Kogan's Agora 7-inch Android tablet is now the fourth that we've seen in this size, and whoever designed this model didn't think too hard about how to differentiate it from the pack. The Agora is a charcoal-coloured slate, made of stiff plastic around its glass display — reminiscent of the ZTE-made Optus My Tab more than any others in this category.
Compare this photo we took with the computer-generated image above.
The designer did meddle with the positioning of the standard navigation buttons, deciding that having the Home and Back keys in easy reach would be a bad idea for some reason. Instead, these oft-used controls exist as a rocker switch on the top of the tablet, with a single silver Back button facing the user. Also, before you start hunting around for physical volume controls, there are none. Volume is adjusted by using software keys on the home screen, but this does mean that you'll have to exit an app, such as games, to adjust the volume. Luckily, the volume controls are still visible in the default music player.
There's no rear-facing camera, but you do get a 2-megapixel, front-facing camera for video-calling. Along the right-side edge, you'll find all of this device's input and output ports and sockets, including a micro SD card slot and mini-HDMI out.
The centrepiece of the Agora is a diagonally 7-inch WVGA resolution display, but it is far from the tablet's best feature. The panel, recessed deep below the glass, is a TN LCD panel — one of the cheapest screen technologies used today. Off-axis viewing is dreadful, with negative images appearing at only about 30-degrees off-centre but, to be honest, it's not much better to look at from front-on, either. The colours are dull and listless, the blacks appear as greys and the low pixel density for a screen of this size makes everything on the screen look foggy and slightly out of focus.
Tilting the screen about 30-degrees off-axis will ruin your movie.
Conversely, the user experience is quite good. The Agora runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread and, with its capacitive touchscreen, it manages to feel quite responsive. There's no custom overlay installed, but the basic Android user experience serves this tablet well. If you want to pretty-up the home screens, you can download wallpapers and widgets through the Android Market.
While reviewing the Agora, we discovered that there was no central location to adjust our user account settings and synchronisation timing. Android users will be aware that there is an "Accounts and sync" menu in the Android system settings, but not, strangely, in Kogan's tablet.
Like many of the tablets that we've reviewed recently, the Agora cannot charge using USB plugged into a PC; instead, you'll have to use the supplied charger.
Media and the web
As far as we can tell, the best use of the Agora tablet is for browsing the web. The stock browser seems slower than on similar Android tablets, but it gets the job done. You can install the latest version of Flash using the Android Market, too, and stream videos from your favourite sites. Again, this streaming will be slower unless you visit sites with video optimised for mobile viewing, like YouTube.
The Agora connects to the web using Wi-Fi B and G protocols only, so that means no long-range wireless N, and no 3G — though you may be fooled into thinking otherwise, as the tablet still shows network strength indicators in the main system notifications bar, though admittedly these bars are greyed out.
Multimedia playback was a pleasantly surprising experience if you can forgive the crummy display. The Agora happily played back a 1080p MP4 video file, as well as DivX and WMV video files. Kogan adds to the equation with a mini-HDMI out port on the side of the tablet, though you'll need to buy a cable separately. The same goes for internal storage. Although Kogan includes 4GB of memory, you'll need to find some extra money if you want to expand that by using the micro SD card slot.
The Agora packs a 1GHz processor and a 200MHz graphics processor, according to the literature. The results are adequately fast, home screen navigation is a reasonably smooth user experience and it has decent gaming performance in most standard Android game titles. This gives the appearance of a fast tablet all-round, though we did notice a few tasks that the Agora really struggles with. After we transferred our standard collection of testing videos and images, opening the Gallery app took over 20 seconds to load before it was useable. The same process executes in one or two seconds on nearly all Android devices that we've reviewed recently.
Perhaps the worst element of this tablet, and undoubtedly the biggest sacrifice in a purchase at this price, is the Agora's woeful battery life. Kogan saves on costs with a 3600mAh battery, and it shows. To put this into perspective, Samsung uses a 4000mAh battery in its 7-inch Galaxy Tab and RIM chooses a 5300mAh battery for the BlackBerry PlayBook. But it's not just about capacity; it's also about the quality of the battery itself, and the way that the system uses it.
We managed to burn through large chunks of the remaining battery life with short bursts of heavy usage. Web browsing for 30 minutes decreased the charge by up to 30 per cent, but more concerning was the fact that the battery discharged at a rate of 5 per cent to 10 per cent per hour while in standby mode. The tablet's terrible screen image doesn't help, as you'll likely set the brightness to 100 per cent just to see images and text clearly.
Value for money is an absolutely subjective measure, but it's an essential consideration for a product like this. For AU$189, you'll buy a 7-inch tablet powered by Android Gingerbread, but it's hampered by a number of key issues. The display is dreadful to look at, the controls are awkwardly positioned and battery life is really concerning. The Agora tablet looks and feels like many other Android tablets, and it will achieve many of the same functions, like web browsing and media playback, but without the basics in place, the low asking price will still be a waste of money if you can't be bothered charging it every day or if you find the low-quality screen difficult to read.
If you're in the market for a cheap tablet, hunt around for the best price on the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. At the time of writing, Telstra is selling it outright for AU$299, but this price is bound to drop further as the next wave of top-tier tablets enters the market.