Take a closer look at some common problems with budget-priced tablets. In this example we use Maylong M-150 (aka, the $99 Walgreens tablet).
If you're shopping for an inexpensive Android tablet, here are some tips for avoiding a lemon.
When it comes to tablets, the screen is everything--your display, your user interface, your keyboard.
By sight alone, it's difficult to distinguish a good screen from a bad one. A lot of the critical technology is out of sight. Check the specs. Is the touch screen capacitive (like an iPad or Galaxy Tab) or resistive (like a supermarket credit card reader)? Does the screen support multitouch input for zooming photos, maps, and Web pages with a pinch? What's the resolution? If the tablet's specs don't call out these details, assume the news isn't good.
Some details are cosmetic. For this Maylong M-150 (aka, the Walgreens tablet), the warped, uneven surface of the screen is a telltale sign that cheap plastic was used. Premium tablets, such as the iPad, Galaxy Tab, and Dell Streak, typically use glass to cover their displays, or Dow Corning's extremely durable Gorilla Glass.
Not all plastic screens are bad, but the cheaper ones are more prone to wear and warping.
Check the ports on the tablet. Here on the Maylong M-150, you can see sockets for the power adapter and headphones, two speaker grilles, a mysterious dock connector that looks similar to the iPad's, and a microSD card slot.
Seem about right? How about a USB port for connecting to a computer or recharging? The specs list two USB ports and an Ethernet port, but where are they? Turns out that mysterious dock connector isn't what you'd think.
In this example, the manufacturer offloads USB and Ethernet support to an awkward dock adapter. Even with the adapter, there's still no method for performing a basic sync between the tablet and your computer. The best option available is to transfer content from your computer to a microSD card.
Ahh, here's a classic trick from the days of portable video players. A screen's backlight is one of the biggest drains of battery power. In order to preserve battery life, and achieve a competitive battery life spec, manufacturers will often make the default battery life unusably dim out of the box.
If you're testing a demo unit of a tablet in a store, it's probably plugged in and set at full brightness. To see how the screen would look under the conditions the manufacturer used to calculate battery life expectancy (if they even bothered), dig into the brightness settings and put the bar at exactly half. If it still looks OK, try it outdoors.
The Maylong M-150 tried a different tactic. Instead of using a dim default brightness and forcing the user to kill his own battery life by tweaking the brightness settings, the Maylong comes out of the box already cranked to full brightness. Of course, at this setting, the battery only lasts a few hours, but at least it's impressive out of the box. Unfortunately, there's nowhere to go after you're already maxed out. Even at max brightness, the tablet screen is difficult to view outdoors.
It's never fun to recharge a gadget. With tablets and e-readers, the battery life expectations are especially high, ranging from 10 hours (iPad) to weeks (Kindle).
When it does come time to recharge, you want to find yourself digging for a missing charger or proprietary cable.
Apple can get away with their proprietary dock connection shenanigans because their cable is so ubiquitous and available at any chain drug store. We're not trying to cut Apple any slack, it's just a reality that their charging cables, accessories, and adapters are as easy to find as light bulbs.
For anyone else, though, recharging really needs to use a common standard, such as USB. The Maylong M-150 didn't go so far as to use a proprietary connection, but they didn't make it easy either. It took us only a few days before we lost track of the AC adapter included with the tablet. Considering that battery life is only a few hours, we felt the pinch of this recharging method pretty quickly. Bottom line: figure out how the tablet recharges and look for devices that can pull their juice over a common USB cable.
The Android OS specifically calls out for at least three hardware navigation buttons: home, back, and menu (some also include a search button).
Like the Apple iPad, the Maylong M-150 included only one button on its face, relegating the other controls to touch-screen buttons. And though the Maylong's one button looks like a Home button, it actually behaves like a back button. It's bizarre and frustrating, and it does a disservice to the Android OS.
The lesson here: Android devices need the Android three-button hardware scheme to work properly. Also, test the buttons to make sure they behave as you'd expect.
Just because an Android device includes an app store doesn't mean it uses the official Google app store. In fact, only a handful of Android tablets we've tested (Dell Streak, Samsung Galaxy Tab, ViewSonic ViewPad 7) actually include the Android Market.
Sometimes, an Android device will offer no app market at all (often the case for e-readers, such as the Nook Color). Others, such as the Maylong M-150 or Archos tablet line, use their own app store with limited offerings.
The easiest way to check if the app store is legit is to dive into the top-ranked apps and look at the selection. If you don't see a Pandora, Gmail, Yelp, or other top-tier apps, you're probably dealing with a phony storefront. Another way to tell, most phony storefronts only deal in free apps, or free demos that ask for money only after the app is installed.
One of the most celebrated aspects of the Android OS is that its source code is open for developers to tweak to their whim. For big guns like Motorola or Samsung, this allows for unique customizations and differentiating user interface tweaks.
The downside is that the more a manufacturer customizes the Android OS, the more work they make for themselves when the next version of Android inevitably pops up and becomes the new standard.
When I look at the highly customized Android interface used on the Maylong M-150 (shown here) two things strike me. First, they made a mess of the interface: placing a Home button in the corner that deserves to be a tactile button, placing volume buttons in the top bar in spite of the redundant volume rocker switch on the side, and generally turning all the tasteful Android OS icons into something ugly.
The second thing I notice is that all of this customization, along with the product's budget price and the off-brand manufacturer, means that any hope for a user receiving an over-the-air update to the OS is gone. Why would Maylong go to the trouble?
Remember, people don't just buy Android devices (or iOS ones) for their features--they buy them for their potential. The Maylong M-150 and others like it, are essentially dead-ends.
Arguably, with a little ingenuity, you could root the device and force an update onto it, but you never really know what kind of tricks a manufacturer had to go to originally to get Android running on the hardware to begin with. With hardware this cheap, there's a good chance the manufacturer cut some corners that may become all too clear when you attempt to upgrade on your own.
One of the easiest criticism to lay against the Apple iPad is the lack of a front-facing camera, for use with video chat apps.
Well, get a load of this, Apple: the Maylong M-150 has a front-facing camera. Of course, it doesn't include any video chat software, or access to any via the app market. You could root it and try to sideload Qik or Fring, but there's no guarantee of driver support. No, really the only thing the camera here gives you is the ability to take pictures of yourself.
The lesson here: don't assume that a front-facing camera means a tablet is capable of video chat. If Market support isn't there, these VGA cams offer little more than unflattering portraits.
Now, here's one that actually surprised us. The Maylong M-150 includes a microSD memory card slot for loading content from your computer or other mobile devices. What it neglected to explain is that there's no way to remove the card. The slot isn't spring-loaded. We had to bust out a box cutter to get our precious microSD card out from this monster.