Tablets being marketed as gaming platforms are seeing a surge in popularity at the moment, yet the Archos Gamepad 2 is somewhat unique in that it whacks on a set of physical controls to compliment the standard touch-screen navigation. The inclusion of buttons and sticks sends a clear message to potential buyers: the Archos Gamepad 2 is for games, and a tablet second. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, as we’re going to find out through the review the Gamepad 2 is really a tablet first and a light gaming device second.
The Gamepad 2 is armed with an ARM Cortex A9 quad-core processor which clocks in at 1.6Ghz per core and 2GB of Ram. As standard the device can be purchased with either 8GB or 16GBB of storage, neither of which is very much for storing games, so you’ll want to whack a microSD card in there pronto. The sticking point here is the Mali 400 MP4 GPU, the very same GPU the Gamepad 2’s predecessor had under its hood, too. Now, to be fair the Mali 400 is a solid GPU but….well, even in the original Gamepad it was considered a little outdated and doesn’t seem like a very sensible choice for a tablet marketing itself as being great for gaming. I’ve got some serious concerns about the Gamepad 2 being able to remain competitive as games machine moving forward. While most Android games aren’t exactly demanding, we are starting to see titles become bigger and more complex, making great use of the ever improving technology.
With those specifications in mind lets head into the raw benchmarks, starting with Antutu where the Gamepad 2 took home a score of 24349, but where things get interesting is the breakdown. General performance came in with a rating of high, surpassing 60% of the opposition. Not too shabby, really. Battery life registered as average, so there’s little to say there. The shock was game performance which Antatu rated as being poor, surpassing a mere 40% of other devices, hardly a glowing recommendation for something claiming to good for playing games on. So I immediately fired up 3D Mark’s Ice Storm benchmark and began putting the Gamepad 2 through its paces. Things didn’t get off to a good start when the demo, which doesn’t affect final score, was struggling to maintain a good frame rate with sharp drops stopping it from being smooth. Once into the tests proper the Gamepad 2 registered 11fps on the first test, 22fps on the second and 20.5fps on the physics test. Not exactly spectacular results when you consider something like the budget Moto G smartphone has a higher average score and higher frames per second while costing less than the Gamepad 2. Then there’s the Nexus 7 which is also in the same price bracket these and utterly thrashes the Gamepad 2 in these days, maxing out the overall score and running on average at twice the FPS. Ultimately Archos’ device scored 3701 on the standard Ice Storm benchmark. Out of curiosity I then ran the Gamepad 2 through Ice Storm Extreme where it recorded a score of 2909, with a mere 9.9FPS on test one, 11.9fps on test two and 22.6fps on the physics test.
Real world performance seemed to reflect these scores quite well. Loading up the included Modern Combat 4 the game was certainly playable but far from smooth, and as a gamer smoothness is what I’m looking for. Modern Combat 4 is a relatively demanding Android game, but if something is going to market itself as being geared towards playing games I’d expect better performance. Asphalt 8 fared quite a bit better, and while the framerate still wasn’t great it was smooth enough to enjoy the game, though some dips did catch me off. Still, gaming was generally hampered by some seriously long loading times, such as about a minute just to get into a race in Asphalt 8. It’s a bit mad to think that the two games the Gamepad 2 comes pre-loaded with really don’t show the tablet’s performance in a good light. Real Racing from EA was also too choppy to be entirely satisfactory, but remained just about playable. Most Android games aren’t overly demanding, though, so its fair to say that all you want is run the new Family Guy game, play Angry Birds and a few others it’ll be fine. For more demanding titles, though, the Archos Gamepad 2 just struggles too much.
On the other hand the Gamepad 2 does make a beastly emulator, the hardware more than capable of running older games and the physical buttons are spot-on for tackling them all. I found myself playing more of the old games than I did the new. I’m not sure this is the kind of endorsement Archos is looking for, but there you have it. It runs old games real good, folks.
Let’s talk about those controls, shall we? There’s two thumbsticks on either side that manage to feel pretty good for gaming. On my model they did feel a little stiff to use, resulting in me struggling to perform more subtle inputs. However, I believe this to be a result of my particular test unit having been used by other journalists before me – the left stick feels a tad sticky and stiff, whereas the right stick feels nice and smooth Sitting above the right stuck is a cluster of four buttons, an instantly familiar sight to…well, everyone these days. They sit a little close together for my tastes and feel too squishy as well, but ultimately they do the job. Located on the top are a further four buttons, including two “trigger” style buttons. Both fit quite naturally under your fingers and while they to feel a little squishy they perform well enough. Throw in the d-pad, which in keeping with the theme is also squishy, and the jobs a good ‘un. I have to admit that with my PC and console gaming heritage touch-screen and tilt controls have never really done it for me in anything more than basic games, so having actual controls under my fingers felt good.
Below the controls we find a bit of a problem: speakers. Okay, so speakers in general aren’t a problem, but the issue here is that their location means you’ll like at least partially cover them up when playing games, muffling what is already a tinny set of audio drivers. Even uncovered the speakers just aren’t all that good, able to go up to an impressive quality but not able to deliver good bass or even accurate highs. Detail gets awfully muddled, so I found it preferable to stick on some headphones instead.
Moving away from gaming more general usage yielded a far better experience. The whole thing runs on a pretty much stock version of Android Jelly Bean 4.2 so there’s not a whole lot to be said about that. Archos have chucked in a few additions of their own in the form of an Archos Gamezone, which is a reskin of the Play Store, and Archos Music. Getting around was smooth and easy, although I did note the occasional moment of slow-down and unresponsiveness.
The biggest addition is a piece of software which lets you remap standard touch controls to the physical controls. I love the idea in theory, but the reality is patchy. When it works it’s great, and while there’s a slight delay caused by the device translating the inputs many, many games benefit greatly from the more precise controls. But that’s when it works: for Real Racing the app wouldn’t even start, and when it did I couldn’t get the controls to map properly, possibly owing to the fact that the game itself was detecting the physical controls but seemed unable to configure things correctly. There were quite a lot of times it became unresponsive or just wouldn’t start, and furthermore controls have to be mapped while the game is actually playing, which can naturally be a pain in the arse. There seems to be a lot of games it simply doesn’t work with.
Let’s turn our attention to the build quality and aesthetics of this beast. At 400g the Gamepad 2 can be a little heavy when holding it in one hand while using the other to surf the web, but when you’ve got it in both hands the weight feels right, giving it a nice sense of heft and solidarity. That solidarity is no illusion, either: there’s no give in the plastic shell, nor does it feel cheap and tacky. Visually it’s not going to win any awards or anything, but I quite like the simple black design. Located on the top you can find a standard 3.5mm audio port for plugging in headphones and whatnot, a charging port for the included USB to Micro-USB cable and even a mini-HDMI to HDMI port so that you can play games on a big screen.
At a 720p and a mediocre 216 pixels per inch the 7″ screen is lagging behind the competition a little. However, despite this it looks lovely and detailed across both games and movies, providing pretty good color reproduction and depth. Of course it doesn’t match up to many of the full HD offerings on other tablets, but honestly the lower resolution wasn’t very noticeable in most instances because of the size of the screen. Text was sharp and games looked lovely, so while the lack of a full 1080p is a little disappointing it’s not a massive loss.
It’s also backed up by some solid battery life as well, managing to last me around 5-7 hours of continuous gaming, more than enough for the vast majority of journeys. With lighter use that lifespan can almost double, so I have zero complaints here.
The problem here really is one of marketing and expectation. Viewed purely as a budget tablet the Archos Gamepad 2 would actually be quite good, boasting a nice screen, good connection options and solid general performance when browsing the net. But when viewed as a gaming orientated device it’s kind of useless in many regards, and most people would be better of getting a PS Vita or a 3DS or some other tablet like the Nexus 7. It just doesn’t offer anywhere near the raw power required to take it seriously as a gaming device. And that’s really a shame because it’s controller definitely makes for a better experience in terms of comfort. However, it is good choice for somebody primarily looking for a tablet and a light gaming device second, or even for somebody that struggles to come to terms with touch-screen controls. If Archos release a Gamepad 3 with more raw power under the hood, they’ll be onto a winner.