Tablet adventures pt. 2

Long-standing readers (as if!) might remember my brief foray into the early days of Android tablets. Ah, yes, back when all this was trees...strokes beard. I don't think I ever wrote a final post on it, but in the end I played around with it - mainly running the Linux build, which was an LXDE desktop squished onto a tablet screen (!) - for a few months, then selling it. It could browse the web okay and play video, so it was useful for a couple of trips, but it was a far cry from the tablet-crazy world of today.

SmartQ appear to still be trucking, selling rather more polished products these days. However, I learned my lesson last time. For my next venture into the tablet world, I won't be going with that pretty-much-unknown Chinese box-shipper.

No, no. I'm going with a completely different pretty-much-unknown Chinese box-shipper!

After returning the RedEye - yeah, I returned it, after re-configuration the 880 is just working too well to keep fiddling with the RedEye - I had a couple hundred bucks languishing in my Amazon account, and that's not enough for a new NAS box, so I figured I'd spend it on a Ainol Novo7 Flame (also known as the Fire - apparently they are the same hardware, but sold as the 'Fire' in Asia with Chinese-localized firmware, and 'Flame' in the rest of the world with English-localized firmware). The last one in stock at in fact, so sorry if anyone else wanted one.

Ainol seem to have been in the tablet game for some time, and have made a series of 'Novo7's (and Novo8s and Novo10s in fact) - 'Flame' is the model name of their newest, highest-specced model. It's very well priced - cost me C$180 plus tax, compared to C$310 plus tax for the Nexus 7 from Amazon. From reviews I've found it seems to perform pretty well and have surprisingly good build quality and screen for the price. There appears to be a decent ROM community, with 4.2 builds available.

But what ultimately sold me on the Fire was a couple of related things. One, the hardware: it's based on the AMLogic 8726-MX SoC, which uses a Cortex A9 CPU and a Mali 400 GPU. Why's this interesting? Well, a quick skip shows us that this particular SoC is on the recommended hardware list for the Lima driver - the open source driver for Mali GPUs, which is one of the most advanced open source ARM graphics drivers available. The other thing that I like about the Flame is hinted at on that same page. It warns us in general to "Do be aware the makers of these cheap tablets are not providing kernel source and are breaching the GPL." However, Ainol appears to be an honourable exception. They have an entire 'OpenLinux' page where they provide source and even basic build documentation for what sure looks like pretty much their entire stack, excepting the closed source Mali driver. It may not be entirely up to date, but it's a damn sight better job than most manufacturers manage, let alone most cheap Chinese box-shifters. I figure they deserve some recognition for that.

So I'd buy this tablet just because of their decent effort to provide the source, but the fact that it's available and the hardware it's based on is apparently pretty hackable makes me hopeful that this will turn out to be a decent platform for playing around with stuff coming down the pipe for ARM tablet hardware. Heck, I'd be interested in trying out the Ubuntu tablet edition - I wonder if someone will do a build for the Ainols.

I'll try and blog more about this one after it shows up than I did about the last one! Even if I just wind up using it as a regular old Android tablet, it'll come in handy.


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