SAN DIEGO, California — 2011 was supposed to be the year of the tablet. After the 2010 launch of the iPad demonstrated there was a lucrative market for consumer-class slates, all the key consumer electronics manufacturers strapped Android to their would-be iPad killers, hoping to catch up to Apple’s massive lead.
But Android tablets aren’t selling. iPads still claim over 60 percent global market share, according to IDC research. As technology web site AllThingsD claimed, “Consumers don’t want tablets, they want iPads.” And, indeed, comparably priced Android competitors haven’t stood up to Apple’s two tablets.
Now there’s a new approach: Aim low. In September, Amazon wowed us with the unveiling of its Kindle Fire tablet, the first low-priced, high-quality consumer-class tablet to look like a formidable competitor to iPad. Even if it sucks when it finally debuts this fall, at $200 the Fire is priced low enough for casual consumers to risk an impulse buy — and now we see other companies chasing that same price-conscious buyer.
Following Amazon’s lead, T-Mobile teamed up with Chinese computer company Huawei to create the SpringBoard, a sub-$200 tablet positioned to undercut the glut of other Android slates currently shipping. We got some hands-on time with the SpringBoard before it hits the shelves, and overall, it checks out well enough.
I didn’t expect a sub-$200 tablet to feel as substantial as the SpringBoard. It’s got the look of an HTC-made slate, with a sturdy exterior casing and smooth, brushed metal finish. It’s almost as if the HTC Flyer was revamped (or, perhaps, copied). Just like the Fire and the Flyer, It’s a 7-inch tablet, deviating from the norm of 9- and 10-inch competitors. With the modest heft of a trade paperback, and the shape of one to boot, it’s comfortable to carry.
Under the hood, the SpringBoard sports a 1.2-GHz dual-core processor of yet-to-be-named pedigree. I was able to zip through Android’s Honeycomb menus with relative ease, and regardless of whatever chip Huawei eventually sources for the final shipping product, it’s clear that the hardware I played with wasn’t skimping on core processing power.
The SpringBoard comes with a few features that Amazon’s Fire doesn’t include: Cameras. Equipped with a 5-megapixel front-facing camera and a 1.3-megapixel back-facing camera, SpringBoard adopters can snap pictures at will. Image quality from the 5-megapixel camera is about what you would expect (i.e., nothing that would compel you to ditch a DSLR), but the very inclusion of dual cameras at least puts this tablet in the picture-taking game.
That said, taking pictures with a tablet just feels weird. I’ve been put off by tablet-based photography since first using the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab — when shooting a pic, it feels like I’m defending myself from flying meatballs with a cafeteria tray during a food fight. Amazon decided we aren’t ready for cameras on tablets (or, at least, aren’t basing our buying decisions on whether cameras appear on spec sheets). Huawei thinks we are. As both tablets haven’t been released, we’ll have to wait on the market to see who’s right.
Finally, the SpringBoard offers the usual array of ports — HDMI, micro-USB and microSD card slots (you can use microSD for an extra 32GB of storage). HDMI doesn’t come standard on all tablets, so it’s a nice feature.
The SpringBoard is slated to go on sale “in time for the holidays,” says T-Mobile’s spokeswoman, though the company isn’t saying whether that means sooner rather than later. Though we don’t know exactly how much it will cost, be prepared to spend less than two C-notes — with a two-year T-Mobile contract, of course.
Photos: Mike Isaac/Wired.com