HP surprised more than a few people earlier tonight when it officially revealed the Slate 7, a $169 Android tablet that’s set to ship in the U.S. for $169 in April. It struck me as a safe move for HP, especially after it whiffed so profoundly with its ill-fated TouchPad. After all, people are buying plenty of Nexus 7s, so clearly there must be a market for a cheap, small tablet.
I got the chance to muck around with the Slate 7 at Pepcom earlier tonight though, and to be quite honest, I’m not convinced HP has a winner on its hands.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the Slate 7 is its elongated 16:9 display, and the thick black bezel that runs around it. It’s actually rather reminiscent of Samsung’s 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2.0, another underwhelming Android tab that banked on its price tag to sell. The screen itself (running at 1024 x 600) was decent enough — it was generally very bright, but the colors displayed seemed dull and lifeless.
The Slate 7 seems to have been designed to be as inoffensive as possible. That’s not completely a bad thing — the stainless chassis and the soft-touch plastic that the Slate’s rear is swathed in are rather nice — but there are precious few other design niceties to be found here. Those looking for a little splash of color may be interested to know that a red version will also be available. The Slate 7 is also apparently loaded up with Beats Audio support, a trait it shares with its notebook cousins, but I couldn’t get a feel for it amid all of the noise of Pepcom.
As far as performance goes, what else is there to say? It works just about as well as you would expect a $169 tablet to: not that great. Swiping between home screens could be a little jerky (if it worked at all; quick swipes didn’t always get the job done), and there was a bit of delay as I went to fire up new apps — though some non-final software probably has something to do with that. The Slate 7 has a dual-core 1.6GHz processor and 1GB of RAM to work with, which is usually enough to tackle stock, unfettered Android 4.1 without too many hiccups, but I’m willing to chalk all this jerkiness up to a pre-production lack of polish for now.
While we’re talking about performance, HP’s booth representatives didn’t have many specifics on the dual-core processor, but a quick look at the settings revealed an option called “Rockchip system updates,” proving nicely that HP sourced the processor from China’s illustrious Fuzhou Rockchips Electronics company. Now I couldn’t care less who the chip came from if it does the job admirably, but the internals here don’t do much to wow. When asked about how HP was able to produce such an inexpensive tablet, HP’s pitchman pointed to economies of scale — order enough parts and the end product shouldn’t cost too much — but opting to go with a SoC from a largely unknown Chinese company probably didn’t hurt either.
What almost certainly will hurt HP, though, is the crowded playing field it’s diving into. There’s the Nexus 7 to compete with of course, but don’t forget devices like the Kindle Fire HD and the Nook HD. Each of them brings higher resolution displays into the mix, as well as tight access with each of their respective media environments for only $30 more out of pocket. That’s not to say that HP won’t work to solidify the ties between its new tablet and the rest of the HP ecosystem — the Slate 7 comes with the ability to wireless print to compatible HP printers.
For better or worse (my money’s on the latter), HP just doesn’t seem concerned with trying to differentiate the Slate 7 from any other Android tablet out there. To its credit, HP isn’t trying to position the Slate 7 as anything other than what it is: a very cheap mass-market play. I’m not convinced that this thing is going to be able to pull away from the pack just by undercutting the competition on price, but I could be wrong — the Slate 7 may be the right tablet with the right price tag at the right time.