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Featured Review: Vodafone Tab Prime 6

June 19, 2015 - Written By David Steele

Background

Tablets are an interesting device to research. You see, in terms of productivity, a tablet is considered to be less productive than a laptop or Chromebook – but often costs more. Admittedly, Microsoft and Google have pushed inexpensive laptop prices down but tablet prices if anything have continued to rise. We have seen Google introduce the Nexus 7 range of tablets, which were inexpensive for the performance – unfortunately the latest Google Nexus tablet, the HTC-made Nexus 9, is expensive.

Along with the Vodafone Smart range of inexpensive Android-powered smartphones, the global carrier has launched the Vodafone Tab prime 6, a low priced, LTE-enabled Android tablet with a screen size of 9.6-inch. The Tab prime 6 is built for Vodafone by TCL, the business behind Alcatel and the same manufacturer as the Smart first 6 and Smart prime 6. In color and build quality, it’s closer to the Smart prime 6, a device I especially appreciated – these are good points.

TCL eschewed the Intel Atom processor, which has made quite a name for itself in the less expensive tablets. Instead, the Tab prime 6 is based around the same ARM processor that we find in the Smart prime 6, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 System-on-Chip. It is, however, a little more expensive than the prime 6 smartphone, but at £150, which is for a LTE-equipped device running a near stock version of Android 5.0 Lollipop, the Tab prime 6 still looks reasonable value on paper.

First, a word about how I use an Android tablet because it’s quite different to how I use a smartphone: my tablet is my go-to device. Most of my writing is put down into an Android tablet via a wireless keyboard and Google Docs or the Microsoft Word / Office 365 / Dropbox combination; I’ll put down close to ten thousand words a week. I use a OTG USB hub and card reader to import images from a Sony bridge camera and I process these on the tablet. And yes, this article was written and prepared on the Vodafone Tab prime 6 – for the ten days I review period, I substituted my usual tablet (the 2013 Nexus 7 LTE) with the Vodafone Tab prime 6.

Specification

A 9.6-inch Android tablet with a 64-bit processor and LTE for £150? The first question is “where is the compromise?” The biggest compromise is easy to see: it’s the screen, a widescreen format, 720p resolution panel. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the specifications:

  • 1.2 GHz, quad core, 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 410, 1 GB RAM, Adreno 306 GPU.
  • 16 GB internal, MicroSD card slot for up to 64 GB (tested with 16 GB card).
  • 9.6-inch IPS screen, 1,280 by 800 resolution, 157ppi.
  • 5MP rear camera, 2MP front facing camera.
  • 4,600 mAh embedded rechargeable battery.
  • 802.11 b/g/n dual band WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, 4G LTE up to 150 Mbps, universal IR port.
  • 244mm by 146mm by 7.9mm, 406g.

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Hardware, Design and Build

The Tab prime 6 is based around a 9.6-inch widescreen, 720p IPS display, which dominates the device. As you hold the device in landscape mode, there are buttons along the top left hand edge for the lock and volume keys. There’s a universal infrared port along the left hand edge and along the right hand, we find the MicroUSB port for charge and data. The back of the device has the 5MP camera, the single speaker grill and a soft plastic cover for the SIM and MicroSD card slots, which is refreshingly easy to remove and reattach. Along the bottom there are pop-ports presumably for a charger dock although there is no compatible accessory listed with Vodafone at the moment.

The Tab prime 6 differs from the Smart prime 6 in that it has software control keys rather than capacitive keys along the bottom of the device. This is almost certainly because the device may be used in either portrait or landscape more and most customers will frequently rotate the attitude. This said, the device is considerably longer than it is tall and it feels unusual to hold in portrait mode, although thanks to being relatively narrow, is surprisingly comfortable in this aspect. As you can see from the pictures of me holding the device, I don’t always need two hands and I like this. It’s a better ebook reader than I imagined.

The Tab prime 6 is well made and doesn’t creak when given a little pressure. The back material has a pleasing soft touch feel about it but the screen is quickly and easily covered in fingerprints. It feels robust and well made too; the Tab prime 6 feels like it could survive a few knocks, although I wouldn’t recommend this! One final point to make is that the Tab prime 6 does not come with a notification light.

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Display

The Tab prime is based around a 9.6-inch, 720p resolution screen. This is the device’s greatest compromise, not so much that the screen is particularly bad but because it is the primary way to use the device. The Tab prime 6 also has a slightly unusual screen size at 9.6-inch; it’s a little smaller than what we might consider a “full size” tablet to be, at 10.1-inch or larger. The widescreen format means that the device is considerably narrower than it is long (or wide, in landscape mode) and this means that I can hold the device completely in my hand, and that makes it easier to carry.

As for the screen, this is an IPS panel, which means it has decent viewing angles. Unfortunately, coloration is somewhat muted, which is a common trait for the less expensive LCD panels. The cover glass is also a fingerprint magnet and it is very difficult to keep clean. This is especially troublesome if the screen brightness is set low, as you tend to see the fingerprints rather than the information behind them! The screen’s relatively low PPI of 157 points towards the display being somewhat blocks and fuzzy, which is not helped by the fingerprint smudges on the surface. The screen itself is also set a noticeable amount back from the front glass, whereas more expensive devices place the screen closer to the glass. The biggest problem here is that the display panel is highly reflective and this makes the tablet difficult to use outside. Of course, when it comes to trying to use a device such as a tablet outside, very few are usable and most are a compromise of one sort or another.

My usual tablet has a smaller, sharper (1080p) resolution, but for writing and “productivity” purposes, I didn’t notice the Tab prime screen after a while. I did, however, notice the murky coloration and muted reds when playing games although I didn’t notice any screen quality issues when watching music videos.

Writing of screen brightness, the Tab prime 6 has a bug when it comes to screen brightness. The device has a brightness scroll bar along the top of of the Settings pull-down Menu but when you try to access this, it’s stuck and does not move. However, installing a brightness widget (and I used Widgetsoid) returned full control of the brightness options within the device: the Tab prime 6 has the standard Android 5.0 Lollipop brightness settings including the adaptive brightness, but it’s a shame that one needs a third party application in order to access this. This software glitch will hopefully be picked up and addressed by Vodafone; it is not a dealbreaker but it is something to be aware of if you are looking to pick up the Tab prime 6.

Sound

This is another weakness of the Prime tab 6: it has a single, rear-facing speaker, whereas more expensive tablets have dual stereo front facing speakers. This means that the sound output is facing away from you when listening to music. The Tab prime 6 is not terrible in this respect and in isolation it sounds okay, but the single speaker is quickly drowned by other noise and it sounds over-extended at the highest volume settings. This is a tablet that definitely benefits from pairing up with a wireless speaker.

Sound output from the headphone socket sounds great to my ears; the Tab prime 6 doesn’t have any special audio tricks up its sleeve but it does not so much

Performance, Memory, Multitasking

The Tab prime 6 is based around a 2014 vintage, quad core, 1.2 GHz, 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor, which is paired up to 1 GB of memory and the Adreno 306 GPU for graphics. This is an entry level chipset, but it’s important to highlight that the 2014 entry level Snapdragon 410 typically benchmarks around the same level as late 2012 higher end chipsets. Yes; operating systems and, especially, applications have become heavier and more demanding of the hardware since the days of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, but processors have at least kept up.

In use, the Tab prime 6 is generally smooth and responsive, although there were some occasional hesitations and lags during normal use, which usually lasted for a second or so but occasionally persisted for longer. When using an application such as Google Docs with a wireless keyboard, I could tell that the Tab prime 6 was updating applications in the background as my typing lagged on the screen. However, the delays, pauses and hesitations weren’t consistent or associated with performing any particular task, nor were they repeatable. I did not need to reboot the device during my testing period, so perhaps the device software has a few minor bugs but no show stoppers – the worst occurrence caused the device to dramatically slow down for over thirty seconds.

Where the Tab prime 6 routinely suffers in in it has 1 GB of RAM rather than 2 GB. This means that switching to and from a heavyweight application, and I’m looking at the Google Chrome Browser here, the device typically closes the previous file or document that I was working on. When switching back to Chrome, it has to reload the page, or when switching back to the Google Docs file (for example) it has to reload the document. This means waiting for the processor to retrieves information from memory and makes the multitasking experience less fluid than it might be on a device with more memory. This is symptomatic of a device with 1 GB of memory; the best fix is to add more RAM, which is impossible short of buying a different device. Unfortunately, because of how I use a tablet compared with a smartphone, I notice the performance impact much more as I am switching between heavier applications far more frequently. However, compared with similar lower end tablets running Android 4.4 Kit Kat or older, the Tab prime 6 is a noticeably better experience.

Vodafone Tab Prime 6 PCMark

The Tab prime 6 comes with 16 GB of onboard storage plus a MicroSD card if you need additional space for media or applications. Even without the memory card slot, the device has plenty of for applications with some left over for media, although the usual caveat about avid gamers needing a large amount of space applies here. However, given the entry level hardware this doesn’t strike me as a gamers’ tablet.

I ran the PCMark benchmark on the device and it scored a high point of 3,285.

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Cellular Data, WiFi, Bluetooth, Infrared

The Tab prime 6 comes with 2G, 3G and 4G LTE radios, supporting LTE bands 1, 3, 7, 8 and 20 – this covers the four British carriers although I was only able to test the device on the Vodafone network. The device also comes with high speed WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1 and a universal infrared port on the side.

Tablets often pick up better signal compared with smartphones and the reason is because the larger chassis gives the engineers and designers more space for antenna arrangements and similar. This is the case of the Tab prime 6; when set down, the device is able to pick up a Vodafone 4G LTE signal somewhat quicker than Vodafone smartphones I’ve tested, although it’s important to bear in mind that the carrier may (and likely has) changed the network in the areas I was testing the device. The Tab prime 6 lacks voice connectivity so I am unable to check to see how well the device clings on to a call when traveling through areas of a fringe signal. However, my use of a tablet and the data connection is different to my use of a smartphone: what matters to me with a tablet is how well the device clings on to the high performance LTE data network and also how quickly it can move from a 3G HSPA connection up to LTE. And it’s here that the different networks and devices can behave slightly differently.

The reason why this is important is because whereas a 2G and 3G network is able to move seamlessly between the two technologies, switching from a 2G or 3G network up to a 4G LTE network means temporarily breaking the connection. Here, the Tab prime 6 elegantly manages the transition by temporarily pausing the data connection in order to promote from 2G or 3G up to LTE, although it was a little less keen to promote. There were times when the Tab felt that it was dragging its heels to promote the connection to LTE from HSPA but I’m also aware that I was waiting for it! Unfortunately and as with all carriers and devices, after spending time with a LTE or even HSPA connection, moving to an area with 2G coverage feels painful. Even EDGE, which is considerably quicker than GPRS, means waiting for the data connection.

I had no issues with either WiFi nor Bluetooth on the device. I was able to connect to all manner of personal and public WiFi hotspots and the device paired up with keyboards and wireless speakers without a problem. The Tab prime 6 ships with the Peel Smart Remote application and this worked great with the built-in infrared port. The infrared port makes up for the device not coming with NFC.

Camera

The Tab prime 6 comes with a 5MP rear camera and a 2MP front facing camera. Rear cameras on a tablet – short of a Project Tango device – amuse me as a means of ticking a box on a specification sheet rather than having a proper utility. So, yes, the Tab prime 6 has a 5MP rear camera and I’ve included a small number of pictures taken with the tablet… but this is not a device designed for taking pictures. I took a single token picture, in a public place, for the purposes of the review:

Images produced from the rear camera lacked sharpness and definition, but for social media shots are absolutely fine. However, even if the Tab had a superb pair of cameras, I cannot recommend you hold the device up to take pictures with it.

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Battery

TCL have given the Tab prime 6 a 4,600 mAh battery, which sounds a little lightweight given the 9.6-inch screen, quad core processor and LTE modem. To put this number into perspective, the 2013 Nexus 7 has a 3,950 mAh battery with a higher resolution 7.0-inch screen, quad core processor and (optional) LTE modem, the Lenovo Yoga 2 8.0 has a higher resolution screen, quad core processor and 6,400 mAh battery. However, the prime 6 has good to great battery life. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 System-on-Chip is designed for low power consumption and the modest screen resolution means that the device does not have much to power.

Under optimum conditions – that is, indoors with the screen brightness turned down low and the tablet connected to WiFi – I was seeing more than ten hours of screen on time to a charge when writing in Google Docs with a wireless keyboard. Used out and about, with the screen in Automatic, some gaming, browsing and writing over a mix of WiFi and LTE data use, the screen on time dropped to around six hours. This is around twice that of my 2013 Nexus 7 LTE under similar conditions but this is not a scientific test as my Nexus 7 uses a different carrier. Standby power consumption is respectable, too: the prime 6’s modest internal components help battery life.

Overall, the Tab prime 6’s battery life was very welcome for an always connected device. The Tab prime 6 includes Google’s Power Saver mode, which reduces the maximum clock speed to 800 MHz from 1.2 GHz and prevents many applications from updating in the background. This helped extend the battery quite a bit as power consumption in standby was reduced.

Software

As with the two recently reviewed Vodafone products, the Tab prime 6 has a near-stock version of Android 5.0 Lollipop. There are a very small number of tweaks that we can find, mostly around the bundled applications that Vodafone included with the device, but most of these are easily removed or disabled. And compared with the Smart first 6 and Smart prime 6, the Tab prime 6’s version of Android is even closer to stock. The changes implemented into the operating system include the location notification permanently showing in the top right and the operator logo permanently showing at the top left. And when unlocking the device and entering a PIN you don’t need to tap the “okay”key. Yes; that’s all I could spot.

Just on the applications that are bundled with the Tab prime 6, carriers wish or perhaps more specifically, carriers’ marketing departments would like nothing better than the device to scream the carrier name and the top twenty products that they believe customers should be using all of the time. From a customer perspective, sometimes it’s useful to have carrier-added applications included on the device, but often the more experienced the tablet user, the less useful these applications are. In the case of the Tab prime 6, the Vodafone account applications are genuinely useful as it the network performance application. That they’re included is fine, and that they are relatively easily removed is handy too.

Other than the cosmetic changes I’ve already mentioned, I do need to pass comment on Vodafone’s customized launcher that the Tab rime 6 uses. This is very similar to the Smart prime 6 smartphone in that there’s a customizable swipe left function to launch your own application rather than the Google Now window that the Google Experience launcher is set up for. By default, the Tab prime 6 launches Flipboard but this is easily changed to another application depending on what you do with your tablet. The launcher appears to be very similar to the Google Experience Launcher, which is a good thing.

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Conclusion

Vodafone’s Tab prime 6 is a commendable effort in what is a competitive market. The tablet is designed as an inexpensive route into getting customers online using Vodafone’s network and it achieves this. The Tab prime 6 doesn’t necessarily put a foot wrong, although the hardware is a little constrained by having 1 GB of RAM available rather than 2 GB. That it runs a very near stock interface is a very good thing for the Android purist, and the essentials are covered. Would I recommend the Tab prime 6? There are competitor devices available that offer similar specifications to the Tab prime 6 but a cheaper price tag, but for a customer wishing the reassurance of buying from a physical store, there’s a lot to recommend about the Tab.