Friday, August 16, 2013

A powerful tablet at a rock bottom price - my Hisense Sero 7 Pro review

I recently decided to buy my son a tablet for his birthday. Unfortunately, money has been fairly tight lately, so I needed to keep my tablet purchase under $200. I searched through dozens of tablets from various manufacturers to different sizes, specs, and price points. Finally, I chose the Hisense Sero 7 Pro and here's why:

A look at the hardware itself

First off, a look at the physical appearance itself. The closest competitor in more ways than one is the Nexus 7 (2012 model). The Sero 7 Pro (S7P for short) is just a little taller and wider, but about the same depth. The S7P eschews the soft touch backing of the Nexus 7 for a much cheaper textured plastic. Most stock pictures show the back as being silver, but the reality is it's more of a copper or grayish-brown color. It's weight is certainly heavier, but that's because it packing several different features (more on that shortly).

On the front you have your all black bezel and 7" 1280 x 800 resolution screen with a 2 MP front facing camera near the upper right. The right possesses the power button and volume rocker key. On top, you'll see the microphone, microSD, headphone jack, and mini HDMI port. Finally, the back has the stereo speakers (which are amazing loud and clear, by the way) and 5 MP camera with flash.

Overall, it doesn't quite hit the build quality of the Nexus 7, but it's passable. You can feel the inside is a little hollow, but the back cover doesn't have that much give to it. I could not find any information about whether the screen is using Gorilla Glass and I'm not inclined to damage my son's new toy so be wary. 

What's inside the tablet

Internally, it's specs are almost identical to the Nexus 7. It packs the same 1.3 GHz quad-core Tegra 3 with 1 GB of RAM. It has all of the normal things you would expect from a 2013 tablet which includes Bluetooth 3.0, Wifi in a/b/g/n styles (both 2.4/5 GHz compatibility), NFC, GPS, light sensor, etc. Where the S7P differs from the Nexus 7 is in the following: the S7P actually has vibration (something I mentioned on my Nexus 7 review) and 8 GB of storage compared to the 8/16/32 GB that the Nexus 7 had. 

The tablet comes with Android 4.2.1, and while it's a couple of updates behind, it's certainly not far out of touch like some products. Hisense has taken the minimalist path and there are very few modifications to the OS. There's a screenshot button on the navigation bar and a power saving mode toggle. That's about it. The tablet is bundled with a few pieces of bloatware, but surprisingly, most of them can be uninstalled. You're going to need it because out of the 8 GB of storage, only 5.2 is available to the user after formatting, installation of the OS, and whatever programs you can't uninstall.

Performance is very good for the tablet though. It performs on par with its counterpart, the Nexus 7. Reaction time is snappy and animations are smooth. For the most part anyway. The tablet still suffers the RAM bottlenecks that the Nexus 7 had. This is largely due to having only 1 GB of RAM and the slower clock speed on the RAM when compared to more modern chipsets like my Nexus 4.

One severe defect I noticed was for some reason, trying to use the "power saving" mode in the power saving menu caused soft reboots. Soft reboots are where the OS is still loaded and just basically restarts. They're quicker than a full reboot, but they're still indicative of a problem somewhere in the code. I've switched it to balanced and haven't suffered any more of them lately. 

The battery for the tablet is a 4,000 mAh Lithium Ion which comes in a bit smaller than the larger one in the Nexus 7. Still, during operation the battery holds up well and likely meets the claim made on the box of 10 hours. Standby time, however, falls short. Over the course of 12 hours, the tablet lost probably around 8 percent of its battery where my Nexus 7 only lost half that. Bear in mind, my Nexus 7 is running a custom ROM and kernel so this may impact its battery life. Still, depending on use, you'll likely charge it every other day unless you turn it off between uses. 

The camera bears mentioning since the original Nexus 7 only included a 1.3 MP front facing camera and the S7P includes both a 5 MP rear and 2 MP front. Unfortunately, camera quality is average to below quality depending on location. The rear camera activates with an audible click when starting up the app. Shots outdoors with the rear camera looked passable when scaled back, but zoomed in you can see jagged edges and grainy details everywhere. 

Camera performance

Shot taken of my car with rear facing camera in daylight.

However, the front facing camera suffered poorly, even more so than you would expect for a 2 MP camera. Images lack detail, suffer jagged edges, and have a cloudy, hazy effect to them.

My ugly mug testing out the front facing camera in daylight.

Indoors, the formerly passable quality really takes a hit on both cameras. The rear facing camera looks sufficient for basic images, but the noise on the photo is really turned up here. Also, in darker circumstances, the flash and focus sometimes get a little off leading to unusable pictures.

Taken in my son's bedroom, Bearry the bear seen posing. Using rear facing camera with no flash.
Front facing photos inside are completely worthless without sufficient light. A shot taken again in the same room with a florescent light and some natural lighting from behind looks cloudy, lacks detail, and has the same obvious noise that the rear camera had.

Myself, barely seen in this bad photo from the front facing camera.

If you're taking photos outdoors in the daytime, you should be fine with the results, but for anything else, you're better off grabbing your smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. Bear in mind, while this is 4.2.1 on the tablet, it lacks photosphere in either camera, if you're into that sort of thing.


On the whole, it's a very good tablet for its price of $129 exclusively at Wal-Mart stores. While the 5.2 GB of usable space might be a no go for some people. You can still supplement that with a microSD card. I've yet to test the mini HDMI port so I'll have to do an update on this in the future. Some of the features in the tablet, like haptic feedback, were pleasant surprises I didn't expect. Overall, if you're not trying to keep up with the Joneses then this tablet will suit you just fine. If you're looking for a more updated software experience then the Nexus 7 (2013 model) is a better choice for around $230-270. Hisense has stated they will update to 4.3 in the fall, but only time will tell. They have sent out a minor update which was basically just some bug fixes and under the hood type stuff. If you're looking for premium, well, you'll be going with the iPad Mini at $329+ depending on model. For comparison's sake, you could get 3 Sero 7 Pros for the cost of one 32 GB iPad Mini. Your mileage and opinions may vary on which is the better deal.

In closing, I think the Sero 7 Pro is a very good bargain for its price. It's not for the spec hounds or tech heads, but any regular joe will find considerable value out of this package. If you have any questions, post them in the comments section below.

Pros: High end specs for a cheap price, decent build quality, Android 4.2 installed, more features than the Nexus 7 (2012 model), good performance.

Cons: Inferior camera performance, minor reboots when using power saving mode, only about 5 and a half GB user space.

Final Grade: B+

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Motorola Moto X: Overhyped and Under-delivered

So it's finally arrived, the much vaunted X phone that has been rumored since shortly after Google purchased Motorola. For the last two months or so, a constant flood of rumors and leaks have taken a lot of the thunder out of the reveal. Much of the hype came from the customization rumored for the phone. However, ultimately, there just isn't much to be interested in.

Let's just start off with the phone itself. The Moto X borrows a lot of design cues from its main rival, the LG Nexus 4. Overall, the basic shape is the same. The X is slightly shorter and not as wide which makes the screen dominate the phone and eliminates a notification light. The back, however, has a rounded shape which according to most people who've played with it, is very comfortable to hold. 

Internally, the Moto X comes with the X8 processor system on a chip designed by Motorola. It claims to have two CPU cores, a natural language processor, contextual processor, and a quad-core Adreno 320 GPU. The reality is it's just a modified Snapdragon MSM8960T. It does have more similarities to the Nexus 4's S4 Pro APQ8064 and the newer Snapdragon 600, but let's not kid ourselves here: there's nothing revolutionary about the phone's specs. Everything else is merely passable in the smartphone wars: 720p screen, full compliment of modern versions of things like Bluetooth and GPS, 2200 mah battery, etc.

So what's the big deal? Well, the customization, camera, and software modifications. 

The customization early on was rumored to be like what we have with laptops and PCs: the ability to adjust nearly everything internally such as processor, RAM, storage, etc. What we got was the ability to choose a backplate, accents, frontplate, engraving, and a few minor things like wallpapers. That's it. Is it awful? No. It's a step in the right direction towards moving other manufacturers to make more customizations, but it's not the same level of customization that the computer market has.

The camera is supposed to have Clear Pixel technology which is a sensor that allows more light for better pictures. On paper, it looks like it will, but I'll need to see comparisons in the future to determine if this is true. The software mods are somewhat interesting, but nothing revolutionary. The big things were "always-on" microphone that allows you to talk the phone like you would Google Glass without even touching it, capitalizing on the AMOLED screen technology to deliver notifications, and the quick gesture to open the camera. That's it. Everything else is pretty much stock Android 4.2.2. Not even 4.3.

So overall, the phone does break a little new ground, but it's really more against other manufacturers than something the consumer should jump for joy over. I'll admit, it is a good step in diversifying yourself in a market flooded with Samsung and Apple. 

The biggest problem isn't the phone itself, it's the usual politics that follow it. Motorola isn't going the Nexus route initially and selling on the cheap. It's going through the carriers which under normal circumstances is fine, but we're seeing exclusivity again. AT&T will get not only the phone first, but the option for Moto Maker first to customize your phone (the phone without customization is 16GB and black or white only). The Galaxy S4 was such a huge hit not just on specs or recognition, but due to the fact that it was available on every carrier at almost the exact same time with no exclusivity to it. 

Even worse, Motorola expects consumers to pay $199 for an on contract price. This leads most to believe that off contract prices are going to be near $600. Aside from the exclusivity and the fact that it may take time for Moto Maker to trickle out to the general public, this is largely the issue that's going to make or break the Moto X. The general consensus on the web is that the Moto X just isn't a high end phone. It has no specs that meet or beat the current high end market. This combined with the fact that it is competing directly with the extremely cost friendly Nexus 4 is going to lead to disaster. Motorola says an unlocked Google Play Edition and a "cheaper" variant will be coming soon. The big question is: what are they going to reduce from an already mid-range spec device to make it cheaper and why should the public bother?

If there's one more nail in the coffin, it's this: the Moto X is only going to be available in the USA. Yep, Motorola's big comeback is only going to be available to a market of 300 million people as opposed to the 7 billion that are on the planet. 

In short, Motorola is marketing the experience as opposed to the hardware. That's right, they're trying to take a page from Apple on this one. The problem is they don't have the rabid, backbone following nor the charisma. This is only going to spell disaster for the company. Although jingoistic notions of "assembled in the USA" are heartwarming to say the least, Motorola is marketing to a virtually non-existent following who live in America, will buy anything American, and have way too much disposable cash. Good luck finding all those customers, even with the $500 million advertising Google is going to funnel you. Hopefully, they'll learn from their mistakes on this one and do better next time...if they're still around. We all know how Google likes to give the ax to projects.