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Android on x86: A quick look at Asus' Memo Pad ME176C tablet

A 7" Bay Trail quad for $149

Remember when people dismissed the iPad as a fad? It's just a big iPod Touch, they said. Who would want one of those?

Quite a lot of folks, actually. The iPad touched off a revolution that has grown to truly epic proportions. 207 million tablets shipped last year, according to market research firm Gartner, and that total is expected to grow to 256 million in 2014. The following year, Gartner projects that tablet shipments will hit 321 million units and eclipse PCs for the first time.

So, yeah, probably not a fad.

Intel initially missed the boat on the tablet trend, but it's starting to make inroads in the market. In an earnings press release issued last week, CEO Brian Krzanich said the company is on track to ship in 40 million tablets this year. Many of those devices will likely be smaller, inexpensive Android slates like Asus' Memo Pad ME176C.

At a glance, it's easy to see why Intel expects to move a lot of tablets like these. The Memo Pad sells for just $149, yet it has a quad-core Bay Trail SoC, a 7" IPS display, and a nice selection of additional features. Looks like a great deal, right?

Maybe. You see, those Bay Trail cores might be great for Windows PCs, but they're based on an x86 instruction set architecture (ISA) that's sort of a foreign language in the mobile world. Most tablets use ARM-compatible chips with a completely different ISA. Any apps with ARM-specific code must be adapted or translated just to run on x86 hardware, which could lead to slower performance and longer load times.

The obvious question, then, is how does Intel's latest Atom fare on an Android device? More importantly, can a cheap Bay Trail tablet like the Memo Pad ME176C deliver a good user experience? I've been using one to find out, and the answers are a little complicated. Allow me to explain.

Anatomy of a budget slate
Some aspects of the Memo Pad are easy to grasp. Take the Atom Z3745 SoC, for example. It's an Android-specific version of the Bay Trail quad found in Asus' $350 Transformer Book T100 convertible. The CPU cores have the same 1.33GHz base and 1.86GHz Burst frequencies, and the base GPU speed is unchanged. The peak GPU clock is 111MHz higher, though, at 778MHz.

Processor Atom Z3745 (1.33GHz base, 1.86GHz Burst)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics (311MHz base, 778MHz Burst)
Memory 1GB LPDDR3 1066
Display 7" IPS panel with 1280x800 resolution (216 PPI)
Storage 16GB eMMC
Up to 64GB via Micro SD
Wireless 802.11n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 1 Micro USB
1 analog headphone/microphone
Cameras 5MP rear, 2MP front
Battery 15Wh, 3910mAh
Dimensions 7.5" x 4.5" x 0.38" (190.5 x 114.3 x 9.65 mm)
Weight 0.65 lbs (295 g)
OS Android 4.4.2

The Memo Pad runs Android 4.4.2, otherwise known as KitKat. This OS revision includes optimizations for devices with lower memory capacities, so the gig of system RAM shouldn't be a huge handicap. Neither should the 16GB of internal flash, which is comparable to the base storage capacity of premium Android and iOS slates. Unlike a lot of those pricier tablets, the Memo Pad has a Micro SD slot ripe for secondary storage. Up to 64GB can be added via mini memory card.

A Micro USB connector and headset jack are the only ports of note. There are dual cameras, of course—a 5MP unit at the rear and a 2MP one up front—plus 802.11 Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and the usual collection of sensors. Power and volume buttons grace one edge, but their arrangement is a little unusual. The power switch sits below the volume rocker, which is the opposite of how things are organized on the Nexus 7 and most other Android tablets we've used.

Despite its bargain price tag, the Memo Pad doesn't feel overly cheap. The back is draped in smooth, soft-touch plastic that has just enough grip to keep the tablet from slipping out of my hands. This matte finish isn't completely impervious to smudges and fingerprints, but neither is the glossy touchscreen on any tablet. I'm over it.

The build quality appears to be solid overall. The frame is fairly stiff, with minimal flex and no obvious creaking when the body is torqued. I don't have the guts to do a drop test, though.

The display is based on a 7" panel with a 1280x800 pixel array. That resolution is a decent fit for the screen size, though it obviously doesn't match the crispness of higher-PPI alternatives like the latest Nexus 7. Text and images still look reasonably sharp, and individual pixels aren't visible unless you hold the tablet right up to your face. Picky reviewers are probably the only ones who will ever get that close to the screen.

We haven't had time to run the screen through our usual, ahem, gamut of colorimeter tests. However, the output looks good to my eyes, with vivid colors, wide viewing angles, and no obvious signs of backlight bleed. As an added bonus, the picture can be tuned with Asus' Splendid software, which has sliders for color temperature, hue, and saturation. The brightness can also be adjusted, but only manually. The Memo Pad lacks the ambient light sensor required for automatic backlight control.

Everything is squeezed into a compact chassis that's 0.38" (9.6 mm) thick and 0.65 lbs (295 g). Slimmer tablets do exist, but I think we've reached the point where shaving a couple more millimeters doesn't make a big difference. The Memo Pad is easy to carry and hold with one hand, just like every other 7" tablet I've used. The battery life seems to be comparable to that of other contenders, too. Asus claims run times up to nine hours on a single charge, which matches my subjective impressions based on casual use.