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Pricey cheap tablets

Aug 21 2012 07:30 Arthur Goldstuck

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NEWS of a tablet computer available through a South African "group buying" site for just R745 sent ripples of astonishment through the retail community this week.

It was selling like hot cakes, partly because its value was claimed to be R1 230.

However, the device, an All Winner A13 7" tablet with 512 MB of RAM, is a staple of cheap tablet websites in China, where it sells for as low as $55 – less than R500. On a local auction site, a unit was recently sold for R800.

The tablet should, however, come with a very large label that reads "Buyer beware". Just because it is a tablet, and just because it runs a current version of Google's Android operating system – version 4, known as Ice Cream Sandwich – doesn't mean it is going to propel you to an iPad-like experience.

The problem with most sub-R1 000 tablets is that they really do feel like sub-R1 000 tablets. They are slow, their touch screens are unresponsive, and their battery life would not be out of place in a mortuary.

It can be argued that the cheap tablets are great for reading textbooks and using interactive educational applications. PC Training & Business College also thought so when they offered a free Telefunken Tpad, selling at R1 500 in stores, to all students registering at the beginning of this year.

In one quick import move, they solved their own textbook challenges, installing digital versions of textbooks on the tablets.

They brought in 23 000 units, only to discover that, aside from the devices being frustrating to use, many students had no idea how to use them. The college ended up printing manuals for the students, and the exercise turned from PR triumph to disaster.

Oh, and the device is now available in stores for under R1 200.

The cheapest tablet I've seen that gives anything close to a satisfying experience is the Colpad 2, a 7" device imported and adapted with local apps by Tabletworld. At R1 300, with WiFi, it runs Android 4 and most apps comfortably.

It's a great improvement on its predecessor, the Colpad 1 which, with its R999 pricetag, was South Africa's first sub-R1 000 tablet.

It was barely workable, though, and the new edition acknowledges that lowest price is not the highest incentive. Local – and enthusiastic – support is one of the new unit's prime attractions.

The best low-cost tablet on the local market, however, is probably the Wise Touch, a 7" device still running on an old version of Android, 2.3 or Gingerbread.

Built by Chinese mobile giant ZTE, it's locally branded by Wise Tablets and adapted for SA needs. At R2 500, it has both WiFi and 3G built in - the cheapest local tablet with both connectivity options included.

More significantly, it includes an Education Centre developed by Wise, and lurking beneath this innocuous app lies one of the potential futures of education in South Africa.

A "Store" in the app includes Wise's own e-books portal, along with the new EduPortal launched this month by rights management organisation DALRO.

The EduPortal textbooks are expensive – at R130 for "renting" one e-book for a year, they are unlikely to solve any textbook crisis anytime soon. However, as prices come down and the academic publishers' business models improve, they can be a key weapon in the educational war.

A more immediate solution lurks in a School Bag section of the Wise Touch's Education Centre. This is where purchased or downloaded e-textbooks are stored.

The device I tried out included Everything Maths, a Grade 12 mathematics textbook produced by the Shuttleworth Foundation's Siyavula initiative. This is a project to rope in qualified volunteers to produce free textbooks that can be downloaded onto phones, tablets and PCs, accessed directly on the internet, or even printed out.

On the Wise Touch, Everything Maths is so compelling, it almost convinces me to go back to school. Already, several hundred schools have opted for the Wise Touch as a lower cost alternative to iPad programmes.

Battery life remains a challenge, so it is not a solution that will light up the eyes of Limpopo learners, but it sure begins to cut through the darkness of our 19th century education system.

 - Fin24

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up World Wide Worx and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

 
arthur goldstuck  |  tablets
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