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How to buy a sub-$100 Android tablet and not get burned

Last year, a flood of $99 tablets built with extremely low-end hardware running dated versions of Android appeared. This year, slightly better tablets running slightly less dated versions of Android are readily available, sometimes for as little as $60. And I have to admit, these devices got me thinking. I didn’t quite pull the trigger. But here’s what to watch (out) for on the low end.

Keep your expectations realistic

For under $100, you’re going to get a resistive (not a capacitive) screen, a very low-end CPU, or both. You’ll get something that likely will be fine for listening to MP3s and reading e-books, but don’t expect lightning speed and don’t expect the most popular games to run smoothly on it.

Expect to be able to read e-books, listen to music, visit simple web sites, and perhaps watch movies on it. Don’t expect every Android application in the world to run quickly on it.

Double-check what CPU it has

Some of these low-end units have ARM CPUs in them and some have MIPS CPUs in them. The MIPS-based units have much more limited compatibility, since most Android software is developed under ARM. The difference between MIPS and ARM isn’t like the difference between Intel and AMD; it’s more like the difference between Intel and PowerPC. They’re completely different architectures.

Android is designed to be able to run on a lot of different architectures, but since even the high-end units are a lot less powerful than a comparably priced desktop PC would be, developers tend to do some things that are specific to a particular CPU architecture to get a little more performance out of them.

So MIPS-based tablets are more limited in what software they’ll run, and they’re also more limited in what aftermarket firmware is available for them. As I write, there appears to be none. Your chances of being able to load better, faster hacked firmware onto an ARM tablet are much better, both now and in the future.

Can you root it?

Some of these tablets are more hackable than others. And to make life more bearable on these low-end tablets, you almost assuredly will want to root them, if only to uninstall the bloatware they come with to free up more space for software you do want.

Is it expandable?

If it has an SD slot and can take high-capacity cards, at the very least it can be a 32 GB media player. Given a choice between a portable DVD player and an $85 tablet with VLC installed and a 32 GB card in it, I’d rather have the tablet. A 32 GB card full of kids’ movies or cartoons would keep my kids occupied on long road trips.

What are other people doing with it?

Today Woot sold a Velocity Micro Cruz T301 for $70. Reading the discussion on Woot’s site, someone posted a link to forum instructions that detailed how to root the tablet, uninstall bloatware, and raise the device’s clock speed from its shipped 528 MHz. (I hesitate to call this overclocking, as the 528 MHz rate was chosen for battery life purposes; most likely the chip is capable of running at 600 or 700 MHz.) People who have done these modifications are generally very happy with this tablet. People who haven’t done these modifications are less so. Sometimes much less so.

Before you click the buy button, do a Google search on the make and model of the tablet, at the very least. Better yet, search to see if there’s some aftermarket firmware available for it. Hint: Uberoid is a popular and well-regarded hacked firmware that works on a variety of cheap tablets, particularly those using a VIA 8650 chipset.

Also search the usual e-commerce sites like Amazon and Newegg to see if there are any reviews posted on it. See what people are saying about it. I pay more attention to the positive reviews than the negative ones, because the positive reviews are more likely to have helpful tips in them. I note the number of negative reviews but don’t bother reading very many of them.

It’s worth paying extra for a tablet that has good aftermarket firmware support. Besides being more full-featured and, most likely, faster than what comes with it, those firmware revisions are your ticket to future versions of Android. Would you buy a desktop PC that absolutely, positively cannot run any future version of Windows?

Don’t panic

If you missed the Woot deal today, or any other deal on a low-end Android tablet, don’t fret. There will be others. Probably many others. Now that Amazon and B&N have released very usable 7-inch Android tablets priced at $199 and $249, the prices of similarly capable tablets are dropping to comparable levels, and the prices of less-capable tablets have nowhere to go but down.

I missed those deals, and from what I can tell, I’ve missed several deals this month on cheap-cheap tablets. But, given the difficulty I had finding aftermarket firmware for any of the particular models, I don’t think I missed much. If nothing else, I can grab a VIA 8650-based tablet off Ebay for $75-$80 pretty much any time, throw Uberoid on it, and pretty much know what I’ll end up with for the money.

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