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Tuesday, July 31, 2012
The Ainol Aurora II - Tablet on budget, China Nexus 7?
[ZOMBiE CyGiG] ranted at 11:05 PM --- Post#8338668374380597892

A few weeks ago I was asking my friend (who is also from VR-Zone) who love to brag about his tablet if there are any in the market that does 1080p video and for S$200. He gave a terrifically useful answer (actual quote):

...$200 tablets struggle even with 480p at someprofile...so just give up, no money dun buy, wait 10 years then $200 can...i'm buying new tablet again next year.

I am not a fan of apps, my primary use of a tablet will be to watch videos on the go,
at that time, the Nexus 7 was not announced, but even now that it had been announced, the pricing is still a bit steep (for poor me) for a video player.

So I prowled the web and the Ainol Aurora II caught my attention. It is a tablet by a China company, designed in China, made in China. And it's going for S$210.

The Ainol Aurora II. Screen simulated.

In this review, opening images in a new tab will allow you to see a larger views of them.

- 7" IPS screen (1024x600px) by LG, 170dpi
- Capacitive multi-touch 5 points
- Comes with screen protector already applied on out of the box

- AmLogic8726-M6 System on a Chip (SoC)
- Cortex A9 Dual Core 1.2Ghz processor (Max 1.5GHz)
- Mali400-MP2 Dual Core 400MHz GPU
- Android 4.03 Ice Cream Sandwich

[Memory and Storage]
- 1GB DDR3 1333MHz RAM
- 16GB internal storage
- MicroSD card slot

* The ROM stores your apps and OS while the internal storage appears as "sdcard" and the microSD card appears as "external_sdcard". Most apps will point to internal storage when they mention SD card.

- Wifi 802.11 b/g/n
- USB mini OTG for keyboard, mouse and thumbdrive (exfat,ntfs,fat32)
- Mini HDMI 1.4 out
- Stereo earphone jack
- DC jack

- Lithium Ion 4000mAh battery
- Official battery life: Music (Wifi Off) 15 Hours, Video (Wifi Off) 7 Hours, Internet (Wifi On) 6 Hours

[Sensors, Sound and others]
- 2MP front camera
- 3 axis Bosch G-sensor
- Rear speaker
- Vibrating alert supported
- Built in microphone

- 342g
- 186 x 120 x 11.9mm

[What does it NOT have]
- 3G (Supports USB 3G dongle though)
- Bluetooth
- Rear Camera
- Micro USB connector (It uses the old school mini USB)
- 10 points touch screen (it has five)

The Ainol Aurora II takes the form of a standard tablet that you see in the market nowadays: rounded corners, tapered back, flushed screen and bezel, black in colour... I'm not saying it's bad, it definitely looks decent especially for this price point, but nothing exciting as well, but since most people are going to case up their tablet, I guess the outlook does not really matter. The back of the tablet is made of glossy plastic and a potential finger print magnet.

Product shots of the tablet. Open the image in a new tab to get a larger view.

On the top, there is the power button, volume rocker and Home button. On my left hand there is the DC jack, mini USB, mini HDMI, mic, microSD slot and headphone jack.

At the back, on my bottom left hand side, there is a slit for speaker and some printings with the serial number engraved.

Just how lousy can a $200ish tablet perform? It turns out it's not that lousy after all. The Cortex A9 dual core CPU is so common nowadays and I shall not cover it.

The Mali400 GPU has one geometry processor (GP) and one to four pixel processors (PP) depending on the chip used. In the case of Aurora II, "Mali400 Dual Core" refers to having one GP and two PPs. At 400MHz, the Mali400 GP pushes out 44Mtri/s, while each PP pushes one pixel every cycle, which turns out to be 400Mx2=800Mpx/s.

So what does the numbers translate? If you still remember, I stated that my main purpose for this tablet is to watch videos on the go. On hardware decoding, it can pretty much handle all videos I throw at it, 1080p H.264 40mbps VBR videos with FLAC/DTS audio and ASS subtitles play back well and there seems to be no dropped frames at all. Seeking speed is fast as well, around less than a second for demanding videos and instantaneous otherwise. It can decode 10bit h.264 on High 10 profile using hardware acceleration but since (from what I know) no consumer GPU has full support for 10bit videos, it decodes with the usual blocking artifacts as it would on PC. Switching to software decoding turns out to be horrifying slow. There is no real problem since internet connection is fast and 8bit version if the 10bit video can easily be found. Coupled with the the IPS screen and HDMI out, this machine is well suited as a mobile video player.

I tested out on some games as well. Shadowgun, GTA 3, Max Payne, NFS Hot Pursuit runs perfectly smooth. Dead Trigger and Nova 3 runs with little lag on Performance Mode (Settings>CPU) and frame rate seems to maintain above 30FPS. Switching from Normal to Performance seems to significantly reduce lag spike when playing games.

Here are some results from various bench marking apps:

Open image in a new tab for a larger view.

I wanted to get a better idea on how the Mali400 performs against other GPUs, but I do not own those other devices, so I have no choice but to refer to GLBenchmark website. First of all, I ran GLBenchmark 2.1 on my tablet to ensure that the scores I am getting tally those averages on the website, which turn out to be a close match, differing by 1 to 2fps most of the time.

I chose the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, Acer Iconia A100 and Nexus 7. Except for Nexus 7, they all have the same screen resolution (1024x600). The Iconia A100 is one of the cheapest tablet I can find in Singapore Challenger at the point of writing. The Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 is a tablet released this year, but surprisingly using an old GPU (same as Amazon Fire). Nexus 7 is the recent Google's value for money tablet. Here are the results:

The offscreen tests runs on 720p on all tablets, it is a good measure of the raw computing power of the GPU. All the other tests run on native screen resolution, the higher the screen resolution, the tougher to render. The results are relative to the device itself, for example the The New iPad has a powerful gpu, giving very high offscreen score, but due to its high screen resolution, the relative performance is around the same as the Acer Iconia A510.

The Mali400 seems to beat the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, which is a 2012 device and cost quite a bomb. Rather than saying the Mali400 is powerful, I would ask why is Tab 2 using such an old chip on a new device with a high price tag. It beats the Tegra 2 Iconia A100 which is on highlight display at Challenger at the point of writing. The Tegra 3 in Nexus 7 is around 50% faster than Mali400.

The mali400 series GPU is used in the Samsung Galaxy S2, so game compatibility is hardly an issue.

Overall, I think the performance is rather impressive a S$200ish tablet.

If you think Nexus 7 is the only affordable tablet that spots IPS screen, then you are wrong. The Aurora II spots an IPS screen as well. IPS stands for In Plane Switching, which is a kind of LCD that is well known for colour accuracy and wide viewing angle.

Wide viewing angle of the screen. Note that the picture shows the real screen image, the screen is NOT simulated.

My light meter reads 300lux in the center of the screen at maximum brightness while displaying an all white picture. Similarly, my Nokia E5 measures 330lux, Nokia E7 measures 194lux and Cowon S9 (AMOLED screen) 385lux. The brightness is more than enough indoors and adequate under shades outdoors, but struggles under the threatening, direct sunlight of Singapore.

300lux at max brightness, not very bright.

The capacitive touch isn't the most responsive touch screen I have used before, but I have no issues playing games, typing and drawing on it. I do encounter some problems when some apps come with puny buttons or when using the finest brush in Draw Something (the one where it's 1/100 the size of my finger tip) or maybe it's just my fat fingers. I have yet to remove the screen protector that comes already applied when I purchased it, as some say a thinner or no screen protector will improve the screen responsiveness.

Battery Life
Ainol stated that the battery life is 15 hours for music and 7 for video, both with Wifi off and 6 hours for web surfing.

In my stress test using Antutu Tester, I get around 3 hours 15 minutes with Wifi always on, screen always on at 50% brightness and CPU always at 100%. My personal experience, a fully charged tablet is enough to last me through the day with substantial amount of 3D gaming with 10 to 20% juice left when I reach home in the evening.

Pricing & Service Experience
I bought the tablet in a local store for $210 with one year warranty. Over at Slatedroid forum, someone is claiming that you can get an Aurora II in Indonesia for S$175.

When I first got to know about the tablet, I was tempted to buy from ainol-novo.com for US$159, then my friend informed me that scamadviser.com rate the website as unreliable and this link seems to support the idea. I checked the official Chinese website and there was no mention of an official English counterpart as well. Following my usual ask-and-you-shall-be-given spirit, I decided to call the Ainol in China.

It took my many tries to get to the correct hotline then the correct extension. I called using Skype and the line quality was poor - I need to strain my ears to be able to hear what the other person was saying. The other party speaks Mandarin with a heavy China accent which made matter worst as I was not able to understand some parts. I asked her to tell me the official English website but I could make out what she was saying. She proceeded to tell me to search on Taobao or on the net. Out of desperation I asked if the official English website is "ainol-novo dot com" and she replied yes immediately. I asked if that website is safe (quite a stupid question) and she said yes.

After some time, I got to know a store in Singapore claims to be the authorized dealer of Ainol tablets. As I am not affiliated with the store, I will no be posting the name or address. Researching online, I found two complains, one by a local, with several reposts and another by a foreigner. After reading the complain by the local, it seems to me that dude is a noob as he took the official quoted battery life for granted (usually official battery life is quote more than in actual usage or that it is running under some specific conditions) and some of the things he said just do not make much sense to me. The foreigner said the shop try to make them pay more for software.

I went to the store twice, first to recce, second time to buy. Being a frequent shopper in that area, the store did not seem like a scam shop. I pulled a straight face and asked for the pricing of Aurora II as I walked in, they quoted $220 on the first visit and they said that would be the final price (no additional fee). On my second visit, I manage to bargain $10 off, checked the tablet, and purchased it in cash. There was no extra fee indeed. In both trips, the store assistants were very helpful and professional. They know the specifications and differences among the China tablets well. They even know the Antutu score when I asked. They did not hardsell nor did they try to make me buy another product.

The retail box, not the most creative one, but at least the printing is good. If you read the back, it's full of English mistakes. Looks like someone used Google translate.

There was one online comment that said that that store is not the real authorized dealer of Ainol. He claimed he had checked with the manufacturer and they did not issue any authorization to that store. As mentioned above, I have personally called Ainol in China before, and my guess is that most Singaporeans would have difficulty speaking and understanding to the staff there, let alone ask such a complex question. Also that person has a low post count and one of the links he posted as an example of scamming from that store was taken down by the forum. That store does have a framed certificate saying it is an authorized dealer from Ainol hung on the wall, however, it was photocopied. Seeing that their store logo was so poorly designed, I think it is unlikely that the certificate is fake from the way it was layed out and written. I do not think it is cheaper to ask someone to fake a cert than to become a real authorized seller of a China brand, but you never know.

Known Issues and Solutions
I would be lying if I say this tablet runs perfectly like those from some of the major brands out there. Like many products from China company, glitches and bugs are common. However, it seems like this tablet is pretty popular in China, and it has quite a community in English forums as well. So you will be getting unofficial patches and hacks from both English and Chinese forums. The common mods being feiyu, aggro0626, newuser2012, F&L Superstore, Johim etc.

At the point of writing, I am running:
- 0705 firmware
- Johim 0705 Patch (Root + full Play store access + identify as Galaxy Note)
- V7 Fullscreen Patch (Show/Hide status bar)

First of all, here is how to enter Recover Mode:
- Shut down your tablet if you have not done so
- Press and hold Volume Minus button
- Still holding Volume Minus button, hold the Power button
- When the screen displays the Android logo, release Power button but still holding on to the Volume Minus button
- After some time you will the recovery mode logo of an Android with molecules-like structures in its body, you can then release all buttons
- Wait a while more and you will enter Recover Mode, it says Android System recover <3e> on the top left

You can then use the Volume Minus button to choose the menu options and Volume Plus button to select.

Problem: Auto touch or broken touch
Description: Tablet detects screen touches when no one is touching it. When drawing a line, the line breaks.
Solution: Update firmware. Some blame the use of a touch screen controller for 3.8" screen, but many said the later firmware solved the problem. Some mention that plugging in earphone or usb cable will solve the problem. Some suggest that you should set the mouse pointer speed to max. Some edit their build.prop files. I did not experience auto touch issues though.

Problem: Overheating when charging
Description: Batteries get too hot when charging
Solution: Update firmware. I did not experience this issue with my unit. The battery gets hot during charging, but not to the point of overheating. I measure around 39C at the area of the battery when charging.

Problem: Weak Wifi range or Wifi dropping
Description: Wifi range is shorter than normal and connection drops easily.
Solution: The later firmware addresses this issues, some report that it works like a charm, while some say the problem remains. For me, the Wifi range is usable, at home, I can get wifi where my Nokia E5 is able to. I am able to get wifi in cafes and restaurants like McDonald's as well, though at these places the signal does drop sometimes. I also noticed that if I let the Aurora II sleep, Wifi tends to drop even when I set it to stay connected, it usually happens after around three hours of sleeping. The status shows it is connected but there is no icon to indicate activity and web pages will not load. It does not really bother me much as simply turning the wifi off and on brings it back again.

Problem: "Preparing SD card. Checking for errors" indefinitely
Description: The above messages shows up and will not go away. You cannot access your internal storage (ROM is still accessible). A lot of apps will not run.
Solution: Unfortunately, once you see this, you got to format your internal storage. Your OS and apps will be safe unless the apps resides on the internal storage, referred to as "SD card" in Settings > Apps. To format, go into Recover Mode, choose "wipe media partition" then OK. Now select "reboot system now" and Aurora II will restart. Then connect to your PC, turn on USB storage and two drives will pop up, one for the internal storage and one for microSD card. Format the internal storage to FAT32, allocation unit size of 64KB, and that should be it. I recommend you to do this fix once you get your tablet.

Problem: SD card inserted, but system prompt you to insert one
Description: System tells you that your SD card has been removed (I supposed the external one) and ask you to insert it, although you did not do it. Some apps will not run.
Solution: Not sure if it's linked to the above problem with internal storage. What I did was to format my microSD card to NTFS, default allocation unit size.

Problem: Crack on the top left corner of tablet
Description: If you look closely at the top left edge, you will see a small crack.
Solution: That seems to appear on every tablet, people are speculating it is a mold problem. There is no way to remove it, and it is a dent, not a crack, it is so small most people do not realise it.

Close up of the long elongated dent on my top left corner of the tab. It is not a crack. You can see the screen protector as well.

Problem: Unable to access a lot of apps on Google Pay
Description: A lot of apps on Google Play deem Aurora II as incompatible.
Solution: There are many patches out there, including the johim patch I use that allow full Play access and edit build.prop to identify the tablet as Galaxy Note so some games will run. You can also manually install the apk.

Problem: Loose power connector
Description: The power connector loose connection sometimes when plugged in.
Solution: Get a combination pliers and use the front of the pliers and clamp down the tip of the power connector. Becareful not to use too much strength. If you flatten the tip too much,clamp down the other direction to open it up again. It will scar and deform the tip but if done correctly the power connector will now be very secure when plugged in.

Problem: How do I update my firmware?
Description: This is not really the tablet's problem..
Solution: Get a SD card (preferably 1GB or more) formatted in FAT32, insert into tablet and boot into Recover Mode. Then depending on the instructions given, you might be required to wipe data off your tablet. Usually the patch is a zip file (do not unzip it, unless it's double zipped with instructions or other files inside)and you place it in the root folder of your SD card.

Comparison with Nexus 7
So which is better, the Nexus 7 or the Aurora II? I do not own a Nexus 7 so I cannot give a definite answer.

Although the Nexus 7 is touted as a low price tablet with good performance, the "low price" is just not low enough. At the time of writing, the Nexus 7 is not available in Singapore. The 16GB Ainol Aurora II cost S$210 and the 16GB Nexus 7 cost US$249 (~S$320). Now add shipping of US$13(~S$17) to a US address and another S$25 to reroute the shipping back to Singapore using vPost/Commgateway/Borderlinx etc as they do not ship overseas. That rounds up to S$365, which is S$152 more expensive than the Aurora II. That is if you are able to find a USA credit card or a willing friend to buy for you from the US. The current pricing on eBay is rather outrages cost over S$400 for the 8GB Nexus 7. You get instant gratification from Aurora 2 since it is purchasable locally.

I had emailed Google, and they told me that Nexus 7 bought in USA would not get warranty in Singapore, while on HWZ, someone who managed to get a unit saw that the warranty is international. My guess is unless Nexus 7 is officially selling in Singapore, the international warranty does not apply, since Asus Singapore would probably not have spares for it. These will all be another story if the Nexus 7 would be selling in Singapore stores at a price similar to those in USA.

Going back to my primary purpose for the tablet - playing video. Although Tegra 3 on Nexus 7 is tempting, Mali400 is already enough to playback most video thrown at it. Moreover Nexus 7 lacks SD card expansion and HDMI out, which is a huge setback for me. I emailed Google and they confirmed there will not be MHL (hdmi over usb)and the USB OTG does not support storage devices (only input devices). Those just made matter worst.

On the other hand, Nexus 7 spots GPS, Bluetooth and NFC. I almost never use the Bluetooth function of my PC and handphone, so I'm not sure how useful it would be to me. GPS is certainly useful as I have no sense of direction, that being said, it is already available on most people's handphone and you can use Google Offline Maps now as a traditional look-it-up-yourself now. I have never used NFC before, not sure how useful it is going to be.

Another advantage of Nexus 7 is support and stability. I am pretty sure Nexus 7 can be used right out of the box, without the glitches and bugs present in Aurora II. Support from Google and Asus should be much better than Ainol, which presently churns out patches slow and rely heavily on the community to make the tablet workable.

Lastly, the Tegra 3 on Nexus 7 is a computing powerhouse compared to Aurora's AmLogic chip. Many games are optimized for Tegra 3.

Which is better? Hard to say. If you are a poor geek, Aurora II might be the one for you to play around and learn how to tweak the Android OS, whereas people who do not mind the extra cost and just want something powerful that works can choose the Nexus 7.

Ainol Aurora II is a value for money tablet, stretching your $210 a long way. It excels in video playback, and able to play most of the latest games well. It has a IPS screen that is usually present in high end tablets and a respectable GPU.

It is ridden with bugs and glitches, but fortunately the community churns out patches to iron them out. I don't think this tablet is suitable for an average joe as it does require a fair amount of technical knowledge to apply those patches. Geeks and those who are willing to spend some time Googling should not have an issue.

This tablet fulfills both my need for a portable video player and my budget.

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