ViewSonic ViewPad 10 tablet: Windows plus Android doesn’t add up

You know the Reese’s ad about how chocolate and peanut better go better together? I bet whoever came up with the ViewSonic ViewPad 10 had the same aspiration. The problem is this dual-OS tablet is not a delectable combination. Think creamed spinach and red licorice, not peanut butter and chocolate.

The ViewPad 10 is an awkward shotgun marriage whose two parties clearly don’t have their hearts in it. You notice as soon as you turn it on. You get a DOS-like prompt telling you to use the arrow keys to select the OS you want: Windows 7 or Android. However, there are no arrow keys on the device. It’s a tablet, so of course there’s no keyboard, but you wil find three buttons: Power, Home, and Enter. It turns out you can use Home as a down-arrow key.

I asked ViewSonic why the boot menu didn’t match the actual buttons and was told that the company used a Linux boot loader. In other words, either no one thought to have the hardware and software match or no one cared to do anything about it. This “slap it together mentality” is one reason no tablets come close to the iPad.

The slow, awkward Windows experienceOnce you boot into Windows, you get, well, Windows. It’s immediately familiar, so there’s essentially no learning curve. ViewSonic pre-installs very few applications. There’s Adobe Reader 9 and the minimum set of Windows-provisioned applications: Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, XPS Viewer, and the Calculator. You’ll need to install anything else you might want to use, such as Outlook or Office. Of course, the ViewPad is a tablet, so there’s no DVD drive, but you can plug one in via USB — if you own one.

However, you may not want to install any applications. Windows 7 and apps such as IE run like molasses on the ViewPad 10 and its 1GHz single-core Atom processor. The delays to my input were excruciating. For example, when I zoomed in or out of IE, it took several seconds for the screen to respond to my gestures. The latency is too great to work around, and I could never predict the results of what I’d done. I can’t imagine how the ViewPad would handle a bloated app like Office. Even simple tasks like opening the Start menu showed noticeable lags.

If you can handle the slow performance, beware the poor touch interface. Windows 7 is terrible at handling touch input — many buttons and links require very precisely positioned taps on screen elements that are usually frustratingly small; I typically had to tap multiple times to activate a control. Windows is inconsistent: Some controls just needed a tap near them, while others — even in the same dialog box or window — required a precise tap. It feels like you’re playing darts with your finger.

The onscreen keyboard is also awkward. It floats to the side, so you have to pull it out when you want it. Some applications let you open the keyboard via a button, but none opened it automatically when I clicked a text field as Android tablets, the RIM (TSX: RIM) BlackBerry PlayBook, and the iPad all do. The keyboard works just like a physical model — no keyboard layout changes to get used to, as in competing OSes, but given its small size and floating nature, you can’t use it for touch-typing. At least the buttons were decently sized. I also tried the pen input capability: That was a painful experience, as the “ink” was slow to appear, and the translation to text was highly inaccurate. Frankly, pen input is good only for checking off boxes in a forms-oriented app.

The ViewPad could be used as a portable PC into which you plug a keyboard, display, and mouse most of the time and use as a tablet rarely. But the slow performance would render that unworkable — better to get a small laptop.

When you boot into Android on the ViewPad, you’ll immediately notice how much more responsive the Google OS is than Windows 7. The ViewPad runs a custom version of Android OS 2.2, a smartphone edition of the OS rather than the “Honeycomb” Android 3.0 OS for tablets. (Until mid-May, the ViewPad came with the creakingly old Android OS 1.6, which you can upgrade through a complex procedure that requires an external keyboard.)

I didn’t care much for the Android 2.2 OS in Samsung‘s Galaxy Tab, but Samsung’s is a better edition than ViewSonic’s customized version.

First, the tablet’s three physical buttons don’t correspond to the four standard Android smartphone buttons, so it’s a major relearning if you’ve used other Android devices. The most frustrating issue is the location of the Power button, which corresponds to the location of the Search button on Android smartphones. Its placement next to the ViewPad’s Home (which corresponds to standard Android’s Home) makes it very easy to accidentally press, shutting down the device. The Home button works as the Back button; it does not toggle between Home and applications as the standard Android Home button does. Fortunately, the Enter button does correspond to the Menu button that would be in the same location on a standard Android smartphone. There is no button where Search would be; that’s not really an issue as other Android tablets don’t have this button either.

The soft buttons generally don’t correspond to the standard Android buttons either. Home works as expected, but the button where Back would be opens the File Manager, and the button where Menu would be opens a Facebook app called Skyfire.

The ill fit also appears elsewhere. For example, when you tap a text field in various apps, the keyboard displays as you would expect, but it’s very hard to tap accurately on a keyboard that’s stretched horizontally and compressed vertically. Often your screen is replaced by a black area that contains just the text field, with most of the context removed. It’s disconcerting and confusing. (You usually need to tap Next or Done to get back to your original screen and move to the next text field.)

The fact that the ViewPad runs a smartphone version of Android instead of the tablet version really shows when you do things like check email in horizontal (Landscape) mode: The window is way too wide for the single-column layout; text is hard to read at such column widths, especially in the white-on-black text display that most apps employ. The tablet version of Android would make better use of that larger screen, showing your list of messages in one pane and your selected e-mail in another, for example.

As is the case for Android 2.2 on smartphones, the built-in e-mail application supports only unsecured Exchange accounts, in addition to POP and IMAP. The ViewPad’s version of Android doesn’t support passwords — meaning you can’t secure access to the tablet’s Android partition even at a basic level. There’s a VPN feature in its Settings app, but the VPN capability doesn’t work; ViewSonic says it plans to fix that issue in a future update.

As in the Window OS, there’s a smattering of apps pre-installed, including e-mail (but not Gmail), Messaging, Music, Calculator, App Store (which goes to a private app store, not the Android Market), a couple games, and — oddly — the ConnectBot SSH client. I say “oddly” because ViewSonic told me it expects ViewPad 10 users to run Windows 7 for work and employ the Android OS for personal entertainment such as playing music. Never mind that Windows 7 has a perfectly good music player app; perhaps ViewSonic assumes companies will lock that down so that users can’t use it.

ViewSonic didn’t bother; neither should you

It’s Microsoft‘s (Nasdaq: MSFT) fault that Windows 7 isn’t really designed to work on tablets, but ViewSonic is to blame for putting Microsoft’s OS on a device that’s not powerful enough to run it. ViewSonic is also to blame for using a non-tablet version of Android on its tablet and for making that OS so awkward to use. It’s ViewSonic’s fault that its boot loader and Android interfaces don’t match the physical button on its case.

I could go on about the ViewPad’s heavy weight (1.93 pounds), overly thick case (nearly twice as thick as an iPad 2), high-glare screen, and lack of rear camera. I could note it comes with Wi-Fi only and that its 10-inch widescreen is a very awkward ratio. I could even say how many ports it has. But who cares? If the hardware were better, this tablet would still be unusable.

ViewSonic didn’t bother to design his product so that all the components worked together. Instead, it took whatever body parts it could scrounge up and created a Frankentablet. Leave the monsters in the movies, and get a real tablet instead: an Apple iPad 2 or a Motorola Mobility Xoom or a Windows 7 ultralight laptop.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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