Global Observer

The world's cheapest tablet, improved (and reviewed)

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DELHI -- Critics in India give it a thumbs up. We talk to one expert about why the Aakash 2 works better than its predecessor.

DELHI -- In 2012, SmartPlanet reported on a series of inexpensive tablets from India especially the $41 one called Aakash, which was launched by the Indian government.

Datawind Inc., a Montreal-based tech company, made the tablet in response to the Indian government’s challenge to create the world’s cheapest tablet.

Aakash, which was further subsidized for students to $35, received bad reviews. Critics said it had poor battery life, an unresponsive screen, absence of useful apps, less storage space and a slow processor.

In November, Datawind relaunched its tablet as Aakash 2. The improved tablet is powered by Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich run on 1 GHz processor and 512 MB RAM with 4 GB internal storage and 32 GB microSD support. Its basic features include 7-inch capacitative touch screen, battery life of three hours, 0.3 megapixel front camera and WiFi connectivity.

The Indian government will buy about 100,000 units from Datawind for Rs. 2263 ($41) and make it available to students for Rs.1130 ($20). The commercial version of the tablet can be bought online for Rs. 4499 ($81)

This time, it was launched not only in India but also unveiled at the United Nations.

“India is a critical player on security issues … but you are also a leader on development and technology,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at the unveiling in November. “Indeed, India is a superpower on the information superhighway.”

“We need to do more to help all children and young people make the most of the opportunities provided by information and communications technology – especially all those who are still unconnected from the digital revolution,” he added.

SmartPlanet spoke with tech expert Prasanto Roy, editorial adviser at CyberMedia India, on what’s new with the tablet and will it work better.

SP: What’s the Indian government’s objective in launching this low cost tablet?

PR: To provide a technology platform for education to India’s students, starting with college students. To ultimately provide a tablet computer for every student in India, an estimated 220 million number, in the coming years. This period has been variously quoted as five years, six to seven years, and seven to eight years.

SP: It seems that Aakash 2 is going to see a further drop in its price to $35 by manufacturing the touchscreen locally at $2 instead of importing it at $22. What do you make of that?

PR: Well, of course it’s a good idea to drive down the prices as much as possible, as long as it remains a profitable and hence sustainable and scalable venture for Datawind and its suppliers. The big change will be in moving the manufacturing of touch-panel assemblies from Datawind’s Montreal facilities to a new Amritsar-based plant. Even so, I don’t see how the math in the link above works out: the difference in the cost of the touch panel can’t be between $22 Montreal versus $2 Amritsar.

SP: How do these costs compare to the older Aakash?

PR: The end-price-points specified were exactly the same...no change between Aakash 1 and Aakash 2. However, from Aakash 1 to Aakash 2, the specs have been significantly enhanced...capacitive instead of resistive screen, faster processor, doubling of RAM and flash, and added accessories in the box. Doing this within the same price-point is impressive.

SP: So let’s recap for our readers, what was wrong with Aakash 1?

PR: It was mostly unusable. A resistive screen coupled with a slower processor made the screen response terribly sluggish. It was relatively big, fat, heavy, and had a deal-breaker of a sub-two hour battery life. It had a limited software and app-store access.

SP: Was the first Aakash ever sold to the public? What happened to those million orders online?

PR: Yes, the Aakash, known commercially as the UbiSlate 7C and its variants 7C+, 7Ci, was sold online. However, it is likely that only a few hundred units would have shipped. In any case, there were not prepaid orders, and are not being fulfilled on priority. Almost the entire four million is unfulfilled.

SP: Coming to Aakash 2, could you explain the role of India Institute of Technology, Bombay in making the tablet?

PR: IIT Bombay is the interface on behalf of the government. It is specifying the design, placing the order, routing the payment, testing the product etc. It’s the same role that IIT-Rajasthan had, but did not do a good job of, earlier.

SP: The big question - how is Aakash 2 different from the first Aakash?

PR: It’s a completely overhauled product. Smaller, slimmer, lighter, smarter design and manufacture, over four-hour battery, much faster processor, twice the memory and flash storage, Android 4.0 instead of Android 2.2/2.3, full access to Google Market…the Android Market app store.

SP: Is it better?

PR: It’s overwhelmingly better. Version 1 was unusable. Version 2 is very usable.

SP: How is the commercial version of Aakash 2 different from its cheaper counterpart?

PR: There is no difference between the Aakash 2 and the UbiSlate 7Ci. Only the branding is different, and the packaging. The Aakash 2 ships with a couple of extra accessories like a multi-port USB hub and adapter cable.

SP: Is Aakash 2 only be distributed by the government. Has this started? Or can anyone buy it?

PR: Yes. Aakash 2 is only distributed by the government. It will only go to specified engineering colleges to start with. What we can buy is the commercial version, the UbiSlate 7Ci.

SP: Is the commercial version available in the market? How can one buy it?

PR: Yes, the UbiSlate 7Ci is available online at ubislate.com. You can buy with a prepaid order and expect to receive the product in a week or two.

SP: What do you make of the United Nations endorsing Aakash 2?

PR: This is very significant and very rare. The endorsement has brought the global spotlight onto the Aakash, with a great deal of interest by other member-countries, who are watching the India experiment closely.

Datawind can expect a great many orders, beyond the millions it already has, if it can fix its persistent product supply issues. For many countries, this would be the second attempt at a low-cost information device for students, after the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) laptop.

Photo - Datawind website

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Betwa Sharma

Correspondent

Betwa Sharma has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, AOL News, GlobalPost, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune. She previously worked as the United Nations/New York correspondent for the Press Trust of India, the country's largest newswire. She holds degrees from the National Law Institute University in India, Cambridge University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure