by November 1, 2011 0 comments



India’s much-hyped $35 tablet was finally launched in October, at the list price of Rs 2,999, or just over $60. The Akash is a bid to bridge the digital divide for India’s students. Designed and manufactured by DataWind (in partnership with IIT Rajasthan), the tablet is being manufactured in the company’s Hyderabad factory.

At that price, the Akash is impressive, for it is a functional Android tablet. We at PCQuest got to play around with Aakash and here is what we found.

Snapshot

Price:
Rs 2,999
Meant for: Everyone
Key Specs: 7”, 350 gm; resistive touchscreen display; 256 MB memory, 2 GB flash storage, microSD card slot; 366 MHz processor; 2 USB ports.
Pros: Price, size and weight, expandability
Cons: Unresponsive touchscreen, low battery life, limited content/apps (no Android Market)
Contact: DataWind, http://www.aakashdatawind.com/
Write to:pcquest@cybermedia.co.in with name of product in subject, for more info.

It has the basics you’d expect to see in a tablet -connectivity, a web browser and media players, PDF readers, downloadable apps. There’s even two USB ports, a rarity in tablets and a micro-SD card slot, and a 3G version is also planned.

A subsidized version of the Aakash tablet will be available to post-secondary students through the National Mission on Eduction through ICT (NME-ICT) project. DataWind will offer a commercial version, called the UbiSlate, starting late November at an MRP of Rs 2,999 ($62) including 12 months of warranty. Internet access via mobile networks will be priced at Rs 98 for 2GB of data, in the commercial version of the UbiSlate, which includes a cellular modem and SIM card slot.

Feature and functionality

The Aakash is a really light tablet, weighing just 350 gm, with a 7-inch display and an almost pocket-able form factor. Its surprise feature is two USB ports, apart from a micro-SD card slot. It supports external memory up to 32GB.

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The device’s software is limited by its spec (a slow processor and low memory) and cost: it runs the Android 2.2 Froyo operating system, intended for low-cost smartphones. This further means no Android Market, the standard tablet-and-phone app store that Google doesn’t allow access to from Froyo 2.2 devices. Instead, there’s GetJar, a more limited app store largely for phone apps. This means most apps on the tablet will run in a smaller size, or in lower resolution if expanded to fulls screen.

The battery life is a let-down; the 2100mAh battery lasted less than the rated 3 hours. The device also warms up in use, which means precious battery power is getting wasted as heat; and it also means that there is little power-optimization that has been done in the design and development.

This also means that each school kid who uses it will need a charging socket in her desk. And that’s not likely to happen soon in India’s schools. (Leaving it to charge repeatedly in common areas is not practical, for obvious reasons.)

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Because of its Froyo (Android 2.2) OS, there’s no Android Market; and GetJar is a poor substitute. However, the commercial version of Aakash UbiSlate will support Android Market, according to DataWind CEO Suneet Singh Tuli. This is apart from the cellular modem and SIM card slot that version will have.

For students, the other missing piece is the educational content and courseware. Though there are many good videos on YouTube and there are apps elsewhere, the curriculum-orientation of India’s schools would mean there would be a tendency to “stick to the course”, and as of now, the courseware isn’t there.

How Indian is the Aakash?

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The design and development have been done in India, going by government and company reports; and the manufacturing is here too. Inside, though, the components are globally sourced, which is no surprise. About a tenth of the components are locally sourced.

At the heart of the Aakash is Conexant’s 2010-vintage CX92745 System-on-Chip (SoC), which includes an ARM microprocessor, with integrated display, media, and image processor, and even audio and video processors and output. Next to it is a Hynix H27UAG 2GB NAND flash memory chip on one side, and a Hynix HY5P, 256 MB DDR2 SDRAM on the other.

The workmanship inside isn’t top notch. Cheaper plastics and a flimsy screen cover don’t bode well for heavy student use. Nor for serviceability: after removing the inside screws, we couldn’t put them back because the plastic threads had slipped.

For the price, the Aakash is great value for money. And it has high interest from across the country and the world. To bring out a working tablet at this price point is clearly a great feat.

But will it sustain, commercially? The bar for tablets is really high today, and other much more expensive efforts from HP and other vendors have flopped, against Apple’s iPad onslaught.

Even if it is sustained by government volume buying and subsidy, it needs the apps, content, and other parts of the ecosystem (including power at schoolkids’ desks) to really make a difference in education.

Here’s hoping it gets that support, and that success.

Bottomline: At this price, a must-buy for an enthusiast, to check it out; also a nice option, for basic connectivity for home use or limited mobility. Not the best device for volume use in schools, though.

(With inputs from Prasanto K Roy)

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