The Leader Impression I7A ($179 list) is a budget-friendly way to enjoy a taste of Google’s latest “Ice Cream Sandwich,” Android OS 4.0. This tablet is for geeks only, as it’s laggy and somewhat unstable, and doesn’t support the Google Play app market. But with a sub-$200 price tag, a decent display, and a surprisingly solid metal enclosure, Android geeks may be willing to put up with its stability and performance issues.
Design and Features
The resemblance between the I7A and the original Apple iPad is uncanny, with both featuring brushed metal backs with flattened edges—only the I7A is shrunken down to 7 inches. At 6.73 by 5.19 by 0.45 inches (HWD) and 9.44 ounces, the I7A is comfortable to hold, but a bit odd-shaped compared with most 7-inchers. The Amazon Kindle Fire ($199, 4 stars) is taller and narrower at 7.5 by 4.7 by .45 inches (HWD), and heavier at 14.6 ounces. Despite using the same 16:9 screen aspect ratio as the Kindle Fire, the I7A’s body has more of a 4:3 ratio, mimicking the iPad. A hard reset pin hole, micro USB port, mini HDMI port, microSD card slot, and Volume buttons all sit along the top edge. I was easily able to mirror 1080p video onto a large HDTV using an HDMI cable—a nice touch for a budget tablet. The Power button can be found on the left edge, while a Back button can be found on the right. Along the bottom edge is the 3.5mm headphone jack and power port, for charging with the included AC adapter (you can also charge using the included micro USB cable.)
The I7A uses a 7-inch TFT LCD with 1,024-by-600-pixel resolution, the same resolution found on the Kindle Fire. The screen itself gets relatively bright, with a wide viewing angle and pleasantly saturated colors. Details are generally sharp, though text has a fuzziness to it that strained my eyes after extended use. There is also some uneven lighting around the edges of the screen. The screen is on par with the one found on the Kobo Vox ($199, 2 stars), though the I7A has a wider viewing angle.
This is a Wi-Fi only tablet that connects to 802.11b/g/n networks, but only on the 2.4GHz band. Leader advertises Bluetooth, but I couldn’t find any way to connect to devices. A 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera works with Skype calls, but there is no rear-facing camera. Also included in the box is a protective folio case, which feels a bit cheap, but is useful for propping up the I7A on desks.
Hardware, Performance, and OS
The metal chassis gives the I7A a premium feel, but underneath the hood are far more pedestrian components. The I7A is powered by a single-core 1GHz VIMICRO Cortex-A8 processor and 512MB RAM with 4GB of internal storage. Only 2.56GB are available for user data, but storage can be expanded by up to 32GB with a microSD card.
Given the low-end specs, it was no surprise that the I7A’s performance struggles. Home screen animations appeared smooth, but touch input itself is often jerky, scrolling is rarely smooth, and precise movements are limited by what seem like click-stop intervals built into the screen. In a game like Angry Birds, instead of having complete control of infinitely variable shooting angles, finger swipes move the aim up or down at small, but noticeably set intervals. Web pages load a bit slowly and app crashes were fairly common. Switching between video playback and other apps often caused some hang-ups. It’s not as bad as the Kobo Vox, but nowhere near as smooth and hiccup-free as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) ($249, 4 stars), which also runs ICS.
While more and more tablets are getting the “Ice Cream Sandwich” treatment, it was still a pleasant surprise to find Google’s latest OS running on such an inexpensive tablet. The I7A uses a stock build without heavy skinning, but it lacks Google apps, including the Google Play app market. Instead, the I7A comes with the GetJar app market, which offers a mediocre selection of third-party apps. Some popular apps like Angry Birds and Dolphin HD browser are here, but the selection is a far cry from the Google Play market. I was able to use the Amazon Appstore to download and install apps like Deer Hunter Reloaded. Leader did include an APK installer for side loading apps, but this isn’t exactly a user friendly solution. While the I7A is free of bloatware, some of the pre-loaded apps, like the Kobo reader app, do not work at all.
Video playback is smooth, and the I7A can handle MPEG4, H.264, Xvid, and DivX videos at up to 1080p resolution. In our battery test, which loops a video with brightness set to max and Wi-Fi turned on, the I7A lasted only 3 hours, 15 minutes—a good deal shorter than the Kindle Fire’s 4 hours, 55 minutes in the same test.
The Leader Impression I7A offers an interesting combination of solid build quality, moderate performance, and the latest Android OS at one of the lowest prices we’ve seen yet. But it’s outside the standard Google realm, which limits its appeal to folks who know what they’re doing with Android tablets, and its imprecise touch input and stability issues keep us from recommending it to average consumers.
Tablet buyers on a budget should spend just $20 more for a more stable Kindle Fire, though that doesn’t run ICS. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to hack ICS onto the Fire, and if you’re shopping for an edgy tablet like the Leader Impression, you very well might be the kind of person with the skills to do so. If you demand a classy Android 4.0 experience out of the box, pony up for the $249 Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0), which strikes a great balance between performance, features, and price.