I sold my portable DVD player with DVB-T tuner that I used to take on any long car trip to keep my son entertained with films. Why not doing that and much more with an Android tablet instead? It'd just need a 10€ universal tablet holder to do the trick...
Choosing the tablet
I would never dare risking an expensive device like Samsung, HTC or Archos on travel. With a budget limit decided at ~200€, I was left with either very low-specs models or non-brand 'SuperPad' tablets from obscure shops at the other end of the world.
However, some Chinese tablets have emerged lately with ambition to rival the giants makers, with high specifications (no more resistive screens!), powerful components and quality controlled manufacturing!
One model stands out quickly when you browse online shops and read reviews: the Onda Vi40.
The several versions of VI40:
Vi40 Elite with V.1 hardware and 8GB / 16GB storage options
Vi40 Elite with V.3 hardware and 8GB / 16GB storage options
Vi40 Ultimate with 32GB storage (1 camera instead of 2, reviewed button layout)
The one highlighted above is my model. They're all have the same hardware base and running Android 4.0.3 (ICS). There's been some unclear hardware revision (V1 / V3), and it seems that Onda will only provide firmware updates on the latest hardware version. All the Vi40 Elite currently shipping are supposed to be V3, which can be verified from the S/N on the sticker.
Onda.cn and the box show a 32GB version but I've never seen one.
Such capacity is standard in the newer Ultimate version which is a sensible evolution, with a better button layout (only one on the face and volume buttons on the side), a smaller and unique 2 mpx camera (if you ask me, tablets are not ideal for photo-shooting anyway), all for the same price.
Choosing the shop!
By far, the most delicate task!
It took me one week to select a shop that seemed trustful, where the price would be within my limits, and where I wouldn't have to expect excessive additional custom duties and shipping fee over the initial price. I had a good experience with eBellking.com who shipped the unit to me in just 4 days, free shipping and at a final price of ~220€ (32GB version). I tested their customer service first and they reply to you quickly, and do so even if you ask something after having bought the product.
If you're into custom ROM, you'll come across the very good "TNT firmware", which is from topnotchtablets.com. A shop providing that kind of extra content in their product support section deserves some attention. Basically, take advice from the forums before deciding what shop is best for you.
This model is already reviewed in details in many places, so instead I do a quick tour of the outstanding product aspects:
Out of the box, the product offers a good feeling of build quality with its aluminium casing and an overall nice design, no cracking, no squeaking.
A screen protection is already in place, which is good because this accessory is hard to find for the Vi40!
As any Android device, setting up the tablet is an easy task. There's some clean up to do however and you'll want to scrap all of the pre-installed Chinese applications. The tablet comes already rooted so there's no limit to your customization and no sticky app that you can't get rid off. But with great power comes great responsibility, and you'll have to be cautious not to delete too much if you want to keep your tablet operational!
One of the most commented drawback of being a non-brand Android device, is the amount of DIY work required to gather the applications you need:
In theory, the Vi40 is as compatible as any major brand with same specs, but, out of the box, many standard applications are missing (YouTube, GTalk, Maps...) or will shows as not compatible on Google Play store. Despite the custom market fixes out there, you will need to obtains APK files to install some of them manually.
Onda is releasing firmware updates regularly (3 updates between April and May) and will hopefully resolve the remaining issues (mainly affecting stock web browser and launcher - still true with fw 1.2 rc2) and increase the overall compatibility. So, make sure you have the proper ADB drivers installed on your PC and also have the CWM recovery installed, you will need them sooner than later!
Short guided visit:
The most interesting hardware features of this tablet are all grouped on its bottom side:
The lock button on the left is used to disable to automatic display rotation.
The HDMI connector allows you to extend the display to a TV screen, which isn't only cool for watching videos and pictures, but also for gaming...
So far the only device that didn't work straight away for me was the Bluetooth (tried 3 different generic dongles). Obviously still under development...
The device is shipped with a AC/DC charger and , according to some source, this must be used as the main way of charging the tablet over the USB connector "to preserve the battery life"
A µSD slot is available for additional storage. Since there is an internal storage, detected and mounted as "sdcard" already, the inserted µSD media will be seen as extsd ( \mnt\extsd ).
You have to pay attention to this point because the internal sdcard gets wiped during a firmware update, so make sure to perform your backup to extsd beforehand!
When searching for help on this kind of tablet, don't go to onda.com. Event with a translator, it will be waste of time. Hopefully there's a growing community of Geeks around the AllWinner A10-based tablets which VI40 is part of.
Here's a few suggested bookmarks:
No doubt you will frequently visit those places!
As for most non-brand tablets, you can't expect to have all you need straight out of the box, and if you are not prepared to do some tweaking job on it, maybe you should consider paying the price for a major brand. However I've been with Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Acer android devices before and they all required their fair amount of customization to eventually fit my needs.
Don't let the sluggishness of the ICS stock browser turn you off at this stage. First, this is not the fact of the Onda Vi40 alone (just google for "ICS browser slow" and see how widespread the problem is!). The hardware is fit for the job (throw any heavy game at it and see how it flies!) but still needs a proper implementation from the manufacturer. Hopefully Onda is still active on it and either them, the modding community, or even Google (ICS is far from perfect yet) will eventually address the outstanding problems. The latest 1.2 beta firmware for V3 hardware platforms brings some improvements (somewhat faster but does not eliminate the occasional lags), and ...breaks some other things (rotation lock only works in portrait)
For me, changing the stock launcher to Launcher Pro, and the browser to ICS Browser + brought significant improvement already. Clearing the cache and the Dalvik cache from time to time helps regaining performance (another sign of lousy implementation). Most missing apps, including YouTube, Skype and Google Talk (with video chat) can be added through market fix.
I've still have hundreds of unresolved questions on that device right now but I hope my short overview gave you some answers.
- nice looking tablet with a quality feel.
- superb IPS display
- appropriate storage capacity from 16GB version (Ultimate variant has 32GB)
- growing community with custom firmware due to popularity.
- good battery life
- runs heavy games and apps fast (while still struggling with the web browser).
- requires DIY work to get most basic apps installed.
- it has 3 front-facing hardware buttons (as for Gingerbread-like tablets), useless with ICS. The newer V40 Ultimate adopts a more sensible Ipad-like layout.
- ICS implementation still a work-in-progress
- slow charging and battery calibration not perfect yet (as of v.1.2 rc2)
Update #1 (July 2012): so far, for me, the most successful custom firmware is the CyanogenMod 9, which addresses the browsing performance issues and provide a good stability. Have a look at this SlateDroid post , and my post #101 for details. Official 4.0.4 (1.4rc3) update seems to bring performance improvements and Play/Market solution. Onda also announced 4.1 Jelly Bean for soon.
Update #2 (September 2012): I've been with CyanogenMod 10 (Jelly Bean) for some time now, while Onda still announces JB for soon since July, and despite failing to finalize a proper ICS. Onda's credibility has dropped sharply for me and it's only by the modding community that this device runs nearly as designed.
(Last) Update #3 (December 2012): With the emergence of multi-core devices, the Onda Elite Vi40 is really a thing of the past. No news from Onda on their "upcoming" JB, all other devices have been server but this one. Time to move on, to a Ployer Momo 11 Talent maybe.