Hands On: Vizio Tablet (Part 1: Initial Impressions)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that Costco is selling an 8″ Android tablet from Vizio (Model VTAB1008) for the very attractive price of $234.99. Unfortunately, their merchandising is somewhat lacking as this is a Wi-Fi only tablet, and there’s no Wi-Fi to speak of at Costco (and, as it turns out, the demo mode on them won’t allow Wi-Fi anyway!). I remembered today that Costco has a very generous 90-day return policy, which should give me ample opportunity to put one of these units through its paces, and picked one up.

The specs:

  • 802.11n Wifi
  • Bluetooth
  • GPS
  • HDMI Out
  • MicroSD slot
  • 4GB onboard storage (about 2.4 GB is available to the user)
  • 1 GHz Processor
  • Front facing camera (VGA)
  • Universal Remote App
  • 1024×768 screen
  • Lifetime tech support

What’s inside:

  • The tablet
  • Wall charger and cable (standard USB-microUSB)
  • Screen cloth
  • Quick Start Manual (full manual preloaded on the device)

Hardware:

  • Power button on the top, in the middle, flanked with a pair of speakers
  • Volume buttons on the right side
  • MicroUSB and HDMI on the bottom, in the middle, with the SD slot to the left and another speaker to the right – this is so that your audio still sounds right in landscape orientation.
  • There’s a back on it that looks like the battery may be user-accessible.

Initial impressions:

  • This thing seems a little dense for its size, but it’s not bad. The unit weighs in at 20.6 ounces (584 grams). The screen is reasonably bright.
  • When you fire up the tablet (and it came with a more than reasonable 80% battery charge), you go through a simple 5-step setup process that instructs you on general UI usage, connecting to Wi-Fi, and linking up to your Google account. Almost immediately after the setup, the device informed me of an available firmware update that added Netflix and some Android updates.¬†Unfortunately, the device comes with Gingerbread¬†and not Honeycomb.
  • There are 3 soft buttons on the bottom of the screen, the “return” button, a vizio logo, and the “menu” button. The Vizio logo is meant to be the home button, but that’s not particularly obvious (I purposely skipped the UI intro to see how intuitive things would be to someone who uses an Android phone and who has used an iPad)

Preloaded Apps:

  • The usual set of Googly stuff
  • A universal remote control app
  • Barnes & Noble’s Nook app
  • Adobe Flash Player 11
  • Netflix (with the OTA update)
  • Widget Board
The Android market comes up with a UI that looks suspiciously like Microsoft Windows Phone. I installed my usual set of apps, and they work quite nicely.

Weird quirks:

There’s a set of buttons across the bottom on the UI labeled “Browser”, “Market”, “Email”, “Gallery”, and “Music”. Oddly enough, even if you’ve set up your google account, the “Email” button runs you through another setup, asking if the account is IMAP, POP3, or Exchange. Has nothing to do with the gMail app.
Connecting to USB presents you with a file structure that isn’t really clearly documented. Tried copying a video over, but had to use a file browser app to actually locate it.

Really cool stuff:

I dropped an XVID-encoded AVI file onto the storage, and once I was able to locate it (see above), It played. No fuss, no muss, no conversions. This is a pretty standard format for the sorts of video you’d find on the internet (so I’ve heard), so this is really convenient if you have lots of content in that format.

The on-screen keyboard is nice to use, especially coming from a phone-sized android keyboard.

Kindle on this screen is NICE. This could make a pretty good alternative to the Fire.

The size on this unit is about perfect… A little bigger than the 7-inch “mini tablets”, but not as obnoxiously big as a 10″ tablet like a Xoom or iPad.

Screen at full brightness is actually too bright to use indoors.

The soft buttons are also present on the side of the unit. The correct set lights up based on orientation

Audio is excellent.

In combination with CoPilot Live, this could make a kick-butt car GPS.

Meh stuff:

The camera sucks. This is unsurprising. It’ll work fine for video chat, which is its primary purpose.

UI Animations are a little sluggish. They can be turned off, though.

Viewing angles from top and right (portrait) / top and left (landscape) leave something to be desired.

tl;dr version

Decent tablet for the money, probably usable by your grandmother. Onboard storage is adequate for someone not using it as a media device. Expandable storage solves that problem. Good support for multiple media formats. Makes a good e-reader.

Why consumer IT support sucks

laptop-destroy

Photo: bdtyre

Working in an IT shop, sometimes you have the luxury of forgetting just how bad consumer-grade hardware support has gotten. I’ve been absolutely spoiled by our Dell team, so the past few weeks have been a serious reality check.

About a year and a half ago, I bought a Toshiba laptop for my wife after her desktop computer’s power supply had unleashed its magic smoke. She was needing an upgrade, and we opted for the laptop since she was going to be starting school. After shopping arond, we found a good deal at Costco which included a color laser printer. Added bonus of buying at Costco is that on computers (and TVs) they extend the standard 1-year manufacturer warranty out to two years.

Somewhere around the middle of the fall semester, Andrea noticed the power connector inside the laptop was getting loose. Having encountered this sort of problem before (and I understand it’s actually quite common on consumer laptops), I suspected the plastic shell of the connector had come loose. They typically have three or four plastic pegs that secure the body to the circuit board, taking the mechanical strain off the soldered electrical leads. It’s not uncommon after repeated plug/unplug cycles for one or more of these pegs to break off, causing the connector to come loose. The long-term risk is that metal fatique will then break the electrical connectors. If you’re lucky, it won’t short out in the process. Business-grade laptops usually use much better connectors and methods of securing them. It’s just one of those corners you have to cut to sell $500 laptops to the masses.

Along the way, her touchpad started acting flaky as well, so we figured we’d call Costco and get this fixed while we still had some time left in the warranty. After trying to explain to someone in India for 45 minutes that the problem was not in the external power adapter, I got tired of him sending me on hold to talk to his supervisor, and asked him to transfer me. I spoke with Wade, who was quite helpful, and got the dispatch sent out to their service provider, an outfit in the Orlando area called “Encompass Service Solutions”. They sent me an empty box with packing material via 2-day air. That was two weeks ago.

Since I was sending the computer offsite to some company I’d never heard of, there was not only a high likelihood that they were gonna wipe the system and do a factory reload (crapware and all), there was absolutely no way I was trusting them with the security of our data (even with backups, I’d rather they not have access to my banking data, thankyouverymuch). So I picked up a blank hard drive at Micro Center and shipped it off with the blank.

A week later, it comes back, with the technician notes that the system was cleaned and the CPU “repacked”, and the OS reloaded. No mention of either of the original problems on the service ticket. Sure enough, the power connector is in even worse shape than it was when we sent it off. I call Costco and gripe. They’re not amused. A little later, I flip it over to put our hard drive back in and discover that someone went crazy with stickers. There are 4 new stickers with barcodes, and “Inspected by” sticker, and half a dozen “Warranty Void if broken or removed” stickers over the chassis screws, as well as those to the hard drive and memory bays. I’m a geek, so I’m genetically predisposed to ignore such stickers, and I carefully removed the ones on the drive and memory bays, and put our hard drive back in.

Then things got interesting. I power the machine on, and the display remains dark. No backlight, no image, nothing. I check das blinkenlights, and they’re behaving like a normal boot process. After some fumbling and troubleshooting, I hang an external monitor from it and fire it up again. That part works. It seems that the people in QA at Encompass were sleeping that day, because I’d imagine that a non-functional display normally would cause QA to kick it back to the tech who forgot to plug in the ribbin cable feeding the display. Apparently at Encompass, this is not the case.

So now we have a laptop that is effectively a compact desktop. A couple calls back and forth to Costco, and Encompass wants me to send it back to them for repair. Only here’s the problem, guys, I don’t trust you to not break it worse this time, and Andrea needs her laptop this week, that’s why we sent it to you when we did. Even better, you can’t e-mail me a UPS label for me to use the existing box, you insist on sending me another empty box via UPS. Not only is that insanely wasteful of diesel, jet fuel, and cardboard, and it adds 3 days to the process. Andrea can’t be without the laptop any longer than she already has. She has interviews this week and school starts up next week. I don’t care how fast you expedite it, you’ve proven already that you half-ass the job when it’s a rush. If I wanted that kind of shoddy work done on my laptop, I would have handed it off the the Geek Squad at a local Best Buy.

Wade, the guy at Costco, is trying to come up with alternatives. At this point, acceptable outcomes are that we get an onsite tech to do a motherboard replacement, find me a local depot in the Kansas City area, or you give us at least partial credit toward a replacement system at the warehouse.

When you buy a laptop, spring for the onsite support. If anything happens, it will save your sanity. Next time, I’m buying a Dell.

I’d love to hear your depot repair horror stories.