Our first wouldn't charge unless connected to a PC, a problem we're chalking up to a faulty charger as the second tablet had no such issues. But both suffered from a persistent bug concerning the headphone port that really frustrated, which we'll discuss in the "Media playback" area of this review.archos-101xs-04.jpgCoverboard keyboard dock

The Archos has a trump card up its sleeve in the shape of the Coverboard. Or at least it should be its trump card. It's a lightweight (200g), full size keyboard that connects to the tablet through the magnetic dock that we mentioned earlier, and also acts as a magnetic protective cover for the screen when you're not using the devices.

In theory it's an elegant solution, connecting the two together simply by a magnets. The magnets are powerful, both when the tablet stands in the dock supported by a fold-out arm and when the Coverboard is placed on top of the screen to protect it, twisting the two to slide them apart. The Coverboard is remarkably thin, and connecting the two parts together sees the thickness jump up only slightly to 13mm, making it still perfectly portable. There's also a host of Android-specific short cut keys too, which are useful. £100 cheaper than it's ASUS rival, it certainly appears to be a real bargain.archos-101xs-06.jpgIn practice though, it's a bit of a pain. For starters, the keyboard won't always be recognised by the tablet, failing to pair probably two times in ten during our testing. With the tablet significantly heavier than the Coverboard, it also struggles to stay balanced unless it's on a perfectly flat surface that evenly distributes the weight.

The thinness of the dock also works against itself when typing. Though the keys are a good size, they lack the travel needed to make lengthy typing sessions comfortable. Use it on your lap as opposed to a flat surface and you'll also notice a lot of flex too; this is not the keyboard to use when hammering out a passionate speech. It also means the dock lacks some of the features that the rival ASUS Transformer TF300 offers, such as extra battery capacity and an SD card slot.archos-101xs-08.jpgInterface, Apps and Gaming performance

The Archos 101 XS lands with Android version 4.0, AKA Ice Cream Sandwich. That's not quite cutting edge, what with the newer Jelly Bean version now becoming the norm in the latest Android hardware releases, but it's still a solid, and excellent, operating system. If you really must have the latest version of Android, Archos promise that an over-the-air update for the tablet will land in around a month's time for Jelly Bean. Fingers crossed.

In a wise move, Archos have left Android pretty much in its stock form, without any obnoxious or resource-hogging UI of their own laid over the top. That's great, as Ice Cream Sandwich is perfectly fine just as it is; fully customisable, you can arrange multiple homescreens however you'd like, with app folders, live widgets that can be moved around by simply long-pressing them and an unobtrusive notifications area.archos-101xs-10.jpgAccess to the Google Play Store gives Archos 101 XS users the ability to download from thousands of Android apps, both free and paid for. They still tend to lack the polish of Apple's App Store apps, but that's an unavoidable byproduct of having a truly open platform. The quality of Android apps keeps on getting better and better all the time, so that shouldn't put you off by any means. The Archos 101 XS also comes with a load of Google's own apps, including Gmail, YouTube, Talk and Maps, all of a uniformly excellent quality.

Archos also put a handful of great third party apps on the tablet, out of the box, free of charge. Angry Birds is one of them, and much-loved it is. But even better than that is the inclusion of OfficeSuite Pro 6, a Microsoft Office document editing app that normally retails for a tenner on its own. Put together with the keyboard, you can use it to get some real work done with the Archos 101 XS, if you can overlook the dock's few failings. We're also into the picture frame app, which turns your snaps into a scrolling, interactive pinboard-style slideshow.

On the whole, everything runs well on the tablet; the screen is responsive, apps load swiftly, and there were no notable hangs or crashes with the software that we had to deal with. 3D gaming is usually a good indication of the processor's capabilities, and the demanding jet ski game Riptide GP ran without a hitch.archos-101xs-11.jpgInternet

As previously stated, there's no 3G connection on the Archos 101 XS, so if you're hoping to browse the web or stream content on the go, you're out of luck unless you can find a Wi-Fi hotspot, or have a portable hotspot handy.

Ice Cream Sandwich's stock web browser is a strong offering. Featuring tabbed browsing and multi-touch controls like pinch-to-zoom, load times are generally fast, with pages generated without any graphical or structural hiccups. Typing in text with the supplied keyboard was a welcome option to using the software keyboard too, particularly if you use web apps like the Docs part of Google Drive. Text is reasonably clear, though pages still have the aforementioned blue hue, while the OMAP processor dealt with complicated web content, including Flash video, without a hitch.

We've said it before and we'll say it again though, we'd still recommend downloading the Ice Cream Sandwich-compatible Chrome browser app from the Google Play store. Syncing all your settings and bookmarks from the desktop version, it's a more stable, slick way to browse with the tablet.
archos-101xs-12.jpgMedia playback

Right then, those aforementioned headphone problems. There's a definite problem with the Archos 101 XS's headphone support. We tried a number of different pairs, both in-ear and over-ear from numerous manufacturers, including Klipsch, Logitech, Philips and others. Each returned either garbled audio, or incredibly low volume levels, even with the volume cranked to the max on the tablet itself. The unifying feature of these headphones is that they all featured a mic and in-line remote. Indeed, pushing the "end call" button on some of the headsets pushed the volume up much higher, providing it was constantly held down. Using older headphones without a remote or mic fixed the problem, but with the majority of earphones and headphones today coming with some form of inline control, some may frustratingly need to grab a new pair to go with the Archos 101 XS.

This wouldn't be such a big issue if the built-in speaker was good, but it's not. As mentioned earlier, it's placed right under where your hand naturally sits, which blocks the sound. Even when its not obscured, its tinny and sharp tone makes it unpleasant to listen to, a natural side-effect of being inside so slim a tablet we suppose.archos-101xs-09.jpgThese problems are a shame, because from a software side of things, Archos have got quite a lot right here. There's widespread video file format support, including H.264, MPEG-4, AVI, MP4, MOV, 3GP, MPG, PS, TS, VOB, MKV, FLV, RM, RMVB and ASF. Though the screen itself isn't capable of displaying 1080p content at that resolution, the files play without a stutter at the tablet's native resolution. The same strong file format support extends to audio, with MP3, WAV, AAC, OGG and FLAC covered. With video, the widescreen ratio is a good match for the majority of video content these days, even if it's not as bright as we'd have liked.

The media library apps are good too. The music player is solid, standard affair with its cover flow artwork and it's easy to navigate a large library of tracks with it. The video player is great though; we loved the way you have the option of pulling in cast, crew and synopsis data for your videos from the web (no matter where you sourced them from). Working from the video filename and tags, it's easy to quickly get video data for a well-maintained library, and if the default search doesn't throw up the details you were looking for, you can manually assign details using a search function.archos-101xs-05.jpgBattery Life

Archos claim you can expect 40 hours of music playback, seven hours of video playback or 10 hours of web browsing from the 101 XS. Our tests found the tablet to fall just about within these parameters, clocking up 6 hours 11 minutes from a full charge under an intense workload of a combination of HD video streaming, 3D gaming and video calling. That's not a bad result, though it pales in comparison to the long hours of usage that the ASUS Transformer TF300's battery-packing keyboard allowed for.

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Verdict:

You're getting a lot for your £300 with the Archos 101 XS, there's no denying that. But for everything it gets right (strong media support, clever Coverboard design) it gets things wrong too (shonky headphone support, poor build quality). If having a premium product isn't on the top of your list of priorities, there's still a lot of value in and fun to be had with the Archos 101 XS. If, however, you're a veteran of Apple products, or even have experience with the latest wave of tablet bargains like the Google Nexus 7, the Archos 101 XS will lack the polish you've come to expect, even at its affordable price point.review-line.JPG

3/5

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