Adventures with a $50 Android Tablet

I’m UX Director at Rocket Communications, a design firm. At least once every year we’re asked to design an Android application. But we’re all iOS people in our daily lives (at an S.F.-based UX design firm, shocking). I think that knowing the subtleties and trends of a platform help make better designs, so I make the point of using an Android tablet every day for work stuff. I like Android.

It helps that we use “Google Apps For Work”, and all of those services are supported by nice native Android apps that mostly follow the design guidelines.

For a long time my workhorse was a Nexus 7 (2012) tablet. Nexus devices are made by various manufacturers for Google and have the unique quality of running a plain vanilla version of the latest Android OS when they’re released, and receiving updates over the years. Its a gloomy truth of the Android world, that many devices ship with old software and keep it forever. Even worse, most manufacturers create their own Android variations, adding device support or creaky UI tweaks. Remember old PCs with crippling software added and stickers all over them revealing that embarrassing truth? It’s that again.

I outgrew the Nexus 7 (2102). Legend has it that some memory flaw in that model causes it to slow down over time, or maybe it was just my perception as every other computer around me got faster, but it became unbearably slow. I was ready for another small tablet running the latest Android, then called Lollipop. But, Google had stopped making the Nexus 7 with the 2013 model. By all accounts it is a huge improvement over the 2012 model, but it’s hard to get excited about buying a 2013 in 2015.

Plan B was to look for a 7"-ish device that could run Lollipop but give up on pure Android. Still easier said than done. Few tablets of any size run Lollipop, nearly a year old. None of Samsung’s small tablets are up to date. After sorting through an ocean of off-brand units (RCA at Target!) I finally found the Chuwi Vi7, a 7" Chinese tablet with Lollipop pre-installed.

The price was too good to be true. A Chinese retailer was selling it for $50 shipped. That’s not enough money for a decent tablet, is it? Maybe buying directly from China meant that I’d be cutting out the middleman and get a serviceable product? I’ll save you the suspense, you get what you pay for.

It arrived quickly with the usual customs declaration of “Gift”. It was nicely packaged with the expected array of seals and stickers and charmingly mis-translated instructions.

It booted up with a “Intel Inside” logo, which I still want to believe is true. After a Chinese coaching screen, it surprisingly started in English. The crew at Chuwi avoided the grossest of UI customizations, but did have their own Kernel, some Chinese keyboard processes, and some default apps. Two of those apps were Chinese app stores, one seemed to be devoted to Chinese music videos (C-pop?). I was able to delete all of those and get the Play Store installed.

None of the good Google apps are installed. Not Chrome, not Gmail, not Docs, not the good Launcher, not the Google app itself. Is that how all Androids are, you have to spend a half day installing everyday stuff? Is there really no mainstream migration tool to help move to new devices? I ran into some problems here, the Google Now launcher wouldn’t work right. I got suspicious of my own tinkering with the default apps, so I did a factory reset. This time it booted to Chinese language with the Chinese apps back.

Then the quirks start to show.

The pull down notification window, which normally slides atop the existing screen contents, caused the screen to go otherwise black when it displayed. Is this a bug, something I caused, or some degraded mode the system uses when the video system is underpowered?

Touch alignment was off just enough to make smaller targets hard to hit. In sad harmony the very low resolution screen caused some dialog layouts to miscalculate button alignment and size. The Play Store dialogs exhibit this — too bad I had about 15 apps to install.

Charging it from a computer’s USB didn’t work, and strangely caused it to reject any charge until rebooted. Power-adapter charging only. I think the manual warned about this.

My own naiveté caused the worst problem. 8 Gigs is not enough storage. I thought since I was using the Google services which are so cloud oriented I’d be OK, but the apps themselves are big. After a few weeks of use it filled up, app updates couldn’t be applied. Removing big apps didn’t make much room. The OS’s storage usage screen seemed to show nonsense totals. My misreading or another bug? I could not get it working again without a factory reset.

I also felt worried about using a computer with a Chinese-customized Kernel. Is it smart to communicate through this device? I know all of our computers come from China. That’s just a silly concern, right?

So, it’s off to eBay to another curious person who wants to know what a $50 tablet is like.

Two relevant things have happened since this little experiment.

First, Amazon released a $50 tablet, a 7" Fire, but it’s a super-customized Android. Not up to date and not easy to install mainstream software.

Second, the next version of Android, Marshmallow, was released. Now nearly every tablet is even further behind. Only one small tablet in the world runs Marshmallow, that 2013 Nexus. Back to eBay.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.