Before we get started I think it’d be worthwhile identifying the purpose of a 5 inch tablet. A lot of you with high end smart phones might wonder why anyone would need one of these, and I agree that there is a huge overlap between smartphones and these 5 inch Android tabs. But aside from the uncontrollable gadget lust that forces me to part with my cash every once in a while, it does have its niche to fill.
When I was a kid I always wanted a PMP. I remember ogling over various Archos, Creative and RCA players on ebay – 10 years later I still wanted one, despite owning a smartphone. I can’t speak for all current or previous generation phones out there but in the case of my HTC Desire (and some current generation smartphones that my friends own) it is useless as a PMP. The sound quality through speaker is abysmal, through headphones it’s dull and flat. Its video capabilities are lack lustre at best and even if they weren’t then the battery would probably let me down before a movie had finished anyway. Phones have a long way to go before they can call themselves competitive MP3 or video players.
So this is where the niche lies. A large screened but pocketable device with good sound quality, almost limitless video capabilities and a battery that isn’t going to roll over and die half way through a film. Can it be done? And more importantly can it be done well? Read on for a brick wall of text…
The first thing to strike you is the image on the front of the box. It looks nothing like the device inside the box. In fact it looks more like an iPod Touch or something. A strange tactic from Window, I think a decent render of the N50 would have looked a hell of a lot better than this wobbly looking iPod drawing. Secondly, the amount of tat inside is quite astonishing. I don’t know if this is stuff bundled by Window or if JTShop put it in there… either way, you’re not going to be short of any accessories.
The N50 itself is a wonderful size, shape and weight. It weighs more than I imagined and its size is slightly smaller, both of these are bonuses in my opinion. In the palm it looks very elegant.
At first inspection everything looks perfect. It doesn’t warp or creak when gripped at each end and twisted and it feels very solid indeed. As previously mentioned the weight is good and it feels like I can chuck it in my pocket without a care. Once the awe had worn off a bit I did notice a couple of potential problems. If you push on the back of the device, the pressure spots show through on the LCD. I’ve seen this happen on other devices before, but not on any ‘premium’ ones. So that’s the first giveaway that it’s a budget device I guess. The other thing is that the glass panel sits around 0.5mm above the outer shell of the device all the way around (which I guess is intended), apart from the left edge where it is perhaps closer to 1mm. If I push the glass down on that edge there is about 0.5mm of travel where it sinks to the level where it should sit permanently. It’s not an issue really but these things tend to annoy me. If I can find a safe way to take it apart I might glue it down permanently. After about 10 days of general use I have noticed that the white plastic on the back is VERY prone to scratching. I have hundreds of hairline marks accross the back, despite being very careful where I put it. The front is the important bit though I guess, and it is completely scratch free. Maybe it is Gorilla Glass after all (sincerely doubt it though).
The Micro SD slot is a joke. I was almost convinced that the locking mechanism was broken because I simply couldn’t get the SD to stay in. The spring just kept pushing it back out again. In the end I used a biro and discovered that you need to push the SD about 1mm below the surface of the slot in order for it to lock. That is crappy design, and it caused me to crack a bit of the plastic underneath the slot. Superficial damage but irritating never the less. Thankfully now that the Micro SD is in it will never need to be removed since the device functions as Mass Storage for both Flash memory and expansion. The reset button is recessed the perfect amount and serves its purpose, and the power and volume buttons click nicely when pressed.
Boot time out of the box is about 34 seconds, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten any slower after installed a bunch of stuff. Once the desktop is loaded up there is a period of about 10 seconds where it refreshes the media library, but the device is operable while this is going on. I installed some flip clock widget for the home screen which always reads 00:00 for a few seconds after boot before correcting itself. The slide unlock never seems to register my press first time after boot either, but from the second time onwards it’s fine. Software issue I guess.
The first thing that strikes you when you start looking around is that this thing is nippy. The capacitive touch is pretty good (though not quite as good as those on top end smart phones I must admit) and the device doesn’t seem to get bogged down while scrolling through menus or loading applications. The LCD itself is not bad but not great, it’s bright and colorful but kind of grainy looking. It’s not something that’s going to trouble me but it’s not as good as my HTC Desire by a fair stretch. I downloaded the News and Weather application from the Market and it installed just fine. Scrolling through news headlines is a pleasing experience and selecting a headline promptly loads the browser and the full story. The stock browser is very fast on a decent WIFI connection.
I installed Caustic (music production application), MoboPlayer (video player), Gameboid (GBA emu), Music Beta (Google audio cloud streaming application) as well as some power control widgets which all work great. PSX4Droid doesn’t seem to load my disk images, so I guess it doesn’t work on this device. Gun Bros installs but quits to menu when I try to launch it and Swype warned me that I was trying to install onto a non Android device, though SwiftKey works great. The Google Plus application works but doesn’t seem to download any photos. The Market updated itself to the new and fancy looking one released recently. I’ve never seen it before (it’s not come through my provider to my phone yet) and it’s pretty nice.
The biggest gripe in general usage is the capacitive buttons at the bottom of the screen. It seems that they are quite picky about when they want to work. At first I thought it was just the Home button, but I noticed that occasionally the Back button fails to register as well. This is worrying for me, and is only tolerable due to the hardware buttons being replicated in software in the title bar. I hope this is a firmware issue otherwise it might be a deal breaker. As you can see in the video this is a ‘Test’ firmware, the final version is due out in a few weeks. If the final version doesn’t fix the button problem I may have to send it back. The LCD displays well in 3 of 4 possible viewing angles. If you hold the device in landscape mode with the capacitive buttons to your right and tilt the top of the device away from you, there is a point when the colours become inverted. The other angles don’t suffer from this issue.
The device came with a Corning promotional video preinstalled. Corning are the company that make that Gorilla Glass used on high end smartphones. Although the screen seems pretty scratch resistant, I very much doubt there is an ounce of Gorilla Glass to found anywhere on this thing. I can’t help but smile when I discover things like this. Preinstalled was also a Chinese music video for some very hot girl band. I don’t know the specs of these videos so have loaded my own to test.
test 1 (not filmed) – Breaking Bad. Standard definiton XviD with AC3 audio. Plays flawlessly of course.
test 2 – Breaking Bad. 720p x264 .mkv with stereo audio. Plays flawlessly.
test 3 – the “Killer Sample”. 1080p x264 .mkv with 6 channel audio and a bitrate of 33.8mbps. Occasionally stutters but for the most part plays very well. My E7400 with 2GB of RAM struggles with this in VLC media player so I was very surprised that I wasn’t watching a slideshow on the N50. Impressive.
Since you’d have to be an idiot to load 1080p video onto an 800×480 PMP with no TV Output then I’m not going to count the slight stutters of the killer sample against it. It plays videos that it’s intended to play just fine, and even makes a heroically valiant effort at some very high bitrate 1080p video.
The N50 came with some preloaded audio tracks from the likes of Lady GaGa, Dave Matthew’s Band etc. The speaker is not bad, certainly better than the one on my Desire but unfortunately it’s really not very loud. Media with a lower overall volume (ie movies or music recorded before the Great Loudness War) are a struggle to listen to. I did worry that it was a cheap amplifier causing this problem, but my worries were unfounded since plugging in my Audio Technica ATH M50 monitors proved a very different experience. As yet I’ve not used a portable device loud enough to drive these cans to a decent level, but the N50 does a pretty decent job. In fact if I stick the volume to full it is too loud. Audio quality is pretty good, clear and warm and more than listenable. Music Beta from Google installed and works a treat. This gives me access to my entire music collection wherever there is a wifi connection.
I use the stock Android browser on my phone, so I stuck with it on the N50 too so as to compare. Browsing is quite an enjoyable experience, even heavy sites like engadget load in a very reasonable amount of time and usually scrolling is pretty fluid too. Pinching to zoom in and out works just as expected. I’ve not really encountered any issues whilst browsing, apart from Youtube which seems to grind the thing to a halt. I haven’t tried the Youtube app though, so it might be a different story with that.
Not much to say here, you can see from the video that it works a charm. I’m yet to try any very high resolution photos but to be honest it’s not something I bought the device for.
There’s a front facing VGA camera built in to the device. It’s not something I’d ever use but it’s here so I’ll review it. Image quality is not very good; it’s dark and grainy for the most part. Image capture is perhaps 1/4 second after pressing the button which might annoy some people. Video capture works but suffers from the graininess and dark images that affect stills too. In a bright environment it’s OK.
The inbuilt games work fine as you can see from the video. Actually they look and play really well so I’m chuffed with that. Gameboid seems to work OK though occasionally stutters, but I haven’t tested it with a huge selection of ROMs. Lack of physical buttons make non touchscreen dedicated games hard to work with, in fact I’d go as far as to say onscreen buttons for emulators are a bloody nightmare. As mentioned before, I couldn’t get PSX4Droid working. I’ve loaded and selected the bios but selecting a disk image seems to do nothing. I’ve got plenty of dedicated gaming machines for this instead.
The battery hasn’t really had time to reach its potential yet, but it seems that the tests conducted on the Chinese forums are about right. I played a Standard Definition XviD episode of Dexter at full brightness from a fully charged battery with WIFI off, and the metre hadn’t dropped at all by the end. I left the device on standby in the morning while I went to work, with WIFI disabled. When I got back to it 9 hours later it was running at about 70% battery remaining.
Odds and Sods.
The Quadrant benchmark runs between 1150 and 1350. I’m not sure why it varies so wildly, rebooting and running the benchmark immediately doesn’t really seem to make much difference to the result. I tried the OTG port with my 16GB SD card and Kingston reader and it worked fine. The only other things I’d like to test are a GPS and a 3G dongle but unfortunately I don’t own either. Tethering the device to my phone works great.
Well it has its flaws, but I’m used to living with some flaws when buying cheap Chinese stuff. And it is pretty cheap. Overall my biggest woes are with the capacitive buttons occasionally refusing to work, but I have an inkling it’s software related and may be fixed with the upcoming firmware upgrade. The highly scratchable back cover is annoying too, but I’ll live with it. The things I have been impressed with though, outweigh those niggles. Video playback is astonishingly good, battery life is better than average, sound quality through headphones is great and overall it’s a pretty quick little thing. A worthy purchase I reckon.
The hands on and unboxing videos are below, you’ve probably already seen them but I’m putting them here again for completeness of the review’s sake.