Opinion Piece

Working With A Budget: The EE Harrier Tablet

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With technology you get what you pay for, typically. And yet over the years that has become increasingly less truthful as even relatively cheap devices can pack considerable punch. It’s tempting to bankrupt yourself in order to afford the newest phone, tablet, laptop or computer with the latest technology under the hood, and even easier to be fooled into thinking you need to splurge to get anything remotely decent. Provided you go in with the right expectations there’s a lot of good stuff to be had when working on a budget. The key is to know what you’re looking for, rather than wanting something that’s brilliant at everything. Cue the Harrier, a tablet made by the folk over at EE who have decided to start producing their own devices, rather than just selling data plans.

Okay, so the Harrier isn’t a truly budget option, or at least not in the sense that you can pick it up for under £100. When it comes to purchasing it you have two options; spend £18 a month with an upfront cost of £49.99 to sign up to EE’s cheapest plan with 10GB data and over the two-year contract period and you’ll spend £432, plus your initial payment, in total. The other plan is to pay £30 upfront and then spend £21 per month to net 10GB yet again, totalling £504 plus the £30 uppront cost. Sound a bit too much? Interestingly EE aren’t currently selling this tablet on a Pay As You Go scheme, but when they were you could pick up the tablet outright for £199.99, which makes it a rather nice £150 or cheaper than the 4G Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, but also £150 more expensive than something like Amazon’s popular Fire HD which continues to win over customers due to its pricetag and hardware that focuses on being just good enough for browsing the Internet and watching videos. I have heard that if you venture into a physical EE store you can still snatch this up on a Pay as you Go scheme.

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The Harriet tablet isn’t quite a budget device, then, but is still considerably cheaper that a lot of the more powerful offerings out there that tend to grab people’s attention while still costing enough to promise solid performance. It’s in the Goldilocks zone of the price to performance ratio. But, and this is the important but, when it comes to 4G support the Harrier is sitting right on the budget end of the scale, and these days a lot of people want 4G capability. So what are you getting for your cash? In terms of raw specifications this is a 338g tablet that measures in at 21.8cm tall and 12.4cm wide with a depth of 8.5mm, meaning an average adult could hold this in one hand for prolonged periods without too much of a problem if they wanted. It boasts a an 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon running at 1.5Ghz that is backed up by 2GB of ram, and  you also get a perfectly reasonable 16GB of storage space that can be expanded via a mico SD card. Not too shabby on the specs, then. It’s clearly now a powerhouse of a device, and yet these specifications are solid for the average person who isn’t looking to do heavy gaming or anything of the sort, but rather want something they can use on the commute to work or when lounging around in bed.

Running it through some benchmarking we got a single-core score of 658 and a multi-core score of 2661 on Geekbench, both of which are respectable.  On Antutu it picked up a score of 34302, while 3DMark’s SlingShot 3.0 test at first seemingly proved that my earlier statement was true; this isn’t a good choice for gamers, logging a small score of 158, each graphics and physics test becoming a slideshow as the tablet struggled to keep up with the test’s demands. Some real world testing confirmed, though, indicated differently. To test the Harrier I loaded up Trials Frontier, Asphalt 8, Modern Combat 5 and Real Racing 3, and it handled them all rather well. Modern Combat 5’s framerate struggled during the more intense scenes, as did Asphalt 8’s, making them difficult to play. I tjem ran a new test, ignoring the 3DMark recommended Slingshot 3.0 and using Ice Storm Unlimited instead where it nabbed a score of 7484. It seems that Icestorm Unlimited is a more fitting benchmark for this device. In comparison a high-end tablet would tend to score somewhere in the 15,000 range

All of this is housed within a plastic body that feels reasonably solid, with the rear featuring a brushed metal look and EE’s logo. The rear camera is likewise circled with gold trim for that bit of extra bling,  a design choice that doesn’t look too great in my own estimation but that many people seem to like. The unit managed to pick up some slight marks and scuffs from simple daily use over a few weeks of testing indicating that it isn’t the most durable of devices. Provided you don’t throw it off a cliff, however, and consider picking up some protection in the form of a case then it should be able to cope with the rigors of life.

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Located toward the top of the right-hand side are the power and volume rockers, both of which sit too flush with the casing which makes them awkward to find with your finger. They’re both quite soft when activated, too. I’d like to have had these be more pronounced and have a great degree of tactility when in use. The audio connection can be found on the top of the tablet, while the charging point is on the bottom. Finally the edges are curved, but the connection point between the front and rear panels is quite pronounced, while the bezel running around the edge doesn’t sit flush with the screen. Not major problems, either of them, but still worth mentioning. There’s nothing spectacular or surprising in terms of design here, then.

When it comes to your viewing pleasure there’s a nice 8″ screen running at the full 1080p with which to watch movies and play games. It reproduces colors fairly well, although they lack the punch of the better displays found on more expensive devices. Blacks aren’t particularly deep, either, sometimes fading to a dark grey, but it has almost no motion blur and looks relatively sharp with a PPI of 275, making it perfect for watching some late-night Netflix or just mucking about on Youtube. Sure, if you get your eyeballs quite close to the screen there’s a notable lack of sharpness to the picture, but sitting at a regular distance it looks just fine. The IPS panel ensures solid viewing angles with the picture staying nice and bright at extreme viewing positions. It handles direct sunlight pretty well, too, so you can always take it out on a nice day in order to sit on the beach and happily ignore the progress of humanity going on around you.

Front-facing speakers seem like a massive plus for the Harrier Tablet at first glance as most companies employ awkward rear speakers that tend to get muffled when the tablet is held or placed on a surface. Sadly, though, these speakers are disappointingly quiet, easily drowned out by the day-to-day activities of a household or the background noise of a city. In a quiet place their tininess becomes noticeable, too, those low bass sounds coming across as weak and everything else lacking definition. This is definitely a tablet where you’ll want to get a reasonable set of headphones if you plan on using it for a lot of TV/movie watching. But then, I would always recommend getting a reasonable headset or buds for tablets and phones as even the best of them don’t provide very good audio.

The tablet comes with Lollipop 5.1 as standard and the folks at EE have wisely decided to keep it largely clutter free, sticking with the stock UI rather than attempting to introduce their own design and keeping the pre-installed junk to a relative minimum. There’s a handful of pre-installed bloatware that cannot be removed, but thankfully you can hide them from your homepage and thus don’t have to be reminded of their existence constantly. What exactly are these apps? Well we’ve got EE’s own My EE for quick access to  EE’s online services and thus can actually be quite useful. It’s joined by no less than four Amazon apps spanning Amazon, Kindle, Amazon Music and Amazon Local. You’ve also got Deezer for more music, plus the Lookout security app.

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Out in the real world browsing the web and doing basic activities felt relatively smooth and responsive with some small hints of lag, the tablet capable of keeping up with me for the most part in all but the most severe of situations where numerous tabs were open, the CPU and Ram struggling to handle it, as would be expected. In other words it’s clear that this isn’t for power users who to browse multiple tabs at a time, but rather is designed for those who just want to check out a few Youtube videos and read some articles.

On the rear you’ll find an 8-Megapixel camera that comes with an HDR mode, designed to handle tricky light situations better. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is an old photography trick that has fairly recently become a common thing in smartphones and tablets. The goal is to achieve more detail in dark shadows and bright patches of light by taking multiple pictures at different levels of exposure and then combining them to better replicate what the human eye sees. Sadly it’s nowhere near good enough here to save the image quality, as you can see in the small gallery below. On a wet, overcast detail the images clearly lack much detail, coming across as soft.  Furthermore indoors I put down a few obviously quite stylish items (HA!) and then several feet away placed a small lamp. The camera is clearly struggling, resulting in washed out colors. Best stick with your smart phone for reasonable pictures, or, of course, an actual camera. The front-facing sensor is just 2-megapixels and while it’s adequate for making a Skype call everything comes out fuzzy and lacking in detail. In honesty when it comes to tablets this approach baffles me. Nobody I know would ever use a tablet to take pictures except in odd circumstances, so I’d rather see the better sensor placed on the front for making Skype calls where a tablet beats out a regular phone if you want to sit down and chat to a family member or friend for a little while. Maybe that’s just me, though.

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As for the battery it’s a 4,650mAh , hardly an impressive power source. It takes a while for that small batter to charge, too, with  EE reckoning that a full charge from flat to 100% will take around four hours. Using the charger that came with the tablet I tested this theory and found it be entirely accurate. Somewhat amusingly on Airplane mode and with a standard definition video running the Harrier also took four hours to go from fully charged to flat, a disappointingly low number. Swapping over to a better charger helped considerably, managing to charge from 23% to 63% in an hour,, but nothing can save it from having a rather short battery life. Again, this indicates a tablet that’s really designed for people who want to watch a few videos, read a book or catch up on an episode of their favorite show while commuting to or from work or travelling around.  But then, that’s exactly what a lot of people are looking for.

Before we finish you might be wondering why this reads like a review and yet isn’t labelled as one. That’s because I’ve always held in my reviews that I’m aiming to critique the product in question and try to deliver an opinion on whether it’s good or not, not whether it’s good for the price. Value for money is perhaps even more subjective than what is good or bad, and thus attempting to bring it into a review is a tricky thing. For this, though, I specifically contacted EE with a desire to check out a budget device and try to determine whether you could get something reasonable without having to sell your grandmother to the nearest slave-trader.

With that said, let’s wrap this up. What we have is a solid tablet that offers up good performance for the money. Sure, the sound quality is completely lackluster, the camera is nothing to write home about and it can’t quite run the most demanding games smoothly, but none of those are big problems for someone looking for a tablet they can use on the bus or train. You’ll be wearing headphones anyway when commuting, you’ll probably never want to use a tablet to take a picture and….okay, the last one is a bit of a hiccup if you really enjoy gaming on the go. Still, given the pretty good contract offers that EE provide with this tablet, the speed of their 4G and the general performance this is a damn impressive piece of kit. That 8″ screen isn’t the best you’ll find, but it’s perfectly fine for catching up on whatever the hell it is people watch these days. There is absolutely nothing amazing or special about the Harrier; it’s decidedly mundane in almost every aspect. Leave it to the more expensive devices to amaze with raw power or stunning screens, though, because amazing and special tend to come with an equally amazing and special price, the kind that makes your eyebrows play hide and seek in your hairline. No, on a budget you merely want good, and that’s exactly what the Harrier is; good. £200 is still a fair bit of cash to part with, but you can rest assured that you’re getting good value for money here.

 

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