There’s a race to the bottom in the tablet market and models from some first-tier brands are slowly edging closer to the $100 mark (Amazon's most basic Kindle Fire, for example, is now only $159).
But with these falling prices comes one big question -- how useful could one of these devices really be?
TabTimes took up that challenge recently after ordering a 7-inch Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) tablet from UK retailer Carphone Warehouse for a measly £49 ($75).
At that price you could be forgiven for betting that the model -- made by a small Chinese company -- would be heading to my trash can within the month, but I came away pleasantly surprised with the Versus Touchpad 7. This may not have been down to the performance, its looks or even its usability, but just the pure fact that you can get something relatively usable for so cheap.
First impressions: Looks and feels like a budget tablet
At just $75, the questions you ask about the Versus 7 are not if it comes with a high-resolution display and a quad-core processor, but rather if it has the basics – a capacitive touchscreen, Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) or above and a respectable battery life.
On that front, the Versus Touchpad 7 reaches some requirements and misses others. There’s a weak 800 x 480 resolution display (with capacitive touch, however), the Android 4.0 operating system, a reasonable 8GB of memory, 1GB of RAM, but just a single-core 1GHz Cortex A10 CPU. The battery life too isn’t great either, with the 3000mAh battery allowing for just four hours of active use.
On the plus side, there’s a full-sized HDMI port, an SD card slot, support for 802.11b/g/n WiFi and the Google Play app store. You might raise your eyes at that last point, but it is worth noting that a huge number of sub-$100 tablets offer third-party app store alternatives.
The tablet comes in solid and surprisingly smart packaging and there’s a protective plastic sleeve to protect the display. The model is thin and light, comfortable in one hand or two, has a shiny, cheap black plastic rear and thick black bezels around the display.
Performance? Bearable, but far from snappy
The tablet was unexpectedly nimble and easy to use. Booting the tablet took longer than expected (approximately 20-25 seconds), but on launching Ice Cream Sandwich, the OS gives you the option to jump into the home page, Gmail, Facebook or another application, which it quickly.
The Touchpad 7 was general usable if a little sluggish. The capacitive touchscreen responded pretty well to finger input, although the tablet sometimes stuttered when sliding between the app menu.
For all that, the Touchpad 7 comes with a solid suite of pre-loaded applications. There is office editing via Documents To Go, video content through BBC iPlayer and YouTube, and some other useful tools in Gmail, Skype and Dolphin Browser.
The good news is that Ice Cream Sandwich lets you do a number of neat things, from pulling up notifications (showing battery life, network and emails) from the bottom right of the screen to pinning widgets to the home screen.
The pre-loaded apps are handy. The pre-loaded basic version of Documents To Go can open and view attachments, while editing is enabled through the premium version of Documents To Go ($14.99 from Google Play or Amazon). Gmail and Skype also ran without a hitch.
Much of the Versus Touchpad’s performance is hindered by the slow, single-core 1GHz processor. Everything from browser Web pages and loading emails to reading eBooks is relatively slow, although watching videos on YouTube was OK.
At under $100, there are of course other nuisances. The accelerator moved at a pedestrian pace and the battery, quoted at a lowly 4 hours, gets very hot in a short space of time. Furthermore, I found that the power button -- for one reason or another -- worked intermittently when the battery was running low.
There were other issues; the mono speaker, located at the bottom right of the device, emitted tinny audio which got even worse when your hands got in the way, and it's fair to say that the budget screen isn't going to rock your world.
Summary: For those with looking for a super cheap tablet ...
In summary then, it’s fair to assume that the Versus Touchpad 7 won’t be replacing your primary tablet any time soon -- its performance, poor battery life and general usability rule that out.
But it could have its uses, especially for those on a restricted budget. School tutors, for instance, could view the Versus Touchpad 7 as a learning companion for their students (providing they identify some handy apps on Google Play), parents too may see this as good device for entertainment.
Event organizers and retail managers could also look to the 7-inch Ice Cream Sandwich tablet as an affordable way of registering attendees or logging product SKUs.
While this is just one device, it does show that super cheap tablets can be useful for business too.