Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Making Sense of the Android Tablet Market... You CAN Have Your iPad and Pay Your Bills Too!

I have been doing a LOT of research on Android tablets lately. I really want to buy one and if this website ever actually produces enough (any?) money I will :)... But I am not sure I am ever going to be able to justify $600 for a tablet. That rules out all the big players... i.e. iPad, iPad 2, Xoom, Galaxy Tab, etc. So where does that leave me?

Six months to a year ago I really wouldn't have had any options (in the $200 price range) that were even remotely comparable to say, a 1st Generation iPad, let alone a Galaxy Tab. But technology has come a long way in a short time. The things that made the iPad so magical, namely a quick processor, highly responsive touchscreen with multi-touch and a robust app market, can all be found in relatively low cost units. Android has matured immensely over the last year (some may disagree) and has a fairly robust app market making it a truly viable mobile operating system. Mobile processor technology has taken off with new contenders in the market like Nvidia and new architectures like Arm Cortex A9 driving prices down on slightly older but still quite capable hardware. Finally, and this has been the longest in coming, quality capacitive multi-touch touch screens are now an economical option in the "budget" market.

Now, you won't see a lot of these devices on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Fry's anytime soon. However, if you know which online retailers to keep tabs on, there is literally a "glut" of android powered tablets coming out of China. But you still have to be VERY careful as to what you buy when you are shopping for a China-brand tablet under the $400 mark. A tablet priced at $300 could easily be riddled with older technology and therefore be a much poorer performer than a tablet priced at $200. I am actually shopping right around the $200 mark and I have found, in my opinion, three viable options which fulfill the mantra, "You can have your iPad and Pay Your Bills too."

So what is important in an Android tablet? Here are some specs listed in order of importance:

1. Processor (at least an Arm Cortex A8 based chip)
2. Amount/Type of RAM (Never less than 256mb, 512mb is preferable, DDR or DDR2)
3. Build Quality
4. Touch Screen Technology (Capacitive Multi-touch is a MUST HAVE)
5. Display Technology (Resolution, size, IPS, LCD, etc.)
6. Additional Features (GPS, USB ports, HDMI out, replaceable battery, G-Sensor)

I plan on replacing the firmware on any of the devices I buy, that is one of the reasons why I don't talk about what Android version these devices ship with. The Nook Color is the only device I have concerns about as far as what comes on the device...

That is the list, it isn't exhaustive I am sure, but I want to elaborate a bit on each point:


I highly recommend this article. It is a review of a particular tablet, but in the intro it does a VERY good job of explaining the different types of mobile processors that are commonly found in tablets.

I am actually just going to quote what the author had to say, but I highly recommend you check out his blog :), I was really impressed. If you like my stuff, chances are you will like his.

The earlier models (circa late 2009/early 2010) were generally based on ARM9 (ARMv5) processors, such as the VIA WM8505 (350mhz) and Rockchip RK2808 (600mhz), these offered poor performance which was more frustrating than anything else (think G1). Examples include Archos 7/8 and the Flytouch. Then the next wave arrived on the back of ARM11 (ARMv6) processors such as the Telechips TCC8902 and IMAPX210. These generally ran from 600mhz-1ghz, offering basic GPU acceleration and the ability for devices to run Android 2.1 onwards. Examples include the Barnes and Noble Nook, Gentouch, Wiipad and Zenithink ZT-180 (of which there is a huge community).
The more recent models are based around Cortex A8 (ARMv7) core’s, such as the Freescale IMX515 (of which this review is centered around), and the TI OMAP 35/34/36 range. Examples of devices based on ARMv7′s are iPhone 3GS, Huawei S7 amd Qualcomm Snapdragon QSD8250 devices (such as the Nexus One / Evo 4G / Desire HD). The next trend appears to Cortex A9 devices, such as those based on the dual-core Tegra 2 (such as the Adam), although availability is still scarce."

Understanding the difference in processors is VITAL information when choosing a tablet. THE most important information in my opinion. The processor is going to determine how smoothly EVERYTHING runs. Cheap, crappy tablets that constantly stutter and lag are using old technology processors. I would avoid them like the plague! For that matter, sometimes some of the more expensive tablets use slow outdated processors. Keep an eye on this. The Flytouch 3 is one particular tablet that comes to mind. It has a very "fast", 1Ghz, Arm 11 based processor. It is fast for an Arm 11 but it is a real slouch compared to an Arm Cortex A8. The Flytouch comes with a 10" screen and GPS, but it uses Resistive Touch technology (more on that later). The interface is fairly smooth BUT it is going to feel extremely clunky compared to an iPad or most Arm Cortex A8 powered devices. The tablet comes in at $189. Drop the GPS and spend twenty dollars more and you can get a device that leaves the Flytouch 3 in the dust. I want whatever I get to work REALLY well. I want an iPad experience without the price of a golden apple...

The only tablets that I have seen with consistently smooth performance (i.e. absolutely NO stutter, that is my minimum standard for what I define as smooth) have at least an Arm Cortex A8 based chip. Speed is irrelevant when you are comparing one chipset architecture to another. Even the 1.0ghz tablets (such as the Flytouch 3) that use Arm 11 based chips will often stutter and run slowly.

Here are two good videos showing the performance of a Cortex A8 @ 800mhz vs an Arm 11 also clocked at 800mhz. See for yourself what a difference one processor generation can make. (And the processor in the Witstech is considered a "slow" Cortex A8)

Cortex A8 @ 800mhz (Witstech A81G Capacitive)

Arm 11 @ 800mhz (Flytouch 2)

Bottom line, don't waste your money on anything less than a Cortex A8 chip.


When you are shopping for a device, try to find something with at least 256 MB of DDR memory. Ideally you want 512 MB of DDR2.

DDR and DDR2, very generally speaking, refer to the speed of the memory. Memory has a clock speed, much like a processor, but the difference between DDR and DDR2 is that DDR2 moves TWICE as much information in the same amount of time as DDR. So even if the clock speed is lower, the effective throughput is often much higher. With that being said, most tablets, especially in the $200 price range, run 256mb of DDR memory. Based on what I have seen, as long as the tablet has a strong processor, the overall operation is still very smooth. However, as more programs and web pages are loaded, my guess is that you are going to see a quicker degradation in overall performance.

A lot of retail websites do an incredibly poor job of separating a device's RAM from it's storage capacity. Storage memory is flash memory (or in some cases a small hard drive) where stuff that doesn't change very often is put. Programs are installed in storage memory. Storage ranges from 2 GB to 64 GB. Do not confuse this with RAM. A lot of sites like to list Storage Memory and RAM together, as if they were one in the same. This is a misrepresentation of the specs (sometimes blatant). More RAM translates into more performance, more storage does not. More storage is simply that, more space for stuff.

Some of you may have noticed that I didn't list storage capacity as something I consider vital. Personally, I want a tablet for web browsing, watching some videos, playing music, and reading books. I want to be able to install some fun games and take notes as well. I am not looking to tote my entire media library with me, and more to the point, most android tablets include an expandable micro-SD slot which lets you add more storage space. All three of the devices at the end of this article offer expandable storage. Built-in storage, therefore, is NOT at the top of my wish list...


The only way to know about a particular device's build quality is to read reviews. Suffice to say, there are a lot of cheap plastic devices out there. This is a portable device. You are most likely going to be carrying it all over the place. If you have children... well, need I say more? The closer a tablet is to bullet-proof the better. Aluminum housing/backing is definitely a plus, but not very many devices have it. Plastic varies greatly from device to device. Part of it is the "tactile" experience of the device. You want the device to have a certain amount of weight in your hands and you want it to feel solid.

Personally, I also can't stand "glossy" exteriors and screens. They attract scratches and fingerprints. I don't know why the industry hasn't figured this out yet. Textured plastic that has a "soft-touch" or grip to it is nice looking and easy to hold on to. Some devices have this, but not many.

Oh, ergonomics and the "coolness" factor come into play here. When it comes to aesthetics, I, personally, don't want an iPad clone. Most of them are rather ugly : (... Thinness is a good thing too, but battery life and solid construction are better. A unique, slick design to impress your friends is also a plus!


Tablet devices are made up of "all screen." Touch is the primary way you interact with them. The screen and the touch technology are very important. There are two major types of touch technology:

Resistive Touch

Capacitive Touch

Capacitive touch is the more expensive, but vastly more preferable, of the two. For example, two devices have the same processor, one has a resistive screen, the other has a capacitive screen, the one with the capacitive screen is going to feel much faster, even if the devices are otherwise identical? Why? Because capacitive touch is much more sensitive and therefore the device responds more quickly to what you are wanting to do. Once again, there are some exceptions to the rule. Cheap capacitive screens can suck and quality resistive touch screens can be pretty decent. Generally speaking though, you want to get a capacitive touchscreen tablet. If you choose to get a resistive touch screen device, be sure to do some heavy reading/research on it first. Capacitive devices have come WAY down in price in the last year though and I would be hard pressed to recommend a unit utilizing resistive touch.

Multi-Touch - Yes or No?

You want a device that is Multi-Touch and you want it to work well. Generally speaking, MOST resistive touch screens are NOT multi-touch. There are a few though. Capacitive touch screens can go either way. Once again, you need to do some research on your device. Make sure that it is "true" multi-touch and not some odd hack. There are a couple of devices out there that claim multi-touch that are not. Be aware of devices that claim multi-touch but then go on to specify that "two finger pinch-to-zoom works." Obviously if a device is full multi-touch, pinch-to-zoom will work just fine. If the retailer/manufacturer goes on to specify this basic feature, it usually means that pinch-to-zoom is the ONLY multi-touch function that works.


Once again, read some reviews :)... There was a device recently released by Viewsonic.  A respectable company to be sure. It had great specs, a fast dual core Tegra 2 processor (way ahead of the Cortex A8), a capacitive multi-touch screen, fast memory... and the screen viewing angles were awful... According to most of the reviewers you had to be looking at the device "straight-on" and any deviance from that resulted in the color shifting or the screen looking so dark you couldn't see anything. Wide viewing angles and bright, vivid color reproduction is important, especially if plan on doing much reading. There is a "new" (I say new because it is seeing more use in recent years, even though it has been around for a while) display technology known as IPS. IPS screens have great contrast (more bright, vivid color reproduction), fantastic viewing angles, and higher resolutions (cleaner graphics). They also take less power to operate so you are getting better battery life. Keep an eye out for devices with IPS screen technology, you won't regret paying a little extra for it. The Barns and Noble "Nook Color" is an excellent example of this technology. The higher the resolution (ie. 1024x700 is better than 800x480) the better. If you are getting a device with a standard LCD (which is the most common) just do a bit of research on it beforehand.

Just as a side-note - 7" seems to be the "Sweet" spot for screen size. Excellent portability but also very usable for the internet and video viewing. Also, a perfect size for reading :) if you are looking for an e-reader.


There are a whole range of items we could discuss here but the "BIG" ones are: GPS, Bluetooth, HDMI out, USB ports, G-Sensor, and replaceable battery. I want a device that has GPS in it :). I don't care so much about blue-tooth. I also really want an HDMI out (it lets your device play Hi-Def video on your flat-screen TV), and at least 1 if not 2 or 3 usb ports. The G-Sensor is also important to me, this is what auto-rotates the screen for you when you turn your device, it also lets you play fun racing games by using your device like a steering wheel. The G-Sensor is a make or break for me :)...


Are there devices that have ALL of these features in a $200 package? At this juncture, NO... but there are some that come close. I have compile a list of three devices below, and my thoughts on each of these areas based one what I have read and watched elsewhere:

(5 Star "How I feel about it" rating system)

Witstech A81G Capacitive Touch - $220 - This is a solid tablet with GPS and some unique features...

1. Processor - 3.5 Stars
TI OMAP3 Cortex A8 running at 800mhz (everything runs very smoothly)

2. Amount/Type of RAM - 3 Stars
256 MB DDR - many devices in this units price range come with only 128mb. 256 mb is my bare minimum limit in what I want in a device. 256mb means everything runs smoothly most of the time. You may be limited on the number of applications you can have open at the same time, but that is something you want to monitor anyway.

3. Build Quality - 4 Stars
Solid build quality, Removable battery (big plus), would be 5 stars but it isn't as "sleek" as some other devices. But it is still a very solid, well built device.

4. Touch Screen Technology - 5 Stars
Capacitive Multi-Touch and from what I have read and watched, it works very well! There are several different but very similar Wistech models. Make sure you get the one that explicitly says "Capacitive" in the name.

5. Display Technology - 3.5 Stars
LCD - 800x480 - Pretty standard display in this price bracket, from what I have seen in the videos it looks like it is pretty bright and crisp. I gave it an extra ".5" because, once again going off of the videos, the viewing angles look pretty wide (which is good).

6. Additional Features - 5 Stars - this is where this device shines!
-GPS - Yes and it works well
-Internal Storage - 2 GB
-USB Ports - 2!
-HDMI Out - NO (The only thing that is sadly lacking...)
-Replaceable Battery - YES (I believe it comes with an Extra!)
-Full-fledged G-Sensor - YES (And it works really well!)
-BlueTooth - YES (this is not on very many devices...)
-3G Dongle Support - Can use a 3G dongle for internet anywhere.
-USB Keyboard & Mouse Support - YES
-Camera - NO

7. Additional thoughts: One other thing worth mentioning. I get the impression that Wistech actually supports their devices. The release new firmware fairly often, they respond to customers on Meritab and the fix problems that customers have. Rare behavior indeed :)

Herotab C8/Dropad A8 - $209 - Raw Horsepower! Great Performance, Sleek design. Amazing Value for the Money

1. Processor - 4.5 Stars
Samsung Built Arm Cortex A8 running at 1.0 Ghz
This is an amazing processor for the price. Amazingly enough, the performance is actually smoother than the Witstech device. I only knock it half a star because Single Core Cortex A9 processors are right around the corner and I they are going to set the performance benchmark in this price bracket. Regardless, this is the fastest device in my roundup...

2. Amount/Type of Ram - 5 Stars
512 MB DDR2 - Blazingly fast and plenty to go around. This device has the same processor and memory specification as the Samsung Galaxy Tab. This really is the peak of performance at an amazing price.

3. Build Quality - 4.0 Stars
If I were going on "looks" alone I would probably give this device 4.5 stars. It is very sleek, it has a metal frame and it has a decent heft to it. It feels solid and expensive vs. some of the more poorly built tablets. I knock it though because I don't like the glossy, fingerprint attracting plastic, but more importantly because I have read elsewhere that some of their other devices are not as sturdy as they appear. Now, with that being said, I can't speak for this device in particular.  I like the "look" of it probably the most out of all the devices in my line-up but I still have questions about its durability.

4. Touch Screen - 5 Stars
Capacitive Multi-touch - And it works flawlessly based on everything I have seen and read.

5. Display Technology - 3.5 Stars
LCD - 800x480 - Same impression as the Witstech device

6. Additional Features - 3.5 Stars
-Internal Storage - 4 GB
-USB Ports - 2!
-Replaceable Battery - NO
-Full-fledged G-Sensor - YES (And it works really well!)
-BlueTooth - NO
-3G Dongle Support - Can use a 3G dongle for internet anywhere.
-USB Keyboard & Mouse Support - YES
-Camera - 1 - Front facing - 1.3 mega pixel

7. Additional thoughts: This is probably the stronger of the two devices. GPS is noticeably absent. HDMI out however is a very good thing and this device has the horsepower to support it. Build quality is the only *possible concern I would have. The C9 is coming out in a few weeks, it will cost around $250 and it will have GPS built in as well as a few other features. It also has a much different look but still the same form factor.

Barnes and Noble Nook Color - $250 (new), $230 (used) - Our final entry is lacking in the "additional features" market and it doesn't pass my "no stutter" minimum requirement. But there is more to it than that because it more than likely isn't a hardware issue. Even in view of the stutter issues, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Nook Color because it does have a few outstanding features... Notably, it has the most solid, sleek construction of all them all and an AMAZING screen. Furthermore, it is a name brand device made by a respectable manufacturer and sold by a highly respected retailer.

The Nook Color in this video has been "rooted" and is running Android 2.2...

1. Processor - 3.5 Stars
TI OMAP3 Cortex A8 running at 800mhz (everything should run very smoothly...)

2. Amount/Type of Ram - 4 Stars
512 MB DDR - It is only DDR, but you get 512 MB of it, (everything should run silky smooth with this much memory)

3. Build Quality - 5 Stars
Extremely solid construction in a compact package with a very slick and unique look. The device is manufactured by Foxconn, who does a pretty solid job when it comes to manufacturing computer components.

4. Touch Screen - 2.5 Stars
It has a next-gen Capacitive touch screen but oddly enough there is some question as to whether or not full Multi-touch works on this device? Pinch-to-zoom functions but people have reported issues with other things that a full multi-touch screen should be able to handle. My guess is that it is, once again, a software issue...

5. Display Technology - 5 Stars
Hands-down one of the best displays found in ANY tablet, let alone in this price range. It has a 178 degree viewing angle, high contrast, high resolution, IPS screen. Think, vivid colors, beautiful video, and a pleasure to read on.

6. Additional Features - 2.5 Stars
(this device was intended to be an e-reader so it is a bit slim on added extras)
-Internal Storage - 8 GB (although it isn't a big deal to me, it is worth noting that this unit has significantly more storage than either of the other two devices)
-USB Ports - 1
-HDMI Out - NO
-Replaceable Battery - NO
-Full-fledged G-Sensor - YES (And it works really well!)
-BlueTooth - Hardware Supported but Not Enabled (from what I have read)
-3G Dongle Support - ?
-USB Keyboard & Mouse Support - Probably?
-Camera - NO
-It is also worth noting that while all three of these devices have support for Wireless, the Nook Color is the only one to support Wireless-N.

7. Additional Thoughts: This device should sit nicely between the HeroTab C8 and the Witstech as far as performance goes. But, at present, even when the device is rooted, (i.e. the stock e-reader firmware is swapped out for a baseline, unlocked version of Android 2.2) it still isn't as smooth as the Witstech. It has relatively "good" performance (especially when compared to the Arm 11 device in the video above...) but, as things are, the comparatively lackluster experience vs the HeroTab C8 would run me off from this device. With all that being said, the Nook Color has an incredibly strong following and future software/firmware hacks/updates may vastly improve its performance. However, it could also be that it is running at a higher resolution than the Witstech and therefore it requires a bit more "kick" to run smoothly, which software hacks can't fix. This device is something I would recommend if you want a project :), It looks really cool, it is built really well, and it has an amazing screen. These are selling points that the other devices don't possess and that is why I felt I should mention it.


I hope this article will help you better navigate the rather muddy waters of the Android Tablet marketplace. If you didn't guess from my reviews, if I were to buy a tablet today, I would go with the HeroTab C8. However, I am going to wait for the C9 to come out and see how it fares. I really want GPS :)...

The Witstech A81G Capacitive and HeroTab C8 can both be purchased from:

I would recommend checking out Amazon if you are wanting to buy a Nook Color.

Good luck, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, critiques and other feedback!


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