How cheap is too cheap for Android?

December 5, 2013
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The HP 7-inch tablet is just one example of the new wave of sub-$100 tablets.

The HP 7-inch tablet is just one example of the new wave of sub-$100 tablets.

Late in November, Intel announced a partnership with HP that would bring a $99 Android tablet to Walmart stores, making HP the latest in a long line of companies to produce cheap Android tablets.

Cheap Android tablets (around $99 or less) aren’t exactly a new phenomena. Since Google introduced Android for tablets with Android 3.0 Honeycomb, many companies have put out their own cheap tablets. These are the cheap no-name tablets you’d find on shelves or behind the counter at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens. But now more recognizable companies are trying to get into the market.

The $99 Intel powered HP Mesquite is available at Walmart

The $99 Intel powered HP Mesquite is available at Walmart

Companies like HP, Acer, and Dell are putting out Android tablets that trade off specs for price. The HP and Intel tablet, for example, has specs that make it seem straight out of 2011. It has a 7-inch 1024×768 display, 8GB of storage, 1GB of RAM, and a battery that’s rated for just five hours web browsing. It uses a year-old Intel Atom Z2460 processor, and runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean which is now almost 18 months old.

If there’s anything appealing about the HP 7-inch tablet, and most of the other cheap Android tablets, aside from their price, its that most of them run stock Android. With year-old Intel processors or no-name ARM processors, it’s hard to say if any of these tablets can even run stock Android smoothly.

Despite the poor specs, however, the low prices mean these tablets sell and will continue to sell. And they apparently sell very well. This year Walmart had its best Black Friday sales ever in the company’s history, and among the top products sold to mobile users that day were the Nextbook 7-inch Tablet with 8GB Memory with Google Mobile Services and RCA 7-inch Tablet with 4GB Memory. Both tablets currently sell for $69.

While it’s hard to imagine a good experience on most cheap tablets, reviews for both of the best-selling tablets on Walmart’s website are overwhelmingly positive. The same goes for many tablets under $100 on Amazon. While those of us who spend our days obsessing over the latest and greatest smartphones and tablets look down on these devices, others are perfectly happy with last year’s specs, low-resolution displays, and limited storage.

The new Nexus 7 remains the best value in its class.

The new Nexus 7 remains the best value in its class.

It’s tempting to tell them to just save up and buy a Nexus 7 or a Kindle Fire HD, and maybe someday they will. But for now, as tempting as it is to look down on these cheap tablets, they might be the key to getting better tablet apps on Android. If more people buy these cheap tablets, they will consequently demand better apps. Google has shown that it’s paying attention too, with the much needed Featured Apps for Tablets that was  that was recently created on Google Play. Now, whether users are willing to pay for quality tablet apps is another question, but we’re confident the economics will work itself out.

And maybe someday, these same consumers looking for bargains tablets will look towards better Android tablets that we accept as quality devices. That is, of course, unless they become frustrated and turn to cheap Windows tablets or save up for an iPad mini. Android is the most popular tablet and smartphone operating system in the world, and is on tablets and smartphones at all ends of the price spectrum, from cheap to premium. A natural byproduct of the intense competition in this space is that there is such hardware diversity in the wide world of Android. The beauty is that premium device launches always push the technological envelope, and lower the barriers to entry for lower priced segments. Technology gets cheaper over time through economies of scale, which is why we now have before us a remarkable device like the Nexus 7, which really does pack industry leading technology at a very competitive price.

And while $99 tablets might not offer the best Android experience in their current form, it is almost guaranteed that a $99 tablet or smartphone will soon hit the market and will be able to offer a very nice user experience at this price segment sometime within the next 12-15 months.

Do you think cheap Android tablets are good for the platform? Or do they run the risk of frustrating and potentially alienating a whole new segment of users? Leave your thoughts down below.

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