After several years of reliable service from my trusty Barnes & Noble Nook Color, about a year ago the battery started to show signs of it’s impending doom. More recently the corner of the case which I had cracked by dropping the device early on, snagged on a piece of clothing and flaked off like a smashed thumbnail. Having grown somewhat annoyed by the direction the Android ecosystem has moved in, I found myself looking in all directions for a convertible laptop / tablet device that would readily run Ubuntu or some other full-fledged linux distro. Much to my dismay I could not locate anything both reasonably priced (I’m something of a miser) and easily customizable (UEFI bootloaders make it a challenge to boot 64 bit linuxes). But I still wanted a bigger screen and a real keyboard for the times when I need to connect to a machine over ssh and use a bash shell. After much research and debate, I settled on the RCA Pro 10 Series tablet (model # RCT6103W46).
I was very reluctant to take the plunge as at the time of writing this (July 2014) there were very few reviews out there from technophiles who were familiar with Android (or computing for that matter) in more than a trivial sense. But the $149.00 price tag in conjuction with the included bluetooth keyboard and case kept tempting me. So with my Cabelas Club credit card at the ready I set out to purchase one at a local Wal-Mart. Little did I know this in itself would be a task. As it turned out though several of the stores had a working display model, apparently none were kept in the display case with all the other such devices. It was only after visiting no fewer than three stores, each time wasting several minutes watching the counter clerk search fruitlessly for a large red and white box that I finally convinced one of Wal-Mart’s finest to go above and beyond the call of duty and perform a stock check electronically. Miraculously, this lead to the revelation that “oh, it says here they’re in the back. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Hindsight being what it is, I could have saved myself most of those “few minutes” (seemed like about 7) by simply purchasing the item on Wal-Mart’s website and picking it up thereafter at my convenience. Difficult as it may be to believe, sometimes I prefer to interact with humans over machines. Turns out this wouldn’t be one of those times.
So I happily proceed to my office to customize my new device and put it through it’s paces.
My first course of action with all Android devices is to grok the /system/build.prop file, which yeilded the following:
# autogenerated by buildinfo.sh
ro.build.date=三 5月 7 11:02:29 HKT 2014
# ro.build.product is obsolete; use ro.product.device
# Do not try to parse ro.build.description or .fingerprint
ro.build.description=RCT6103W46-user 4.2.2 JDQ39 20140218.203612.V004 release-keys
# end build properties
# Default ecclist
Perusing the build.prop file it appears this device was manufactured by Digiin, which lead me to the following benchmark data:
I will not go to the trouble of reciting all the specifications of the device, but rather link to RCA’s page in the event they are changed at some point in the future. But the salient points for me were a quad core A9 processor clocked at 1.4GHz, 1 gb of ram, 16 gb of flash, full-fledged Bluetooth, the aforementioned keyboard case, and a microSD card slot. My needs with the device were mainly web browsing and administration of linux servers over ssh, but I also like to watch a movie or two on occasion and do some reading from time to time. In fact, this device introduced me to a piece of pre-packaged software that I would later find to be in my opinion one of the better free PDF readers available on the Play Store – Kingsoft Office. The name sounds cheesy, and I haven’t tested the spreadsheet and word processor functions, but the PDF reader is very solid. Below are my thoughts on each primary function and critical subsystem in no particular order after using the tablet for a little over a week.
One of my primary difficulties with watching anything from my media collection on the Nook was it’s single core cpu. After much trial and error with the Nook I discovered that MX Player was my favorite video frontend for Android. But regardless of which frontend I used or the type of video encoding, in the end I had to resign myself to the fact that the Nook didn’t quite have the guts to transcode multichannel AC3 audio tracks down to the requisite stereo while providing smooth playback of audio or video. My typical movie rip is encoded by applying h.264 @ 720×480 yuv420p encoding to the video stream, and directly copying the AC3 audio stream with the most channels (typically 5.1) into a Matroska container. Playing anything stored in this format on the Nook required transcoding the audio in advance, which offered another hoop to jump through for someone with a very short attention span – one thing I cannot tolerate is having to create “special” video encodings for certain devices <cough>Apple</cough>. In this regard the RCA tablet excels – playing everything I’ve been able to throw at it without a hiccup. With a 32gb microSD card in tow I was able to take several seasons of a popular TV show as well as 18 full length movies along for our annual trip to the Florida panhandle.
There’s not much to say here other than it works as advertised. I did favor the AOSP browser over the default Chrome however. Compared to the Nook the bigger screen provides much better useability.
My primary point of contention with the Android ecosystem is manufacturer’s foolish desire to keep their devices locked down. As such, it perturbs me highly to have to choose between paying a premium for a Nexus device which is designed to be unlocked / rooted freely by the the user but lacks an SD expansion slot, rooting the device using “hackish” methods, or jumping through all the hurdles necessary to use a decent ssh client on a non-rooted, “protected” device. Thankfully after a short amount of searching I located Kevin Boone’s website, and KBOX2 which mercifully allows one to create a sort of rooted filesystem in the small writeable area that Android doen’t keep under lock and key. With KBOX I was able to install Kevin’s port of the Dropbear ssh client, which makes the control keys on the bluetooth keyboard suddenly useful. If you don’t know why I would want this, skip to the next section. In short, it’s a major pain in the ass to switch screens with a virtual keyboard. And most of the GUI based ssh clients available on the market don’t correctly handle the key modifiers, requiring one to switch to a virtual keyboard to switch screens. Hats off to Kevin for putting in the time to facilitate this.
All this in consideration, I would much prefer being able to simply acknowledge to the manufacturer that they no longer need to honor the device’s warranty in return for a fully unlocked bootloader and write access to the /system partition. I’m a big boy and know how to fix things when I break them.
I had no issues with wifi connectivity or throughput. Again, it works as advertised.
This is the one glaring smudge in the Pro 10’s fascade. While the contrast and color saturation are perfectly adequate for normal use, the image quality degrades quickly as your viewing angle increases. This was very noticeable when watching movies and reading ebooks. The low 1024 x 600 resolution also did not add to the wow factor. Though perfectly adequate for my needs, given all the other plusses this device ranks I honestly believe RCA could take this product to the next level and compete with much bigger players by simply ponying up for a better quality TFT panel.
I charged the Pro 10 last on Saturday morning before leaving our vacation condo. To pass time for the few hours of the ride home I wasn’t driving I did a small amount of reading and watched American Hustle in it’s entirety. On Sunday evening I enabled the option to keep the WIFI radio on when asleep (for no reason other than to test it’s effect on power consumption). I’ve since used it to start this review post, and for various other tasks most recently testing and removing various secure shell clients, finally settling on KBOX. The battery indicator is reading 40% now, and the battery usage stats in settings say it hasn’t seen a charger in 3 days, 7:32:19. To say I’m extremely satisfied with the battery performance and power management settings would be an understatement.
While this wasn’t one of my primary criteria, I nonetheless discovered a suprising number of device drivers were packaged in the RCA Android build when I started connecting devices to the Pro 10 with a USB OTG adapter. Most notably drivers for a wired ethernet adapter + usb hub combo I keep in my gadget pile that uses the ASIX AX88772 chip. While I probably won’t utilize this much, it’s certainly nice to know it will work if I want to turn the tablet into a wired kiosk device.
- Impressive battery life
- Ample cpu power
- Sd card slot
- Unrestricted play store / app installs from sdcard
- Impressive number of hardware drivers included for USB devices
- Low screen resolution
- Poor quality tft / bad off angle contrast
- Not freely unlockable / rootable
The Angry German’s Final Verdict:
I think the ultimate measure of all consumer products is answering the simple question – would I buy another one? I will have to revisit this later, because it’s still quite new and I’m still on the fence. Having lived on or near the Asperger’s spectrum all my life it has always been my prime directive to tell people exactly what I think in the least sensitive language possible. That being said, “horrible” is probably too strong of a word to describe the screen. “Tolerable” is fair, and “adequate” is a tad on the generous side. On this demerit alone I must admit I am still conflicted. Given all it’s other redeeming qualities it’s still too soon to say.
I will however pass judgement on the following factors. The overall build quality seems every bit as good as anything else I’ve handled of this size. It’s obviously not as thin and sleek as any of the competing devices from major manufacturers, but the price more than reflects this. The tablet’s plastic case does not compare to the fit and finish of any Apple or Samsung product. But again, the price puts it in a completely different league. I would say without question the Pro 10 is a very good value when you consider what it can do and the fact that it includes a keyboard case which would cost in the neighborhood of $30 if purchased separately.
This being my first official product review I feel it necessary to announce my intention to revisit the review to report on durability, either on the day the device surrenders itself to it’s maker, or in one year. So I will talk to you next July. In the mean time feel free to submit your questions below.
Angry German Out…