Cheap (Chinese) Android Tablet devices any good?

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While the expensive IPad and Android based tablets from Samsung, HTC, Toshiba, Asus, Acer fight it out for sales in the markets that people can afford, the allure of the tablet in the year the tablets outsold the PC’s in US has effected many of us as well.

This has seen an explosive rise in various Chinese tablet devices, that have found nirvana with Google Android, a full fledged open OS that they can use on a compatible device.  These devices sell well under $100 even in the US markets, but when the come to markets to which they are originally intended (for people who have lower budgets), the prices sadly are more closer to the 200-300$ mark.  Still very cheap when you consider that the expensive devices are even more expensive in these markets.  E.g. The IPad2 16GB WIFI that sells at 499$ in US sells close to 800-900$ locally from small dealers who bring them in small numbers since Apple only sells there products in selected markets.

Sadly the market for Android tablets have not seen the popularity as much as the IPad, since these are purchased by many more for design than for their use.  The lower cost tablets of course are a different ball game, and the expectation from the purchases it seems that it will do the same as the expensive counterparts for a lot less money.

But is that correct, or are there things we need to watch, or could these devices be actually better than their expensive counterparts?  Let me share some of my thoughts, you work it out if it makes sense for you.

Can these in-expensive devices be better?

The expensive brands are fighting it out for “slimmest tab”, “most featured tab”, “longest battery life”, “best screen”, “fastest CPU” and also try to sell you accessories.  So that means you can find most devices don’t have,

  1.  A full USB port, some don’t even have a mini/micro USB port
  2. Some don’t even have any expansion ports (microSD/SD cards), so you are stuck with the storage that is internal to the device
  3. Most don’t have 3G or you have to fork out more for the 3G version.  There too you may have the CDMA vs GSM versions, and now the LTE versions to stop you using it in all markets.

Strangely the low budget tablets have loads of features,

1. They usually have a full USB port, or if not they definitely have an micro USB port.

That means you can hook up a USB or card reader and access stuff on flash drives, memory cards.  Since they run Android 2.2 in most cases or newer, you can access these storage and increase your storage space.  Something you definitely can’t do with an IPad, and for that matter with a lot of expensive branded tablets.  For instance the currently IPad2 challenge the Samsung Galaxy tab 10.1 has no expansion slots or USB.  You need to buy an accessory that is hard to find that fixes to the proprietary slot to connect an USB or card reader.  Makes the whole idea of slim design so less practical.

2. Wifi is standard, but 3G is prompted by saying simply use a 3G USB dongle!

Since these devices have a full fledged USB device, they can use a 3G USB modem directly and the latest modems have support for Android.  You can do this only with a very few branded expensive tablets such as the Toshiba Thrive, Acer A500.  None of the Samsung Galaxy tabs have this directly on the tablet, and definitely the IPad can’t do this 🙂

3. They come with all the accessories

These devices come bundled in full kit.  The package will usually consist of a basic carry case, and for devices with an micro USB connector, the adapter that connects a full USB devices, etc.  Such consumer oriented thinking sadly is not there with the expensive brands, they want you to spend spend and spend..

So that’s the nice part of the story.  Part 2…

What should one be vary/careful when buying?

Less price does sometimes means a bargain good buy, but in this case i have dug deep and have to say you have to be a tad cautious and also see what kind of use.  In the event the usage model is suitable then these devices are the thing for you.

1.  Don’t be deceived by the specification

We all love specifications.  The chaps who sell this know this well.  Which is why they prominently state the CPU speed,  Screen Size, Connectivity Options.  A bit lower in font you see the Android version.  The other points are either not listed or hard to find.  Why ? Let us see.

2. Android support and upgrades

Android is developing at an unbelievable pace, and with it just like desktops the expected hardware capabilities to support the newer operating system and applications are also rising steeply.   Google and rest don’t seem to be too bothered about backward compatibility, though in recent times Google has started to apply more regulations on the standards to ensure the app market grows, which has been on area that has ensure Apple still was popular, as even their older devices can run the newer operating systems and applications.

Read carefully and see what features are missing in the Android OS that your devices ships with, since some features are very necessary such as USB tethering, support for mass storage devices, multi-touch support, etc.   In addition some of the new applications won’t run on older versions as they depend on the new operating system to work better.

These in-expensive tablets have poor software update support, so you will have to rely on custom ROMs, the popular place for that is http://xda-developers.com/.

The forums on this site are also good to find which of the in-expensive tablets are the one’s are less risk or less problematic.

3. CPU speed alone is not enough

The reason these devices can run Android is that all the mobile tablets are ARM based.  Hence if they comply to these standards the devices are technically compatible to run Android.  However 1GHZ speed is not the only thing, just like in a desktop / laptop CPU, you have different manufacturers, and you also have different versions.  You have the low end, mid level and the high end.  Most of the Chinese devices are using the older (1-2 era’s in mobile terms) chips. These support less features and hence the performance is a lot slower.  This will be definitely noticed when you run power hungry apps or try to multi-task.

Also Chinese tablets are very well known to “lie” about the CPU.  Dig around the Internet as you will find that though the brand various many originate from the same manufacturer.  The manufacturer usually states the correct spec, but the companies that brand it and sell these devices spice it up.  They sometime indicate higher speeds than what is running, or say its an newer version of the processor when its actually based on an older ARM spec.

Another danger that has been found was that these vendors used binned processors (processors that failed quality tests) or overclock the processors above the maximum threshold.  This can mean your device can fail in a short period of time, or can get warm or unpleasantly hot when used for even short periods of time.

To find the ARM processor types see –

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARM_architecture ,

http://www.arm.com/products/processors/index.php ,

http://www.arm.com/community/partners/cores.php

For vendors who make processors,

http://www.arm.com/community/partners/company_list/rw/ProductTypes/1,2/

Remember ARM is standard, and different manufacturers make processor that comply with these standards including Samsung, Qualcomm, VIA

4. Don’t have GPU acceleration (no dedicated GPU, your CPU has to do the GPU work)

While your every day usage of the tab can live without GPU acceleration if you are patient, even these apps such a wall papers, document viewing, email viewing, browsing all would do with some GPU acceleration. And with an Android tablet would you not try out Angry Birds at least 🙂 No GPU acceleration means lots of apps will either not run, or will be bog slow, and will also drain your battery.

You can find more details on the GPU configurations for devices from this Wikipedia article – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Android_devices

5. Battery life can be low to pathetic

This is another area where these devices can be great downfall.  They are packaged with batteries that have 50-100% less capacity compared to the branded tablets. That means while the branded expensive devices can happily run for 6-10hours or weeks on standby mode, these cheap tablets can barely run for 2-3hours or stay on standby for more than a few days.  This can be big issue for some.  Definitely a big issue for me.

The next area is the battery origins are not known, finding replacements are not going to be easy.  Most tablets are designed where the battery is sealed unlike mobile phones, and battery replacement is not simply buying and inserting the new battery.

6. Screen resolution, quality,  pixels and TYPE

One of the biggest issues is that most of these devices are still resistive touch, not capacitive.  Resistive means you can use a stylus, but you have to really thump into the screen.  The low smooth scrolling you get when you use an IPad/IPhone, or the new Android/Symbian devices are only possible with capacitive touch devices.  However the good news is that some of the newer devices are now moving into these type of screens.  However again be careful, as the marketing literature will say it is but the true hardware maybe not.  One quick way is to try the famous pinch and zoom, which can only be done with a multi-touch capacitive screen technology.

800×480 or 800×600 might seem a lot, but in a 7″ or 10″ tablet that is way to little and you will immediately notice it any form of usage.  When other devices are going past the 1024×768 into 1280×800 or better, you are going to miss a lot on picture quality when you view on these screens.

Another area is the brightness and clarity, most low end displays will be useless in direct sunlight or indoors under bright light, and that will make the device useless.

Branded vendors will also use technologies that are applied as coatings on top of the glass that will reduce glare, are resistant to finger smudges, and also more resistant to drops (the most popular and supposedly strongest being Gorilla Glass by corningware, yes the same guys who the kitchen pyrex stuff!).   I doubt if any of the cheap tablets have this protection, the list of devices that are shipping with this type of screen is constantly updated at http://www.corninggorillaglass.com/products-with-gorilla/full-products-list.  IPad avoids this glass, and works with another glass company called Akashi glass in Japan, the IPad1 was very suspect for cracking, but the IPad2 is lot more resilient as it uses a technology called DragonTrail glass, that is also fairly tough but not at the same level as the Gorilla glass.

7. Repairs

These items are usually made by companies based on what is available in the market.  Hence the models change from batch to batch.  They may look the same but internally the components can very tremendously.  Hence if you item is out of warranty you may find it very hard to get it fixed, but on the counter argument it might be cheaper to buy a new one than fixing it, something you will not be able to do if you buy an expensive branded Tablet.

8. Codec support

Google Android does not provide codecs for all video formats as standard.  Hence the vendor packaging the device has to included the additional codec and pay royalty to the firm they get the codec from.  Some current popular high dev formats such as MKV, DIVX are not bundled with most tablets in the in-expensive range, and surprisingly even expensive tablets from manufacturers including the IPad does not support this as standard and you need to user other free or paid software to play such formats. One of the manufacturers who does provide most codecs is Samsung.

Though you don’t have the codec you can use players such as RockPlayer, etc to play all formats, but in most cases this is entire software and CPU based rendering, lacking the hardware support which means possible skipped frames, poor quality rendering and drain on the battery. Since tablets are regularly used for viewing video related material, this is also another important area to consider.

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