I'm fascinated by cheap tablets. In the early days of tablet evolution, a smattering of no-brand models offered prices far below their Apple and Samsung counterparts -- but saddled you with resistive touchscreens (meaning you had to apply actual pressure), abysmally slow processors and already-outdated versions of Android.
In other words, they were all but unusable.
Today, you can buy a brand-new Amazon Fire HD 6 for $99 -- arguably the single best tablet deal on the planet.
But recently, as part of a special project, I needed a tablet that would run a simple custom app and not much more. I could have gone with the Fire HD 6, but my budget was tight and I was hoping for a slightly larger screen. So I started checking out the current crop of cheap, no-brand tablets, and wondering if one of them might get the job done.
Ultimately I landed on the ProntoTec Axius Q9S, a 7-inch tablet powered by a quad-core processor and running Android 4.4 (KitKat). In photos, at least, it looked pretty sharp, and although user reviews on Amazon were mixed, it seemed sufficient for my needs.
Price: $37.99 shipped. Wow.
I should note that since I ordered it about a week ago, the price has risen to $39.99. That's for the white model; the Q9S is also available in blue, red and black, and those versions are priced in the $49-$53 range. Still pretty amazing.
Obviously most people don't buy a tablet to run just one app, though I've often preached the value of repurposing older tablets for dedicated tasks: TV remote, music/movie streamer, alarm clock, nightstand e-reader, and so on. A cheap tablet could be used similarly.
So how did the Q9S fare for my project? I have to say, it's perfect. It's surprisingly attractive, with rounded edges and a solid feel that belies the low price. Just as important, it runs my custom app like a charm.
I was also impressed by the screen, which on paper seems pretty low-res (1,024x600) but produces admirably sharp text and nice colors. (Viewing angles, unsurprisingly, are pretty poor.) Remember, too, that the original iPad had a resolution of just 1,024x768.
Unfortunately, this tablet has issues. Maybe I'm spoiled by speedy current-gen iPads and Fire HDs, but the Q9S felt painfully slow at times -- especially when downloading apps or streaming videos. I experienced a lot of time-outs with Internet connections, to the point where I couldn't help wondering if something was wrong with the Wi-Fi.
For example, it took about 4 minutes to download a 50MB game from the Google Play store. Time to download the same game on a OnePlus One phone (over Wi-Fi): 25 seconds.
Meanwhile, the accelerometer frequently shifted screen orientation when I didn't expect it to and sometimes refused to shift back when I tilted the tablet. The built-in speaker is perhaps the worst I've ever heard, and battery life was truly terrible -- maybe two hours at best.
Ironically, apps and Web pages loaded pretty quickly. Games I expected would chug played smoothly, and Web pages I expected would move jerkily scrolled smoothly as well.
So ultimately the Q9S suffers from two major problems: terrible Wi-Fi performance and poor battery life. Which brings us back to the original question: Can a $37.99 tablet possibly be any good? Answer: It can be pretty good, even better than expected, but you have to expect compromises. Whether or not you can live with them depends on your tablet needs.
If you've purchased a super-cheap, off-brand tablet recently, hit the comments to share the model, specs, price and your overall impression!