The Race For Cheaper Tablets Isn’t Helping The Market Evolve

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There are only so many ways manufacturers can make their products more attractive to consumers. With tablets, we look for models with the top-tier hardware specs: resolution, speed, storage capacity, and the like. We also consider software, which covers not only the OS choice, but (for Android, at least) what version of the platform, and any OEM tweaks. Then there’s cost, and with so few tablets sold with carrier subsidies, it’s a much bigger deal than the price tag on a smartphone. Manufacturers have been making some big inroads over the past year or so to really undercut each other when it comes to cost. I’m just concerned that the focus we’ve been seeing on bargain-basement pricing is doing the market a disservice, and putting the wrong kind of emphasis on how tablets are conceived and engineered.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to make a tablet affordable, but the problem seems to be when cost-cutting efforts take priority. Maybe the most blatant example of this is the rumored $99 Nexus tablet, and while we still don’t have any hard evidence suggesting such a thing is really in the works (despite some benchmark figures for a possible ASUS entry), if the rumors have been even close to the truth, this device could nearly make my case alone.

Right now, those rumors paint the picture of a 1GHz device (presumably dual-core, because god forbid someone try and pass off a single-core tablet in this day and age) with a sub-170ppi pixel density. Now, a 1024 x 600 resolution might be passable for app use, but with so much HD media now available, that means that any 720p content (and there’s a lot of it) would have to be scaled down for display. You simply can’t do that without losing quality, and it makes me wish ASUS could have just planned for maybe a $150 device and sprung for a proper HD screen.

But, like I said, that’s just speculation based on rumors; what about real budget tablets? Amazon’s Kindle Fire was an early success, but again, I see corners cut all over. Sure, there’s that same 1024 x 600 resolution here, but considering the first Fire landed in fall of 2011, it gets a pass – the new one, not so much. With its Fire and Fire HD models, Amazon’s discovered a new trick to artificially keep costs down, subsidizing a portion of the purchase price through Amazon-served advertising. Sure, an ad-free version doesn’t cost that much more, but it’s enough to make the Fire HD less attractive than the $200 Nexus 7. Hiding the actual cost like this isn’t helping consumers any.

What about the Nexus 7? That’s probably the king of budget tablets; did ASUS and Google go too far in securing a low price? I’ve got to argue that they did. The screen was just disappointing, and the build quality, with displays detaching from casings, left much to be desired. That was made all the worse because the Nexus 7 is still a very nice tablet, and it felt like just a little less time spent concentrating on hitting the all-important price target could have let it shine that much brighter.

The thing is, I understand the need for super-cheap tablet hardware. We take it for granted just how plugged-in our lives are, and for a family in a developing nation that doesn’t even have a proper computer to their name, an affordable tablet can make a big difference. The problem is when similar hardware finds its way onto shelves in first-world nations, and our capitalistic minds can’t see past the low sticker prices.

In one sense, our flocking towards this cheap-as-can-be hardware is just training manufacturers to keep ramping-up the crap level in order to keep prices as low as possible. Maybe it’s time we just started saying “no”, speaking with our wallets, and not buying the cheapest options around solely because they’re the cheapest.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!