7-inch Creative ZiiO tablet review: Because tablets need their own creative spin sometimes
It should be of little surprise that choosing an operating system for a tablet is almost identical to how it is done in the PC world. After all, the only difference lies in the fact that Windows is the de facto OS of choice when it comes to PCs, wheras Android reigns supreme (in terms of market share) where smartphones and tablets are concerned. And if you happen to be planning on getting a Creative ZiiO for personal use…well, let's just say that the Android community welcomes you with open arms.
Unfortunately, this is also one aspect which the Creative ZiiO loses much of its appeal, especially when consumers are starting to places more emphasis about their devices being loaded up with the latest available firmware that is commercially available. For Android, that would be either Gingerbread (v 2.3) or Honeycomb (v 3.0). However, the ZiiO has none of those advanced firmware: instead, users get the very old version of Android known as Eclair (v2.1). That's right: no out-of-the-box Froyo goodness.
Sharp-eyed readers will realize this page sports a major difference in the way screengrabs are presented as opposed to how it was done back in earlier Dell Streak review. The reason is simple: unlike Apple's iOS which has built-in support for capturing screenshots, the only official way a user can perform the same action on Android will be to connect the device to a PC that has been loaded with both Google's official Android SDK and USB drivers.
While we were able to do so successfully with the Dell Streak, it was a different story with the ZiiO 7. Despite our best attempts to modify Google's drivers with the ZiiO's DeviceID strings, the Google Android SDK refused to recognize the ZiiO as a compatible Android device, thus forcing us to resort to capturing all these screenshots in the old fashioned way: with a camera.
Now that we have gotten that little detail out of our system, it is time to proceed onto the next part of the review proper: the ZiiO 7's bundled Android operating system.
Customization is good…as long as you know what you are doing
Remember how we described the ZiiO's built-in operating system as a 'customized' version of Android 2.1 way back in our introduction page? Well, let it be known that we did not throw in the 'customized' word just for the fun of it: indeed, a quick look at the ZiiO's home screen should be all the confirmation one needs to realize that this is not a standard Android build that the ZiiO is running off on.
Indeed, just one glance is all that is needed to reveal the fact that most, if not all of the standard Android applications have been replaced by Creative's Zii equivalents. Peeking into the full app drawer menu only provides more of the same thing, as shown below:
Call it a conjuncture if you well, but we could not help but feel that Creative deliberately went for a minimalist approach with regards to its firmware and bundled applications. Unlike most Android tablet equivalents on the market which sport a wide variety of bundled apps such as YouTube, social networking integration and various forms of eye candy, Creative seems to have dumped all of the bells and whistles, instead focusing on delivering a very minimal Android build which comes with nothing but the bare essentials.
Of course, these includes standard must-haves such as a web browser, a media player, a file manager and most importantly, its proprietary Creative Pure Android Audio app, which is essentially an X-Fi software equalizer.
Creative-exclusive app: Creative Pure Android Audio
Unfortunately, for a feature that is advertised as the ZiiO's main selling point, the Pure Android Audio X-Fi equalizer comes across as a distinctly underwheliming app that has been heavily tweaked in order to make it understandable for end-users. We would have expected an equalizer app to come bundled with features that offer users and audiophiles the ability to excercise near complete control over their audio output. Instead, what we got out of Pure Android Audio was a very dummy-proof set of options which only required users to adjust a single sliding scale to attain their idea of decent audio playback.
This is not to say that Creative's X-Fi equalizer has little use: on the contrary, it does a rather decent job in helping a complete audio newbie in obtaining slightly above average audio playback, as all the corrections are done automatically with the help of an A.I. However, we could not help but feel that the X-Fi settings had the potential to appeal to more serious audio enthusiasts if Creative had bundled a full equalizer into the app instead of just a couple of newbie-friendly options.
But just so we make it clear, users should not expect to experience any significant differences in audio quality if media playback is done without first hooking the ZiiO up to a decent set of headphones or mini speaker setup. After all, even the best-est, most specialized software equalizer cannot work any magic if the device's built-in speakers are not capable of producing decent sound to begin with.
Remember how we spoke about Creative opting to go for a very minimal approach with regards to its OS's functionality? Well, it would seem that Creative had taken a page out of a certain well-known Android tablet OEM in the process by refusing to install any telephony-related features into the ZiiO. Needless to say, this can only mean one thing: the ZiiO immediately loses access to the single most appealing factor of the Android operating system, which is the Android Market. In its place is Creative's own proprietary app store which it calls the ZiiStore.
While this might sound like a move engineered for retail suicide, it would seem that the decision to do so might well work in Creative's favor. This is due to the fact that Creative had previously announced in the ZiiO's official launch that the company plans to offer the ZiiO to the education sector as a tool that can be used to complement traditional teaching materials. And if the ZiiO is going to be targeted towards student usage, it would make sense that stripping out support for the Android Market in favor of a specialized app repository for educational material is desired. At the very least, it ensures that students do not get distracted from their studies by launching some furious avians against green borvines in the middle of a lesson.
Other Zii-exclusive apps
Since the copy of Android pre-loaded into the ZiiO strays rather far from the 'average' Android OS found in most tablets found on the market today, it stands that firmware updates for the ZiiO has to be delivered in a non-standard way as well. Unlike most devices which sport a 'System Software Updates' option hidden within the 'About' menu item, the ZiiO gets its firmware updates from a special app known as ZiiO Space.
Selecting the ZiiO Space icon opens up the browser and sends users over to the Creative ZiiO Space website as shown. This is one of the more important sites ZiiO users would do well to visit on a regular basis, as access to new firmware packages and third-party apps is almost always gained through here.
In addition to that, Creative has also gone out of its way to make file management on the ZiiO a snap, thanks to an app known as the Zii Explorer, which is essentially a file manager for the Android operating system.
First-time users navigating the unfamiliar Linux file hierachy might feel a little intimidated by how different it is as opposed to the Windows file system hierachy, but it would seem that Creative has already seen to that. End-users can take comfort in the fact that Zii Explorer will only allow users to navigate through the top-level directories of the ZiiO's operating system, so the chances of a newbie accidentely wrecking the OS through a freak erasure of the root directory is next to none.
True to its educational ambitions, the ZiiO 7 also comes bundled with a e-reader app known as Audible, which allows users to both read and 'listen' to their favourtie ebook titles.