Android Devices

Cheap tablets: how much can we really expect from a $100 device?

March 16, 2012 | by Andrew Kameka



A tablet is a plaything and a third screen. Maybe even fourth. So why should a device that is rarely used as a primary means of entertainment or productivity cost as much as a laptop that can do so much more or a phone that you will interact with all day, everyday? Shouldn’t tablets be more affordable to justify the purchase?

That’s what Ainovo tried to do with its $99 Novo 7, an affordable tablet that was among the first to run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The Novo 7 doesn’t have as many features as the tablets that cost more than 5 times as much, but it has more up-to-date software. And given that for most people the tablet is indeed just a plaything, how reasonable is it to expect a good experience for such a cheap price?

I set out to gauge that last month when I received a Novo 7 from MIPS, the semiconductor company that produced the 7′s chip. MIPS loaned me the device as a way to showcase the power of its architecture, so I added the Novo 7 to my gadget rotation.

Lowered Expectations

There are actually plenty of cheap tablets, but with few exceptions, they are all terrible. So I entered my time with the Novo as reasonable as I could. I didn’t expect much given the price tag and knew early on that I would not hold the device to the same standards that I would a Transformer Prime.

Even with those lowered expectations, I was greeted to a bad first impression. The 7-inch, 800×400 resolution screen is terrible. Your eyes might sometimes adjust to video from a far enough distance, and Angry Birds looks alright, but this screen could never be mistaken for something with clarity or focus. Most budget tablets are guilty of that crime, so it’s not surprising, though I was surprised to see a capacitive screen that enables better touch response.

Pleasantly Surprised

There are plenty of things that I could complain about with this tablet – buttons, screen, software, etc. – but there were some positive takeaways. The biggest was that the battery life was phenomenal. On a cross-country flight, I watched 10 episodes of a TV show that averages about 44 minutes, meaning I got more than 7 hours of continuous video. I also did some reading with Aldiko during my connection and still had a little over 15 percent battery remaining when my flight landed. Inefficient battery life is often a major complaint about Android devices, but I was surprised to see a cheap tablet handle watching video better than the premium models. I’m sure the lack of a great screen affected that, but kudos to MIPS for getting the system working so well.

Should I buy one?

I didn’t believe that the Novo 7 would be worth the trouble, even at its discounted price. After extended use, I’m convinced that only the rarest of the few with experience using a tablet or smartphone would be pleased with this device. This is not a device for the seasoned gadget fan – and it doesn’t try to be.

The Novo 7, and other tablets of its ilk, is for children, new device owners, people who want something really cheap and don’t care, and users in the developing world. Most of us in the “first world” often forget that the desire to have technology is not exclusive to us. There’s a large population that cannot afford a Galaxy Tab and still wants to be able to try out apps, browse the web, and play games on a device like this. They will do those things slower on a Novo, but they will at least be able to do them.

My nephews often ask to play with my gadgets, but there’s no way I’d ever entrust a 4 or 5 year old with a $500 tablet. Something that costs $99 is a little easier to take a chance on. When you think about the potential for kids to play educational games, read books, or sit down and play Angry Birds so I can have five minutes of peace, the Novo could find its niche.

There’s a bias in the way that people approach devices, so you cannot reasonably hold low-cost tablets to the standards of what we’ve used before. Just acknowledge that these are cheap products that might be worth hacking or using for designated purposes. Whatever the case, someone can only reasonably expect little from a tablet that costs so little. If you want premium features, pay the premium price. You’ll be far better off and deal with fewer headaches.

Of course, with rumors of a Nexus tablet on the horizon, perhaps you will be able to cheat the system.