A $99 Android Tablet That Doesn't Suck

The last of my Android tablets, a Nexus made by LG, died over a year ago. It had stopped being updated years before that. This is why I had not bought a replacement:
  • I don't like Samsung's Android extensions and bloatware, and how that delays updates
  • I won't buy a cheap tablet with an out of date version of Android
  • The Pixel Slate is a software platypus, part Chromebook, part Android tablet, and expensive
  • I don't use Alexa, and I don't like the lack of Google Play Services on Amazon Fire tablets
Except for Samsung, Google has done a terrible job cultivating tablet manufacturers to make good Android tablets at good prices. Amazon Fire tablets, which are great for consuming Amazon media content, don't run a lot of apps I use. The choice has been between Samsung, or cheap and underpowered tablets running versions of Android that are obsolete right out of the box, and never updated thereafter.

Recently, I was listening to a tech news podcast and heard, in passing, about Walmart selling inexpensive Android tablets running Android 9, or "Pie." Maybe it's time to try another tablet!

It's Onn

On Walmart's web site, they looked mostly like other inexpensive Android tablets, except for the up to date version of Android. They are branded "Onn," which is Walmart's house brand for electronics, mostly TVs and phone accessories. This is the first time I heard about Walmart having a house brand for electronics. 

It's hard to find

Walmart's web site is a mess. Without Google having indexed the Walmart site better than Walmart has, it would have been impossible to find the Onn tablets. And if I hadn't found a review that mentions the Onn brand, I might not have found them at all. If you ever wondered if Amazon has to worry about Walmart, you can stop now. There are semi-literate peasants in the developing world selling their crafts on e-commerce sites with better search and filtering. I won't insert an url here, it will probably change or be wrong by the time you read this. Just google "Onn 10 inch tablet." You'll get there.

In fact the first time I found a page on Walmart's site about these tablets, it told me seven of the model I wanted were in stock in Framingham. I was in Newton at the time and on my way home, so that was convenient. When I got to the Walmart in Framingham that model was not in stock. I searched again to see if I should ask the clerk to check their stockroom or store database, but when I looked at the site again, Framingham was not listed among the stores stocking the model I wanted. The clerk insisted they never had them. So off to Hudson, still on the way home. Walmart! What's wrong with your web site? 

Found it

There are at least three models of Onn tablet: 8 inch, 10 inch, and 10 inch with a keyboard-folio case. I was feeling like a high roller so I went with the big one with the keyboard case, for $99. Returning things to Walmart is simple, so I bought it even though none of the Onn tablets were on display at the Hudson store. The Framingham store has the 8 inch tablet on display. I was able to verify it was in fact running Android 9. Other than the screen and keyboard, the CPU, GPU, memory, etc., and software are identical in all models:
  • 800 x 1280 screen resolution
  • 1.3GHz MediaTek quad core processor with GPU
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16GB flash plus micro SD slot (unpopulated)
  • Android 9 "Pie"
  • 0.3 megapixel front-facing camera
  • 2 megapixel rear-facing camera
That's right: $99 for a 10 inch tablet with a keyboard case. Charger and cable included.

Using it

The case has a magnetic closure and attachment point for the tablet. The keyboard is better than the Logitech bluetooth keyboard I sometimes use with my Pixel 2 phone. Every bit the equal of a quality aftermarket keyboard-case for an iPad or Samsung tablet.

A $99 tablet has to be fiercely cost-reduced. It looks nice, though. It's thicker than a new iPad, but not as thick and heavy as Amazon's tablets. The screen "glass" appears to be plastic, which is another reason to go for the model with a case. Subjectively, it seems better made than the vast majority of inexpensive Android devices. But I'm not going to be careless about this device. It feels nothing like my Pixel 2 phone that has survived a few drops without a protective case. It's not flimsy, but I don't think a lot of crashworthiness was in the budget.

The cameras are mediocre. The audio is OK, and has enough power to drive magneplanar HiFiMAN headphones, but can't hold a candle to the Fiio usb dac/amp I normally use with a Mac laptop. 

Battery life is mediocre. While the specs don't list milliamp-hours (mah), they do claim 5 hour battery life, and that's about right for a mix of uses. Good enough for a longish movie.  Long enough for domestic flights, or to have the Starbucks people start looking at you like you should move along. The battery life is the only aspect that's actually a disappointment, to me. The other compromises are very tolerable.

The screen, with a not very high 1200x800 resolution is surprisingly tolerable. Text is crisp. Video looks great. Off-axis color and brightness does not deteriorate until about 45 degrees.

Performance is adequate. Google's Docs and Sheets apps are not laggy. YouTube is smooth, and the UI is responsive. App loading is slower than on my Pixel 2, but not annoyingly. 

I would have been willing to pay more for a better screen, though I have to wonder why if this screen seems perfectly fine, and I'd like a bigger battery. But this tablet delights far more than it disappoints, and the price makes it an excellent value. $99! With a nice keyboard case!

Is there any future in it?

One reason to consider the Onn tablets is that they run the current version of Android. The newer the version of Android you start with, the longer the useful life of the product. This is not only for the obvious reason that you are not starting with an old version of the OS, but also because Google has made Android easier for device manufacturers to update in more recent versions. In new license agreements, Google is requiring manufacturers to provide security updates for two years. Walmart's Onn brand might be legit enough not to flout those license requirements. The amount of Walmart bloatware on these tablets isn't onerous, and should not delay updates to the OS. 

Walmart has done a good job with these tablets. Google is doing a better job enabling and incentivising manufacturers to keep their devices up to date. Walmart has a further reason to keep these tablets running smoothly: Walmart wants to be a viable competitor to Amazon in e-commerce. Walmart owns the Vudu streaming service, which is preinstalled on the Onn tablets. The Onn tablets also have Walmart's e-book reader and market preinstalled, as well as other Walmart e-commerce apps. They should be motivated to create and sell tablets that put and keep these apps in customers' hands.

On the other hand, Walmart's web site is so terrible that it makes one doubt their commitment to competing with Amazon, and that casts doubt on whether the Onn tablets will play the same role as Amazon's Fire tablets.

If we're lucky, this product is the first of a wave of Android tablets with reasonable prices and up to date OS versions.


Popular Posts

5G: Hype vs Reality

The QUIC Brown Fox Jumped Over the Top of Carrier Messaging, or Allo, Duo, WebRTC, QUIC, Jibe, and RCS, Explained