Graphics, Hardware, Reviews

Hands-on Review: $99 Tablet Ainol NOVO Basic 7?MIPS


In December 2011, BSN* announced the promise of a 7-inch tablet priced at $99 running Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). MIPS Technology, Ingenic Semiconductor and Ainol have launched a game changing product. Suddenly, Android?s Ice Cream Sandwich is on a commodity pricing tablet.

The 7-inch $99 tablet is powered by Ingenic’s JZ4770 mobile applications processor which leverages a MIPS-based XBurst core running at 1 GHz on 65nm process geometry at TSMC. It has an 800 x 480 LED display, VGA 0.3 megapixel (MP) front-facing camera and a 2 MP rear facing camera, microSD card, miniHDMI, and 3.5mm headset jack.

For a first generation product MIPS Technology, Ingenic Semiconductor, and Ainol have put the competition on notice that they are serious players. Only a few devices, including the Galaxy Nexus and ASUS Transformer Prime, have officially shipped Android 4.0 ICS. Samsung Italy has confirmed that the update is coming – but possibly not until Q2 2012. HTC said they have "been working hard to get its Ice Cream Sandwich upgrades ready, and we?re excited to announce that our first round of ICS upgrades will roll out by the end of March for the HTC Sensation and HTC Sensation XE, followed soon thereafter by the HTC Sensation XL."

BSN* got our MIPS Technology-provided evaluation unit at CES 2012. The tablet came with Ainol?s official version 4.0.1 ROM (read only memory) of Google?s Android Mobile ICS Operating System (OS).

 CES 2012 & Ainol NOVO Basic 7?MIPS running Spiderman game

In our first article, we compared the NOVO Basic 7?s specifications to three other tablets. On paper they were similar. A few publications took their evaluation Ainol NOVO Basic 7?MIPS platform and immediately compared the 7-inch $99 tablet to $200 – $800 7-inch and 10-inch tablets. Of course, the 7-inch $99 offering fell short. However, so would a $12,000 2-door economy car when compared to a $25,000 mid-range 4-door sedan. No automotive publisher would bother to set up that wrong-headed comparison.
Specs and Unboxing
Since CES 2012, we have daily tested all the features, the hardware, the usability, and found out what the $99 MIPS Ainol ICS 7-inch tablet can do and what it cannot. First, let?s unbox the tablet. The inexpensive box has all the usual announcements on front and back.

Front side of First Android 4.0 tablet?s box

Back side of box with feature listing

Next you slide out the all white inner box by pulling on the loop.

Flip up the inner box lid and here is the first Android ICS tablet. Missing from the NOVO Basic 7 screen is an anti-reflective treatment. That is why you can see the camera lens in the photo below.

Check out our camera lens reflection in the blank screen

You have to first charge the battery using either the power port or the miniUSB port with a 5Volt power source. It takes about 8 hours with a 1AMP, 110Volt power plug for a smartphone using the miniUSB port. The power port can take up to 2Amps at the same 5Volts. The back side of the case has a 2MP camera at the top ? just off center – and small sized-font with required FCC (Federal Communications Commission) information across the bottom edge as well as the MIPS logo. On the right side of case from top to bottom are the I/O ports – 3.5mm headset, miniHDMI, microphone, miniUSB, microSD, reset, and power.

I/O ports clearly labeled on back side of the case

You will notice the NOVO Basic is lighter than say the $199 Kindle Fire. The NOVO Basic 7 is 7.4 x 4.4 x 0.43 inches (187.5 x 112 x 11mm) or 0.1 inches shorter and 0.3 inches narrower than the Fire. The NOVO Basic 7 weighs, on our precision postal scales, 12.5 ounces or 354 grams ? less than the factory quoted 370 grams. Lighter by nearly 3 ounces than the Kindle. Weight and size are part of the reason for the $100 price difference between them.

Near MIPS logo is the speaker

With a $2 adapter from Amazon the miniHDMI port hooks up to a standard HDMI cable. You have the choice of 720P or 1080P on your HD TV or monitor.

$2 Tuck miniHDMI to standard HDMI cable

On top of the tablet is the On/Off button and along side is the Volume rocker. Combining the two and you can do a screen capture ? if all goes as planned. That is just another item that needs a bug fix for reliability. We added that to our ?weirdness? list for the Ainol and MIPS engineers.

On/Off button, Volume control rocker ? combo is screen capture

The 800-by-480 pixels, 7-inch (diagonal) capacitive, 5 point multi-touch screen has a resolution of 133 pixels per inch (ppi). A capacitive screen has much better responsiveness than the cheaper resistive type. Capacitive screen variations are found in the iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. A capacitive screen works because the human body is an electrical conductor so touching the surface of the screen results in a distortion of the screen’s electrostatic field, measurable as a change in capacitance. Different technologies may be used to determine the location of the touch. An object like a stylus can also be used on some types of more expensive capacitive screens such as the old Palm Treo stylus.

We have mentioned there are manufacturing cost savings to get down to the $99 retail pricing. Topping the list is the case. It does squeak and creak when compared to the Kindle Fire at $199 or the HTC Flyer Tablet at $299. Some owners and reviewers have reported their speaker makes intermittent funny noises, but we haven?t experienced that ? yet.

Reasonable viewing for a $99, 7-inch tablet

Reviewer Experience
We took the $99 tablet to a major California corporation and asked their IT Department person who buys computers, what they thought of it. He said they have over 500 ruggedized, 2.5 lb, 10-inch tablets in their warehousing operations. Those units have a proprietary Windows XP application running on them. They cost the company $1,500 each. He said if they replaced only half of the 500 with the little tablets and used them only inside their warehouses – because of the $99 tablet?s limited screen capability – they could shift their purchasing budget around.

We found the same reaction to the NOVO Basic 7 at several other businesses. All of them used proprietary vertical market applications that could be recompiled to run on Android ICS and the MIPS processors.

Our Northern California corporate decision maker asked what it would cost to have an outdoor readable screen like Pixel Qi offers. We did not have any pricing information, but we could show him how it would look. During CES 2012, we stopped at Pixel Qi?s booth and showed them the Ainol NOVO Basic 7-MIPS tablet. Pixel Qi?s COO and VP of Marketing, Dr. John Ryan says other screen suppliers have been jacking up their screen brightness, while most display manufacturers have done very little to improve screen readability and picture quality under high ambient lighting.

Their booth had a demonstration of how the sun affects our computer screen viewing. With a 45,000 Lux light and a rotating screen in front of their high-output light, BSN saw the full 24-hour daylight-to-dark cycle.

Pixel Qi CES 2012, netbook LED vs. Pixel Qi screens 

We quickly put the 7-inch tablet into Pixel Qi?s booth and recorded a brief video. You can see for yourselves the difference between an average, inexpensive, LED screen and the Pixel Qi outdoor readable display.

Our Ainol NOVO Basic 7-MIPS came with 8GB of memory. They also offer 4GB and 16GB versions. The standard microSD card is 2GB, we tried a generic 32GB and regularly used our 8GB Patriot Memory microSDHC card. You can load your library of music, apps, videos, and photos, then store more music and videos on the microSD card. We found the MIPS ICS widgets worked well when we loaded new apps.

NOVO Basic 7 – Widgets 

With the built-in Youtube app that was recompiled for the MIPS-based processor, we did spend hours watching videos on our 720P HD TV in the office. The battery lasted for at least five hours of videos and powering the miniHDMI port. The 7-inch 800 by 480 pixel LED-backlit display is another reason for the $99 retail price. There is no comparing this low-resolution screen to say a smartphone?s Super AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) screen. But, those phones are in the $450 to $600 range when purchased outright, without the wireless carrier?s multi-year contract to lower your out-of-pocket cost.

Another problem with the $99 tablet is screen reflections, even when you are inside. You saw above that our camera lens showed up in the photo without the display being turned on. We were constantly moving the 7-inch tablet around to be able to see the apps or videos.

For the gamers out there, the shipping version comes with versions of Angry Birds, Spiderman, TurboFly 3D, Wow Fish, and a Chinese game called The Last Defender. They are all recompiled for the MIPS-based Ingenic’s JZ4770 processor.

Here come those wild and crazy Angry Birds 

The author played Spiderman a lot. Our neig
hborhood gang of 10 year-olds immediately got to the second level with Spiderman. I decided it was no fun playing against a group of ten year-old expert gamers. [I also got a bit addicted to the game, Ed.]

My Spidy senses are tingling

There is a video viewer called Pandora (not to be confused with the radio service) which worked well with the sample videos that were installed. The recompiled version of Document to Go works just like it does on the ARM-based Android phones and tablets. You can use Microsoft Messenger as well with the Chinese-developed English-language client. The installed FaceBook app worked just like it does on other Android-based tablets.

Next a look at the cameras, a front facing VGA 0.3MP and a rear-facing 2MP. Yes, they both take photos and videos too. However, their resolution is only comparable to today?s basic feature phones like those from regional carrier metroPCS. They should not be compared to all the smartphone cameras with higher resolutions up to 41MP such as the Nokia 808 PureView. The low-resolution cameras on this tablet are all part of how the manufacturer reached that magical $99 retail price point.
Software: Is MIPS Really Home?
Now we step into the grey area of which apps don?t run on the Ainol NOVO Basic 7-MIPS. MIPS’ official position is:

"…like all mobile devices in China, this tablet does not have direct Android market access, or access to Google Mobile Services.

OEMs who license the product for sale in the United States and other geographies must work with Google to obtain necessary permissions to incorporate Google Mobile Services in their devices.

In the meantime, users can access applications through other online markets and websites such as the Amazon apps market. Downloaded through these types of markets, based on our previously run tests, more than 90% of Android applications should run on this device. However, some applications may not run directly on this tablet because they were originally compiled using a (non MIPS architecture) Android Native Development Kit (NDK). MIPS, Ingenic and its OEMs are working to ensure that all Android applications run on MIPS-Based devices."

The shorthand of the above is, for the time being you are on your own.

We were able to use SlideMe and find some apps that worked. Many bloggers who bought the MIPS-based 7-inch tablet are testing apps and some are recompiling apps using the tools from the MIPS Android Developers website.

One of the more difficult parts of this review was finding testing tools that ran on the MIPS-based Ingenic’s JZ4770 processor. Next week, we will be passing this unit along to Van Smith, BSN?s expert editor on benchmarking. Van’s article comparing ARM to x86 opened a lot of eyes to the potential of small platforms. We expect Van will compare the MIPS-based Ingenic’s JZ4770 processor to other ARM and x86 tablets and smartphones.

Our first test was a simple no-load battery check, with no applications running during the test. The NOVO Basic 7 went from 100 percent charged to 34 percent charged in 96 hours or 4 days. We know the HTC (Tegra 2 dual-core) smartphones will not go 18 hours without recharging – but they are downloading emails and browsing, etc. The same is true for Palm Pre and Pre Plus that use single-core Qualcomm processors. Using WiFi only and checking email and Google every 15 minutes the battery lasted 8.5 hours and showed 18 percent remaining.

We had no problem running SunSpider version 0.9.1. Our average for three sets of three tests each time (9 tests total) was 5741.12ms. Kindle Fire average score was 2,440ms on SunSpider 0.9.1. For SunSpider, a lower score is better.

SunSpider results for MIPS-Ingenic Ainol NOVO Basic 7

So the Kindle Fire – with an ARM Cortex A-9 IP TI OMAP 4430 SoC, TI 45nm fab, dual core, 1GHz + PowerVR SGX540 graphics which supports OpenGL ES2.0 – is faster than the MIPS32 (X-Burst) IP Ingenic’s JZ4770 SoC, TSMC 65nm fab, single core, 1 GHz + Vivante GC860 graphics which also supports OpenGL ES2.0. TI?s dual core vs. Ingenic?s single core along with TI?s smaller nanometer process fabrication does make a significant performance difference between the two platforms.

At CES 2012, we spoke with Henry Xian, VP of Engineering at Ingenic Semiconductor. Xian explained they were on track to meet their published roadmap delivery date for a dual core, 1.5GHz, 28nm SoC. Xian said their pre-production sample SoC is also on schedule to begin preliminary testing in 2Q 2012. MIPS and Ingenic?s goals are to have shipping SoC mounted in production tablets, desktops, and netbooks by late summer to early fall 2012.

Ingenic-MIPS SoC roadmap

Our next test was with Google V8 Ver. 3 (not their newest version) with the same nine test average we got 363.75. Using the newest Version 6 of Google V8 we got an average of 416. On Google V8 tests a bigger number is better.

The Kraken JavaScript Benchmark (version 1.1) averaged over the nine test cycle 71526.2ms. For Kraken tests, a lower score is better.

Oliver Baltuch, President of Futuremark , suggested running their Peacekeeper benchmark which came up with an average of 189 using the built in browser.

Competitor?s scores on Futuremark from 11-20-2011. A bigger number is better:

Apple iPad 374

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 359

Acer Iconia W500 343

Apple iPhone 312

Samsung Galaxy II 255

Apple Safari 4.0.4 180

LG Optimus 7 E900 96

Futuremark?s Peacekeeper Battery Test averaged 189.

We asked Baltuch if their 3DMark for Android testing suite was ready to review. He said not quite yet. We hope Futuremark?s product manger adds a test for Apple iOS and does a second compile of the 3DMark for Android for MIPS processors too. That would make comparing smartphones and tablets much more interesting.
Next we ran Rightware BrowserMark, again the bigger number is better. The average for three sets of three tests each (9 tests total) was 30249.

We found Quadrant Benchmark to run very smoothly and showed some colorful video graphic chip test. Again a bigger number is better. We averaged 872.

The Linpack Java Benchmark was a failure. The application put up an error message saying the browser was not supported.

Similar problems arose with Caffeinemark only this time the error message said Java not enabled. However, other Java benchmarks worked okay.

The OxBenchmark for Android froze the NOVO Basic 7 when we ran the complete suite. Running their Math, 2D, 3D, VM, and Misc tests worked okay. However, every time we ran the Native test in either the suite, or as a standalone, the tablet locked up.

Our estimation is the MIPS-Ingenic Ainol NOVO Basic 7 tablet is superior to the ARM A8 powered platforms. It is equal or superior to the ARM A9, single-core platforms. Some of the problems we experienced can be attributed to the lack of a MIPS recompile for Android and the testing applications. Some of the problems can be laid at the door step of the Vivante GC 1000 series GPU.

During MWC 2012 in Barcelona (Mobile World Congress), MIPS and Opera announced a version of Opera Mobile. We immediately downloaded it and the install was without a problem.

Below are the first websites we went to using Opera Mobile for MIPS:

Choosing Opera Widget

 Installed BSN as Opera Speed Dial item

BSN on Opera Mobile

Choosing article on BSN using Opera Mobile

BSN?s Gambling article on Opera Mobile

Should you buy and give the $99 MIPS-Ingenic Ainol NOVO Basic 7 tablet to your mother, NO! Could you give it to a teenage gamer, yes, if they could live with the lack of applications. Would you give it to an employee at say a restaurant to use with a POS (point of sale) application like Viewtouch? Gene Mosher, Viewtouch?s president, said a $99 tablet will pay for itself in just over a month with less work for the wait staff.

Jay Lemmons from Technology at Work said: "Don?t get buried in some manufacturers proprietary technology be that hardware, software, networking, or broadband and wireless transport. Keep focused on your goals of providing quality services to your clients. Always work towards shifting your projects over to commodity priced products or open source products. That way you can remain competitive with the big guys."

The $99 tablet is a commodity item. No longer must a tablet be a capital expenditure item on a yearly budget. This is the beginning of a sea-change in the vertical market world. Those proprietary tablets have been in the $700 to $1,500 range. Often they come with a specialty OS (operating system) which is only supported by a very few developers.

Nielsen?s chart (shown above) on social networks shows the age groups for high use. If you are hiring an entry level person, they will more than likely fit into the 18 to 24 age bracket. Whi
ch makes up over 25 percent of the target market for entry level employees. That means most of those people know a lot about computers, much more than the previous generation of 25 years ago. Thus, handing them an inexpensive tablet as a tool is probably a good decision.

Amit Rohatgi, MIPS chief mobile engineer, at MWC 2012 gave EETimes an overview of their future offerings.

The $99 tablet has been with BSN and other users for a full month. Nothing broke. Yes, it is not comparable to a $300 tablet. However, add the BOM (bill of materials) cost for items like a Pixel Qi outdoor screen, a more rugged case, and 3G/4G capabilities. The latter should be no problem based on the MWC 2012 announcements from the MIPS partners.

Yes, this author thinks MIPS could be a disruptive third IP option in the small form factor platforms. Also MIPS is less expensive for an OEM/ODM to get started with. An ARM IP license is rumored to cost more than $10 million. Plus there are royalties that licensees pay for each device. MIPS won’t say precisely what it charges for its licenses, but it is rumored that MIPS’ average deal size is between $800,000 and $900,000. "Price may be no object, but it’s always a consideration," says Will Strauss, president of chip tracker Forward Concepts.