Low-cost Android tablets resembling Apple's iconic iPad are on sale through retail sites like eBay for US$50 to $125, though observers say they could be a pain to own since they lack hardware and software support.
The inexpensive tablets come in different designs, with some resembling the iPad. The devices have 7-inch touchscreens, which are smaller than iPad's 9.7-inch screen, and run the older Android 1.7 OS.
The devices are being sold under names like Apad and ePad, mostly from vendors in China. One eBay seller, Goodstore-2010 is selling an iPad lookalike called ePad for US$99 with free shipping out of Hong Kong. The retailer has a reliability rating of 98.9 percent. The same retailer is selling Apads for $48, but is tacking on a heavy shipping fee of $46, bringing the total sale price to $94.
Another retailer, Ego-2010, offers a couple of 7-inch tablets for $80 with a $26 shipping fee. The retailer has a reliability rating of 98.9 percent, and a company representative said the device is real.
"The item is of course perfect," the representative said in e-mail. The retailer also sells the device through its Buy Electronic Store Web site, the representative said. The Android tablet is listed at $114 on the site, and also includes a forum with instructions to upgrade from Android 1.7 to Android 1.82.
Another eBay retailer, Hao00686 sold an Apad for $96 in an auction. The retailer has a reliability rating of 99.3 percent and has sold close to 100 of these devices.
Most retailers offer no warranty, and a limited return period of up to two weeks. There is also limited after-sale technical support.
In an online forum, Androidtablets, one buyer under the screen name Gridwalker said that the ePad tablet he bought from Goodstore-2010's eBay store malfunctioned on arrival, and all technical questions he sent to the retailer were ignored. The retailer offered a refund, however. The technically savvy user was able to fix the problem.
Much like the iPad, retailers are pitching the tablets for basic tasks such as playing games and surfing the Web. Most of the tablets contain low-cost chips made by Via Technology, and are based on Arm processor designs running between 500MHz to 600MHz. The lightweight devices have digital cameras and Wi-Fi capabilities.
Observers said these devices are real tablets and could be useful for specific and non-intensive tasks like Web surfing. However, the retailers are selling products on thin profit margins, and there is no incentive for them to support the product after sale. With the sellers in China and most of these devices on sale through eBay, the retailer also needs to be chosen with extreme care.
"These devices certainly really exist, although whether it's a scam is a more subjective question," said Aaron Vronko, co-founder of Rapid Repair, a firm that repairs electronics and computers.
"On many levels they will lack what it takes to make an enjoyable tablet computing experience, so even if your device arrives and is actually working, you are almost certain to soon resign it to the desk drawer, where it will stay for a long time," Vronko said.
The low-cost tablets are like oversized and "highly intelligent digital photo frames" with touch capabilities, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.
However, without software and support, the appeal of these low-cost tablets could be limited, McCarron said. Apple's iPad not only has superior hardware, but also a store from which consumers can buy applications and content, and support to ensure the device continues to work.
The tablets are significantly cheaper than the iPad, which is priced starting at $499. It is possible to build these tablets in the $100 range using cheap hardware, though the profit margins may be thin, the observers said.
After reviewing the hardware specifications, Vronko said it was like a "step back in technology three years or more."
"I'd peg total production cost right around $50, but unfortunately they are not even worth that much," Vronko said.
The storage of 2GB of flash memory was smaller than on the iPod Nano when it debuted five years ago, Vronko said. The processor is based on the ARM9 family, which debuted 10 years ago and was used in the Nintendo DS and DSi handheld gaming consoles. The internal components could be retired parts, and fits and finishes could be from generic grades of polycarbonate plastic.
The low-cost tablets also underscore the price-sensitive nature of the PC and chip segments, McCarron said.
"It is better to take a small loss now than later," McCarron said.
Technology develops at a fast rate and products could quickly become irrelevant, which is when manufacturers have to get rid of inventory by selling them at low prices.