RCA Voyager III review: Even at $50, this tablet can't hold a candle to Amazon's Fire
A quintessential bottom-of-the-barrel tablet with barebones features, the simple 7-inch RCA Voyager III is sold exclusively through Wal-Mart for only $50. That's a helluva bargain when compared to, well, any tablet other than the Amazon Fire.
Amazon caused quite a frenzy in 2015 when it released the $50 Fire tablet. For a (then unheard of) jaw-droppingly low price, the Fire turned out to be a pretty decent tablet -- for its price. (The Fire retails for $50, but you can currently find it on sale for $40.)
It's hard to be disappointed in a cheap tablet, because, really, what do you expect for $50? Aside from checking email, light reading, casual web surfing and maybe streaming a movie or two, a $50 tablet can't do much. (And anyone who thinks a budget tablet can be used as an everyday laptop replacement or a great video-watching device is highly delusional.)
Yet, the RCA Voyager III doesn't hold a candle to the the Fire. In comparison to the Amazon tablet, it's an unattractive, slow and lackluster tablet. The only thing is has going for it (besides it rock-bottom price) is its Google Play Store access. If you're strapped for cash and can't afford anything more, take my word for it, you're better off choosing the Fire (which you can side-load Google Play apps onto anyway).
This is the fugliest tablet I have ever seen. And I've seen a lot of tablets.
Maybe it's because I'm fresh off reviewing the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3, one of the best-looking Android tablets ever, that in comparison the RCA Voyager III looks like a crime against the evolution of tablet design.
It's not even the outdated, girthy, all-plastic design that offends, that's to be expected of a budget tablet. It's the other bewildering design choices that perfectly exemplify why RCA (or the low-rent electronics company that licensed the old RCA name) should probably leave tablets to the experts.
The biggest aesthetic assault happens on the tablet's bottom edge, where there are three highly visible screws interchangeably sandwiched between the power button, volume rocker and headphone jack. I cringe every time I look at them. What is this, a prototype? Even as ugly ducklings, most tablets avoided such an ugly faux pas.
The speaker on the back of the tablet is also an unsightly eyesore. It has a grill with holes so large, food crumbs and other debris easily fall into it. (Not to mention the speaker quality is crap.)
To be sure, all cheap tablets have to cut corners somewhere to meet their low price point, and design is often one of them. Even the Amazon Fire is homely at best, however the RCA tablet's crude construction is appallingly bad.
The RCA Voyager runs a mostly pure version of Android 6.0 with a few pre-loaded apps, like Wal-Mart and Vudu, as well as Google's suite of apps, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps and Google Docs.
Even though it's an outdated version of Android, the uncluttered OS is a nice feature. In comparison, the Amazon Fire runs a custom version of Android that works great if you're a Prime member, since it allows for easy access to the free TV shows, books, movies and games that are included in a Prime membership. However, if you're not a Prime member, you're left with a limiting experience.
Importantly, the RCA tablet has access to the Google Play Store. This is one big advantage over the Fire. Amazon tablets are limited to the ultra-curated Amazon App Store, which doesn't have as many apps available as the Play Store.
Using the Voyager III, I was able to download useful apps like TurboTax Return and Splitwise, as well as new games like Super Mario Run and Power Rangers: Legacy Wars, all currently unavailable through the Amazon App Store. There's a difference between the ability to download these apps and games and the ability to run them, however.
If tablets were animals, the Apple iPad Pro 9.7 would be a cheetah, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 a lion, and the RCA Voyager III would be a sloth. The Amazon Fire? A manatee, probably.
People -- the point is that this thing is slow as hell. If you're simply giving this to your kid, maybe it'll teach them that patience is a virtue. Maybe they'll get weary from waiting for Super Mario Run to load and go outside for a run themselves. My arms got tired of holding the tablet more from waiting for apps, websites, games, and game levels to load than from actually using it.
For light reading, checking email, the occasional YouTube hole, watching an episode or two of your latest Netflix obsession, or lurking Facebook, it was fine. Just... fine. Aside from everything taking an extra long time to load, once loaded it would function normally -- unless scrolling. Scrolling was always slow.
Note that on some of our benchmark tests, the Voyager actually scored better than the Amazon Fire, but in hands-on use, it felt pokey, even by budget tablet standards. Once games finally launched they tended to run fine as long as no other apps were open in the background. Choppy graphics in games like Asphalt 8: Airborne was a very common problem.
RCA Voyager III specs
|7-inch, 1,024x600 touch display
|Intel SoFIa 3GR (Quad Core)
|Android 6.0 Marshmallow
|RCA Voyager III
|Android 6.0 Marshmallow; Intel SoFia 3GR Quad-Core; 1GB RAM; 16GB internal storage
|Amazon Fire 7
|Fire OS 5-based on Android 5.1; 1.3GHz ARM Cortex A7; 1GB RAM; 8GB internal storage
The tablet's smudge-friendly screen looked fine from straight on, but it has terrible viewing angles. Shift it a few inches in any direction and the viewing experience is dramatically diminished. Response to taps and swipes consistently lagged, yet it usually reacted swiftly when gaming. It's every other activity that causes it to pause, take a few seconds, then react.
On top if it's frustratingly slow speeds, its performance was consistently buggy at random times. For a few days, I couldn't get the Vudu app (which is owned by Wal-Mart) to launch without crashing -- and it was a pre-installed app. I also had it randomly shut down while downloading updates.
Then there's the pitiful battery life. In our streaming video playback tests, it lasted 3 hours and 23 minutes. Anecdotally, during heavy use (lots of app downloading, streaming video, surfing web and gaming) it lasted me for about 3 to 4 hours. When streaming video it usually lasted about two or three episodes of an hour-long TV show. This is where the Amazon Fire tablet really leaps to the front, as it ran the same test for close to 7 hours.
We asked RCA about the very short battery life, and the company told us: "While battery life expectancy is 6 hours, customers' experiences may vary when viewing media, gaming or using any other applications that drain battery power quickly, for long periods."
It ain't me, babe
Is it possible to buy a decent budget tablet? Yes. But it's not the RCA Voyager III.
If you're looking for a cheap tablet for a kid, the performance issues might not mean much initially, until something goes wrong and you're the adult who has to troubleshoot what's wrong. Depending on how much more money your budget allows, you can get a better performing model with longer battery life, a better screen and sleeker design.
Unless you're a Kardashian or a Trump, you probably care about saving a buck or two when buying new electronics. Considering the best tablets cost about $600, a simpler, cheaper alternative, especially one priced as low as $50, is a truly enticing idea.
The RCA Voyager III is a very modest tablet for a hard-to-beat price. Still, the Amazon Fire is a better piece of hardware and remains the best tablet to buy in the $50 range. However, if it's within your means, I strongly recommend trading up to the Amazon Fire HD 8, which is normally $90, but currently on sale for $70. You get a ton more performance for a just a small bump in budget.