The tablet market has never been more competitive, and particularly in the 7in sector. Between the ridiculously cheap Kindle Fire, the Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus 7, it’s getting hard for even decent tablets from Samsung and Acer to make a mark. But then Vodafone has something different to offer with the Smart Tab II; a 3G HSPA connection as standard, with the option of PAYG data or a 2GB for £20 per month contract and a minimal upfront cost.
The actual tablet is manufactured by Lenovo – it seems a variation of the IdeaTab A2107 - and its build-quality doesn’t betray its budget price. Measuring 192 x 122mm and 11.5mm thick, it’s actually slightly smaller than the Nexus 7, though at 400g it’s noticeably heavier, and neither the textured back or all-glass front show much sign of excessive give or creaking – it’s a very solid little tablet. The additional weight means you’ll feel it if you’re using it one-handed, but the overall feel is perfectly acceptable.
Switch it on and the screen shows some signs of cost-cutting. The 7in size and 1,024 x 600 resolution put it in the same ballpark as the Kindle Fire rather than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD, with their 1,280 x 800 resolution screens. Given that limitation it’s not a bad example. Brightness levels are perfectly adequate and colours are reasonably vibrant. You can view photos, play games or watch movies without any trouble. All the same, there’s no doubt that you’re looking at a budget tablet. The sound from the built-in speakers, meanwhile, is a little more powerful and refined than you might expect, though still not up to the standard of the Kindle Fire HD.
The Smart Tab II comes running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and Vodafone hasn’t messed around too much with the basic look and feel, adding fewer gadgets and widgets than even Lenovo. Changes extend as far as a weather widget, a branded Twonky network media playback and management app, an email app and a world clock app, not to mention a boot screen and some subtle wallpaper. The default keyboard has been switched for a rather space-wasting TouchPal keyboard, but this can easily be fixed if you don’t like it (I didn’t). Meanwhile, apps, games, books, music and movies can still be purchased and streamed or downloaded from the standard Google Play Store.
Performance from the 2-megapixel rear-facing camera is predictably unimpressive. Low-light performance isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but snaps lack sharp focus, colour and detail. The front-facing camera is adequate for video-chats, but it won’t have you looking at your best.
Connectivity is standard for a budget 7-incher. The Smart Tab II is charged via a micro USB connection, which also handled file transfers to and from PC, and there’s a micro SD card slot hidden beneath a removable cover on the rear, which is also where the standard SIM card sits. Otherwise, there’s just the 3.5mm headphone jack. When you’re at home you can rely upon a fairly steady 802.11n Wi-Fi connection, along with built-in Bluetooth support.
Specifications and performance
It’s when you get to what’s inside that the Smart Tab II starts to look less attractive. For a start, it’s stuck with just 4GB of built-in storage space, and while this can easily be remedied via the micro SD slot, it still seems particularly tight. Perhaps it’s Vodafone’s way of encouraging you to stream music and movies and guzzle your data allowance, but it’s still not a lot of space.
More seriously, this is an underpowered tablet, with a 1GHz single-core Cortex A9 processor at the heart. Ice Cream Sandwich feels relatively snappy most of the time, but there are some pauses while you’re waiting for apps to load or things to happen, and at times the screen feels slightly sluggish and unresponsive. Video playback is slightly choppy with HD downloads or streams, and SD content from Google Play ran very oddly indeed, stuttering then speeding up with the sound out of sync.
There’s just about enough GPU performance for fairly simple 2D games, like our current platform favourite, Granny Smith, but try anything demanding and you can expect jerky frame-rates and stop-start action. Beach Buggy Blitz is just about playable, but only just. I found this performance reflected in more technical tests. A SunSpider score of 2344.6 is a little better than the Kindle Fire, but only just, and the Egypt HD benchmark could only manage a pitiful 3.4fps.
Battery life is another disappointment. You might get a little more light use out of the tablet with 3G disabled, but ours reached empty after around six and a half hours of email, web browsing, eBook reading, video playback and gaming.
Speed and battery life aren’t everything, and you have to factor price and convenience into the equation. I took the Smart Tab II out for the day, and the convenience of checking email and browsing the web on the move, without having to worry about finding a Wi-Fi hotspot, shouldn’t be dismissed. There is no 3G Kindle Fire or Kindle Fire HD, and the HSPA Nexus 7 will set you back a cool £239, albeit with 32GB of storage included. All the same, there are some basic jobs you expect a tablet to do – and do well – and the Smart Tab II seems to struggle with them. What’s more, for £10 more than the PAYG version you could have yourself a Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD, and while you’d miss out on the rear-facing camera and the 3G connectivity, you’d have a better screen and a much more satisfying tablet overall.
By last year’s standards this wouldn’t be a bad budget tablet. It’s reasonably well built, runs a decent OS, and doesn’t have an awful or badly unresponsive screen. By this year’s standards, however, it’s only worth a look if you must have built-in 3G connectivity, or if the contract option makes sense for what you want to do. It feels a little slow in action, it’s poor for gaming, and video playback throws up a few issues.
Given that you could have a Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7 for just another tenner, the Smart Tab II doesn’t quite measure up. Given the choice of 3G or a well-rounded, usable tablet, I’d take the latter option every time, even if it meant paying extra for a mobile hotspot device.
Manufacturer and product
Vodafone Smart Tab II 7
Single Core ARM Cortex A9 1Ghz (MTK 6575)
7in 1,024 x 600
Micro USB, 3.5mm headphone
Size and weight
192 x 122 x 11.5mm, 400g