Android Tablets Still Suck And Acer’s $100 Tablet Isn’t Going To Do Anything To Fix That

The $100 tablet is the tech media’s Moby-Dick. An unrelenting obsession. One I don’t get.

Perhaps it’s the notion of universally affordable computing – an affirmation of the belief that, one dayliterally everyone will be able to afford some kind of computer, and we’ll all ride unicorns and eradicate poverty forever or some other pie-in-the-sky fantasy like that.

Maybe it’s the result of some horridly misguided belief that tablets are like DVD players. That we’re all just waiting for them to drop from their obviously-too-high “new tech” price, as shipment volumes and technological advancements allow companies to lower MSRP’s.

Or it could just be that a sub-$100 tablet makes for a good headline.

Regardless, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Acer is making a $100 tablet and it might not come to the US. This, of course, set tech blogs aflutter. Gizmodo, I think, distilled the sentiment rather well with their headline: “You won’t be able to buy the first decent $100 tablet.”

Oh boy. Because if we can’t have the first half-decent-looking $100 tablet here in Murica, it’s an affront to consumers who very obviously want $100 tablets. What the hell is Acer thinking!? Let’s lay down a few basic premises before I start slamming this thing.

  1. No duh people want $100 tablets. That’s like asking if people want $5000 BMW’s – we live in a consumerist society where people are so fixated on “getting a good deal” that they’d probably buy a wet cardboard box full of human feces if it was 87% off on Amazon Gold Box for 30 minutes.
  2. Tablets are computers. What do you notice about computers? Well, laptops in the $500-1500 range comprise the lion’s share of all computer sales today, a price point they’ve stabilized at for the last, I don’t know, ten years. Sub-$500 laptops aren’t very good, as the netbook bust made clear.
  3. Very cheap durable goods such as tablet computers or laptops are perfectly OK in developing countries where literally every cent (or its equivalent) counts – I’m not bashing the concept completely.

OK, first, let’s talk about this whole “decent” part. You know what wasn’t decent? The first Kindle Fire. In fact, it really sucked. It still really sucks. It’s so god-awful slow that it makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon. It is bar-none the worst experience I’ve ever had with a tablet. And the Kindle Fire HD 7, while it is significantly better, is still at least slow enough to make me consider gouging my eyes out with a rusty spoon.

Part of that is Amazon’s ghastly software, but part of it is also the fact that all the pretty, modern user interface effects and games and widgets we want to run are actually getting to be slightly CPU-intensive. And yes, while I’m sure your old Nexus S is running Android 4.2 Open Kang Special BBQ X-Tweak w/ DR01D Kernel 1.2 and Super-Secret Script ZIPALIGNED as smooth as a greased-up pig on a slip-and-slide, the rest of us don’t spend 2 hours deciding which launcher’s homescreen transition animations are our favorite. You, Mr. I’m Basically A Developer, may want a $100 tablet so you can totally ROM it out and overclock it and make a hand-shot YouTube video of it running Modern Combat 4, but that’s not why anyone else wants a $100 tablet.

They want it because it’s a tablet and it’s $100. That is the entirety of the thought process there. In fact, it probably goes something like this. See iPad, desire, see $500 price tag, feel discouraged, Google “cheap iPad,” find cheap Android tablets, buy god-awful Coby or ViewSonic, receive, proceed to use for a week and then never again.

The difference with Acer’s tablet, many argue, is that it won’t be quite so terrible that you’ll actively consider hitting it with a hammer. Even though it has a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU of unknown lineage. And even though it only has 512MB of RAM (gag). Hey, the iPad 2 made it by on 512MB of RAM! Well, yes, because iOS handles multi-tasking much differently and generally just uses less RAM. Android with 512MB of RAM is a trip on a time machine I want no part of.

While I can’t say for certain until I use it, I can already safely assume a couple things about Acer’s $100 slate, simply because of the price point. The screen will be abysmal. The battery life is going to be awful. The build quality will be questionable, if not outright offensive. Performance will be, at best, on par with something built in early 2011. Sure, it’s likely going to be better than some off-brand piece of junk, but this is by no means shaping up to be a Nexus 7-beater. It’s a crappy tablet whose only redeeming quality is its price.

Would it sell if Acer brought it to America? Yep. It might even sell pretty well. But within a few months, you’d have a few million unhappy people with sub-par 7″ tablets that they stopped using a while ago, and many would probably swear off another Android tablet for good.

And then, they’d buy an iPad Mini – because Apple doesn’t just sell an image, it sells a reputation for quality and customer satisfaction. More sub-$200 Android tablets will ship in the next year than iPad Minis, but I guarantee you the proportion of those tablets in use a year after purchase will lean unabashedly toward Apple’s product – that’s why the iPad still kicks Android’s ass in terms of web traffic-based market share. Most people who buy Android tablets don’t actually end up using them that much.

Adding super-cheap Android tablet into the fold here in the US wouldn’t do much good for anyone but fanboys. If anything, it’d just be more fodder for Apple’s next keynote.

Android is winning the worldwide smartphone war – and for good reason. Android phones are getting really great, in a big way. There are more awesome Android phones on the market right now than ever before, and they do more than ever before. They have real legitimacy.

Android tablets remain little but a value proposition. Or a way to stick it to Apple. The Nexus 7 is still the best Android tablet on the market by far, and after 6 months with one, I’d say it’s just OK. I don’t use it nearly as much as I used to. The latest Android update has caused a lot of issues. And I just don’t find using it very rewarding or fun; more and more, I have to think about picking it up, and that’s never a good sign for a product that is by design a casual consumption machine.

The Nexus 10, while it may be a good tablet (I’ve heard plenty of gripes about bugs, though), is a canvas without paint – 10-inch-optimized content on Android is still scarce.

I know the arguments. Content will come with device sales. Once the content is there, Android tablets will be a lot better. But I don’t really know if I believe that at this point, because tablets are still a luxury. Nobody needs a tablet. And if you’re buying a $200 tablet, it’s very likely because you want to avoid buying a more expensive one (if I could pick any tablet regardless of cost, my answer is still iPad). In turn, that means you aren’t very likely to pay for too many apps or other content – also luxuries. Which means you probably won’t enjoy your tablet very much (the apps are, without a doubt, what makes the iPad really great), and you’ll use it less and less.

At that point, you’ll be just another end-consumer sale on some market share graph that clearly shows Android tablets are “gaining momentum.” All the while, the iPad continues to unabashedly dominate web traffic metrics (like Chitika), because it’s the only tablet people actually like to use, as opposed to buy. The Kindle Fire is bringing up second place, and that goes to show the power of Amazon’s front page placement strategy, because it’s a truly awful tablet.

Until people enjoy using Android tablets – which means until they’re ready to spend money on quality content to fill them with – they’ll continue to disappoint unless Google, or the manufacturers, do something about it. Like creating their own ‘full-experience’ premium software – which is what Samsung is (very half-assedly) trying to do. Sadly, I think Samsung has a better shot than Google at this point in terms of selling Android tablets to the sort of customers Google actually wants. Which is to say, iPad converts.

The alternative is a fundamental attitude change for consumers, which is the exact opposite of what a $100 tablet would bring about. I consider such a shift unlikely given any of the products on the market today. Android tablets are, to me, still far from being certain to succeed, let alone become the dominant player.

A $100 tablet won’t magically make content appear. It won’t suddenly make people like Android tablets. It won’t do any of the things that Android tablets need to happen in order to succeed on any sort of long-term basis. Cheapness is not enough in of itself, and I really wish people would understand that.

Also, Merry Christmas.

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