Monday, 10 September 2012

Rapid Review: The Huawei MediaPad/T-Mobile Springboard


So, as promised a couple of weeks ago, here is our inaugural Rapid Review.

First up? The Huawei MediaPad (also known as the T-Mobile Springboard Stateside).

It might seem an odd choice to review now, being an end-of-life (EOL) product, about to be relegated to the side-lines as Huawei refreshes its tablet line up. But then, it might just be one of those unappreciated gems worth grabbing at EOL prices, mightn't it? You'll have to read on to find out I guess. Well, actually, I know you're clever enough to realise we wouldn't even be here if we didn't like it, but there still might be a few tasty surprises just past the break nevertheless...


Initial impressions and Design

I have to admit to a degree of surprise when first handling the MediaPad, happily though the MediaPad represents the good kind of unexpected.

The MediaPad is an attractive device with a fairly industrial sort of design, looking perhaps (dare I say it) like an over-sized iPhone 4, right down to both speaker grills placement at one end of the device. It does just enough with the grippy plastic panels on the rear of the device to escape looking too obviously derivative though, and the end result is a good looking tablet slightly reminiscent of one of the best looking gadgets in recent years (but without the dated top and bottom bezels of the 4/4S that are an affront to my vision these days).

The design shares a few things with the iPhone 4/4S, including the
rather suboptimal placement of both speakers at one end of the device
There isn't too much to say about the design otherwise. Held in portrait the right hand side of the device sports a volume rocker and power button, the bottom of the device has the charging input, micro HDMI and micro USB connection ports, and the top of the device has the headphone jack and both speakers. On the rear of the device are the two grippy plastic panels, the rear-facing camera embedded within the 'top' panel, and the bottom one lifting off to reveal the SIM and micro SD slots. The volume rocker deserves a small mention here for its quirky implementation in the MediaPad - the up volume key is the bottom-most end of the rocker when holding the device in portrait. To add to the strangeness of this, its implementation isn't even internally consistent, for example many apps that make use of the volume buttons see them reversed into the intuitive positions. Overall its a tiny blemish, just one worth noting in passing.

Turning attention to the connectivity ports, its a mixed, but mostly positive, affair. I know I've ranted about proprietary connection ports before, and the charging port here is one of those, but overall I really like Huawei's approach despite that. Besides the charging port, everything else here is completely standard. Furthermore, none of the ports serve double-duty. The relevance is that not only can you connect to an external monitor with a standard micro HDMI cable, but you can still make use of the micro USB port if you want to connect an external storage device via USB OTG, or perhaps a wireless USB keyboard and mouse. With most Android tablets and handsets these days you'll see either combination proprietary ports ala the Galaxy or Transformer tabs, or an MHL-enabled micro USB port, both of which really limit your usage options. While I can understand the use of MHL in phones, where space is at a real premium, I find combination ports less easy to forgive in a tablet, so I applaud what Huawei has done here. I just hope this becomes a conserved part of their design ethic in future devices...


Build quality and ergonomics

The volume rocker implementation, as mentioned earlier, is a little
unorthodox here, but at least the tactile feel of the button is great
Reminder: If you’ve read my reviews before scroll down to the next bit of non-italicized text, up until then I’m just going to be repeating my little spiel about the distinction between build materials and build quality for the uninitiated.

Whether it be in professional reviews, or merely the innumerable commentators who feel compelled to tell the world their opinion, the term “build quality” gets bandied about a lot. Unfortunately in many of those instances people are in fact referring to "build materials". The two terms tend to be thrown about like synonyms, but they're not. It is possible to have one without the other.


The Galaxy S II and HTC Sensation are two examples that spring to mind to make the point. 


The Galaxy S II build materials are disappointing plastics, but they’re durable. There are no moving parts or creaks, and as you’ll see if you care to look at some drop test videos on YouTube, it holds up to drops and knocks better than an iPhone 4S which is made from much nicer materials. 

In other words its build quality is good. Contrast this with the HTC Sensation, which is made from great materials with metal and high quality soft-touch plastics, but has a more suspect build quality with the 'sleeve' design causing creaks, dust accumulation under the screen, and volume rockers that break (of course not every Sensation is afflicted by these, but it's sporadic failure rate is higher than I've observed from other high-end handsets). 

Now obviously I want a handset with both, and I think for the kind of money we throw at these flagship handsets we really shouldn’t have to be compromising on one or the other, but if it does come down to choosing I'll take build quality, thank you very much.


Pulling off the plastic panel reveals the SIM and micro SD slots,
naturally 64GB cards formatted to Fat32 work, despite what the
manufacturer will tell you...

After the laborious editorialising above about my take on build materials and quality, I'll keep this refreshingly brief: the MediaPad is absolutely top notch on both counts here.

It's a solid slab with a metal shell, and because of the materials in use weighs slightly more than you might expect. As is often the case though, the extra weight here doesn't detract from the device so much as enhance it - really helping to reinforce the impression of quality you get when holding it. For it's pricing and intended market segment it's a stunning achievement, and one that I wish other Android manufacturers would take note of.

Ergonomics


7-8 inch tabs are the sweet spot for me, so perhaps I'm biased here, but from the ergonomic point of view the MediaPad is going to easily outdo any of the 9+inch tablets in the ergonomics stakes. Things like the ability to comfortably type with two thumbs in portrait mode, or a weight low enough to allow the device to be comfortably held in the hands for longer sessions, simply cannot be overstated from a purely ergonomic standpoint.

Looking specifically at the MediaPad there isn't too much to quibble about ergonomically speaking. It weighs a little too much to be held in one hand for long periods, a ramification of the top notch materials on offer, and that's about all I can muster in the way of criticism. Basically the 7-inch tablet form factor is ideal for portability, browsing, eBook and comic reading, and its very well executed in the MediaPad.



The Screen

The IPS display brings its usual characteristics to the fray here, offering
great viewing angles along with pleasing colour reproduction, while still
offering reasonable blacks and contrast at a very respectable 216ppi
In the Nexus 7 review I was really quite enthused about its screen, or at least enthused for the quality it offered at its asking price. If I was impressed then, colour me ecstatic with the MediaPad panel.

In many respects it's almost the same as the Nexus 7 panel - you're getting a 1280x800 resolution IPS display of the same size. The difference here is that the MediaPad doesn't exhibit the fairly poor gamma performance of the Nexus 7 (which tends to wash out the colours on the Nexus 7), and has a higher maximum brightness to boot. In summary, it's a noticeably superior display to what is on show with the Nexus 7, which I already thought was excellent in its price bracket.

There is one problem with the screen in the MediaPad, but I'll come to that a bit later, since it has nothing to do with the display characteristics of the panel.



Speed and synthetic benchmarks

Hopefully everyone reading this is up to speed on benchmarks; they are less important than how the phone performs in actual use, and additionally some of them actually aren't even particularly good (Quadrant, I'm looking at you). Despite their relative lack of real-world usefulness you all love them anyways, and so help us, so do we.

If anything the real usefulness of benchmarks for me is not as a measure of handset performance, but rather a measure of the quality of a reviewers technical knowledge of Android. The second you see a score from Nenamark 1, Benchmark Pi, or an onscreen GLBench result you know the reviewer doesn't have a good grip on what they're talking about when it comes to technical aspects and you can pretty much filter their opinion accordingly. 


What I'm going to do here is run the MediaPad through a number of benchmarks, and then give my  impressions for how the device is in terms of responsiveness; the benchmarks in context as it were.

So, here are the benchmarks, and a few words on how we rate their usefulness:


Quadrant

Shock! Horror! I am not going give you a Quadrant score for the MediaPad. Quadrant just doesn't give results that are generalisable to real-world use, so I'm making good on my promise in the Note review that we'd stop reporting on it. If you feel you really must know the irrelevant Quadrant score, then I'm pretty sure GSMArena has you covered, since they can't get enough of obsolete benchmarks (don't worry GSMArena, we still love you anyway).

From now on I'm going to stop flogging a dead horse in every review and just omit to even mention Quadrant, I think most people know better than to lend it anything much in the way of credence these days.

CF-Bench

Here is the first of the benchmarks we have some regard for here at AndroidNZ - Chainfire bench. CF-Bench for me probably has the biggest bearing on actual use, and for that reason alone stands above most others. Well, in this benchmark, as in the others to follow it, we're not going to see the MediaPad set any hearts alight with it's performance. It's results mirror those of the HTC Sensation, which shares the same MSM8260 dual core Snapdragon and Adreno 220 GPU. The results are slightly lower here, but then in GPU-based tasks the MediaPad is pushing about twice the number of pixels as the Sensation, so I'm not inclined to be too tough on it for falling slightly short.




Antutu

Another general benchmark. Antutu, like CF-Bench above, is one of the few "all-purpose" benchmarks that we really rate here at AndroidNZ. The MediaPad result here is mediocre by current standards and nothing more than that.





Vellamo

Vellamo is a browser benchmark software made by Qualcomm. It encompasses a variety of tests including standards like Sunspider, aggregating them to produce a single score. The Vellamo score here weighs in at about half the score of this years flagship devices, but isn't dreadful in it's own right.



Browsermark

...speaking of different browsing benchmarks, we come now to Browsermark. Browsermark actually runs itself in the browser directly, and as such is available to nearly any platform - great for cross-platform arguments over the water cooler about whose phone is better (not that we condone that sort of thing, much less using synthetic benchmarks to do it). Again, the benchmark here is a middling affair if you look at all-comers, much as we'd expect it to be. 




GLBenchmark 2.1.4

Well, in the SIII review we wrote that only offscreen tests could fully elaborate its GPU performance, rendering a good many GPU benchmarks obsolete in its wake. Obviously the same cannot be said for the MediaPad, with its Adreno 220 GPU, which felt dated even last year in the Sensation when pitted against the original iteration of the Mali-400. Time hasn't been kind to the Adreno 220, and we see it manage a rather abysmal 19fps here. Having said that, it's worth pointing out the Galaxy Nexus scores worse across the board in GLBenchmark (you can compare results here, if you don't feel like taking our word for it), and I haven't seen Nexus owners storming the internet to complain about the gaming nous of their handset in all-caps.




Nenamark 2

An onscreen graphics benchmark, and one that is struggling to keep pace with present devices these days at that. Naturally the MediaPad isn't pushing it to those levels however, managing 33-35 frames a second depending on whether you're on stock or custom firmware. For reference that's in the order of 5-7fps faster than the Galaxy Nexus, so still a result good enough to ensure that most current Android games will run fairly well here.




Actual use

In actual use it's fair to say that at times the MediaPad shows the strain of pushing 1280x800 around with a SoC not really up to the task. For the most part I find it perfectly acceptable, the lags and hitches being a familiar part of the Android tablet experience pre-Nexus 7. They grate a little more for having experienced a Nexus 7 of course, but overall I think performance is fine for what the MediaPad is.

Gaming and playback of high bitrate/demanding video files would be the areas where the chinks in the MediaPad's performance really get shown in sharp relief. While it'll run the vast majority of Android titles just fine, those whose tastes run to emulator gaming, hardcore gaming of the type represented by Gameloft's titles, or 1080p high bitrate video will be a little disappointed.

[Note: this part was written with respect to ICS based firmwares, and as you'll see further down recent events have massively improved performance in general use for the MediaPad...]


Telephony

I realise most people are going to snort coffee out their noses as they guffaw thinking about what telephony looks like on a tablet, but honestly, 3G connectivity, and yes, even telephony, are important to me in a tablet.  All the more so in a tablet in the 7inch form factor, which lends itself so much more aptly to on-the-go use than larger tablets. 


When the review was nearly complete
a great CM10 build for the MediaPad
happened along, here is Google Now -
running perfectly!
Firstly, let's talk about making phone calls. Yes, you can make them on the MediaPad. I have. And I'm not talking about calling via a bluetooth headset either, although that, ah, would be my recommended method. As a previous (and upcoming) Note owner I'm secure enough to hold a giant slab to the side of my head and talk into it in public, so I thought I would try that so I could report on the experience. Suffice to say there is a reason I recommend calling via bluetooth. There I was, in a busy cafe, MediaPad plastered to the side of my head calling a friend, aware of the looks, but not at all bothered by them. Said friend answers the call, and only then do I realise my folly: the MediaPad has no earpiece. I can assure you that while it's quite one thing to talk into a 'phone' that wouldn't have looked too out of place for size in the 80's, its quite another to have the call blasting out of the (actually rather decent) loudspeakers. Oops. Bluetooth headset it is then.

With that confession out of the way, call quality itself is just fine (good enough that I was thankful the call was mundane at any rate!). I've made a few calls since then with bluetooth headsets and have no complaints there either.

There is also the ability to send SMS from the MediaPad, which in hindsight is probably the main use-case Huawei had in mind for including telephony features in the MediaPad. It worked as you'd expect and was very handy when the opportunity came up to use it.


Battery life

The MediaPad suffers a bit here, and there isn't really any way to sugar coat that. In my time with the MediaPad so far, regardless of what use I was putting the tablet to, screen-on time came in at around the 4-5 hour mark. I haven't found any way to meaningfully extend that either, despite trying a few custom ROMs and kernels on for size. Fortunately the standby time is exceptional, so that screen-on time doesn't get greatly reduced by idle time, meaning it should comfortably see you through most days.

[Naturally the significant development of a very good CM10 build means that we'll be revisiting this segment of the review in a week or so, when we've had enough time to make meaningful comment about whether Jelly Bean brings much needed improvement here]


Stability and bugs

Two things are really noteworthy here. 


Naturally CM10 handles rich notifications
with aplomb, something I truly love about JB!
The first is that the MediaPad's touch sensitivity is WAAAY too low on stock software, becoming a persistent low-grade nuisance requiring you to press the screen several times to achieve the desired result far too often. Fortunately this is very easily corrected with one of several custom kernels based on the work of XDA developer arkusuma

The second is that random reboots are too prevalent. On stock software they're not too intrusive, but they do happen frequently enough to rankle. This is particularly frustrating if you happen to use the power button to restart the MediaPad after flashing a firmware, rather than removing the SD card, since it seems to always restart part-way through the initial set-up, causing the firmware flash to start again from scratch. Obviously once you know about that it's easy to avoid, but that doesn't alter the fact that it shouldn't happen. 

Once you start adding custom kernels into the mix then their frequency tends to ramp up a bit too, a factor that has kept both AndroidNZ editors currently in possession of MediaPads from messing with undervolting, even despite how helpful this might be in terms of reducing the MediaPads overly quick battery drain.


Custom ROMs and Development

For those of us accustomed to Rooting and modding our Android devices, developer support is always something to factor in to the decision, and generally speaking something that goes against less common devices... and so it does here. That's not to say that development is non-existent, only that it you won't enjoy anything like the same level of support that owners of ubiquitous devices like the Galaxy phones will have. 


In it's favour, the MediaPad is probably the easiest-to-Root Android device I've ever used (so simple that our Root guide is barely more than a link to the solitary download required to obtain Root). Furthermore, only now, as it approaches the end of its commercial life, has development really started to grow for the MediaPad. For a couple of months several custom ROMs have started to spring up, and in the last month CM9 and AOKP builds and custom kernels have started to appear also. The kernels in particular are important, fixing not only the touch screen sensitivity issue raised earlier, but also adding support for important features like overclocking which help smooth performance out and are "must-haves" for the MSM8260 SoC in the MediaPad.

It's hardly surprising to see development begin to increase a little at this stage really, EOL-pricing specials are enticing a few more users to join the MediaPad community, and the ICS source code was only released in July. 


Yup, that Android OS version reads 4.1.1

UPDATE: Since I started writing the review CM10 and AOKP JB ROMs have both appeared. I'm presently running the CM10 Alpha 3 build on my MediaPad, and so far everything is just wonderful, in particular the smoothness level is really, really enhanced thanks to Project Butter improvements. In fact performance is good enough to completely forget you're playing around on a budget tab for the most part. Don't let the Alpha tag bother you too much either, at the present time the only relatively major function not working is HDMI out. A recommended install. Oh, and if you find yourself uncomfortable with Fastboot or other parts of the installation process, rest assured an AndroidNZ guide will be along shortly to help you. The presence of the CM10 build really alleviates all the pressure on development for me, I mean, all you really need is one rock solid ROM on the latest Android version. Right?


Conclusion

So, all said and done, is the MediaPad an EOL-bargain to keep on the lookout for, or merely another forgettable Android tablet?

For my money it's the former, providing of course you're paying EOL-prices for it. 

I purchased mine brand new for $250NZD, a little more than half the $440 a Nexus 7 will set you back for here. For the money I received a device with a better screen, much better materials and build quality, micro SD expansion up to 64GB, inbuilt USB host support for external storage devices, and an HDMI out port and 3G connectivity with calling and SMS support. The fact that it has already updated, albeit unofficially, to Jelly Bean is just gravy. Of course losing out on Nexus-program OS updates is nothing trivial, and the considerably more powerful SoC/GPU combo in the Nexus is worth considering too, but all things taken into account (and bearing in mind my use-case scenarios) I'll actually take the MediaPad over the Nexus 7. If that sounds like a big call, and in fairness whatever way you cut it, it is, it cannot be extricated from the context in which it is made. That statement encompasses not only a value for money proposition, but also my own personal feelings about tablets and the uses I have for them. Yours, and your mileage may vary, but for many people the MediaPad will be something worth hunting down.