Back in June I was looking for a laptop or tablet that could be something that I could use on the go as a way to keep up on writing and work while traveling.
However, since I’m going back to school and doing writing as my main way of getting money, I had to get something extremely cheap. I was looking at Chromebooks ($200 or so), Windows laptops ($300+), and Android tablets ($100 or so), but I hadn’t been able to find anything that met all my needs that I felt comfortable shelling out the money for.
Then I called my brother, who works at a church. It turns out that they were using RCA tablets that came with detachable keyboards that they liked quite a bit, and he sent me a link to a few of them on Amazon.
I ultimately settled on the Atlas 10 Pro+ (affiliate link), which ran me about $100. The selling point here was that I’d have something similar in style to the Surface Go (tablet functionality, keyboard), but pay about a quarter of the Surface Go would cost if you wanted the type cover. There were also some very low-end Windows laptops that I had considered, but I wasn’t really sold on them.
Now, you do make a lot of sacrifices for that, especially in system memory (the Surface Go’s lowest end model has 4 GB of RAM, the Atlas 10 Pro+ has 1), and Android isn’t going to offer all your old Windows software if you’re committed to the ecosystem like I am, but the price was right. All of the alternatives I’d considered were pretty much equivalent in user experience, with the downside of being at least twice as expensive (Microsoft was actually sold out of the HP Stream 11, which would have been my first choice from my research at the time) and trying to run an operating system that is notoriously hungry for system resources.
The Atlas 10 Pro+ runs Android 8.1 Go. The Go variant is a special version of Android for low-spec systems, but I haven’t noticed the difference in any significant way. There are Go versions of a couple apps, like the Google Assistant and Google Maps, and supposedly more on the Play Store (I haven’t been able to figure out how to use Go-specific apps), but you’re not locked out of any apps. I ued the standard version of Docs to type this and I’ve also gotten Firefox as my main browser, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. Without a cellular connection, the Atlas 10 Pro+ isn’t going to replace a phone, and it certainly won’t replace a full desktop or laptop (though I did use it on my GenCon trip and found it quite satisfactory), but I’ve been liking it so far.
The performance is acceptable, and largely limited by the system memory. YouTube is a passable experience in Firefox and through the native YouTube app. Never having used Android with a keyboard and touchpad before, I was pleasantly surprised by how much it felt like a standard laptop experience. The 10” size definitely becomes a factor in what you can and can’t do, but it acquits itself pretty well. As an added bonus, it actually works as a laptop without being hot on your legs or feeling too large and awkward, because the tablet is vertical and so the part that gets hot (though it really only gets warm even under stress) is not resting on your lap.
The one thing to get used to is being patient. Apps load okay, but you’ll see a little delay between pushing play and Spotify starting if you haven’t listened in a while and the app isn’t open (this may also be Android not knowing which application to use), or between tabs in Firefox (which seems to reload the webpage every time it gains focus, perhaps due to memory constraints). Chrome may be smoother, but I don’t like it as much. You get used to this pretty quickly, and when you’re actually using stuff it feels responsive.
The camera is… about what you’d expect in a really cheap Android tablet.
Yikes! Yeah, this was probably not the ideal test environment (on my kitchen table, taking a photo of a reflective surface a few inches from the camera). There is a front facing camera, which is just as awful (perhaps even more awful; it’s hard to describe how awful it is), but given the price it’s still an addition. Given the fact that most people have smartphones and I’m not going to be using the Atlas 10 as a photography tool, I’ll give it a pass. However, if you absolutely need to take a photo or video, it can do that. In fact, it’s probably the perfect photography tool to use if you spot Bigfoot!
The screen resolution is not terrific, but honestly I don’t notice it all that much. As someone using a fairly large 1080p display as my primary driver, it doesn’t bother me to have a 1280×800 resolution on such a small screen. While the display is glossy turning up the brightness can help to mitigate any unwanted reflections; I haven’t had any problems with using it in any indoors condition, though I haven’t actually tested it. The touch-screen feels very much like plastic, and I’d bet that they’ve traded scratch resistance for something more shatterproof. After a couple months’ use I haven’t seen any issues. Since the keyboard makes for a very natural screen cover, I’m not too anxious about this, and since a lot of the touch controls are used less than they might otherwise be on a tablet because of the pairing with a keyboard I’m not too worried about it.
The touchscreen is one slightly annoying bit. It’s not inaccurate in the sense that you’ll get crazy wild results, but it’s not sensitive and there seems to be distortion around the edges of the screen. Having a dedicated keyboard makes this better, but I find the on-screen keyboard somewhat painful to use (though I don’t use the standard Google keyboard on my phone, so there could also be an adjustment pain here).
The speakers are not super-tinny, though you can definitely detect some distortion at higher volumes. They come out of the side of the tablet when it is docked (bottom in portrait mode), and they don’t get particularly loud. I’m not an audiophile, and they work fine for me, though I’d usually not use them unless I had to. It has a headphone jack, which is perfectly functional. The microphone is miserably awful, and sounds like you’re about eight thousand feet under-water and about twenty or thirty feet away from it. There was a little background noise when I was testing, and the one upside is that you can’t discern it. In an ideal situation, it might be better, but it’s probably still going to be terrible. If you want to do a whole lot of Google Hangouts, you might want to consider a Bluetooth headset with a microphone.
The actual build itself feels pretty good. Both the keyboard and tablet feel sturdy, as does the connector that runs between them. It’s thicker and meatier than a lot of alternatives, and the whole setup weighs somewhere between two and two-and-a-half pounds, with the vast majority of that being in the tablet. This means that if you pick it up and carry it by the keyboard it feels really awkward, but it still keeps the same angle it’s open at despite a little wobbling in the joint during sudden movements. There’s a micro USB port (which may or may not double as a charger; I’ve never bothered testing) and a DC charging cable that you can use for either the tablet, or the keyboard (which has its own battery and DC charging port, though it doesn’t have any USB ports that I can see). The keyboard is connected through a six-pin connection and uses magnets to stay connected to the tablet: this makes it really easy to remove when you want but also feels pretty sturdy against accidental jostling. Compared to something like the Surface Go, the Atlas 10 Pro+ is bulky, but I found that once it was in my laptop bag I’d forget which pocket I’d tucked it in. It’s all relative, and it’s light for its size.
Both the keyboard and tablet can be charged at the same time by a dedicated wall adapter; the keyboard does not have its own micro-USB port for charging, but both have the wall adapter plug (it’s a standard one that I’ve seen Chromebooks use, but I’m not familiar with the terminology).
If, like me, the disappearance of the humble headphone jack bothers you, you will be happy to know that there is one on the Atlas 10 Pro+ (which is something of a conceited name), as well as an SD card slot. The internal storage is 32 gigabytes, about 6 of which is used by Android, but that’s probably enough for most users given the camera short-comings.
The keyboard itself is surprisingly good. Honestly, it’s got one of the better laptop-style keyboard layouts, and while it’s tenkeyless it includes a full set of media controls. Some of the keys are pretty small, but despite my relatively large hands I actually don’t find them that bad. I’m not making typos, even adjusting from a glorious mechanical keyboard. My only gripe is that the left control key is really small and there’s a function modifier key where a full control button would extend, so I’ve fairly often hit that instead of control and not gotten what I wanted. The keyboard is not capable of wireless functionality, despite having its own battery, so you have to attach it if you want to use it. If you’re like me and you want something that has similar functionality to a laptop you won’t be disappointed; the keys actually feel really good to use. This morning I actually dug out an old Gigabyte gaming laptop, and I was surprised by how bad the keys on that felt compared to my tablet’s keyboard.
The integrated trackpad is actually better than I thought it would be, though it lacks dedicated buttons so you’ll have to tap on it to click. Since there’s a touchscreen on the tablet this is easily overcome if you find it frustrating, but I’ve found it really natural to use. The only downside is that it doesn’t really do multitouch, though I prefer to scroll and zoom using the touchscreen anyway since it’s more precise to work in screenspace rather than on a small touchpad no matter which device you’re on. If you don’t like the touchpad, you can disable it (and re-enable it) with a keyboard macro (FN+Space bar), which is nice.
In the few months I’ve been using the tablet, I’ve never had any issues with the battery life. As far as I can tell I get the six hours it says on the box (I’ve never let it run all the way down), and while there’s no way that I’ve found to figure out how much juice the keyboard’s battery has stored I’ve been able to use it in lieu of the charger (I did this in Indianapolis the first night I was there).
I’ve used it for a few things; I haven’t tested its outbound screencasting functionality (it is compatible with Chromecast devices, from what I gather), but it is able to be used as an external display with the help of apps. It’s not really a remote desktop option so much as a mirrored display, because it’s pushing its abilities to the limit with something like Parsec. Slack and Spotify work fine, as do the Google Suite and Firefox. I have intentionally avoided putting any games or other distractions on the tablet, so I can’t report on their functionality.
Screen rotation is sometimes a pain because the Android Go setup seems to love portrait mode, but this is a very small portion of the use experience, limited to first-time setup and the built-in Android Go app hub thing (I’ve used it three times, mostly out of curiosity).
In terms of value, I’m not 100% certain how other tablets compete. This is a pretty humble Android device in terms of specifications, and it lagged a lot during initial setup and app installation. The lag went away after that was done and it’s actually pretty smooth now (not as smooth as my Android phone, but my phone’s more expensive). If a lot of apps are running at once you may get some weird performance, but I’ve found that closing unused apps by swiping them away in the app-switch view usually fixes any issues.
The real question here is how you would value the tablet and keyboard combined. I didn’t do a whole lot of research into the competition in terms of tablets since this came with a personal recommendation, but as far as I could find on Amazon there didn’t seem to be a comparable 10” tablet available new at the same price range, much less one that came with a keyboard and external battery as part of the bargain.
If, like me, you’re primarily looking for something that lets you do light productivity-related tasks and function as a sort of computer away from home, this is a surprisingly full experience. It’s not going to win any performance benchmarks. When I tried using Parsec to stream a game from my PC to the tablet, it definitely hit its limits pretty quickly. However, for actual daily use it works fine; it definitely isn’t high-end, but it handles typing well.
I think I’ll be able to make this thing pay for itself pretty easily. After a few months’ use, I’ve found it to be really handy. The more I use it the more comfortable it gets, and it definitely is something that is pretty hassle-free to travel with (if you remember the charger). The only superlative it gets is “Cheapest laptop experience you can get without going for a used device”, but that’s quite a deal all things considered. I’ve been typing at least a few hundred words per day on it pretty consistently now, and I like the way that it’s liberated me to move around and find places where I can focus on my work, then get that work done.
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Update from 2021: Still using the tablet, and it’s still delivering exactly as promised.