Open, rooted, warranty included—we take ZaReason's new open tablet, the ZaTab, for a spin.
Quite a few options exist as far as Android tablets go. Some of them are great choices for personal entertainment and media consumption. Google's new Nexus 7 is a powerful little beast designed to serve up media from Google Play. Amazon's Kindle Fire is a great device for tapping Amazon's extensive content offerings. Undoubtedly, these tablets were designed to direct more of your money to the tablet-maker's on-line content marketplaces. The glaring lack of SD card expansion on these devices confirms this. The ZaReason team designed a tablet that can be what the user wants it to be—one that supports users' own content, that is not necessarily tied to a particular content store and that can be used as far more than a simple consumption device. Have they succeeded in creating the world's first open tablet? Let's find out.
Cyanogenmod 9 Android 4.04.
Allwinner A10 SoC.
9.7" IPS 1024x768 display.
Five-point capacitive touchscreen.
16GB internal storage + microSD for additional storage.
1GB of RAM.
Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n).
Front-facing and back cameras.
Sturdy metal back.
High-capacity 8000 mAh battery.
Ultra-light (630 grams).
MicroSD card slot.
MicroHDMI video out.
2x microUSB ports.
As you read over the stats, a few things should catch your attention. First, the ZaTab comes loaded with Cyanogenmod 9, based on Android 4.04 Ice Cream Sandwich, and is rooted out of the box. I feel like I need to say that again—it is rooted out of the box! You can open a terminal and explore your device with root permissions in a matter of seconds. There's no need to run an exploit to get root access, no need to flash another ROM, no voided warranties. Second, there is 16GB of internal Flash storage for apps and media, and a microSD slot that can accommodate an additional 32GB of storage. So, there's ample storage for your content, stored locally, on your device—no need to rely on “the cloud” or streaming media services.
The ZaTab arrived packed well inside a corrugated shipping box, with bubble wrap surrounding the retail box. The retail box is generic OEM fare. I would love to see ZaReason produce a branded box for the tablet, but that is another expense and surely would raise the price. Snuggled in the box under the tablet, you will find a micro-USB-to-USB cable, a micro-USB-to-female USB adapter for connecting USB-based accessories, an A/C adapter and a small generic Android manual. The tablet feels sturdy but not too heavy—definitely not cheap. Unlike most Android tablets out there, the casing is not plastic. The back/sides consist of a solid piece of matte aluminum, with a large ZaReason logo silk-screened on the back of the unit. The port and button labels also are silk-screened on the back just below their respective buttons/ports. Along the top edge, you will find the power button, 5v DC power input, micro-HDMI out, two micro-USB ports, an 1/8" headphone jack and three small vents to keep things cool. Along the right edge, you will find a back button, which takes you to the previous screen in the Android interface, and the volume up/down buttons. On the back of the ZaTab is a paper-clip-style recessed physical reset button, the main camera and a small grill protecting the speaker. The front of the ZaTab is mostly screen with a 1/2" black bezel, with a front-facing camera in the top-right corner.
If you have used any Android device in the past, the initial setup on first boot will be familiar. Input your Google credentials, connect to a network, and you're rolling. You have the option to download and install previous Android apps you have used on any other synced devices you may have, and your bookmarks as well if you are a Google Chrome user. The device ships with a minimal set of Android apps: Apollo Media Player, Android Web Browser, Calculator, Calendar, Email, Camera, Gallery, Clock, DSPManager, Movie Studio, People (Address Book), ROM Manager, Superuser, Terminal Emulator and the Android Settings app. You won't find any preloaded crapware, no nearly useless game demos and no irremovable commercial apps. The Google Play store installs upon syncing your Google account, so you have access to the the largest selection of Android apps from the start.
Most of the apps I installed work flawlessly. I've had a blast streaming TED Talks on the ZaTab with TED's official Android app. The video is high-quality and plays flawlessly on the ZaTab. Google's Gmail app is perfect for the tablet with split views for folders and messages. The generic e-mail app works in much the same way with support for Exchange, IMAP and POP. The Plume Twitter client is a pleasure to use on the big screen. Amazon's Kindle app looks great as well with easily configurable font sizes and text colors from which to choose. Linux Journal's own app looks good on the ZaTab, with text-mode rendering sharp text. I was able to connect to my employer's Cisco VPN using Cisco's Anyconnect for rooted Android devices. Earl, from ZaReason, was kind enough to provide a tun.ko tun module for the ZaTab when asked in the #zareason IRC chat room on Freenode. This was necessary for the Anyconnect client as it uses a tun kernel module to facilitate the VPN connection. Earl tells me that this module will be preloaded on the ZaTab upon official release, and it may be shipping on ZaTabs as you read this.
There were a few apps that just would not play nice with the ZaTab. Netflix, for example: the app's interface worked fine but the app would stall when trying to stream video. Twitter's home-grown client was not available in the store. It must look for certain “approved” device profiles and the ZaTab may not be one of them.
The 9.7" 1024x768 in-plane-switching capacitive touchscreen is bright with brilliant color and has an insane viewing angle. You can tilt this thing nearly 90 degrees in any direction and maintain view-ability. I find the screen size ideal for a personal touchscreen device. Text is sharp, of reasonable size, and movies are a joy to watch.
Both cameras are unimpressive. Photos taken with the main, rear-facing camera are grainy and quite dark indoors because there is no flash. The front-facing camera is adequate for low-resolution video chats, but it is also quite grainy.
Battery life on the other hand is fantastic. You can use the ZaTab heavily all day long without worrying about power. For example, the day after the ZaTab arrived, after a full charge, I spent lots of time downloading and installing apps, watching TED videos, listening to streaming music via Google Music, reading via the Kindle app and exploring the unit via the terminal emulator. After 15 hours of mostly continuous use, I had 40% charge remaining.
The ZaTab comfortably runs Android ICS. The animated UI transitions and elements are smooth, and there is plenty of processing power for most apps despite the tablet being a single-core unit. Switching apps using the Recent Applications menu makes multitasking simple. Notifications are unobtrusive, and apps that are notifying can be opened directly from the notification widget. Plenty of informative widgets are available if you like your home screen more dashboard than application launcher.
The ZaTab is the most open tablet out there, and it should be on your shopping list if you're looking for a tablet designed with end-user freedom in mind. This is the ideal device for Android developers or Linux developers looking to shoehorn a traditional Linux distribution onto a tablet. There is a good chance you will see a full Linux distro running on the ZaTab in the future. ZaTabs are in the hands of KDE and Edubuntu developers, and surely on the wish lists of many other free software developers out there. It runs most Android apps flawlessly—oh, and did I say it was rooted out of the box? You don't have to be a hacker to enjoy this tablet either, with plenty of storage and access to Google's Play Store and Amazon's Kindle books, it makes a great media device. As I'm wrapping up this review in early July, the ZaTab has yet to see official release. Earl at ZaReason tells me there is still one minor software bug to squash before the ZaTab is officially launched—debugging the HDMI output driver to be specific. For the most up-to-date information on when the ZaTab will be shipping, to pre-order one, or to order a developer unit sans OS, visit the ZaReason Shop: zareason.com/shop/zatab.html.