There's no getting away from the fact that the Archos 101 XS bears a striking resemblance to Microsoft's Surface tablet. Despite the fact that I'm yet to get my paws on Surface hardware, the similarities between this device and the Surface images that Microsoft has been showing off are undeniable. But while we're still waiting for Microsoft to confirm both release date and pricing for Surface, Archos has brought a pretty compelling alternative to market.
It doesn't come as a huge surprise to see a premium Android tablet from Archos, after all the French tech company has been making touch-screen media devices since before the iPad was a twinkle on Apple's balance sheet. In fact Archos made the first commercially available Android tablet, although it wasn't an officially recognised device and lacked Google's app store.
The Archos 101 XS is a different kettle of fish altogether though, with a fully sanctioned implementation of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, complete with the Google Play store. It's also worth noting that this is a completely vanilla version of ICS, which means that it shouldn't be much of a problem to upgrade to Jelly Bean and beyond.
One of the things that has always annoyed me about Android devices is the manufacturer's obsession with customising the OS, making it difficult for users to upgrade to newer versions of Android. Usually it's a case of either waiting for the manufacturer to release a suitably customised version, or more commonly, simply not being able to upgrade at all. This situation has strengthened Apple's already solid position, since OS upgrades are automatically available to its existing products - at least on hardware that's not too old to run the new version.
The Archos 101 XS isn't trying to be a pocketable tablet device, but it is designed to be carried around and used on the move. This "road warrior" positioning is made clear by the inclusion of the Coverboard with the tablet itself. The Coverboard is an ingenious accessory that protects the screen when you're not using the device, while also doubling up as a very effecting keyboard, complete with a pop-up stand to keep the tablet in place.
The Coverboard is attached to the tablet via a magnetic strip that runs around the edge, topped with a soft rubber finish to ensure that there's no chance of scratching the screen. Securing the tablet in keyboard mode is also a magnetic affair, with two very strong magnets on both parts ensuring a solid lock, while a third magnet on the kick-stand that keeps the tablet upright will avoid any costly accidents if someone knocks the device while you're using it.
The Archos 101 XS works surprisingly well in its laptop configuration - in fact I'm currently typing this review while on the train home. The keys on the Coverboard aren't full size, and anyone with particularly large hands may find it difficult to get to grips with, but I had no problem typing at a pretty decent rate within seconds. I'm not saying that I'd trade my MacBook Air for a 101 XS permanently, but if I knew that I didn't have to do anything that taxing I'd consider slipping into my bag instead and save some weight.
Although It couldn't be said that the keys on the Coverboard exhibit a substantial degree of travel, there's more than I would have expected, along with a reasonably solid break. In fact the keys provide more feedback and spring than they have any right to, given how slim the Coverboard is.
The keyboard also comes equipped with a few useful shortcut keys. To the right of the Spacebar you'll find a settings key, which brings up the settings menu of whatever app you happen to be using - this is particularly useful when you're using the office applications, as I am now. To the left of the Spacebar, is a Home key and another that lets you choose from a list of running apps - think cmd Tab on a Mac or Alt Tab on a PC.
There are few aspects of a tablet device that are more important than the screen, and unfortunately this is where the 101 XS stumbles slightly. The 10.1in screen sports a 16:10 resolution of 1,280 x 800, which isn't exactly ground breaking in these Retina Display days. That said, it's pretty much par for the course when it comes to any tablet bar the iPad 3.
But it's not the screen resolution that's the real problem, it's the screen surface. While the vast majority of multi-touch devices - whether smartphone or tablet - have smooth, cold, glass screens, the Archos 101 XS makes do with a plastic one. As a result, interacting with the screen isn't nearly as slick or smooth an experience as on an iPad, Nexus 7 or pretty much any other non-budget tablet.
The screen isn't necessarily a deal breaker, and I encountered few issues with it while using an array of multi-touch swiping, pinching and tapping gestures. And if you're happy to put aside the tactile issues with the screen, the display itself is surprisingly good. Colours are quite rich and bright, and even viewing angles aren't bad, as long as you're not out in bright sunlight. It's also worth noting that when the 101 XS is docked in the Coverboard, the resulting viewing angle shows the display off to impressive effect.
Lift the bonnet on the 101 XS and you'll find a somewhat average spec. A 1.5GHz dual-core TI OMAP4470 processor sits in the driver's seat, with a PowerVR SGX544 GPU riding shotgun. Again, that's not the kind of spec that will set the pulse racing, especially when you consider that the Google Nexus 7 sports a quad-core nVidia Tegra 3 chipset and costs only £199.
There’s a 720p webcam mounted adjacent to the screen, allowing for video calling through apps such as Skype. There’s no rear facing camera, which is no bad thing – a tablet is not an ideal camera, no matter how many fools wave theirs around at parties.
As already mentioned, the 101 XS runs a pretty standard version of Ice Cream Sandwich, which is no bad thing – ICS provides a great user experience and really doesn’t need any skins, overlays, or customisations. Archos has added a couple of its own touches though, but thankfully in the form of pre-loaded custom apps.
If the 101 XS’ leaning towards productivity seems at odds with Archos’ history of producing innovative, media focused devices, at least some effort has been put in to improve media playback. The default display on the music app shows a CoverFlow-like album art carousel on the left, which you can sort through with a deft flick of your finger. On the right are the usual filters, such as Artists, Albums, Songs etc.
You also get a list of external sources from which you can play music, the most useful being any UPnP device, such as an NAS appliance. I’ve got about 70GB of music stored on my NAS, and the 101 XS had no problem streaming anything from it seamlessly. Don’t expect too much from the internal speaker though – it sounds like you’re listening to that guy on the train next to you with his Apple awful earbuds pumped up too high.
Video receives similar treatment, with a more or less identical layout to the music app. Once again you can stream content from network devices, and once again the 101 XS performed flawlessly. If there’s one thing that Archos has always done well, it’s codec support, and the 101 XS is no exception. With around 2TB of video on my NAS box, I had no problem giving the 101 XS a good workout.
This tablet happily played back every file format I threw at it, whether Xvid, VOB, DiVX and even that old bugbear, MKV. The quality of the video playback is also very impressive, although just how good it is will depend entirely on the quality of your video encodes.
Helping the 101 XS to score points over both the Nexus 7 and iPad is the inclusion of a mini-HDMI port. Assuming that you have a mini-HDMI to HDMI converter, you’ll be able to pump 1080p video directly to your TV. Of course you’ll be limited to 720p on the internal screen still.
The rest of the pre-installed software is standard fare for ICS. Obviously you need to sign up your Google account, which sorts out your email, contacts, calendar and online storage. You’ll also find apps for social services like Twitter lurking in the library, but if you’re a Dropbox user, like me, you’ll need to download that yourself. Google would clearly rather see us all using Drive instead.
Talking of downloading apps, you’ll find a shortcut to the Google Play Store on the Home page, which, if you’ve never used it, is a massive improvement over the old Google Marketplace. The Play Store is separated into sections for Apps, Movies and Books, making it easier to narrow down what you’re looking for. Add to that a more reliable search, and far better Featured lists, and the Play Store is finally starting to look like a proper challenger to Apple’s App Store.
The Archos 101 XS weighs in at 600g, making it marginally lighter than the iPad 3 at 652g. However, the Coverboard weighs another 200g, which does make a noticeable difference to the weight of the device. But the same could be said of an iPad that’s carried around in a keyboard dock.
When it comes to dimensions, the 101 XS measures 273 x 170 x 8mm (HxWxD). It's definitely thin at 8mm, compared to the 9.4mm iPad 3, but that really doesn’t make it any easier to use, hold or carry. And it’s worth remembering that you’ll be adding another 5mm to that depth if you’re using the Coverboard.
Archos quotes 10-hours of battery life, when on a diet of general browsing, email and productivity with Wi-Fi switched on. That sits on a par with the iPad and the Nexus 7. In use, I certainly wouldn’t doubt Archos’ estimation, and found that 101 XS would last the weekend on a single charge.
Archos’ decision to shift emphasis from media to productivity could have been a disaster, but the 101 XS works pretty well as a mobile work device. The Coverboard is brilliantly designed and realised – keeping the tablet safe and secure when in your bag, and doubling up as a very usable keyboard. The vanilla implementation of Ice Cream Sandwich is also refreshing to see, and makes the 101 XS even more attractive to the serious tablet user.
However, the less than stellar screen spoils the party somewhat. It’s not terrible, but on a £299 tablet I expected a more premium feel to the display. That’s not to say that it’s unpleasant to use, but compared to an iPad, Nexus 7 or Galaxy tablet, it feels a bit low rent.
The dual-core processor is slightly below par for a tablet at this price too, although the expandable memory and HDMI output go some way to offset that, when compared to the iPad or Nexus.
There really is a lot to like about the 101 XS, and if you’re looking for something a bit thinner and lighter than an Asus Transformer, it’s definitely worth a look. But if want a device that will make your iPad and Nexus touting friends jealous, the 101 XS isn’t it.
Despite this, Archos should be commended for producing an innovative, feature rich and genuinely usable mobile device in a world full of iPad clones. And if the French manufacturer can address the main issues mentioned above, I’d happily add a second generation version to my stable of mobile workhorses.