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The problem with cheap tablets


The tablet market is a booming one, thanks in part to the presence of cheap tablets that sell for $100 or less. While most of these tablet computers are being sold by no-name or lesser-known companies, some big brands are already starting to market their own sub-$100 tablets, as well. Take for instance HP, with its partnership with Walmart for a sub- $99 7-inch tablet.

A common element among these cheap devices, of course, is that they run Android or a variant thereof. Cheap tablets have actually bee in the market for more than a couple of years now. Notable, of course, is their use of mostly inexpensive or no-brand processors (often made by MediaTek), low-end specs and not-so-perfect build quality.

The HP 7, for instance, offers specs that might seem to be picked straight off a 2011 spec sheet: 1024 x 768 pixel resolution display, 8GB storage, 1GB RAM, an Intel Atom Z2460 processor and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, a variant of Android originally launched almost two years ago.

Surprisingly, however, cheap or no-name tablets were actually the best-sellers in the recent Black Friday sale, at least for Walmart. These include devices from Nextbook and RCA. The RCA 7-inch tablet notably retails for $69 at the retailer.

What can we learn here?

Android enthusiasts might be baffled at why people would want to buy a cheap tablet with low-end specs. Doesn’t this water down the Android experience, after all? With poor battery performance, low screen resolution, slow CPUs and GPUs, and paltry memory capacity, what’s the point at all? Don’t cheap devices contribute to the bad effects of Android fragmentation by giving a poor user experience? Case in point: a handful of cheap tablets still come with the two-year old Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

However, the fact remains that cheap tablets are a good entry point for people who might not necessarily want to commit to an Android device with a high price point. Even with poor specs, these tablets can still be good for reading ebooks, surfing websites, email, and the occasional game. If the experience with Android is good enough, a user can then graduate or move on to a better device.

Of course, this would depend on the user experience. If a cheap tablet is too slow for even the most basic of tasks, then it would no doubt discourage the user from using Android, and that person might perhaps move to an iPad or Surface. It could lead to a generalization that Android is no good at all.

It’s a matter of choosing the right cheap tablet, actually. In some markets, for example, you can find the Cherry Mobile Fusion Bolt, a rebranded variant of the Ainol Novo 7 Venus. At launch earlier this year, the tablet had decent specs for a $100 device, and was lauded as among the good ones, and actually offered decent real-world performance. Sure, most cheap tablets might be throwaway devices, but it’s the decent ones that actually make us optimistic about this class of devices.

Hope for KitKat

To my mind, the problem with cheap tablets is that most of these focus on the “cheap” part rather than finding a good balance of price and performance. And cheap tablets were ahead of their time in trying to fit a mobile computing platform into barely capable hardware. But “cheap” will no longer have to equate with slow and sloppy. Google’s thrust in growing Android’s user base even further has led it to optimize Android 4.4 KitKat for use with low-spec devices. This means tablet makers will do well to focus their efforts on launching KitKat-powered devices. With KitKat, even cheap devices should perform decently enough to give a good user experience.

The problem with cheap tablets should therefore end with KitKat.

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