These days, Android games are popping up as fast as cheap, third-party Android tablets.
It’s a hit and miss marketplace, with many games disappearing deep into the ether after launch and most seeing fewer than 100 downloads. But because of the rapid increase and ease of development, Android games are gradually improving in quality.
The same can be said for tablets and gaming tablets. The Archos GamePad 2, and the arrival of other gaming-specific tablets, is the result of refining the Android gaming experience. Archos has improved on its initial attempt with the GamePad by redesigning the console to look more like a dedicated gaming device, while making sure it also offers most of the standard tablet features.
The GamePad 2 now has a sleek, black, matted exterior that the previous version missed and doesn’t just look like a d-pad and buttons have been stuck to either side of a tablet.
It also comes with an improved 1280 x 800 screen, 2GB of RAM, a quad-core A9 1.6GHz processor and a quad-core GPU Mali 400 MP4. But then it also comes with a hefty launch price – £179 ($199.99, about AU$330).
The GamePad 2 doesn’t confidently command that price tag. Issues with lag and multitasking – issues that plagued the previous GamePad – still exist, and there simply aren’t enough blockbuster games in the Play Store to justify a launch price that’s higher than the PS Vita.
But that’s if you compare the GamePad 2 directly with another gaming console. If you include the fact that it’s also a tablet then the plus points begin to rack up. Archos makes it clear in its marketing that the GamePad 2 is multifunctional, not just a gaming tablet. Although that is its main focus, it’s also a pretty decent Android tablet.
And, if you judge it purely on its ability as a tablet, it fares pretty well. It boasts features that are missing from other high-end 7-inch tablets like the Nexus 7, such as a mini HMDI port for PC connectivity and a MicroSD card slot for extra storage. Features that are desperately missing from its tablet rivals.
But at its core, the GamePad 2 is a gaming tablet with Android tablet functionality. The hardwired buttons to the design make sure of that. This is perhaps where the Wikipad, a gaming tablet with detachable controls, scores some points ahead of Archos’s unit.
Granted, the design is bulky and unattractive but it does have the dual functionality that the GamePad 2 lacks. With this in mind, Archos has taken a bit of a gamble by attempting to take on the handheld gaming market, instead of playing it safe like the Wikipad.
Does it work? Yes and no. It’s well designed and comfortable to hold, but the Android market place doesn’t have the high-quality games you’ll get on a PS Vita or 3DS – and at around the same price, it doesn’t really stack up.
If you’re looking purely at Android gaming, the GamePad 2 makes perfect sense. If you’re looking at the wider handheld market, however, this device isn’t going to compete.
The Archos GamePad 2 is slightly better executed than the Wikipad, its natural competitor. But it’s been designed with gaming in mind rather than awkwardly switching between tablet and gaming console. A 7-inch screen for a portable console is certainly huge. To put that in perspective, the PS Vita is 5 inches and the Nintendo DS XL is just under 4 inches.
This can present a problem with portability. The Vita and 3DS will slip into your pocket, whereas a 7-inch tablet with added controls certainly won’t.
Saying that, the GamePad doesn’t look overwhelming and it isn’t as bulky as the Wikipad. You could easily play this on your morning commute without looking too silly. The Wikipad’s huge external controller makes it feel like you’re a toddler holding a PlayStation DualShock 3.
The GamePad 2 is now far more portable and that’s thanks to the improved design. The secondary trigger buttons are located just above the main trigger buttons to save space. Though to be honest, with the simplicity of most Android games at the moment, it’s unlikely you’ll use them frequently.
It’s also solidly built. The device feels like a standalone gaming device rather than a souped-up tablet. At 10mm thin and weighing only 400g it’s one of the slimmest and lightest gaming devices on the market. That matte back casing will also withstand a bit of rough and tumble.
Much like the PS Vita, the power and volume buttons are located on the top of the unit so chances of you accidentally pressing them are slim. The HMDI port, USB port and headphone jack, also like the Vita, are topside.
The GamePad 2 boasts decent connectivity with HDMI and USB, and there’s an SD card slot for expandable memory of up to 64GB – with 8GB already on board. Few Android games are large files, most averaging at about 40MB, so you should be able to store around 40 games on the device.
But as Android games are becoming more accomplished, with titles like Modern Combat, the file sizes are soaring – with some even topping out at 2GB. This immediately calls into question the GamePad 2’s longevity because without an SD card you can only hold four high-quality games.
The costs then begin to rack up as Android games increase in size, you’ll have to invest in more SD cards. You can delete and re-download games from the market place but that’s just extra hassle.
The actual screen resolution comes in at a decent 1280 x 800, less impressive than some of the more recent tablets on the market such as the Kobo Arc 10HD or Nexus 7, but it’s sharp enough to stand up to better devices. There’s little glare in direct sunlight and generally games look crisp.
There are two stereo speakers either side of the screen on the front of the GamePad 2, which sound as you would expect from small exterior tablet speakers. They project well enough at a moderate level but if turned up too loud they do begin to sound tinny.
The twin sticks perform really well with games, especially first person shooters. Clearly a lot of effort went into the designing them because they feel as comfortable and ergonomic as any other established controller.
In fact the entire layout of the button configuration, including the trigger buttons, suggests that Archos spent time getting this right. Operating the twin sticks and trigger buttons simultaneously feels comfortable and never cumbersome.
The GamePad 2 comes with a button configuration tool that allows you to map the physical buttons so they press a specific part of the screen instead.
It makes sense to include a tool that allows button configuration, especially since customisation is one of Android’s core values, but it needs to be better executed because currently it’s confusing and often non-responsive.
You’ll often find yourself tapping the screen furiously trying to re-configure the button map – at occasionally it will just force close. Hopefully this is something Archos can improve on with a software update, but for now it’s more frustrating than useful.
Although this is a gaming device, it’s also designed to be treated like a standard Android tablet too. This means you can watch movies, browse the web, read books and use apps as you would do any other slate. Watching a movie or streaming any live TV works really well on the GamePad 2 as its controller-like design makes it comfortable to hold for an extended period of time.
The same goes for reading a book, although reading in a horizontal view is a bit odd. Auto screen rotate is available but reading a book on the GamePad 2 in the vertical position doesn’t feel very natural with the extra controls that stick out either side.
The GamePad 2 only has a front-facing VGA camera that has limited use and no flash. The Android editing options are available including picture filters and setting the white balance. But the camera is clearly designed primarily for Skype calls and gamer profile shots, not much else.
Features and games
The GamePad 2 comes running stock Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean with all Android games and apps available to download. The familiar customisable home screens and widgets are also on offer.
With 2GB of RAM and a quad-core A9 1.6GHz processor, the GamePad 2 runs smoothly enough when gliding between apps and around the home screen. In-game, however, it’s not always such a smooth experience, which is likely down to less-than-cutting-edge quad-core Mali 400 GPU.
Archos has learned its lesson from the previous GamePad by upping the RAM, but I still experienced some frustrating lag issues in Modern Combat 4. Granted, it’s a demanding game, but the GamePad 2 should be be able to handle it if its sole purpose is to play games. Modern Combat seemed to struggle the most in large maps with lots of AI on screen. The ‘corridor’ levels were fine and quite smooth.
I had a similar problem with Asphalt, a demanding racing game, which had a questionable frame rate. You can improve the performance by limiting the amount of background tasks that are running, but the lag issues won’t be entirely resolved.
Despite the lag problems, Modern Combat looks pretty decent. It’s amazing to see how far mobile gaming has come and Modern Combat is a perfect example of that. The graphical ability of the GamePad 2 is easily on par with the Nintendo 3DS.
But with Android games rapidly and continually improving whilst demanding ever more CPU power, the GamePad 2 could easily become – and in many respects already is – obsolete very quickly. Without a lot of games being designed specifically for it, the GamePad 2 doesn’t promise the same longevity of the 3DS, for example.
I found that the GamePad 2 actually performs best with comic-styled games. The depths of colour are impressive and cel-shaded games like The Walking Dead: Assault benefit hugely.
The GamePad 2 is quick to boot up, taking about 15 seconds, and games are similarly quick to start once opened. However, multi-tasking will limit game performance. If you have multiple games open they’ll still run, but not at their optimum speed. Running apps in the background will exacerbate lag issues, especially if you have more than one game open.
Games in the Google Play Store are cheap and this is one of the biggest positives about the GamePad 2. Other handheld gaming devices like the PS Vita have games that cost a significant amount more.
Although there are lots of cheap games on the PlayStation store, most will be significantly more expensive than the games on the Android store. Obviously they’re not comparable and the quality on the Vita is much higher, but for just a few pounds there are some excellent games on Android store that shouldn’t be sniffed at. It’s just a shame that they are few and far between.
Archos has introduced a new feature called the Game Zone which is essentially a slimmed down version of the Google Play Store that’s only for games. It’s not the nicest thing to look at and doesn’t display the games in their full glory like the Play Store but it does helpfully tell you which games are optimised for the device.
Unlike the Vita and 3DS there is no 3G option on the GamePad 2, which is a shame given that there is a strong multiplayer element with many Android games.
Movies, music and browsing
The GamePad 2 works well as a device for watching movies and connecting to the TV via the HDMI Out gives a good quality picture. As with games, anything animated looks the most impressive because of the depth of colours that the GamePad 2 offers.
Archos has included a media centre app that houses and categorises all of the onboard multimedia and makes it available for streaming over Wi-Fi. If you’re new to streaming content to multiple devices without a smart TV, which takes away most of the hassle, you might find this a bit fiddly. You’ll need a media centre like Chromecast or WD TV for it to work properly.
The app doesn’t provide much in the way of an explanation or wizard to guide you through the process, so you may spend some time Googling what to do. When you do get it to work, it’s seamless and there’s no lag. The GamePad streams in 1080p so films look excellent.
The Archos music app has the same functionality as the media centre app. It stores and categorises your music and makes it available for streaming. It’s pretty basic outside of those features and doesn’t offer anything new to listening to your music. For managing your music, the Google Play app is much better.
The GamePad 2 is powerful enough to support a good Chrome browsing experience. Pages load quickly over Wi-Fi and they’re responsive to touch commands. There’s no lag or stuttering and resizing pages is smooth. As you would expect, flash is not supported.
Archos claims that it has improved on the previous GamePad’s battery by 50%. It’s advertised as 10.5 hours and I managed to get around 9 hours on and off gaming out of it throughout a day. This will obviously vary depending on what type of game you’re playing.
If you’re using it casually, as in playing and pausing games without turning the device off and returning to it later, you should be able to get a couple days use out of it. From a completely empty battery it takes about two hours to charge.
The GeekBench 3 benchmarking test came back with a single-core score of 454 and multi-core score of 1147, which, despite this being a supposedly high-performance gaming tablet, are actually lower scores than the Nexus 5 got with a single-core score of 917 and multi-core score of 2760.
The Archos GamePad 2 impresses with its design and its comfortable controls, but it fails when tasked with high-performance gaming. The breadth of games available in the Play Store means that gamers could be entertained for months without breaking the bank.
The depth of colours and full HD screen really enhances the gaming experience, with cel-shaded games benefiting the most. Playing through an episode of The Walking Dead: Assault is a delight and, just based on graphics, it seems almost as if it was developed exclusively for the GamePad 2.
And with a constant stream of Android games being developed and uploaded to the Android store the GamePad 2 will continue to pay out. But as games become more demanding it may buckle under the pressure. Despite the improvement in processor and RAM size, lag issues frustratingly persist.
The sleek black design and ergonomic controls are particularly nice. Archos has moved away from the dull grey design and opted for a more stylish, black, matte look. The overall finish is polished and this is nowhere more apparent than in the controls – especially the joysticks.
At 1080 x 800 the screen is HD, but not startlingly HD like the Kobo Arc 10 or Nexus 7. What’s most impressive is the depth of colours, which makes cel-shaded games look genuinely stunning.
It makes sense to take advantage of the Android games market by introducing a gaming-specific tablet, purely because of the amount of games on offer. Although many are just basic quick-play games, there are some titles that have been developed with core gamers in mind, such as Modern Combat 4 and Asphalt.
The Archos GamePad 2 8GB retails at £179 ($199.99, about AU$330), which is higher than both the 3DS XL and PS Vita. The high price point is a bit disingenuous because the quality of gaming on the Archos GamePad 2 is going to be much lower than the Sony and Nintendo competition, even if the library is more vast.
Button mapping is also a problem. The button mapping tool, whilst a good idea, is unresponsive and sometimes useless. This needs to be upgraded, otherwise it’s pretty much redundant.
The tinny speakers are a bit of a nuisance, too. Few tablets have managed to nail the exterior speakers and the GamePad 2 is no different. Although the twin stereo front-facing speakers looks promising, they don’t deliver much and start to sound tinny as the volume increases.
The GamePad 2 is a well built, ergonomic, attractive portable gaming tablet that looks and feels like it should be playing in the big league. The depth of colours, crisp screen and broad array of Android games mean you will be entertained.
But at its high price point and with few Android games really challenging the likes of blockbusters on other, more established, consoles, the Archos GamePad 2 isn’t value for money. You’re better off spending (and saving) your money on a PS Vita.
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