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Tablets

Can a $37.99 tablet possibly be any good?

The fact that you can buy one at all for that price is staggering, and the specs look good on paper. But what's the reality?

prontotec-axius-q9s.jpg
ProntoTec

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you with resistive touchscreens (meaning you had to apply actual pressure), abysmally slow processors and already-outdated versions of Android.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!