Does it Make Sense to Buy a $100 Off-Brand Android Tablet?

By Ryan Whitwam

The average $100 Android tablet has become almost usable these days, but are they worth your time?

Tablets are the craze right now, and there are dozens of ODMs happy to sell you a $100 off-brand tablet. As the cost of components continues to drop, inexpensive tablets are beginning to make their way into the US market. You see them in discount stores, as well as online. You’re not going to get something for nothing; a Galaxy Tab these are not, but is there a use case for them?

Let’s talk about the pros and cons of buying these new super-cheap off-brand Android tablets. You might find that, for the price, it works for you.

Cutting Costs on the Screen

One of the most expensive parts of a tablet is the capacitive touchscreen. Just look at the teardown report on any new device and you’ll see the screen near the top of the list with the flash storage chips. When you’re trying to make a $100 tablet, that high-resolution panel is the first thing to get the axe.

Resistive screens are not uncommon to see on off-brand tablets. Unlike capacitive touch, this technology requires that you press hard enough to compress two conductive layers in the screen until they come in contact. Resistive touch is very accurate, but harder to use with your finger. Most resistive screens also lack multitouch technology. The user experience with a resistive screen tablet is going to be much less than ideal.

Capacitive screens have come down in price, and many off-brand tablets have thankfully switched over to this technology. Even if you find such a unit, you’re not out of the woods. If the touch sensor is substandard, you might have poor multitouch support or touch detection. Resolution is also an issue. It is very common to see a 7-10-inch tablet run a 480x800 (WVGA) resolution screen. That works out to about 133 pixels per-inch at 7-inches, which is mediocre on such a small tablet. If at all possible, try to get a look at the device first. If you're importing from China, that might not be doable, though.

You Only Get "Most" of Android

Part of the reason these device have become so cheap is that Android is free to use if you get it from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). This code does not include the closed source apps like Gmail, Talk, and Market. Google reserves access to these services for devices it has certified. Some low-end devices might have the Google apps, but they are few and far between. Clearly, this is a pretty big con when considering super-cheap tablets.

If you get a tablet lacking the Google seal of approval, you can always install a solid third-party mail client like K-9, and the Amazon Appstore is always a good call. Any free APKs you can grab can be sideloaded on these devices as well. Still, you’re going to miss out on all the Google data syncing, and larger app ecosystem.

The AOSP code will include some really useful parts of Android, though. There will be a browser on the device, and a $100 web browser for the couch isn’t a bad deal. That was the dream of the CrunchPad/JooJoo a few years back, and most of these Android devices will do a better job than the JooJoo ever did.

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) is open source now, so we expect to see more tablets ship with it at some point. Right now, there are still many, many inexpensive Android tablets for sale running Gingerbread or earlier. These were versions of the operating system never meant for tablets, and even a heavy-hitter like Samsung was unable to really pull off Gingerbread on a tablet.

Hardware Limitations

We’re knee-deep in the era of dual-core SoCs, and quad-core is coming on fast. But beneath a layer of low-grade plastic, these off-brand tablets just don’t have that sort of raw power. Most of these devices are going to be running a single-core part clocked somewhere around 1GHz, or occasionally 1.5GHz. Sometimes these are recognized brands like Snapdragon or OMAP, but more often we’re looking at an unknown chip maker.

The system-on-a-chip (SoC) consists of an application processor, GPU, and other components. These cheaper off-brand chips are often lagging behind a generation, and are less refined in design than more established chips. The result is a diminished experience caused by poor interaction with software, and lack of support in games.

While ARM is the standard for mobile devices, some cheap Android tablets are running on MIPS-based cores. A chip using MIPS runs just fine, but Android might not be fully optimized. Apps may also fail to properly function with this unusual architecture. MIPS chips are a bit cheaper to make, but they tend to run hotter and consume more power per clock cycle.

Another spec to be aware of is the RAM allotment, which is usually 512MB on low-end tablets. Android manages memory automatically by ending processes in the background when more RAM is needed. Having less RAM to start with means that you will often find that apps have been closed when you try to go back to them.

If you’re planning on getting a dirt-cheap Android tablet as a media device, you may be disappointed. Most of these devices only come with 8GB of storage at the top end. That’s not a lot of space to store video and audio, but it might work if you don’t mind changing out content on a regular basis.

You Get What You Pay For

You will be able to find a $100 Android tablet that isn’t terrible, sure. But the cost of real devices is being driven down little by little. Asus said at CES that a $250 ICS tablet with a Tegra 3 chip was going to happen in the coming months. At that point, is the off-brand tablet worth the savings?

Watch out for resistive screens, and know that even if you get a capacitive panel, WVGA resolution is where you’re likely to be stuck.

The software is going to be rough around the edges on the cheap tablet. There might be Market access, but there might not be. If the manufacturer decided to put Gingerbread on the device, the interface is going to be poor. If the tablet runs the browser effectively, though, that might be enough to justify the purchase in some cases.

Watch out for resistive screens, and know that even if you get a capacitive panel, WVGA resolution is where you’re likely to be stuck. Assuming some small amount of optimization was done, even the older SoCs in these tablets should be able to run Android well enough, but don’t expect great gaming performance.

The real pro here is the price. $100 is a drop in the bucket for a lot of people. Even the fabled $250 Asus tablet might be overkill if all you need is a device for browsing the web on the couch. That’s where a $100 tablet can really shine.