Ever since I switched to the Android platform a few years ago, I've been increasingly impressed by its flexibility as a platform that allows the user as little or as much freedom as they want. In fact, coming from a strict Linux background, this was second nature to me and the fact that iOS didn't - and never will - offer anywhere near this level of freedom was frustrating and quite frankly, backwards to me. You can imagine my excitement then when the first Android tablets started to hit the market, the possibilities thanks to Android were as limited as your imagine. Or was it?
Why Cheap Android Tablets Failed, At First
When they first hit the market, they were Android tablet in name only. They ran Android and that was about it, thick slabs with low-res 7" screens that ran Android built for phones. The hardware underneath these cheap plastic hunks was nothing at all to be pleased with. The majority came with 500 Mhz processors and if you were lucky you'd find a few with the odd 800 Mhz or so processor and the best you'd find would be 256Mb of RAM. Oh, and have I not touched - get it? - on the screens yet? With resistive touch screens you were really lucky if you could get past the first few levels of Angry Birds, and that's if you got the game to run.
With no official access to the then Android Market we now know as the Play Store, these tablets were hardly what you'd call "no-brainer buys" like the Nexus 7 is today. Even as they would pop in retail stores and flood the internet, particularly eBay to the trained Android-user's eye these things were crap. Not just the crap that you'd go "Oh, it's only $130" but the type of crap you'd think "Really, why did I do this to myself." It wasn't particularly anything to do with the price of these tablets but the fact that they had no access to Google services - out of the box at least - and they didn't really serve much of a purpose because they were so terrible.
Why Cheap Android Tablets Became Viable
Now, my first tablet wasn't what you would call a high-end machine. In fact my first Android tablet, which was back in the halcyon days before Honeycomb was anything more than speculation, was an Archos A101 of the 8GB variety. I know what you're all thinking, an Archos?! Truth be told, I loved the thing. It was a fairly quick at the time as well, it had a single-core 1Ghz processor with 512MB of RAM which, at the time was twice the amount of the iPad. The 10.1" screen had an okay resolution of 1024x600 which was basic netbook territory so that didn't really bother me, it had a pretty decent speaker and had a kickstand. In all honesty, the kickstand probably sold me more than anything else. I know I wanted a tablet and at the time it was an Archos or a Galaxy Tab to get your hands on something half decent. The Archos A101 cost me £249.99 while the Galaxy Tab would have cost me around £500 at the time.
Of course, I had to install GApps on there from XDA but other than that I was relatively happy with it. Browsing the web was really nice and watching films and YouTube was pretty great. What made me fall out with the Archos wasn't particularly the hardware I mean, yeah, it was pretty plasticky and creaked audibly but, it was a cheap tablet that I loved. No, it wasn't the hardware it was Android as a whole, 2.2.2 on a 10 inch display yeah, you can imagine how well that went for a few months, can't you?
Even still, the Archos served it's purpose for what I needed but, I think this was because my expectations weren't all that high. I wanted to browse the web, play movies and watch YouTube, it did all that and was a little bit more fun than a chubby netbook setting fire to my lap.
Archos as well as another company called Ainol managed to make even better tablets once Honeycomb was out, Archos made the A80 - an 8" 4:3 dual-core running tablet with 3.2 and the A101 G2 which looked just like the original but with Honeycomb and a dual-core OMAP, these tablets were £200 and £299. Ainol, on the other hand, had to wait until Ice Cream Sandwich was open-sourced before they got down to working on tablets and when they did they were pretty good, the really low level models were terrible but the further up the model ladder you went you'd get IPS displays and everything. All for a fraction of the cost of a Galaxy Tab 10.1. Pretty neat, right?
Cheap Tablet Manufacturers Need to Do Something New and Cheaper or Just Give Up
Thanks to the Nexus 7 from Google manufacturers like Archos and Ainol are pretty much screwed. You know why? Because they won't be able to match that magic $199 price point with anything anywhere close to the quality of the Nexus 7. A quad-core Tegra 3 and an HD IPS panel is no mean feat to put into a tablet of this price and, if Archos were hoping to come anywhere close then they need to think again. The French company recently outed there new "Carbon 97" tablet which a 4:3 9.7" tablet, with a single-core 1Ghz processor and a 1024x768 panel. It costs $249. Archos, are you for real? I realise that the company has probably had that tablet in the pipeline for quite some time but honestly, who's going to buy this? Only those that are desperate for a larger screen and a microSD slot but, even then you cannot deny the Nexus name. That name alone assures you of a quality product and the latest and greatest from Google.
Unless these companies that used to make a healthy living on affordable, decent, cheap tablets are going to come out with something new or special to keep their prices down and quality high I don't see how there going to survive. The idea of getting a cheap tablet to throw around and not worry about price isn't all that new, Amazon have been doing it since last year and even they're struggling against the Nexus 7's ridiculously awesome price. If I were Archos, Ainol and pals then I'd either pack up shop or get some serious negotiations done with their suppliers.