PiPo Max M9 Review - The First Available Quad-Core RK3188

PiPo Max M9 - Top Notch Tablets

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Having spent about 5 solid days with the PiPo M9 I feel like I am ready to share my initial thoughts about the China Tab Market's first Quad-Core Rockchip RK3188 device. Let me just state up front that my final impressions are highly favorable however I have some concerns regarding the unit as things stand. So without further ado', let's jump right in!

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SPECS
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Let's start by talking specs... and I will highlight some of the good and bad I as move through. Hardware IS something this device packs in well... The Pipo Max M9 is the first unit out of China to offer the much anticipated Rockchip RK3188. Why is this much anticipated? Frankly, in this reviewer's opinion it is highly anticipated because of the RK3066, a dual-core chip from Rockchip that has transformed the China mobile chip market's target audience from the occasional (and serious) Western a hobbyist to the much more... harder to please... Western consumer. Why harder to please? Because the Western markets have been dominated by devices packing IPS displays and dual-core Tegra II and now quad-core Tegra III chips for the better part of 3 years now. Yes, a dual-core A9 chipset for the better part of 3 years in Western devices. The RK3066 was the first quality dual-core A9 chipset to come out of China that could even begin to compete on a level with what we have had in the West. Better yet, rather than just beat out a Tegra II by some slim margin, the RK3066 (with only 2 cores) easily offers Tegra III levels of performance which is anywhere from 2 - 3x faster than a Tegra II. Previous China chips couldn't even touch a Tegra II. So that is the interesting history lesson which brings us to the present, the RK3188. Rockchip announced the RK3188 as a cool-running 28 nm Quad-Core A9 chip that would be clocked at 1.8 Ghz and while having the same GPU as the RK3066, the Mali-400 MP4, it's GPU would be nearly double-clocked. So... hotly anticipated considering what an incredible success the RK3066 was (and still is)... we basically expected a "double helping" of RK3066... and therein also lies the biggest disappointment regarding the M9... but we will get to that later.

Continuing on down the specs list for the M9... here is something that makes this device extremely unique in both the Eastern AND Western Tablet world... 2 GB of DDR3 Ram... Yeah... 2 GB.... In a tablet, that is massive. Pretty much double of every top device presently on the market... and I mean EVERY TOP device. The only tablet currently on the Western Market to offer 2 Gb of Ram that I am aware of is Google's Nexus 10... which is an absolute beast... but is well outside of the price-range of the M9 so it isn't a fair comparison :). In short, the fact that the M9 packs 2 Gb of ram is nothing short of wonderful and quite unique at present. (Yes there are some Allwinner A31 tablets that also now offer 2 Gb of ram, but the A31 can't touch the RK3188 in regards to performance so it is being ignored for the moment).

So far so good...

Let's talk screen... The screen on the PiPo Max M9 is what I would now call high-end "China Tab" -standard- fare... What does that mean? It means it is a 10.1" IPS panel with a respectable 1280x800 display resolution. In regards to quality, it is quite good but not excellent. It is decent bright and viewing angles or good. But it does look a bit muted and a bit darker next to say the panel in the Ployer Momo 12 or the Yuandao N90 II/Quantum Meson..., which are IMHO the two best/brightest "normal resolution" IPS panels currently available on the market. It is VERY good, don't get me wrong, and I am quite happy with it. Colors are decently vibrant and the panel is bright enough that I have been using my unit on the lowest brightness setting all week (all indoors in well-lit settings) and haven't been bothered in the least. I also am reviewing a Freelander PD80 Vogue (TNT WILL NOT BE SELLING THIS MODEL BECAUSE OF THE PANEL) which has a pretty aweful IPS 9.7" panel. I have some comparison pictures showing the PD80 Vogue (which is bad) next to the PiPo Max M9 (which is quite good) next to the Quantum Meson (excellent) and you can see the difference. Now, I am talking strictly about the brightness and color vibrancy here, not resolution. Once again, in my opinion, 1280x800 on a 10.1" screen is just about the perfect amount of Pixels per inch of screen. Everything is very sharp and that is one thing that I do miss when I switch back to the 9.7" Meson screen at a resolution of 1024x768 which equals a lower PPI. I will also mention that my unit did have a single dead pixel near the top edge of the display but it hasn't been too bothersome (because the pixels are so tiny...) so no major complaints.

Now.... the speakers.. one of the best surprises of this device was the extraordinarily (for a tablet) loud, rear-firing, stereo speakers. You need good volume and sound? This is the tablet to get. They DO distort a bit when you max the volume and you are on a song or movie with some extremely loud sequences. I found that around 80% volume, sound was never distorted and at 80% they were probably still 150% louder than any other competing device. Perhaps that is exaggeration as I don't have a decibel meter here to measure, but, suffice to say, this unit has some of the best speakers available for a China Tablet.

As far as sensors and connectivity goes. This has fairly standard fare however I will mention that you get Bluetooth, AND... a light-sensor. The Light sensor is yet another nice "first" for me as far as China Tabs go. Automatic Brightness adjustment for the screen therefore works :). You also get a rear 5 MP camera and a front 2 MP camera. The rear camera has a flash but I will just go ahead and say it is useless.. The flash is a gimmick. The only possibly difference it will make is if you are perhaps 6 inches or less from the subject you are trying to take a picture of. So... if you are a spy and are trying to get up close shots of government documents... yay, you get a flash. Everyone else won't care.

Regarding connectivity you get TWO USB ports however I haven't tested to see if both can be used simultaneously. You also get a microSD card port and HDMI out. Finally it has a headphone jack and dedicated charging port, both of which are welcome... and expected... in a higher-end unit like the PiPo Max M9. Regarding buttons, you get a power button and a back button along with your standard recessed reset button.

Oh yes... you get 16 Gb of internal storage which is fine :). Nothing extraordinary. You never want to get a device with less than 8 Gb and these days I personally don't like to settle for less than 16 Gb if I can help it. That being said, I have never really felt the need for MORE than 16 Gb as ample use of Wifi and Cloud Services negates the need for a lot of internal storage.

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PERFORMANCE - System and Application
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Let's consider performance now for a moment... this is both a success and a failing of this device depending on what your expectations are. Personally, I had imagined incredible things because I follow the market and like many that do likewise have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of this juggernaut from Rockchip based on how wonderful my RK3066 devices have all been.

However, thus far, for day-to-day usage, and surprisingly gaming, I have found this chip to be no faster than an RK3066 many tasks. I have been testing our RK3066 powered TNT branded Quantum Meson unit alongside this unit. The Meson is based on an OEM Yuandao N90 II so it has a lower resolution 9.7" IPS Panel and the dual-core RK3066. So, I am very used to how the RK3066 performs and this chip isn't much different. There is some reasons for this though... Let me explain...

1. The RK3188 is currently only clocked at 1.6 Ghz, not the anticipated 1.8 Ghz, (which hopefully will come later with better firmware/newer kernels). While it does have two extra cores, most apps don't make good use of more than 2 cores which effectively renders this advantage "null" for most activities. So the RK3066 is currently maxed in my Meson tablet at 1.6 Ghz... which means these chips are effectively offering the same computational power for most applications.

2. To further shoot the RK3188 in the foot, the GPU is only "slightly" higher clocked than same GPU which is also found in the RK3066. It isn't nearly double-clocked as promised... which is really quite sad. The fact that the M9 has a slightly higher resolution display vs. the Meson and well.... you do the math... when it comes to gaming I have found the two to be about equal. That being said... I am once again hoping that firmware improvements will not only improve performance through efficiency and bug fixes, but will also get us a higher GPU clock.

Now some people are going to say I am really dogging this chip at this point. I mean, c'mon... it's a Quad. Let me just say this, it isn't just a Quad... it is THE BEST A9 chipset currently available on the market. Now, I haven't had much... luck... with the Samsung Quad chipset yet... and I have heard good things and the two are more or less equal on paper with the Samsung winning in a few areas and the Rockchip winning in a few others. But Rockchip has the feather in its cap of running Jelly Bean while Samsung Quad units are still stuck on ICS. So, as of this writing, this is the best A9 chipset you can get. There... I am being fair...

EDIT: After spending a day or so with a Samsung Quad my opinion on this matter has changed a bit. The Samsung Exynos 4412 runs more smooth right now than the RK3188, noticeably so and personally I do prefer it. The RK3188 is brilliant and in benchmarks is the stronger of the two but I have found real-world usage of the Samsung Quad to edge it out. Honestly they are neck-n-neck and right now (03/18/2012 3pm EST) I definitely prefer the Samsung Exynos 4412, that may change though as better firmware smooths out some of the RK3188's rough edges.

Now... I personally think comparing it more to the RK3066 is a bit more interesting so let me say a few positive words to that effect.

There are several reasons to prefer the RK3188 over the RK3066...

1. It is a Quad and it DOES do a few vital things noticeably better... Namely multi-tasking. Like having a big app download/install queue going and doing... pretty much anything else at the same time... I have noted that historically this kind of activity really can make system performance choppy on the RK3066... On the RK3188 that isn't the case. Happy factor goes up, annoyance factor goes down. Oh yeah, it boots really fast to... And oh yes... Internet Browsing... more snappy :)... more happy! Now, I did do "side-by-side" tests of things like application loading... The RK3188 and RK3066 are more or less identical.

2. It is a Quad and it is 28 nm and it is very very new... this means there is a very legitimate chance that performance will get significantly (perhaps even drastically) better with improved software/firmware and increased clock speeds. The Quad is important because more and more applications and android itself WILL make better use of all 4-cores. The 28 nm process is important because there is legitimate "hardware headroom" for increasing the clock-speed of this chip. The RK3066 is fabbed on a 40 nm process (bigger process means more heat, more power consumption, and less efficiency) so it is pretty much maxxed at 1.6 Ghz. We will only see marginal improvements, at best, moving forward, but the RK3188 has some real room to grow. Finally... this chip is bleeding edge new and the fact that it isn't bug ridden is incredible (the device is very stable!). But I guarantee there is major room for improvement in the firmware that will come forth in time.

3. It is 28 nm... That means battery efficiency is better. I haven't done hard battery measurements yet but it does seem to do quite well.

So while you are going to pay for it, there is the reasoning for getting an RK3188 vs the RK3066. Let's consider other chips. I am going to keep this brief. Apart from the Samsung Exynos Quad, there is no other chip currently on the market out of China worth considering. That is a strong statement to make, let me back it up. The Allwinner A31 is the "nearest" contendor but it only packs 4 x Cortex-A7 cores... A7... You are looking at anywhere from a 20 - 50% performance improvement in an A9 core vs an A7 core. The A31 is a bargain-chip, not a serious performance solution but it is being sold at "serious performance solution" prices. Not to mention that early devices have all been very buggy. It isn't worth your money right now. The ActionTech chips aren't worth mentioning. Performance is very low and they use a lower power and oft-unsupported GPU solution. The only advantage is their possible pricing maybe power efficiency. Don't expect much support for them though.

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PERFORMANCE - WiFi
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While we are talking performance I think it would be fitting to also mention Wifi. In short, it is workable but they could have done better. I don't get why China can't spend $3 more and put in a killer Wifi antennae and fix our woes. Unfortunately they didn't. I have found the range to be moderate-to-good but not excellent. In the light of all China tabs it is decidely okay and probably in the top 25% or so. To give some numbers... In the same room with the router about 3 feet away, Wifi Analyzer shows about -42dBm (-40dBm is perfect, so this is slightly less than perfect). Let me show you the comparison between the Quantum Meson WiFi as we stretch out the distance...

Meson
Same Room: -40 dBm
Next Room(10 ft): -40 to -42 dBm
Next Room (35 ft): -60 dBm

M9
Same Room: -40 to -42 dbm
Next Room(10 ft): -48 db to -60db (average about -52 dBm)
Next Room (35 ft): -62 to -68

----Anything more than -70 dBm (all of the above) is quite usable in my experience if we are talking just internet browsing, even on content heavy sites like, for example, Amazon (lots of images).----

Oddly, the M9 seemed to be more erratic but there are two different ways to interpret that. Often the Meson would be a bit slow to update its stat readings and the M9 would be quicker. However when left in the same area the M9 would jump back and forth between a fairly wide range as shown above in the 10 foot test, whereas the Meson would jump but only a bit. So the question is, is the M9 Wifi a bit unstable? Or is is the device just updating more quickly? I would like to think the Wifi is unstable and firmware will fix it =) but my guess is that that Wifi is probably a bit unstable on both devices and my router is to blame. The M9 is just showing the signal update a bit more quickly. Honestly I am not sure so I did a real-world test and the result was interesting. I loaded up the youtube app on both devices and started up the same HD video on both. The results? Nearly identical in ALL locations. Each would buffer and play at more or less the exact same time with less buffer close to the router and more farther away as is expected. So, the signal strength appears to be a bit stronger on the Meson but the M9 doesn't seem to be negatively affected by it. Now, if I had had my original N90 II to test against it would have been even more interesting as it had extremely good WiFi for a China tab.

Performance conclusion.... there is a lot of potential... and paired with 2 Gb of RAM well... there is a WHOLE lot of potential. Right now, you are getting a slight upgrade from the RK3066 that has a lot of head-room for future improvement. As the chip is proving to be very stable, there is no reason to "avoid" the RK3188 right now, not at all. So if you have the cash, buy an RK3188 device.

Regarding the Wifi... I wish it could have better signal quality but the "real-world" test showed that it was decent and definitely usable from a fair distance with a wall or so in-between so most folks should be happy.

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STYLING AND BUILD QUALITY
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Styling is a big win for the PiPo Max M9 and I only have a few minor gripes. First, this device is wonderfully thin and decently lightweight. In my opinion, it is right at the limits of being "too thin" for comfort... which is the perfect place to be.

The rear of the device looks slick. The brushed metal back panel looks very modern industrial and very cool. The plastic rear side panels have a bit of "grip" to them which makes them functional. Personally, I think the plastic detracts a little bit but not enough for me to take marks away. The one gripe I have is the bloody rear camera. It's like PiPo had an excellent team of designers and then when they got to the camera design, they pretty much brought in someone from the factory line and gave them a pencil and asked them to stencil in how the felt like the camera should look with no input from their fabulous design team that, you know... designed everythign else. Basically, the camera sits in a small, plasticy cheap painted chrome squared that protrudes slightly from the rear of the device. In the grand scheme of things, it is a very minor quibble, but when you look at it closely you just kind of "sigh" and remember that yes, at the end of the day, this device is built AND designed in China. Now to balance that, I will say the rear speakers are implemented nicely and look slick. Finally, the ports... the ports are ALL along the top of the device. I wish other device makers would stop and take note. It is WONDERFUL having the bloody ports at the top of the device. The only thing I woud change is I would have put the headphone jack on one of the sides but aside from that, having the ports (and buttons) up there is the best move ever. It keeps them out of the way for 90% of your activity and it makes the HDMI way easier to use.

Regarding build-quality... okay... next to a Momo 12 this unit does feel a bit more "cheap" but that is next to a Momo 12, which is one of the best built units currently available from China. If I were going to rank build quality on units out of China though, this unit would be in the top 10%. It is very well built all the way around and the final result is excellent. Please understand I am also a bit "biased" here because I am VERY used to use a 9.7" 4:3 formfactor device and very much so prefer the feel and screen-size of such a device. Personally, I find the 10.1" size a bit awkward but this is all personal preference and others will have the opposite opinion. I just mention this as it probably does effect my thoughts as it goes into the "comfort level" of use the unit for me.

Finally, I did get busy and I did disassemble the unit. The front screen and guts pop out from the rear panel which the speakers are attached to by adhesive tape. Internally it looks good. I was impressed by the cleanliness and layout of the internals on my old PiPo M1 and that thought continues with the M9.

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CONCLUSION
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Shew... that was a whole lot of typing... in the end, the PiPo Max M9 is pretty much one of the best China tabs you can pick up at the moment. The hardware combination is more-or-less unrivaled and the build quality and incredible speakers are icing on the cake. While the RK3188 is a bit lackluster at the moment, it is currently still an improvement over the RK3066 (which was excellent in its own rite) and has a lot of headroom for growth in the coming months as better firmware is released and we hopefully get the clock bump we all want.

Wifi could be better, but I can (and do) say that about pretty much all China tabs save for the Yuandao N90 II I used to own which apparently was a bit of a unicorn...

So, if you have the cash, buy this device. If you don't, the RK3066 is still a great option and a very mature chipset at this point. My 2-cents is that every should still avoid both the Allwinner A31 -and- any and all retina display units as performance is severely hampered on the latter and performance is lacking at that price-point on the former.

Cheers!

Roman