The tablet revolution brought about by the iPad caught most of the tech world napping. It wasn’t that tablet computers were a new idea (Microsoft had been flogging that particular dead horse for years), but that they finally overcame the cynicism about whether the concept could be made to work, and whether people would adopt tablets in significant numbers.
Not wanting to be left out, the Android market slowly responded to the change, but the early response was too little, too late. The first wave of Android tablet devices were full of software shortcomings, but worst of all were priced at the same level as the iPad, leaving them appealing only to hardcore Android fans. The first round was always destined to go to Apple.
But there was another group of manufacturers soon to enter the battle. While the consumer giants struggled to find a marketing edge to chip away at Apple’s uncontested mind-share dominance, a bunch of tiny companies, mostly from East Asia, set about proving that Android’s openness combined with commodity hardware allows a tablet to be produced for a fraction of the price. In other words, sheer cheapness could crack the market where sophisticated marketing failed.
The early results were, in my experience, absolutely terrible. Resistive screens and minimally-customised software abounded. Worse still, little effort was put into hardware engineering meaning that battery life was terrible. The best device I tried in this era was the Kogan Agora, a 7-inch device running Android 2.3 with a capacitative screen, which I picked up to use for a cheap test device for software development. Unfortunately, the limits on battery life tied it to at-home usage only, and the lack of an Android 4.0 update left it feeling like an abandoned product line (which it still remains, despite an inexplicable price increase).
So it was with a heavy heart that I realised I needed an Android 4.0 device to test my app on, and that I couldn’t afford to sink money into a product from one of the more reputable manufacturers (this was before the announcement of the Nexus 7 from Google). I gritted my teeth and plumped for the Ainol Novo7 Tornado, for the princely sum of £75 (probably around $90). The Ainol tablet range holds the twin dubious claims to fame of being the first tablet released with Android 4.0, and a name that one must never, under any circumstances, snigger at.
Being prepared for an utterly terrible user experience, I was massively surprised. The Ice Cream Sandwich interface is a much more tablet-friendly spin on the earlier 2.x Android line, and Ainol seem to have done a good job installing it on the tablet. I don’t know how much customisation they had to do, but everything about it works and nothing screams “cheap” like other tablets I’ve seen. Whether it’s the hardware or the software improvements in Ice Cream Sandwich, the interface is much snappier than earlier tablets, and although some of the customary Android lag is present, it’s perfectly usable.
Best of all, battery life is a much, much better story than other tablets I’ve used. It holds up well in everyday low-CPU usage like web browsing, and in sleep mode it manages to drain negligible amounts of battery (if you think this is damning with faint praise, you obviously haven’t used other cheap Android tablets). The net effect is that under my light usage pattern, it can run for 3 days or more without charging. Playing videos, 3D games and other high-CPU usage leads to poorer battery life: I used a substantial fraction of a full charge in streaming an entire movie from Netflix.
As the name implies, it’s a 7 inch tablet. As you’d expect, it’s pretty cheaply constructed, with a plastic case that creaks annoyingly, but it does boast a front-facing camera and a capacitative screen. The screen accuracy leaves a bit to be desired, with touches sometimes getting lost or mis-registering, but it’s perfectly usable.
In my first week of use, I was extremely happy with the device, but a couple of crashes have occurred since that have caused the tablet to reboot itself; in addition, on one occasion it died from a flat battery with absolutely no warning.
So it’s hardly iPad quality, but it is easily a quarter of the price of its slicker rival. If you’re looking for a 7-inch tablet and are happy to put up with a few annoyances in return for saving money then it’s not a bad choice. I suspect that the Google Nexus 7 is going to capture a lot of this market though, and quite rightly so. It may be twice the price of the Ainol, but it’s still a pretty compelling price and I’m sure it boasts a much better fit and finish.