Archos is something of a pioneer in the media tablet market. In fact the French company was making tablet based media players long before the iPad reared its head and kick started the tablet revolution. It’s Archos’ pioneering spirit that has always been its greatest benefit, but also, all too often, its downfall.
Archos isn’t scared to take chances. It’s a company that’s willing to run with a good idea and bring it to market long before the competition. Unfortunately Archos’ eagerness to bring new ideas to market sometimes means that the resulting products aren’t quite, well, ready.
The GamePad is undoubtedly a great idea – few could argue that Android is shaping into a formidable gaming platform – but it’s in the execution of that idea that Archos falls short. And that’s a shame, because Archos could have stolen a march on the competition, but instead has shown that the idea has promise, without delivering on that promise.
On the surface everything looks good with the GamePad – it’s basically a 7in Android tablet that has been equipped with dedicated gaming controls. Considering that my biggest gripe about tablet gaming has been the compromised control method, I was pretty excited when I first saw pictures of the GamePad back in September. I figured that this might be the device that Android gaming had been crying out for, but I was wrong.
The GamePad looks like a standard 7in tablet, but with extended wings that are populated with the gaming controls. Archos certainly hasn’t skimped on the sheer number of controls. On the left wing is an analogue stick, a four-way D-Pad, an L2 button and a Select button. The right wing mirrors the left’s layout with a second analogue stick A, B, X and Y buttons in a four-way configuration, an R2 button and a Start button. The top edge of each wing is capped with a shoulder button for trigger controls.
Of course just having gaming controls is pretty pointless if the games themselves aren’t coded to make use of them, but Archos has thought of that. The GamePad has a very nifty button mapping app that allows you to map each touchscreen control to the button of your choosing. But this doesn’t always work, because most game developers will have created controls specifically for a touchscreen interface. So, while you can map taps to button presses and movement to joysticks, when a game requires you to swipe the screen, you’re still going to have to swipe the screen.
Having to use a combination of physical and touch controls isn’t the end of the world though, and anyone who’s used a PlayStation Vita will know exactly how intuitive such a control method can be. The difference, though, is that the Vita is designed ergonomically enough to ensure that flicking between analogue sticks and touchscreen swipes is a seamless affair. Attempting the same manoeuvre with the GamePad feels awkward and ungainly.
The control mapping isn’t the only problem though. Even if you’re playing a game that can be completely mapped to the sticks and buttons on the GamePad, the overall experience is disappointing at best and downright frustrating at worst. Quite simply, the physical controls aren’t good enough.
The twin analogue sticks are the worst culprits. These remind me of the flat, RSI inducing stick from the Sony PSP, but even though the PSP analogue controller wasn’t great, it was still better than the sticks on the GamePad. But compared to a modern handheld gaming console like the Nintendo 3DS the sticks on the GamePad are woefully poor. And when it comes to the silky smooth analogue sticks on the PlayStation Vita, there’s no point even considering a comparison.
It’s hard to narrow down exactly what’s wrong with the analogue sticks, because there’s so little that’s right with them. First up they’re almost flush with the tablet itself, which instantly contorts your thumbs into an uncomfortable position. That discomfort is exacerbated when you try to use the shoulder buttons, which makes it pretty hard to run with the left stick, aim with the right and fire with the right shoulder button.
But even if, by some genetic anomaly, you didn’t find the sticks uncomfortable, they’re still notchy and lacking in feedback. It’s also hard to get anything resembling analogue performance out of them, although that’s probably down to the limitations of the control mapping.
The GamePad came with Dead Trigger pre-loaded, which is no bad thing at all. If you haven’t played Dead Trigger, it’s a surprisingly good first person zombie shooter, and represents exactly the kind of game that should benefit from dedicated physical controls. But it doesn’t. Trying to aim with any degree of accuracy with the right stick is, as Mia Wallace would say, an exercise in futility.
I also downloaded Dead Space, which is one of the most immersive games I’ve played on the Android platform, especially with headphones on and the sound turned up. Unfortunately I didn’t find the experience immersive when playing on the GamePad, since I spent most of my time trying to walk in a straight line, let alone defend myself.
The most obvious indicator that the physical controls on the GamePad aren’t up to scratch was the fact that I simply found myself not using them. On multiple occasions when playing I realised that I had subconsciously stopped using the physical controls and had resorted to the touchscreen.
Let’s not forget that the GamePad is a full Android tablet too, which surely gives it a definite advantage over a dedicated handheld gaming console. But while the GamePad is a decent enough 7in tablet, it’s not a great one, especially with the likes of the Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire available at very attractive price points.
Archos states that the GamePad is equipped with a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 CPU running at 1.6GHz, but gives no indication of the chip manufacturer. We’re pretty certain that it’s a Rockchip RK3066 SoC, which includes a quad-core Mali 400 MP GPU. Despite the fact that tablets like the Nexus 7 sport quad-core CPUs, the GamePad never felt slow in general use. That said, considering Android’s limited multi-threading abilities, extra cores might not equate to a faster GamePad anyway.
The SoC is backed up by 1GB of RAM, while there’s 8GB of storage space built in. However, unlike the Nexus 7, the GamePad has a micro-SD card slot, so its storage capacity can be augmented easily and cheaply.
There’s a mini-HDMI port, so you can output the display to a monitor or HDTV, but you’ll need to buy an adapter to make use of this feature. There’s a front facing camera for video calls, but no rear camera. The latter is no great loss, since a tablet isn’t really the best device for shooting stills or video.
The touchscreen experience isn’t great either. Much like the Archos 101 XS that I reviewed back in August, the screen on the GamePad has an insubstantial, plastic feel to it, unlike the solid glass feel you get from a Nexus 7 or iPad. That’s not to say that the touchscreen doesn’t work, because it does. But it just doesn’t feel as slick as other tablets.
Also, the game controls make the GamePad less usable as a tablet, especially in portrait mode. It’s still pretty light at 330g, but it is noticeably bigger than most 7in tablets thanks to those wings – 229.8 x 118.7 x 15.4mm.
Archos has definitely priced the GamePad keenly, but even at £129.99, it’s perilously close to the price of a Google Nexus 7, which can be had for as little as £159.99. Meanwhile the standard Kindle Fire is yours for £1 less than the GamePad, while the 7in Kindle Fire HD will set you back £159.
However, those other tablets don't give you hardware gaming controls, so if that’s what you’re after, it’s either the GamePad or a clunky, plug-in accessory – but not for long. As I said at the beginning of this review, the GamePad is undoubtedly a great idea, but the execution of that idea is disappointing. But last week I saw that same idea executed brilliantly, in the shape of the Nvidia Shield.
What Nvidia has done with Shield is create a proper gaming device based on Android, with all the ergonomics and usability that gamers want and need. On top of that, Shield has many other tricks up its sleeve, like being able to wirelessly stream games and videos to your TV and remotely play games resident on your PC.
Of course Shield is still in the prototype stage, but even the early sample I played with last week is infinitely better than the GamePad in its full retail guise. And therein lies the underlying problem with the GamePad – the reality simply doesn’t live up to the promise of the idea, and it was only a matter of time before something better reared its head.
Once again Archos is leading the way with a new type of mobile device. The GamePad leverages on the ever-improving Android gaming market by offering users real, physical controls with which to play. The idea is sound, even brilliant, but unfortunately the product itself isn’t.
The physical controls on the GamePad are very disappointing, and using them is often more frustrating that using the touchscreen. And although the button mapping app is good, it can’t deal with many of the touchscreen specific controls favoured by some games.
Unfortunately for Archos, Nvidia has come along and shown how this should be done with the launch of its Shield device, which makes the GamePad look like an even less attractive proposition.
The GamePad may well find itself a following among Android enthusiasts who are also keen gamers. But the average consumer who’s looking for a cheap handheld gaming device is likely to be disappointed with the experience offered by the GamePad.