Archos 97b Titanium review

Pros

  • Great screen
  • Attractive and solidly built
  • Expandable storage

Cons

  • Feels sluggish
  • Poor battery life
  • Only 8GB of built-in storage

Just as the Archos 80 Titanium was, shall we say, a homage to the iPad mini, so the Archos 97b Titanium is the French manufacturer’s take on the iPad 4. There’s no mistaking the influence of Apple’s tablet in the physical design, and the 97b Titanium even packs in a Retina-esque display, with a 9.7in diagonal, the same 4:3 aspect ratio and an identical resolution of 2048 x 1536. Yet where the cheapest version of the current iPad costs £399, the 97b Titanium is available for under half that price. How has Archos managed this, you might well wonder…

Design

Surprisingly, it hasn’t done it by skimping on build quality. The Archos has a plastic frame behind the glass screen and a plastic back, separated by a slim strip of chrome (or at least chrome-effect). The plastic on the rear has a little flex, but not much, and the whole construction feels surprisingly solid for a large screen budget tablet. The rear has two grilles for the speakers at the top and bottom of the tablet, plus the rear-facing camera sticking out in the top-right corner.

At 650 grams the 97b Titanium is too heavy to hold one-handed like a 7in tablet for any length of time, but it’s a good size and weight for use on the move. I’d think about investing in a case first, however. Neither the screen nor the body seem particularly scratch-resistant.

Physical controls are limited to a volume rocker and a power button, while connectivity is basic too. There’s a socket for the proprietary AC charger, a microUSB port and a headphone socket, but no HDMI output or anything more advanced. You do, however, get a microSD card slot, which you’ll need to boost the rather pitiful 8GB of onboard storage provided.

Screen and speakers

The screen was a highlight of the 97b Titanium’s little brother, and the same is true here. When someone promises a Retina-matching display at half the price of an iPad 4 you naturally expect to see dull images, washed-out colours and poor viewing angles, but in fact the IPS screen is clear and bright, colours are rich and vibrant and the viewing angles are the equal of tablets twice the price. The screen isn’t the most smear-resistant around, and reflectivity makes it hard to see in sunlight, but it’s not particularly bad on either count.

What’s more, while the screen isn’t quite Retina-crisp or Retina-bright, it shares a lot of the same upsides. Text looks clean, photos are bursting with detail, and it’s a great device for reading digital magazines, browsing the web and watching HD video. It’s also a great screen for getting some work done. Use a Bluetooth keyboard and run OfficeSuite Pro HD (or your productivity app of choice) and you can have an effective last-minute laptop replacement, with the clarity of text and graphics making up for the diminutive size of the display. You will, of course, need a stand or case to hold the tablet up.

Sadly the speakers don’t keep up the good work. The sound is thin and screechy, and there’s little bass or even much mid-range. Watch a movie or try listening to some music and you’ll find it hard to make out individual instruments or layers of sound. In short, you’ll be better off with headphones here…

Software

Archos used to be one of the bad apples in the Android tablet manufacturer barrel. They tried to push you towards their own entertainment services and app stores, and didn’t allow access to Google’s far superior equivalents. Now, however, the company has reformed its ways.

A vanilla installation of Android 4.1 comes pre-installed, you can use Google’s Play Store, Google Music, Google Books and Google Movies, and install all the Netflix, Amazon and Kobo apps you want. There’s no bloatware – just network music and video player apps, a remote control app to let you control your tablet with an Android smartphone, and a Media Server app. You can install all the widgets you like, but by default the home screen comes mercifully clear of clutter. Nice work, Archos.

Cameras

The cameras are a different kettle of fish. The rear-facing camera is a 2-megapixel effort, and the pictures it takes look over-exposed and lack detail. The front-facing camera isn’t as prone to noise in low light as some we’ve seen, but there’s a weird gelatinous look to the image when something moves. This might be unsettling during video calls.

Usability and performance

So far it’s mostly good news for the 97b Titanium, but this is where some bad news starts to creep in. The tablet uses the same Rockchip RK3066 SoC as the 80 Titanium, combining a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU with a quad-core ARM Mali 400 GPU, and running at 1.6GHz. It’s not a slow chip by any means, but it struggled at times on the 80 Titanium, which had a lower resolution 1024 x 768 resolution screen, and here it’s pushing four times the number of pixels around. What’s more, while other tablets with high resolution screens are packing 2GB of RAM, the 97b Titanium comes with just 1GB installed.

The result is that the 97b Titanium can feel sluggish. Apps seem to take a while to load, and if you run multiple tabs on Chrome or the default Android browser performance slows. Generally, the UI doesn’t feel as slick as it does on other Android 4.1 devices. Touches can take a fraction of a second to register, and typing emails can be a chore.

Benchmark scores aren’t brilliant either. A Geekbench score of 946 doesn’t exactly challenge the Sony Xperia Tablet Z, which scored 2001, and 3D performance is so limited that you won’t get more than 3.9 frames per second (fps) in the GFXBench T-Rex HD Benchmark and 16 fps in Egypt HD. You can play HD video without any slowdown, and in practice games like Need for Speed: Most Wanted ran reasonably smoothly, but it’s still hard to avoid the impression that Archos should have packed in a high-end processor to match its high-end screen.

We also noticed two other issues while using the 97b Titanium. Firstly, Wi-Fi performance seems erratic, with dropped signals and slower speeds in rooms in my house where other tablets haven’t struggled. Also the case gets hot when you’re pushing the tablet hard, with the top half of the rear being most affected area. You won’t burn yourself, but you might find the warmth uncomfortable.

Battery life

Battery life was a problem for the 80 Titanium, and it’s a problem for the bigger tablet too. With the brightness levels at 80 per cent we struggled to get more than approximately six hours of mixed use out of the tablet, including web browsing, email, games, magazine reading and video playback. That’s on the lightweight side when you consider rival 10.1in tablets can get ten hours or more out of a single charge (although we are talking about tablets that might cost twice as much).

Verdict

The 97b Titanium is an attractive and well-built tablet with a great high resolution screen, but much as we’d like to hail it as a bargain basement iPad killer, we can’t. It doesn’t have the processing power to drive its HD screen, the speakers are poor and it gets hot under heavy use. Battery life is also below the norm. Frankly, we’d rather see a bigger battery and faster chip and pay £50 more than buy a tablet that’s been hobbled where it hurts. The 97b could have been a contender, but it doesn’t quite work.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Archos 97b Titanium

Processor

1.6GHz Rockchip RK3066

RAM

1GB

Memory

8GB

Memory Expansion

microSD memory card

Display

9.7in 2048 x 1536 IPS

Connectors

MicroUSB, headphone

Main Camera

2-megapixel

Front-facing camera

2-megapixel

Wi-Fi

802.11b/g/n

Battery

Lithium Polymer

Size and weight

242 x 189 x 10.5mm, 650g