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Velocity Micro Cruz tablets

CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell offers his take on Velocity Micro's range of Cruz tablets and e-book readers.

The tablet wars of 2011 were waged on two fronts. On one side you had well-funded heavyweights (HP, Samsung, RIM, Asus) assaulting the iPad with equally ambitious and expensive creations. On the other side you had budget-minded manufacturers trying desperately to create a viable, cheap tablet alternative.

The Velocity Micro Cruz series is the result of the latter warfront. In 2011, the company launched no less than six low-priced tablets, running the gamut from $119 resistive screen clunkers like the Cruz R100, all the way up to the $299 10-inch Cruz T410.

Whether marketed as e-book readers or Android tablets, the recipe for any of these Velocity Micro Cruz tablets can be boiled down to inexpensive hardware matched with a heavily customized version of Android software devoid of the official Google niceties, such as Android Marketplace, Gmail, Books, Maps, and Navigation.

To fill the software gap, Velocity Micro preinstalls an alternative app storefront (in some cases Amazon's Appstore), and a handful of apps and games. It's a bit of a kludge, requiring multiple account configurations instead of the one-stop sign-in of a Kindle Fire, iPad, or full-fledged Android tablet. The end result, though, is a device with more customization and hardware features than low-cost competitors, at a substantially lower price than high-end tablets.

So what's the catch? Well, in every case we've seen so far, it's the screen quality that makes these tablets difficult to recommend. No software update or Android rooting can repair the experience of using a subpar screen. In many cases you'll find that viewing angles are poor, the pixel density is low to the point of appearing blurry, and the backlight's maximum brightness is barely adequate.

If low-cost tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook Color, and Nook Tablet didn't exist, it would be easier to forgive these Cruz tablets for their shortcomings. Unfortunately for Velocity Micro, these competitors do exist and are unquestionably the preferred tablets to go with if you're on a budget.