Disaster: What happens when you buy an Android tablet at Walgreens

Summary:Android tablets should be cheap. Just not THIS cheap.

Android tablets should be cheap. Just not THIS cheap.

Everybody loves a bargain. Not just us Chosen People either.

A few weeks ago, Walgreens, of drug store fame, began offering a $99 7" Android tablet for sale, the Maylong M-150, an off-brand made in China. It sounded like a good enough deal -- the device as advertised can do web browsing, with a front-facing (albeit low-res) video camera, with built-in Wi-Fi.

I figured for a goof, it would at least be worth testing out. So on October 27, I ordered it.

On November 5, I finally received notification that the product had shipped from Walgreens' warehouse. On Friday, November 12, it actually arrived, netting a 15-day turnaround door-to-door. I have to suspect that due to overwhelming demand, Walgreens got seriously back-ordered and had to order a container or two from China, which would explain the unusual delay, as the web site advertises a 5-7 day shipping time.

For $99.00, you really don't expect and shouldn't expect much from a tablet device. I do, however, actually expect the thing to work, albeit in a mediocre fashion. However, I don't even want to call this device mediocre because it's worse than mediocre, it barely functions at all, as you'll see in the video above.

[EDIT: Note that in the video, the wireless network appears to have not been connected, so it explains why the web pages wouldn't load, but you should be able to discern what the other problems evident in the device are. Even when the Wi-Fi network was functioning during our testing, the performance of the web browser was ungodly slow.]

What do you get for $99? Well in terms of pure specs, it should tell you quite a bit. You get a 533Mhz ARM9 processor (read as: very basic cell phone chip) 256MB of RAM, 2GB of internal flash memory, 800x400 color touchscreen, 802.11g Wi-Fi and an SD card slot, with a USB adapter dongle. Sounds good, right? Well, not so fast.

The first thing I take issue with is that on the Maylong website, the picture of the product looks completely different from what you actually get. The aspect ratio of the device's screen doesn't match the photo / screen shot on the web site, or even on the box, which depicts an iPad-like UI with even an "Internet Explorer" icon (I'm guessing that they had to yank that out of the real product as to not incur Microsoft or Apple's wrath).

The real product has a much thicker bezel with a much more cramped screen area than what is shown on the product's web site.

In terms of device responsiveness, the UI is incredibly slow -- so slow as there is a several second pause between touching the screen and doing essentially anything. I might be able to tolerate this if it wasn't for the fact that the device's touchpad is so extremely imprecise.

Unlike the iPad or even most Android smartphones, the display on the M-150 is resistive, aka pressure sensitive, rather than capacitive, so you actually have to apply considerable pressure to the screen for it to sense that you've touched it. If you have big fingers, you're in for a very unpleasant experience and will likely want to engage in a violent act shortly after you begin using it. Actually, if you have normal sized fingers, you'll probably want to chuck it against the wall too.

The Android build that's loaded on the device isn't much to write home about either -- it's Android 1.6, which is considerably backlevel from what's running on most Android smartphones -- 2.1 or 2.2. This wouldn't irritate me so much if the device could actually run some useful software or could actually browse halfway-decently, which it can't, unless you feel like joining the hacker community and try putting a newer, hobbyist-created ROM on it.

This device, like many other inexpensive Android tablets doesn't have Android Market capability, so unless you have an APK file to side-load onto it, or use the Maylong's pitiful "App Market" (which makes Soviet-era state-run stores in Russia look like Wal-Mart by comparison) you're not getting new apps onto this thing, unless again, you decide to hack it.

They've included a media player app if you side-load your videos and music files, but don't expect the measly battery to last more than an hour total while using this thing. There's also an E-Reader App which is pre-loaded, but you'll need DRM-free EPUB files to read on it -- forget about the Kindle or the Nook Android apps, you won't be able to use them.

The best thing about this awful piece of junk is Walgreens' return policy -- you can bring it back to a brick and mortar Walgreens store for a full refund after you decide you hate the thing, which I can assure you, you will.

I don't want to pick on Walgreens too much here -- as they buy and sell a ton of inexpensive stuff and probably don't do too much research on any one particular item they might buy from a large distributor. I certainly wouldn't think twice about buying an electric razor, clock radio or digital camera chips from Walgreens, or even a basic $100 Garmin or Tomtom GPS unit, but an Android tablet? Nyah.

My experience should be a warning to anyone looking for an Android tablet "bargain" right now. At bare minimum, I wouldn't buy any cheapo Chinese Android Tablet product unless it ran 2.2 Froyo and has Android Market support, at least a 1Ghz processor, 512MB of RAM and a capacitive -- not resistive -- touchscreen. And even then I would still be very, very wary.

That being said I have no doubt that within the next year or so, we'll definitely see relatively inexpensive 7" Android devices with similar specs to a current generation iPad for $200.00 or less, which will be able to run more palatable tablet-optimized software, but that time is not now.

Did you get suckered into buying a cheap Android tablet? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Laptops, Android, Hardware, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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