Suppose you could buy an iPad for $38, read OverDrive library books, even hear text to speech from them, and enjoy Kindle books, too. And how about social media, photos, basic video chat, and production of low-res videos? What if you could even use voice recognition to dictate e-mail or other documents for work or school?
Well, Datawind’s $38 UbiSlate 7Ci tablet is no iPad and runs Android 4.2.2 rather than Apple’s iOS operating system. But in so many ways, the 7Ci comes tantalizingly close if you use third-party apps, know how to set them up right, and can put up with this econo-tablet’s negatives. No small if. Why? Alas, the UbiSlate is an adware trap, as indicated by AVG AntiVirusPro for Tablets, which could delete just one of eight offending files. What a shame, given the UbiSlate’s many positives.
Libraries urgently need to experiment with low-cost tablets, but not with this one. I was expecting some advertising, but the UbiSlate’s ads can be stealthy horrors and might be one reason why performance could be better. While offering econo-tablets and related guidance to the poor, libraries in the future should be able to add real value by paying attention to not-so-minor details such as privacy and security in general.
Now—some positives. Psst! The UbiSlate even works with Chromecast, so that, with crystal clarity, you can “broadcast” Netflix movies, YouTubes, and other goodies to your large-screen TV and not limit yourself to the tablet’s own resolution. That won’t matter for the poorest of the poor. Still, it is an interesting capability.
What’s more, I managed to do the OverDrive act, text to speech, and the rest, aided by built-in access to the Google Play store. My eyes and a lookup of pixels-per-inch statistics (132 for the first and second generation iPads, 133 for the UbiSlate) confirmed that we’re really in iPad territory in some reassuring ways for e-book lovers. A photo ahead, showing the start of David Copperfield on a UbiSlate screen, lets you see for yourself. The UbiSlate in this case is running OverDrive Media Console in all-bold, the most viewable style in my opinion although the plain mode is adequate. In real life, the view is actually better. Double-click on the photo of the display, and you’ll come closer to the level of sharpness.
Beyond the adware, please note my other caveats about the UbiSlate despite my enthusiasm for its price-performance ratio. No Bluetooth. No Retina display. No incredible viewing of PDFs (even if the adware were absent, you shouldn’t buy the UbiSlate to read them). No sharp renditions of source pages when you’re running Google Play Books even though the reflowable-text mode is fine. And the 7-inch, 800-by-480 TFT LCD display is smaller than the 9.7-inch, 1024-by-768 displays on the older iPads, and as for vibrant colors and super-wide viewing angles—forget about them. Also, be prepared for a bunch of error messages when you’re installing software. Even long term, running certain apps, you’ll see them more often than on an Apple tablet running iOS equivalents.
Furthermore, whether browsing or using the Kindle program, you’ll probably find the UbiSlate to be sluggish compared to iPads. The sub-mediocre video cam is like the proverbial dog walking on its hind legs—the miracle is that it can do anything at all. And the design is clunky, the reason why the first image for this post is a screenshot image rather than a picture of the UbiSlate. Also, the date and time on occasions have been wildly off. My fault or Datawind’s?
Still impressive at the price—if only it weren’t for the adware
Negatives or not, however, the UbiSlate impresses if you can ignore the adware (which I can’t). Mantano Reader, the key to using TTS with OverDrive books, starts up slowly but runs fine if you keep memory usage down. The Kindle app is the same way; would that it had Mantano’s read-aloud capabilities (at least for titles so allowed by publishers)! The Ubi’s 512MB of RAM is the same as the iPad 2’s and double that of the first-gen iPad. Internal storage is a mere 4GB, but a microSD slot lets you expand it to 32GB, or twice the minimum for iPads; I myself did not use an add-on card. Unlike the first iPad, the UbiSlate has a camera even if the resolution is a mere .3 megapixels. The screen uses capacitive touch and is surprisingly responsive for one on a $38 machine even though at times you may need to resort to multiple taps. The build is good for the price. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if the power plug slid in all the way, reducing the risk of bending or maybe even breaking. The UbiSlate’s CPU, a 1GHz Cortex A8 processor, is adequate; just remember the big focus here—on e-books, not games. The 802.11 b/g/n WiFi works well with my Almond router. Battery life is several hours. I haven’t made any precise measurements, but given the price, I’ll keep my expectations low.
The bottom line
So what’s the bottom line, from the perspective of librarians and patrons?
1. Libraries should not buy UbiSlates 7Cis, but should experiment in small-scale ways with other below-$100 machines, such as the NextBook (earlier mention here), now on sale at WalMart for $99 without any virus detectable by AVG. Throwaway-priced tablets—well, near-throwaway-priced—exist. Get used to them. If you’re prepared with the right kind of technical support and encouragement, this will be an opportunity to bring people closer to your library once the machines are a little better. Stop worrying so much about freakin’ turnstile counts. And show some empathy, please, toward the millions of young people who must wait half an hour or longer for an in-library computer—only to use it with the clock ticking and find they still haven’t managed to complete their school papers.
If you work at a library and your boss or local public officials won’t make the money available for experiments with hypercheap tablets, try local Friends groups or seek grants if allowed. If nothing else, spend the money yourself.
2. I don’t just mean to experiment technically. Loan out the low-cost models to appropriate patrons for feedback while warning them to keep expectations low. Set up the tablets with the right apps and provide enough documentation and other support and encouragement. Quick instructional videos, maybe? The real solution is for librarians or contractors to come up with their own easy apps well-integrated with the hardware. But meanwhile, imagine the benefits of a low-cost machine for a bright teenager who lives in a dangerous urban neighborhood and can’t hang around the library at night. She or he could write school papers both at the library and home—a cinch for many smart young people in this era of Gmail and Dropbox.
3. Librarians need to see library-controlled hardware/software combos as a “must” if they’re to create their own ecosystems to survive Amazon and friends. Yes, the ecosystem should be accessible through apps alone, running on a number of machines from scads of vendors. But don’t forget the need to make life as simple as possible for patrons desiring a well-packaged, Kindle-ish approach. Just as Amazon does, by the way, libraries could offer both E Ink- and LCD-based options.
4. No, librarians won’t be guilty of mass malpractice if they fail to work toward the time when low-income patrons can own the machines themselves. But it’ll be close. Long-term, it’s the most decent and cost-effective thing to do when the hardware is at the right level.
Cost-justification explained for the skeptical: Think dollars and cents, not morality
I know, I know. Lots of otherwise smart people still don’t understand the cost-justification and think that the Almighty will take offense if low-income folks don’t work for their machines. But please—practicality here over so-called morality.
First off, the most cash-strapped patrons actually would be working for the eco-tablets, by participating meaningfully in library activities of various kinds and by demonstrating knowledge of the machine. Still hate giveaways? Then why have public libraries? Horror of horrors, you generally don’t pay a librarian a nickel for helping you, and in the end aren’t their services worth a lot more than $38 over your lifetime?
Second, low-income people will be able to use the right econo-machines for interaction with social service agencies. The UbiSlate’s speech recognition capabilities are imperfect but can save a lot of time compared to just typing if you know what to do—which library staffers could explain. Via USB, the UbiSlate can even work with many external keyboards, such as my beloved Unicomp Ultra Classic Black Buckling Spring. Used keyboards sell for a fraction of the cost of the Unicomp. Let’s make it easy for low-income people not just to fill out forms for social service agencies but also for online work applications, in addition to participating remotely in online training.
Freebies and marketing sizzle won’t hurt in drawing low-income people in. You can buy your own toaster, but remember all the customers banks reeled in with appliance giveaways before regulations changed?
Also consider the hotspot theory as applied to social problems. Find the crisis. The problem. The people most at risk. Focus intelligently on the poorest—I mean careful strategizing, not reckless spending—and tax bills will be lower. The right tablets given to appropriate recipients would be a way for libraries to serve as information front-ends for many other government agencies. Who knows? Eventually the tablets will be cheap and easy enough to use so we don’t have to worry that much about who is “appropriate.”
Third, there is the health angle in particular: let’s hotspot the sickest, too, in our quest to drive down healthcare costs. We’re spending billions in extra Medicaid costs because poor people have trouble absorbing doctor’s instructions, just as many middle and upper-class people do. It does not help that older people have trouble remembering to take their pills. UbiSlate-style machines with the right software could remind them. They could also offer plain-English or plain-Spanish explanations not just in text but also video—and I’m not just being theoretical here, having tested YouTube myself on the UbiSlate. I encountered pauses during caching, but the UbiSlate’s video was certainly adequate for basic health education, and newer econo-machines from Datawind and other vendors won’t have such problems, especially as Net connections improve. Given all the lives and money that the right mix of hardware, software content and library-facilitated education could save, you might just about think of free econo-tablets as a variant of passing out free condoms. Except there’s a difference. You don’t have to be pro-birth control to believe in the econo-tablet approach.
Fourth, though actually as important as Two and Three, parents could use videos to learn how to read to their children and develop the kids’ cognitive abilities in other ways—check out the videos from Colorado if you haven’t already. As for the ability of UbiSlates to display texts adequately, I’ve already covered that. It can. I would welcome a larger screen, but that will be coming eventually for the $38 machines and almost surely cheaper ones. Just don’t buy the UbiSlate itself—it just isn’t worth the hassles. Relax. Even less expensive machines without the adware—the UbiSlate’s way of reaching the $38 mark—will almost surely come in the near future.
In the early 1990s I dreamed of “TeleReaders,” e-book friendly tablets (I actually used the term “laptop”—the tablets would have worked with detachable keyboards) selling for $50 or less and perhaps even being provided free of charge by the government. My ideas have evolved since then. So has reality, and minus the adware and with enough other improvements, the UbiSlate would be Exhibit A.
Roundup of other UbiSlate reviews: Here. Is the UbiSlate really the world’s “cheapest tablet,” as some say? I don’t know. If nothing else, however, it is among the least expensive practical ones.
Update, 4:35 p.m., Jan. 20: My friend Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader wants me to mention the $10 shipping charge. Done. Of course if libraries eventually buy UberSlates in bulk—which they shouldn’t do now with this particular model, still not quite up to speed for mass buys—shipping charges aren’t going to matter quite as much. Besides, prices in the next year or so are likely to be lower anyway.
Nate also wonders about the not-so-stellar hardware from past efforts of the Indian government and others. Well, I’ve gone to length to point out the UbiSlate’s negatives, not just the positives. That said, at $38 or $48, it can offer a helluva lot, including text to speech (even for nontechies, if libraries distribute the UberSlate with the right software). The Kindle Paperwhite doesn’t even have a speaker.
What’s more, if Nate saw Mantano Reader running on the UbiSlate, he might be more appreciative. The UberSlate isn’t for games people. But it is for those who want low-cost platforms for library books—not to mention the other, societally helpful apps I’ve discussed. I see the tech as a tool for betterment of disadvantaged people who’ve taken the time to familiarize themselves with the hardware and who participate meaningfully in library programs. Perhaps this isn’t as much of interest to others. But it is to me.
Update, 11:57 p.m., Jan. 20: I had problems with Mantano—not running as well as before. Reducing the number of items on the Android desktop helped. I’ve modified the copy. Along the way, I’ve replaced the first screenshot with one showing fewer icons. I can’t overemphasize the importance of a streamlined desktop, as well as trying to run just one app at once. The UbiSlate is not that great at multitasking. But for readers who want to focus on a book, maybe that’s actually a positive.
Update. 9:30 a.m., Jan. 25: The eight apps that AVG AntiVirus Pro identified as security threats were TestBagApp, Cut the Word, Hit the Differences, 2tion Plus, Ubimail, Talking English, Datawind Education, and Ubisurfer (Web browser). All but Ubimail and Ubisurfer are educational apps. No, AVG AntiVirus Pro isn’t necessarily perfect and presumably can make mistakes, but of the listed apps, it could remove only only Ubisurfer. I tried to see if the ApkInstaller app could get rid of the unwanted adware. No such luck. All kinds of questions arise in terms of whether these apps are affecting system performance even when not used.
So what about the privacy warning shown here from the Datawind Education app? It looks admirably transparent, but in real life, is it? Remember, many of the users of the UbiSlate 7Ci will be not be sophisticated about computers and will press the OK. Even if they later decide to remove the ads, won’t their privacy already have been compromised? Beyond that, what if you can’t delete this and nearly all of the other UbiSlate’s apps that AVG flagged as security risks? Remember, AVG and the ApkInstaller manager couldn’t.
One other issue is whether ads will pop up during Web browsing even when you’re not using a Ubi-supplied browser. That was one problem I could not replicate after I experienced it earlier. So Ubi gets a pass at least on that.
Editor’s note – this article was re-published with the author’s permission from his blog, Library City.