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Testing the New ZaTab Open Hackable Android Tablet

ZaReason's latest incarnation of their Android tablet, the ZaTab ZT2, is a sturdy little chunky monkey. First a quick look at its specs:

 

  • 10.1" IPS (In-Plane Switching) 1280x800 display
  • Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
  • 8 GB internal storage
  • Front and back Webcams
  • Allwinner A31 SoC, with 4-core CPU & 8-core GPU
  • 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
  • 2 GB RAM
  • miniHDMI out, microSD, and microUSB
  • Built-in speakers and microphone.

 

ZaTab tablet

The ZaTab is unlocked so you can do whatever you want with it, just like a PC. Like install CyanogenMod to get the latest and greatest in truly free Android. Or try some other tablet operating system like Bohdi Linux, Firefox OS or Kubuntu Netbook Plasma. I have no idea if they run on the ZaTab, so if you try them please let us know in the comments if it worked. You can also install any apps you want, and not just the Google-approved ones, and develop and test your own apps. (Be sure to check out Juliet Kemp's excellent series on Android development for beginners.)

Poking Things is Weird

I'm not a tablet or smartphone user, so playing with the ZaTab was a new experience. Poking the screen with my fingers feels messy and somewhat childish, like fingerpaints. But I can appreciate the technology behind the touch interface-- it's slick how the screen orients itself when you move the tablet, and zooming with a pinch or squeeze is kind of fun. Finger presses and taps replace mouse clicks, and you get different results with short taps and long presses. For example, a long press on a Gallery image selects it and opens a menu for sharing and editing. A long press on a desktop widget or app opens the delete function, which removes it from your desktop but does not delete it from your system. So a long press often functions as a right-click context menu.

Fig. 2: Writing an email with the voice-to-text engine is slow and not very accurate

It ships with four default virtual desktops, and you can put different widgets and apps on each desktop. You can use any image for wallpaper, or get some Live wallpapers. Live wallpapers are animated, and some connect to network services so beware of battery and system resource drain. There are zillions upon zillions to choose from, both free and paid.

Google Everywhere (Kind of Creepy)

The ZaTab is well-integrated with Google services, which is both a benefit and an annoyance. I always have mixed feelings about Google; they give us a lot of nice apps and services for free. But what is the true cost of all those free goodies? Google is an impenetrable black box, so we don't know what they're doing behind the scenes with all of our personal stuff passing through their servers. If you're already a Google user and have Gmail, Google+, Drive, and all that other then you can easily configure your account in the ZaTab and have access to all your stuff. Google Search is already on your desktop, and Google Voice Search. Voice Search worked well for me, and it accurately recognized what I was saying. So I either have good diction or Google's voice recognition is extra-good.

The speech engine didn't work as well for composing an email. It's easy to use-- when you compose a new message in Gmail just press the microphone key on the keyboard and start talking. It got a lot of words wrong and was slow. It was pretty good with punctuation and putting apostrophes in the right places, which is more than you say for a goodly percentage of native American English speakers.

Speaking of keyboards, the on-screen keyboard is pretty good, though for me it's not a replacement for a real keyboard. But these virtual keyboards are going to keep improving until someday they are viable replacements for physical keyboards, with tactile feedback and many times more customizable.

What if you want total voice control of your Android device? Try the Voice Shortcuts Launcher app. It's free on Google Play. (Which, by the way, is in your default app drawer on the ZaTab.) It lets you build custom shortcuts for commands like "Open Powells.com" and "Open text editor" and what-have-you. It's quite versatile, though it still doesn't give you complete voice control because you can't power up your tablet or log in with it. I wish voice technologies were more advanced; they're still primitive on Linux, and somewhat better on Mac and Windows, but still a long way from where they should be. Hands-free control is essential for people who, for various reasons, can't type or use their hands very well, and it's a nice feature for all users.

ZaTab apps

Transferring Files

The ZaTab is set up with USB mass storage protocol, so all you need to copy files between a PC and the tablet is to connect them with a USB cable. You can also stuff a microSD card in the tiny microSD slot and copy files to it. Getting the card out is a little tricky because it's so small, so you may want tweezers to grab it. Of course you can also use Web services like Dropbox and Google Drive, which seems like the long way around but there they are if you want them.

Watching the Big Teevee

I plugged the ZaTab into my mondo biggo LCD television with a miniHDMI-to-HDMI cable, cued up some Netflix movies, and the sound and picture were quite good. If you have movies stored on your ZaTab the bundled 4k VideoPlayer is a decent basic player, and the Play store has many more players to choose from.

The bundled camera app is a good basic app that controls both the front and rear camera, and takes both stills and videos. Both Skype and Google Hangout work fine with video, though you want to be careful to hold your tablet steady so your image isn't going all jiggedy. The built-in microphone is surprisingly good, though the speakers, as is typical of small speakers, are average.

Reading

eBooks look really good on the ZaTab. I have an original Kindle, and I like it a lot for plain text books and books with simple monochrome illustrations. It's the perfect special-purpose book reader: lightweight, simple, and easy on the eyes. But the real potential for eBooks is full color, because printing in color is still expensive. The ZaTab is heavier and bulkier than the Kindle, but I like the bigger pages, better zoom, and adjustable screen brightness. I especially like that it supports all eBook formats, which the Kindle does not, and you can find a number of good ereader and library manager apps. I give it a big thumbs up for reading.

Battery Life

I'm getting 8-10 hours on a charge, depending on what I'm doing. Skype, Google Hangout, live wallpapers, and recording video suck down the battery faster, but it's still better than my Thinkpad. The last time I traveled with my beloved Thinkpad may be the last time: it's heavy, and there is no room even for a 14" laptop when you fly cattle-car class. A tablet would fit in squished airplane cabins better, and if I tote along a keyboard for serious typing it's still a lot lighter than my Thinkpad. I could purchase an ultra-light Thinkpad for $1200, or a ZaTab for $299. Hmmm...

Overall this is an attractive tablet that for me would serve both for entertainment and serious work, especially on the road, and for "distro-hopping" CyanogenMod and other tablet operating systems.

 

Comments

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  • Helen South Said:

    "Like install CyanogenMod to get the latest and greatest in truly free Android. Or try some other tablet operating system like Bohdi Linux, Firefox OS or Kubuntu Netbook Plasma. I have no idea if they run on the ZaTab, so if you try them please let us know in the comments if it worked. " - That's the reviewer's job, actually. You have the device in your hands, so please try these out before I spend my hard-earned on the device. The whole point of an unlocked device is really so that we CAN do these things. I was not a mobile device user either, but I managed to unlock, root and install CyanogenMod and install F-Droid on my Asus Transformer. Then installed GAPPs so that I could use Google apps to test them for my day-job. If I can do it, so can you.

  • Helen Said:

    Wanted to add: I am reminded that reviewers don't get paid enough for such a labor-intensive exercise, and that vendors don't like having non-stock software installed on their equipment. So I feel my criticism is unreasonable. apologies.

  • Carla Schroder Said:

    Hi Helen, That's a fair point. My wording is clumsy-- I should have said I'll be following up this review with a hacking the ZaTab howto. I know it will run Cyanogenmod. For Bodhi etc. I'm not sure if they run on tablet hardware. I'll be finding out!

  • Helen Said:

    Good to hear, Carla. I've been looking forward to Zareason getting into the market. I've seen a couple of Cyanogen ROMS for Allwinner, but I think you're right about the others - very much still in development; though promisingly, I did notice a job ad for a developer to port FirefoxOS, so hopefully that will happen soon. Having to unlock the Transformer was quite anxiety-inducing, so I'm keen to know how 'user friendly' the ZaTab makes the process.

  • john b spence Said:

    Did I miss the link to the home site of the tablet?

  • Sam Said:

    Yes. Check the very first word of the review.

  • Jeff Said:

    Will your hacking how-to be generic, or will be be focusing on specific OSes? I'm curious to see how well (or not) the ZaTab runs Firefox OS.

  • Helen Said:

    Jeff, AFAIK FirefoxOS isn't yet ported to the Allwinner, however I think it won't be long, as apart from general interest in the OS, this is also the platform of choice for Mozilla's tablet. May be wrong, that's the gist I get from a couple of quick searches.

  • Sam Varghese Said:

    Tread warily where ZaReason is concerned: http://bit.ly/1gN5QMJ

  • CecilW Said:

    What do you say on this, earlier one never got to Linux; http://bit.ly/1gN5QMJ "Android tablet that turned out to be a dud!" is marketing a new model this year - and using most of the same marketing spiel

  • Tom Said:

    Front (.3 megapixels) and Back (5 megapixels) cameras

  • Scott DuBois Said:

    Nice article : ) It takes awhile for a person to get used to a tablet when most of their experience is from a keyboard. I've always thought of my Acer A500 as kind of a big phone. I like the idea of a tablet that is freely hackable out of the box; that's pretty cool. As for Google products I use them all the time and couldn't really imagine what it would be like not having them. It's possible, I suppose, to go with a multitude of indie products that could replace each item made available through their apps but that would be a lot of work. I know people worry about how much of our data goes through Google servers but I believe we all have a lot less to worry about from them than some other companies out there. I think of it as selecting the lesser of multiple evils.

  • Bob Said:

    Carla Schroder said: " I always have mixed feelings about Google; they give us a lot of nice apps and services for free. But what is the true cost of all those free goodies? Google is an impenetrable black box, so we don't know what they're doing behind the scenes with all of our personal stuff passing through their servers." You apparently are not aware Google has extremely closely ties to the United States National Security Agency. Google and the NSA are virtually the same organization. If you don't believe it, I challenge you to look it up; just be ready to be shocked by what is being done with ALL your data. Facebook and Twitter also have very close ties the the NSA. Carla Schroder said: "I could purchase an ultra-light ThinkPad for $1200, or a ZaTab for $299. Hmmm..." That is hardly a fair or realistic comparison. Android tablets and ThinkPads were designed for different uses. At the moment, tablets are for light use - casual web browsing, reading ebooks, some email, and light games. ThinkPads are for businesses with money at stake, and serious students who need to score high grades. These factors are what justify the cost difference between an Android tablet and a equally portable ThinkPad. Another difference between Android tablets and Windows tablets that is important to many Linux users is there still is no mass produced tablet that can immediately run a true Linux distribution without very significant modification. The ability to run a true Linux distribution on a tablet may be worth the cost difference to some users.

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