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Hands-on with the E Fun $79 Android tablet

At this price, the Nextbook 7 can't possibly be any good. Can it?

The E Fun Nextbook 7 is surprisingly decent for a $79 tablet, but there's one frustrating issue. Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

If you've ever shopped for a sub-$100 tablet, you know the drill: weak processor, limited storage, old version of Android, and so on. In exchange for that double-digit price tag, you have to make a lot of compromises.

That's why my Cheapskate radar went ker-tilt when E Fun announced the Nextbook 7, a seemingly loaded 7-inch Android tablet priced at just $79.

E Fun

On paper, it looks impressive. The processor? A 1.6GHz ARM Cortex-A7 quad-core. Storage? A generous 16GB, plus a microSD slot for adding more. Android? Good old (make that new) KitKat. It even packs a few bells and whistles, like GPS and a front-facing notification LED. But could this thing really be any good?

E Fun agreed to let me find out. When my demo unit arrived, I was struck by how much it resembles the first-generation Kindle Fire: compact, narrow and surprisingly solid. The Nextbook 7 neither looks nor feels like a $79 tablet. And with its rounded edges, it's very comfortable to hold one-handed.

With most bargain-basement tablets, the screen is the Achilles' heel. The Nextbook 7's resolution is definitely on the low side at 1,024x600 pixels, and the only viewing angle that's any good is straight-on. It's sufficiently bright, though contrast could be better.

But you know what? The screen is good enough. Text looked reasonably sharp, even at small sizes, and games and movies appeared smooth and colorful. Sure, a higher pixel count would be nice, but for the Nextbook 7's intended audience, it's fine. Better than fine, really.

As for performance, I streamed movies and loaded graphics-intensive games like Asphalt Overdrive, FIFA 15 and Star Wars Commander. To my surprise, everything played butter-smooth. In fact, the Nextbook never felt the slightest bit sluggish, a refreshing change from earlier cheapie tablets.

I especially liked the location and layout of the controls: the power button high on the right edge, a large volume-rocker just below it. Everything else -- MicroUSB port, headphone jack, and microSD slot -- can be found along the top edge. (On a lot of cheap tablets I've seen, controls and ports are scattered all over.)

Now for the bad news. (You knew it was coming, right?) The single, rear-facing speaker sounds tinny at best, and the sole, front-facing camera is a low-res waste of space. The bundled Vudu app was surprisingly glitchy, failing to bookmark my place in a movie and often locking up when I tried to scrub to particular spot. (That's not the tablet's fault, but I mention it because it's bundled -- and prominently featured on the box.)

The real problem, though, is storage: Although the Nextbook 7 comes with 16GB, E Fun inexplicably partitioned it into 1GB and 15GB sections -- and apps can reside only in the former. That means you rapidly run out of app space, with no easy way to work around it. (Android experts, if you know of a way to repartition internal storage, or force the OS to install apps on a microSD card, share your wisdom in the comments.)

Update 11/27/14: E fun has released a firmware update that addresses the partition issue. Look for it in the Updates section; choose Firmware Downloads from the pull-down menu.

That may be enough space to install a couple dozen key apps, but it's a frustrating limitation that simply shouldn't exist.

The bigger question, though, is how the Nextbook 7 compares with the recently announced Amazon Kindle Fire HD 6 , which offers a 6-inch screen (at 1,280 x 800), a choice of colors, dual cameras, and just 8GB of non-expandable storage -- for $99. I suspect most bargain hunters will go that way, even though the Nextbook offers a more "pure" Android experience, plus GPS and an expansion slot.

Still, if you're looking for a tablet for the kids, or just a capable model at an impulse-buy price, the Nextbook 7 delivers a surprising amount of bang for the buck.

Update (10/1/2014): According to a company rep, E Fun is working on a firmware update to correct the partition issue.