Almost two years ago, I posted that I had ordered a model 7Ci tablet from Datawind in Canada (aka UbiSlate, aka Aakash) as part of an experiment to see if such insanely low cost products were any good at all, and where/how they might be used. I posted about ordering an UbiSlate 7Ci
$37.99 Canadian tablet (I gave specs for it, and specs for both the the $79.99 Canadian UbiSlate 7C+
EDGE device and the $129.99 Canadian UbiSlate 3G7
full 3G phablet) here
, back in the summer of 2014. I posted about receiving the 7Ci in this post
, and promised I would write a proper review. The fact that I'm just getting around to doing so says a considerable amount about the state of my existence since then. What the older posts don't say, is that after I played around with the 7Ci, I purchased a second one and gave one to each Happy and Beep, and ordered myself a 3G7 to try out (the promise of 3G data access for such a low hardware cost was quite attractive). Based on my experiences with the 3G7, a friend also ordered one for themselves; and I ordered another 7Ci as a gift for another friend.
Below, the 7Ci (in its $15 keyboard/case) that it all started with...
If you go to the links for each of the products above, a few things have definitely changed. First and foremost, the cost (in Canadian dollars) has gone up for the 7Ci (now $47.99, still crazy inexpensive); and down for the 7C+ (now $62.99) and the 3G7 (now $99.99). A few other subtleties are in the specs that were not there two years ago: specifically, the 7Ci now says it comes with a mini-HDMI port (the ones I ordered definitely did not have that), and the 3G7 says it has "Wireless Headset Support" (presumably they added a Bluetooth compatible wireless interface... it costs tens of thousands of dollars and up to use the word "Bluetooth" since it is an industry trademark). They have also (since I last checked a couple of months ago) added two new products, the UbiSlate NS-7
($149.99 Canadian) and the UbiSlate NS-10
($175.99 Canadian). The NS-7 supports 3G wireless and the NS-10 just has wi-fi, but both are definitely "beefed up" machines. Specifically, they have 2GB of RAM (vs. 512MB on the older units) and 16GB of Flash (vs. 4GB on the older units). The 7" NS-7 has higher resolution (1280x800) than the 7" 3G7 (which has higher resolution than the 7Ci) and the 10" NS-10 has 2048x1536 resolution. Both have Bluetooth™ and GPS support (which is pretty funkadelic). The NS-7 has an octal core 1.5GHz CPU and says it supports HD video playback (which the 3G7 also says it does, but the 7Ci does not say it does); and the NS-10 has a quad core 1.6GHz CPU and does not say it supports HD video playback (which is odd to me, but since the 7Ci does a perfect job of displaying HD video, I have no reason to expect anything different from this device). Near as I can tell, the NS-7 is an amped-up 3G7 class machine and the NS-10 is an amped-up 7Ci class machine. [Not to be confused with NS-13
, which is an entirely different thing in the Kingdom of Loathing
So... the verdict? Well, as is evident from having sent a lot of business their way, I thought the devices were well worth their cost, and then some. I did mumble a little bit in the post I made after getting the first 7Ci about the case feeling a little rough around the edges (literally... again, not enough to injure or anything, just unrefined) and that was the case (pardon the pun) with all the '7Ci's I ordered. The 3G7 case was a different story and was smooth all the way around, and had a much more sophisticated feel to it. Both the 7Ci and the 3G7 have gorgeous
displays and can play HD videos (720p or even 1080p [obviously scaled by the tablet to fit]) flawlessly both from files stored on local or expanded Flash memory (I got 32GB micro SD Flash Cards for all, they worked like a charm), or streaming via wi-fi from my fileserver (yes, I have a fileserver in my house) or the Internet. The touch screens have always worked really well, and the audio quality over a set of headphones is excellent (I've used both ear buds of several sorts, and a set of professional monitor headphones even). The audio out of the little monophonic speaker on the back is not so good... it's functional if needed, and is loud enough to hear kind of okay, and doesn't sound terrible, but it is directed away from the screen and if I use it, I find I need to cup my hand to direct the sound back at my head, or use some sort of flat surface to reflect the sound back at me. Not a good design decision there, but by no means a deal breaker (that the headphone audio sounds good is quite enough for me, I've had a lot of computer systems that had shitty audio no matter what I tried).
I have a few more short (negative) notes on the hardware itself before moving on. Besides the issue with the speaker placement, one other industrial design issue came up: on the 3G7 I have, it is not possible to plug in both the mini-USB connector (for the external keyboard, for instance) and the external power supply adapter... the ports are just too close to each other for it to work. This is a huge deal for one of the uses I wanted to put the tablet to: taking notes at school. The battery only lasts less than 3 hours on my 3G7 with wireless enabled, which is not enough to make it useful in that context... I had initially planned to plug in while in class and typing on the keyboard, but that was not possible. The keyboard itself is
usable to type on (I'm used to typing on a little Acer netbook computer, so the key size isn't unsurmountable), but I found that if I left it plugged in to the mini-USB port, it would drain the battery of the UbiSlate even when the tablet was off. Another issue I had regarding power was that if the battery was near dead and I did plug in the USB or external power supply to charge it, the unit would still run out of juice and shut down. Whut? Yup. Apparently the power/charging circuit was not designed properly to both fully power the unit and charge the battery. Definitely a problem, but it has not been an issue too many times (once I knew the problem existed)... if this was my only computing device, it would probably be a much bigger deal. Another pure fail was the power adapter that came with my 3G7 (some of the '7Ci's came with external adapters, some didn't... I'm not quite sure why): the plug on the adapter broke after a few months. I stripped the wires down and tried to repair it, and it worked for a while, but died soon after. I pulled the plug completely apart and saw that it failed because of a weak mechanical connection between the wires and the plug tip that would be extremely difficult to repair myself (I could do it, but what a pain in the ass, and it would probably just break again because there was inadequate strain relief). Just shoddy construction or weak design, at least in the one I had (my friend's adapter is still going strong... I do know that I'm pretty hard on equipment at the best of times though). I just ordered a replacement from China for $10 Canadian, which is one of the things that prompted this post (Datawind Canada doesn't seem to offer it for ordering, a marketing flaw from my perspective). Lastly, and this is probably something more specific to my use of it, I have torn the mini-USB connector off the tablet's motherboard more than once! Again, because of the power issue and the relatively short battery life, and the broken external adapter, I had taken to using it while it was plugged in via the mini-USB port to make it last longer. It is a small surface-mount connector and apparently relatively delicate. It should have been anchored to the tablet's motherboard with strong solder connections through the printed circuit, but I apparently tore it loose from its moorings. A friend repaired it for me (he's a surface-mount assembly master-craftsperson), but it tore loose again. I fixed it myself this last time (just a couple of weeks ago), but am not going to use it while it's plugged in anymore (well, at least until I get my new external adapter, heh).
So... definitely a few issues, but the question then becomes: what is it good for? I have been using my 3G7 on a nearly constant basis (every couple of days at least, sometimes more) since I got it. Beep uses it at about the same frequency as I do. I should mention that both Beep and I have laptops and access to desktop computers in the house, so the UbiSlate tablets definitely have a place in our larger computing infrastructure (and before it sounds like anything too classy, much of said "infrastructure" is beyond lagging-edge technology... some quite long in the tooth, and much of it salvaged and repurposed... but it does the job I keep it around for). Beep says she uses her tablet to watch YouTube videos mostly (she follows quite a number of Let's Players and other YouTubers), but does read online comics and stuff as well... so mostly Internet type stuff when the laptop is too bulky (again, the display and headphone audio is superb, and so is the wi-fi, so it's great for that). I use it to watch videos as well (music videos, and the videos from online courses like Coursera or edX, for instance), but most of the time I spend on it is to read PDFs for classes. One thing that works great is to set it up to my left on my desk and use it to read articles for class while typing notes on the desktop computer in my room (kind of a poor-man's dual-monitor sort of thing). I definitely do some web surfing (it mostly works most of the time), and sometimes watch YouTube videos (with the Android app, it's not so good with web browsing to them), I used it to play online games while I was sick for much of this year (e.g. Kingdom of Loathing... link above... it even runs X-Plane for Android without any lag or anything). I've also used it to read books and such. The friend I gave the 7Ci to used it for a long time to carry technical documentation around with him into areas that didn't have computer access or wi-fi, but he still uses it from time to time. He is going in for surgery soon, and plans to bring the tablet in with him to watch YouTube videos while he recovers, and maybe read some online books. On the flip side, Happy never really latched onto using a tablet... she either uses her laptop or a desktop computer, or more recently, her smartphone (a data plan is a very recent addition to her life, so that wasn't the reason). Furthermore, the friend who also bought a 3G7 loaded it up with applications and quickly brought it to its knees with a plethora of network-attached apps all running at once (their main previous experience had been with iPhones, which is definitely a different kettle of fish). I helped bring it back under control, but she continues to find it hard to use and, as such, has shied away from it. I am thinking it has something to do with Android and some of the DIY flavour of those class of devices (at least when they're not ultra-integrated from a top-tier systems provider, e.g. LG or Samsung), since she seems to have many of the same complaints with the behaviours of Android phones. She also seems to favour the use of her laptop, and TV type watching using a desktop system in her living room, but most of everything she does from a computing and networking (e.g. email, apps, etc.) is through her smartphone. In both cases, it's hard to point at specific shortcomings of the UbiSlate devices, and it seems to fall more into a personal style sort of thing.
All the UbiSlate devices have Google Play on them, so you can get any app they have. I get a lot of mileage out of Acrobat Reader, the YouTube app, ConnectBot (an SSH client), RealCalc (a powerful calculator program), and an amazing program called ES File Explorer (which I use all the time). An aside on ES File Explorer, it allows me to connect my tablet to my Linux fileserver using Samba
and can also, of course, access my local files on the tablet's Flash storage. It has a built-in music player and will launch the appropriate application to handle any other files (e.g. PDF or MP4, for instance). It also allows for automated connection to cloud servers, but I don't use that particular feature. Anyway, amazing integrated, easy-to-use program! On the minus side of things, the 3G7 ran the first 20 or so levels of Terra Battle (a very fun and engaging game from Japan), but it ran out of needed RAM to load levels after that... and I have not been able to continue playing :(. I have been able to play Kingdom of Loathing (a game I've been playing for nearly six years) in a web browser on it with no issues. Another note: the built-in web browser is too ancient to be of any use anymore, and you need to install Firefox or Chrome or something (I ran Pale Moon on it until they announced they were not supporting some of the systems I run anymore, so I stopped using it everywhere). One of the big discoveries/surprises is that it came with Kingsoft Office
(aka WPS) loaded onto it. I have to admit to being shocked at how amazing this office suite was on a mobile device. Firstly, it really is tailored for use on mobile devices, you can integrate document storage and/or backup with the cloud storage provider of your choice (e.g. Dropbox, but Google Drive and others are also supported), and it does provide an all-in-one office suite on the go (word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, a PDF viewer/editor [!], a file manager, email integration, etc. ... wow). There is a desktop verson of it available as well and, although I haven't tried it myself, the mobile and desktop versions are supposed to integrate seamlessly through the cloud storage feature (allowing one to move between devices as the need or desire arises). Anyway, something worth checking out in general (I use LibreOffice
for my desktop needs... it integrates with the Zotero
citation manager, which is critical to me at this phase of my existence). A warning about the UbiSlate's software complement: it comes with their own patented web browswer that uses remote servers to actually render the page and then serve it up to the device. Near as I can tell, this is to allow them to insert their own advertising streams into content from other web sites now, but I understand that the original idea was to be able to use powerful servers to render pages for under-powered but insanely cheap tablets that were being (almost) given away in Asia to university students that needed them. It was a good idea, but it doesn't work with modern dynamic and interactive web content... avoid this program! The UbiSlates also came loaded with all manner of adware and bloatware (and cheezy educational software) that would probably be worth your while to delete the hell out of. I have seen some little adverts on the platform even after my rigorous cleaning, but only when I've paused a video or something, which is perfectly acceptable to me (I think I've even maybe clicked on one, it was interesting enough, heh). All the little adverts have been appropriate for all ages so far, which is also a plus (I've read some reviews that excoriated the UbiSlates for adware, but that has not been my experience). Anyway, there's a lot of very popular apps that are way, way, way worse than anything I've seen on my tablet ;).
And then to explore one last feature... amongst the main reasons why I got the 3G7 was to explore the use of 3G data from a tablet platform. It wasn't until late last year that I finally got around to sorting through that. I have a smartphone with data, etc. and went in to inquire about what it would take to get my tablet added to my plan. Well, they had a plan for $5 a month, but that only included 10MB of data... enough to do a bit of email or use an SSH client as needed, but an amount that would quickly run out. It turns out that I had another need that came up since I got the 3G7, and that was to have access to SMS messaging (text messaging) rather than any data or calling ability. When I went to the kiosk in the mall (I'm with Virgin Mobile Canada), they told me that there was no way to get my tablet added with free texting (I would have to pay something like $0.10 a message, yikes!). I called up their customer support line and talked to someone there... they had to do some research and ask around, but they were able to offer me an unlimited text messaging add-on to the 10MB tablet data plan for $10 a month. Suweeet! There was a little bit of awkwardness at the kiosk when I went back to get a SIM (they tried the wrong sized card and it got jammed, but I was able to pull apart the tablet and get it out so the correct one could be put in... no damage done, fyi), and after a bit of back and forth with headquarters, they got the data and text plan up and running for me. I'm going to be moving the SIM to a custom Arduino-based system I'm working on and will be using it for more experimentation, but I did want to report that my 3G7 works like a charm with 3G and a well-known cell phone service provider in Canada.
To close, overall I would call my purchases of the UbiSlates a great success, and despite the several issues I talked about, they are very capable devices for their price. In fact, the lack of RAM was the only issue that proved truly limiting, but it certainly did not render them useless by any stretch of the imagination. If you're looking to get a tablet to do the sorts of things I said it's good at doing, any of the 7Ci/7C+/3G7 devices would be adequate. If you're looking for an inexpensive device to watch videos on or read PDFs or digital books, then it's hard to compete with for the cost! On the other hand, if you're looking for a more capable system, but still at a bargain basement price, you might want to consider the NS-7 or NS-10 depending on whether you need 3G connectivity or not (or whether you want the bigger screen or not). I must say that I'm eyeing the NS-7 as a possible step up from the 3G7 as it addresses the only real concern (the amount of RAM) I had with the earlier devices, but isn't going to cost $600 like an iPad. If you're uncomfortable wrangling Android smartphones into a state that works for you or are leary about deleting and installing apps and configuring them to your needs, then perhaps an iDevice from Apple is more your speed (if you have the $$$$$$) or something in a highly integrated Android device from a major smartphone/tablet vendor (if you have the $$$). For me, a little $ and a bit of effort paid off bigtime, but your mileage may vary ;).
Hmmm... what to use as a reward for reading this far (or at least putting the effort in to scroll down, heh)? How about something that will blow your freakin' mind!? This is a dance performance, but it's like nothing I've seen before (okay, I've seen bits and pieces, but put together like this, uh uh). If you liked The Matrix, you'll particularly enjoy this one. Wow. Just wow!