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Preview : Ainovo/Ainol Novo 7 Basic Tablet

Ainovo (or Ainol for the Chinese market) stunned the world last year when it announced the launch of the first tablet to ship (opens in new tab) with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich; what's more, the device boasts a MIPS-based Ingenic Semiconductor system on chip (SoC) and a retail price of less than $100!

In theory, the Ainovo Novo 7 Basic tablet represents an excellent deal. Unfortunately, the reality is altogether different, as we're about to discover. It's also interesting to note that the review sample we received came with a leaflet explaining what we should expect from the product.

To some extent, the Ainovo Novo 7 is still an unfinished product and we feel that rather than reviewing and criticising it for being a half-baked device for the mass market, we should just preview it objectively.

As MIPS puts it "Because we are sending [the tablet] to reviewers outside China, we have as a courtesy preloaded some well-known U.S.-centric applications so you can explore the tablet's performance capabilities".

Furthermore MIPS confirmed that when the tablet becomes generally available for sale in the United States and beyond, one can expect it to ship with geographically targeted applications.

Some of the apps loaded on the review tablet include Gameloft's Spiderman, TurboFly 3D, Amazon's Kindle e-reader, Facebook, Angry Birds, YouTube and Pandora (the video viewer, not the music service).

The bottom line is that you won't get access to Google Play (née Android Market) or Google Mobile Services or indeed any other apps unless you know your way around, which is fine for developers but not for novices and even sideloading won't help.

There are currently four Ainovo tablets on the market and surprisingly enough, this Basic model is not the entry level version. The cheapest model ($89) is the Paladin which doesn't come with any cameras or an HDMI port.

The tablet comes with a mobile application processor designed by Ingenic Semiconductor called the JZ4770 and based on the MIPS XBurst architecture (MIPS32R2 with SIMD Extension). This single core SoC is clocked at 1GHz and manufactured using a 65nm fabrication process. Interestingly, it boasts the same DMIPS performance as ARM's Cortex A9 (2.5DMIPS per MHz per core) and consumes only 90mW at 1GHz while the entire SoC consumes 250mW (ARM's Single Core Soft Macro equivalent sips 400mW at 830MHz).

The graphics subsystem is a Vivante GC860 GPU which supports Open GL ES2.0 and ES1.0 as well as OpenVG 1.1 and is clocked at 444MHz. In theory, the Geometry Rate, Pixel Rate (Textured and Depth-Only) and the Vertex Rate stand at 0.1M tri/s, 1M pix/s and 0.5M vert/s respectively. It is powerful enough to handle a 1080p MKV file without breaking a sweat.

The screen is a capacitive 800 by 480 pixels 5-point multi-touch 7in LED backlit affair with a pixel density of 133ppi, which is similar to the first and second generation iPads. Like many entry level tablets, its screen is quite reflective, suffers from significant contrast drop off, poor viewing angles and attracts altogether too many greasy fingerprints.

The rest of the feature list reads as follows; support for an external 3G dongle, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, a 3.7v/148Wh Lithium battery, 8GB onboard storage (0.98GB internal storage and just under 6GB as onboard flash storage) and 512MB DDR2 system memory.

On the left of the tablet you'll find a power connector, earphone socket, microSD card slot, mini USB port (which can be used to charge the tablet), mini HDMI port, a mic and a reset pin hole.

On the front, adjacent to the screen is an array of touch sensitive buttons (volume, home, back, properties but not search), as well as with a front facing VGA camera.

On top edge are a volume rocker plus an on/off push button.

At the back, a two-megapixel rear camera (no flash) with a "It's MIPS" sticker à la Intel, plus a speaker grill and port marking. The camera is just good enough, offering only one control - the ability to adjust white balance. Check the picture below and compare it to the same shot taken by an iPhone 4S.

The Ainovo 7 Basic measures 188 x 112x 12mm (HxWxD). It weighs 354g, making it lighter than the Amazon Kindle Fire (414g) and the BlackBerry PlayBook (425g).

There's no GPS support (although future versions are likely to include GPS) and doesn't directly support 3G or 4G (although nothing prevents you from connecting to a MiFi dongle).

The tablet itself has a fairly solid, almost glossy white finish and a completely hermetic white plastic case with no visible screws; that said you do hear a creak or two when handling it. We couldn't reliably run an industry standard battery benchmark, but Ainovo says that users can expect up to seven hours battery life.

As mentioned before it runs the bog standard Android ICS (v4.0.1). We installed Opera Mobile, one of the very few MIPS-compatible browsers on the market and proceeded to open the home page which loaded within a few seconds. Pinch to zoom functionality and navigation in general were seamless - nothing to shout about until you consider that you're using a sub $99 tablet.

The bundled browser is based on WebKit (like Apple Safari and Google Chrome) and using the browser-based Peacekeeper benchmark from Futuremark, the tablet scored 189 points compared to 384 for the new iPad and the iPad 2 (both dual core Cortex A9 CPUs) and 255 for the Samsung Galaxy S2.

The Ainovo Novo 7 is a great piece of hardware. However, the tablet war can only be won if Ainovo's main partner - Google - gets the software and the rest of the ecosystem right. As it stands, only Apple with iOS and the App Store "gets it".

Ainol Novo 7 Basic - Back

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Ainol Novo 7 Basic - Right Side

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Ainovo Novo 7 Basic Close Up

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Ainovo Novo 7 Basic - Front

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Ainovo Novo 7 Basic - With Accessories

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Ainovo Novo 7 Basic - Settings screen

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Ainovo Novo 7 Basic - Home Screen

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Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.