Review: The perfect 10" Android tablet you probably can't buy

Fujitsu has a very nearly perfect product at an attractive price point in the Arrows F-02F Tablet, but it isn't available outside of Japan.

Fujitsu Arrows F-02F 10-inch tablet
Image: Fujitsu

In the Android ecosystem, there are fairly few tablets that truly compete head-on with the iPad; most new tablets are mid-size tablets at the 7" to 8.9" range. The 10.1" tablets that do exist are often sub-par, as is the case with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, sporting a dual-core Intel Atom and a weak 1280x800 display. Others, like the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF701, and Galaxy Note 10.1 2014, are bulky messes that attempt to jam in additional features to please everyone, but end up being cumbersome. The flagship full-size Android tablet, the Google Nexus 10, is nearly two years old, and has been the subject of a litany of sketchy product revision rumors since the introduction of the Nexus 7 2013.

Ultimately, the full-size Android market is bereft of options, and the options that do exist are less than optimal. The only product available in the United States that functions as a true competitor to the current-generation iPad Air is the Sony Xperia Tablet Z2, which clocks in at $499.99 for the 16GB WiFi model, the same as the iPad.

However, the lack of options stateside does not mean that a good, and reasonably priced, 10.1" Android tablet doesn't exist. Fujitsu, which released one Android tablet in the United States two years ago, continues to produce tablets for the Japanese market. The latest amongst these is the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F, released on Nov. 29, 2013. Somewhat surprising for a tablet, the Arrows F-02F is available in exactly one SKU, the White 64 GB LTE model, available on Amazon for the paltry sum of ¥36,000, or about $360. For comparison, a 64 GB LTE-capable iPad Air is $829 direct from Apple.

More important than price, however, is the actual usability of the tablet.

What the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F does well

Unboxing the tablet, it becomes immediately evident that the there is a lot to this thing. It isn't heavy by any means, weighing in at 519 grams. It's quite a bit lighter than the first four iPad models, and holding it in your hands for an extended amount of time is not difficult or painful. The back of the tablet is durable plastic, with the screen protected by Gorilla Glass 3.

The design is relatively minimalist; there are no embellishments like the infamous faux-stitching of Samsung products. The power button is positioned at center top, with the volume at center-left. The SIM and microSD slots sit behind a cover above the volume button, with the microUSB port behind a cover on the right side. Three metal contact points sit about 15 mm from the bottom edge; these are pin-contact points for use when charging the tablet in the desktop dock, like one would a wireless phone. The entire tablet is waterproof and dustproof, with the port covers on either side tethered and reinforced with rubber.

The most noticeable thing about the Arrows F-02F is the screen: the 10.1" 2560x1600 IPS display is a joy to look at. To the left and right are front-facing stereo speakers, making it ideal for watching high definition video. The screen quality and speaker position are reminiscent of the Nexus 10, but without the distracting curved bezel. With the tablet in the desktop dock and an included coaxial cable converter connected to an antenna, the tablet can be used as a TV, receiving nine over-the-air broadcast channels in Tokyo. An integrated antenna can be pulled out of the top left side, but is a little weak for performance indoors. The TV application includes a program guide, and recording capability. Japan uses the ISDB standard for terrestrial broadcasting, so the tuner would not work in North America or Europe.

Instead of the stock Android launcher, the Arrows F-02F uses the "NX!Home" launcher, which organizes apps in a straightforward yet customizable way. Happily, the launcher does not give any indication of a stutter or hesitation in animation, or rotating the screen. Everything is very fast and fluid, a fact easily attributable to the AnTuTu Benchmark score of 33937. Similarly, the "NX!Input" keyboard is amazingly customizable: the default QWERTY view can be pushed to the sides for thumb typing, with the center available for finger/stylus input. It also has extensive input options for Unicode symbols, Japanese input, emoji selection, voice recognition, and 10-key input, an enduringly popular input method in Japan. A button exists on the navigation pane to take a screenshot, which launches an app in which it can be annotated and shared.

As noted earlier, the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F is available in exactly one SKU: White, with an LTE radio, and 64 GB of NAND onboard. This is particularly notable, considering the cost of other 64 GB tablets. The Xperia Tablet Z2 isn't available in 64GB, the only non-Apple tablet which has 64GB and LTE is the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, at a somewhat smaller 8.9", and $594. There is 50.8 GB available to users immediately after taking it out of the box, which actually seems a little low, but for the price point, it's difficult to complain. On top of this, there is a microSDXC slot, allowing the user to expand storage even further.

The battery life is certainly adequate, a day of heavy usage on LTE with GPS enabled while traversing the streets of Tokyo has not as of yet resulted in the battery being below 70% at the end of the day, but a proper stress test of 1080p video playback on full brightness has not been performed. There is an energy-saving "Eco Mode" which is available, but disabled by default. Of note, the desktop dock charging system is touted as being capable of charging the tablet from zero in just 5 hours.

One thing in particular that sets the Arrows F-02F apart from other tablets is the physical Home button: it is actually a fingerprint scanner. Although the iPhone 5S has already a fingerprint scanner, the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F is the first Android tablet to have an embedded fingerprint scanner. The accuracy is reasonable, with the scanner correctly identifying a swipe of the finger (in this case, a thumb) almost always on the first try. This, of course, depends on the quality of the stored fingerprint data on the tablet. This would make the Arrows F-02F an attractive enterprise option for the security-minded.

Where the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F needs improvement

There is one particularly annoying, though easy to remove, application called "Concierge Chat", which dumps a poorly-animated sheep on your screen, a la Clippy. Evidently, there is still some software designer or middle-manager that has not learned that literally nobody likes user interface agents.

The rest of the approximately two dozen bundled apps are relatively benign, if not actually helpful. As one would expect from a Japanese tablet, a great deal of these are apps that are only relevant for people living in Japan or using the language, such as an electronic dictionary, or an emergency notification app.

As is also the case with various Samsung products, unnecessary duplicates of Google Apps are included, which provides little more than clutter. Puzzlingly, the SMS messaging app is included, though is incapable of doing anything, as the tablet seemingly cannot receive SMS messages on an LTE connection, though your mileage may vary.

Finally, the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F ships with Android 4.2.2, although 4.4 was already public at the time of launch. Attempting to update the Android version in settings indicates that no update is available. It is entirely possible that one never will be, however, the predecessor to this tablet was updated from the shipped version (4.0.4) to 4.1.2. This is an issue endemic to most Android devices sold only in Japan: the Android system software rarely, if ever, gets updated.

Why it matters to the enterprise

While it isn't quite on the level of a Panasonic Toughbook, the Fujitsu F-02F is durable, and can withstand harsh conditions such as Tokyo in the rainy season. The waterproof and dustproof features are absolutely necessary as a selling point in Tokyo, but little is ever made of those features in the US. The iPad, in particular, does not have such a certification. The fingerprint scanner is useful for security since portable devices such as tablets are prone to being easily lost or stolen.

The contact charger is an interesting inclusion: for deployment in schools, for example, it would be trivial to engineer a charging cart that begins charging when the tablet is inserted. With this, nobody has to consciously think about plugging it in. The last tablet to include a particularly novel charging solution was the ill-fated HP TouchPad, which featured a wireless inductive charging dock (sold separately).

The case for importing

Because of the attractive price point, and features not yet available in other tablets, the F-02F would appear to be a good candidate for import. However, there are some caveats to this: Although it is possible to set Android to English, some device settings and internal menus are only available in Japanese. Additionally, navigating through menus in Japanese to set the device to English mode is challenging for people with absolutely cannot read Kanji. If a third-party ROM such as Cyanogenmod were available, I would, without hesitation, endorse importing it. As there is not, caution must be exercised.

Of note, the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F is co-branded for the NTT Docomo wireless operator, though it is shipped unlocked. If the network frequencies match your home country, you can use the LTE modem with your mobile carrier of choice.

The case for Fujitsu

More than anything else, the Fujitsu Arrows F-02F demonstrates that there is still a manufacturer capable of making a solid, no-compromise tablet with modern hardware, at a reasonable price. A modified version of this tablet would be ideal for sale outside of Japan. Removing the ISDB TV tuner, embedded antenna, and much of the bundled software would give it the potential to be the premiere 10.1" Android tablet, as that market segment is presently wide open.

At present, Fujitsu, along with many other manufacturers, has been crowded out by Samsung, and after poor sales of their first model (at a time when Android support on tablets was still very early), they have simply given up on producing newer models for the United States. Based on the quality of the F-02F, the American market deserves a second look.

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About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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