VIZIO 8-inch tablet a David to Nook and Fire’s Goliath presence

With the low-price tablet wars heating up as we head into the holiday buying season, the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are two tech darlings vying for the top spot. Quietly waiting in the background is the 8-inch VIZIO Tablet, a little-known contender that could be the David to the Kindle and Nook’s Goliath presence.

If you haven’t heard about the VIZIO Tablet (VTAB1008) I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s kind of sleeper, and as VIZIO’s first foray into the tablet arena it was announced at CES in January, came to the market in September and sort of disappeared. I’m a VIZIO TV owner and have been impressed with their products, so I kept asking for a review unit and finally received one. What a pleasant surprise it has been.

Features and Specs

Featuring an 8-inch, 1024 x 768 touch screen with a wider 4:3 ratio, The VIZIO gives you about 30 percent more usable space in landscape mode than those with a 16:9 ratio. That makes it more like the iPad and the now-defunct HP TouchPad. VIZIO calls this a high resolution screen and for the most part it does look great. Contrast, color and brightness looked good and most text looked crisp. Since the tablet ships with Android Gingerbread, however, many of the apps you might download will be designed for phones with smaller displays and will be up-sized to fit the VIZIO’s screen. VIZIO says the 4:3 ratio is more accommodating to this upsizing. In real life, most apps did up-size fine but a few ended up a little pixelated. Some photos lacked sharpness too but overall, photos were acceptable.

Measuring 6.6 inches by 8.1 inches by 0.48 inch, the VIZIO weighs 1.2 pounds, which is slightly less than the much thinner iPad 2. It’s solidly built and feels good in your hands, but the thickness and weight make it difficult to hold in one hand for any length of time. Inside you’ll find a single-core 1GHz processor, 512MB of RAM and 4GB of storage. The storage number may sound low (even the 8MB on the Kindle Fire sounds low to me), and it’s actually only 2GB once you factor in what’s used by the operating system and stock apps. The VIZIO does have a MicroSD card slot for expansion up to an additional 32GB of storage, but unfortunately you can’t run apps from the card. This is a major flaw that I hope VIZIO can fix in an update, because 2GB of storage for apps can fill up pretty quickly. You can use the card to store photos, video files and also to make a backup of you apps (using a file manager like Astro) plus store your app data.

To round out the hardware there is a front-facing 640 X 480 camera with a microphone for video chat that also can make still photos and record videos at 30 fps. The photo and video quality is s0-so and obviously the camera is not intended for primary use. Built-in WiFi supports 802.11b/g/n. Micro HDMI out and micro USB ports are at the bottom and an ambient light sensor monitors light levels to adjust the screen for performance and battery life. On-board Bluetooth is included too. The microphone also can be used for voice commands and voice-to-text input.

The audio system on the VIZIO is among the best I’ve heard with three speakers that utilize the SRS TruMedia system which attempts to simulate a Surround-Sound experience. It doesn’t quite achieve that goal but the sound is excellent, no matter if you hold it in landscape or portrait mode. Headphone sound was very good as well.

User Interface and Apps

At 8-inches the VIZIO tablet is nestled between all the 7-inch tabs and the larger, Honeycomb ones. They stayed with Gingerbread, which was a wise move because the app selection is very limited on the Honeycomb platform. This tablet is full-blown Android so you have open access to the Android Market and most of the goodies there. That gives it a distinct advantage over the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet, for those who don’t want to mess with rooting or otherwise hacking their device and have the freedom to use the apps they want.

Riding on top of the Android OS is the VIZIO Internet Apps Plus™ user interface. At the unlock screen you see system notifications and a swipe to the left or right moves a thin, lightsaber-like bar of light across the screen to reveal the home screen. There you’ll find apps sorted by Favorites and All Apps, with a 5-button dock at the bottom for placement of your most-used apps. Any app can be placed in the Dock, making the experience similar to that on an iPad. You also can add apps to Favorites and anything you download from the Android Market automatically goes to All Apps. This organization is very easy to navigate and I particularly like the home screen, where you can just scroll up and down to see your app collection instead of having to flip through a bunch of pages.

Adding an app to the Dock is very simple. Just hold your finger down on the icon of the app you want to add, then select the Dock button where you’d like to add it. VIZIO says the intent is to make this user interface standard across all their products, to unify everything from Blu-ray players to tablets to TVs.

Widgets are handled a little differently than with other tabs, using an app called the Widget Board that is in your Favorites by default. Launching this app gets you to a Dashboard with multiple pages for widgets that display real-time info on weather, news, social media updates and the like. This is a very clean implementation of the widget concept as well.

Two nice surprises in the UI are the support of multi-touch gestures on the display and the three touch sensitive buttons (for Return, Home and Menu) that light up and move on the edge of the display when changing between portrait and landscape modes.

The included app selection is quite good and includes the Barnes & Noble Nook reader, Hulu Plus (with a free, 3-month subscription for a limited time), Netflix and YouTube with Adobe Flash support. Recommended for download are ooVoo for video chat, MOG for streaming music, Twitter and a game called Bug Village. An assortment of the standard Google apps come pre-loaded too. Browser, Contacts, Calendar, Mail and other routine apps are pretty standard fare but fully-functional.

Also included is the SwiftKey Tablet X keyboard with “natural learning” and smart, next-word prediction that uses the context of your sentence to select words. The keyboard also includes a microphone button for quick access to voice-to-text input.

Universal Remote

One really unique aspect of the VIZIO is it’s ability to pull double duty as a universal remote. There are phones and tablets capable of this with added infrared hardware, but the VIZIO comes with an infrared blaster built-in. Using the included Remote Control app you can program the tablet to interface with many brands of TVs, DVRs, stereo receivers, Blu-ray players, etc., then set up the remote for use in different rooms in your house. Set up is a little tedious and although it is supposed to be able to find your device by using a “testing” function, I found it much easier and faster to enter the exact model numbers of each device. Controls are pretty basic and you can’t set up macros or other advanced tasks like on a Sony or Logitech remote, but again, it does work well for what it is.

Performance

The VIZIO Tablet isn’t going to break any performance records and at times it seems a little hesitant to respond. The performance is solid and consistent, however, and most Android Gingerbread apps work very well. There is a pretty good delay when launching apps and changing screens, but it’s not unbearable.

YouTube streaming video looked good. Netflix streaming video has some artifacts present at first launch of each video that cleared up after about 20 seconds. It seemed like a buffering issue with the app that wasn’t hardware-related. The battery, rated for up to 10 hours of normal use, held up well in my tests and went about seven hours on a charge while connected to WiFi and occasionally streaming some video.

Caveats

  • This tablet is heavy for it’s size and some people will not like that.
  • The processor is not the fastest so performance is solid but on the slow side.
  • Some up-sized apps will look low-res, since they were designed for phones and not an 8-inch tablet.
  • The display mostly looks good but some photos and text do not look sharp
  • You can’t run apps from the MicroSD card

Conclusion

If you made it this far then you’re about to hear one of the best things about the VIZIO Tablet. When it came out it hovered around $300 but now it’s available for as low as $189 at Costco and $198 at Walmart. That price-point makes this tablet an incredible value when you compare it to the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, even though it may not perform as well overall. Why?

  • It’s cheaper than both the Fire and the Nook
  • It’s a full-blown Android tablet and you can load the apps you want
  • It supports Flash and comes with Netflix and Hulu Plus right out of the box
  • It has a camera and a microphone (the Nook has a microphone)
  • It has Bluetooth
  • It has a MicroSD card slot (the Nook does too)
  • It’s a universal remote
  • Did I mention you can get it for as low as $189?

I loaded all kinds of popular apps in this tablet: Facebook, Words with Friends, Skype, Kindle, HeyTell, Spotify, Pandora, Dolphin Browser HD, Pulse, Pandora and a new app called Skyvi that is similar to Siri on the iPhone 4S. They all work. Do that with a Kindle Fire. Yes, the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are faster and offer some exclusive content and offers within their own systems. Those things, however, come with a considerable loss of freedom.

I don’t expect a lot tech reviewers or Android enthusiasts to agree with me on many of my points in this review. I’m an iPad guy, straight up. But if I was on a budget and had two kids asking for iPads for the holidays because they wanted to Facebook, surf, Skype and watch movies, the VIZIO tablet becomes a valuable option with more flexibility than the Fire or the Nook. So I’m helping David take his shot.


The Gadget Guy, also known as Jack Rowland, brings you the latest technology and gadget news including iPhone and Android apps, all types of personal electronics, geeky toys and gizmos and even simple doodads you can use in the kitchen and garage. His "how-to" instructions and videos bring a MacGyver-like sensibility to how you get things done with the magic of gadgets. Jack, a St. Petersburg Times photographer and writer for 26 years who now is an independent journalist, is a longtime gadget geek who loves to tell you about how things work. Welcome to his world.

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