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Sprint's $99 ZTE Optik pushes the cheap tablet envelope

With the $99 Optik, ZTE and Sprint target tablet shoppers who feel the $199 Kindle Fire is too pricey.

ZTE and Sprint hope their new $99 Optik tablet's rock bottom price can lure buyers eyeing the Kindle Fire.

Amazon certainly created a hit with its low-cost $199 Kindle Fire, which aggressively undercut the iPad 2's steep $499 starting price. Now Chinese electronics maker ZTE has stepped up to try to burn the Fire at its own game. With a much-reduced $99 sticker price and February 5 availability, the 7-inch slate runs Android 3.2 Honeycomb, plus two HD cameras (5-megapixel rear, 2-megapixel front).

I do like that the Optik's display has a sharper resolution (1,280 by 800 pixels) than the premium Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (1,024 by 600 pixels), another compelling 7-inch Honeycomb tablet. Of course the Tab uses an LCD with Plane Line Switching (PLS), which typically offer higher contrast and wider viewing angles than their standard LCD cousins. No word yet on just what type of LCD the Optik ships with.

Still, for a very agreeable cost of entry (with 2-year Sprint contract), the Optik also features a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon CPU, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage. One drawback though is that the device links to Sprint's 3G, not 4G cellular data network. I personally would choose to grab a network connection via the Optik's Wi-Fi radio and cancel the 3G data plan altogether if possible.

Another issue that troubles me is how ZTE or Sprint fail to mention the dimensions of the Optik in the press release; size, thickness, weight, etc. They are buried within the fact sheet though (7.6 inches by 4.7 inches by 0.5 inch, 0.9 pound), making the Optik both thicker and heavier than the Galaxy Tab 7 Plus (0.38 inch, 0.76 pound).

Mum's the word on construction too. This is an area where budget tablet makers tend to cut corners. Remember the Vizio Tablet or Archos 80 G9? Yep, exactly.