Hands on with Aakash – Datawind’s $35 tablet

Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind Inc., a small Montreal-based company, has been travelling like a whirlwind back and forth between Canada, the United States and India lately thanks to the wave of interest generated by Aakash – the $35 tablet.

ITBusiness.ca recently managed to pin Tuli down long enough to give us a hands-on look at Aakash, an Android 2.3 powered tablet for which the Indian government has recently ordered more than 100,000 units and intends to order as many as 6 million within the year. If everything goes as planned, the Indian leadership, which is selling the tablet to students for a subsidized price of around $35, hopes to be able to deliver low-cost Internet access through the device to rural areas using GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) mobile phone networks. Datawind expects to sell  6 million units of the Aakash this year.

So how does a $35 tablet look?

Bland really –  pretty much like many of the other low-cost, seven-inch Android tablets that came out a couple of years back after the iPad made a big splash. A strip of black plastic encircled Aakash’s seven-inch display and continued into the tablet’s rear casing.

The Aakash logo is actually taped on the back of the device.

“The tablet was originally named Ubislate7 and that was etched on the parts already of the earlier batch of the tablet,” Tuli explained. The Indian Government wanted the tablet named Aakash (literally “sky” in Hindi) to underscore it’s made-in-India identity. Tablets now being manufactured in Datawind`s factory in Hyderbad, India will bear the Aakash name, he said.

When Tuli fired up the tablet, it took the device about more than 30 seconds to connect to the WiFi signals. The screen images appeared to be darker than on the displays of other high-end tablets we have become accustomed to testing. There was no lightening fast launching of applications either.

iPad, PlayBook and Android tablet users should not expect to experience features they have  grown to take for granted such as crisp, bright images, nimble responses even when multiple apps are open and of course the swish, pinch and zoom touch interface that mainstream tablets are known for.

This is because Datawind had to take a few compromises in order to bring down the tablet’s price.

Apart from relentlessly seeking suppliers that would provide them with the lowest priced components, the company also opted for other cost cutting strategies.

Low-end components

“Instead of using a capacitive touchscreen we installed the lower-priced resistive touchscreen. You can’t pinch and zoom but it is ideal finger tapping or using a stylus device,” said Tuli.

The Aakash feature set:

  1. Internet access via GPRS or Wi-Fi
  2. Web, Email, Facebook, Twitter, Games, Full office suite, Educational software and over 150,000 apps
  3. Video streaming and HD quality video playback
  4. Expandable memory of 32GB
  5. Available case with built-in keyboard
  6. USB ports allow use of auxiliary tools such as bar-code scanner and mini-microscope  

Datawind cuts back on production cost further by limiting processor power and memory capacity. This may not be the ideal set-up for high-speed browsing, but Tuli is banking on a proprietary system to compensate for this.

Ordinarily, when users key in a URL on their machine, the browser proceeds to establish contact with the Web site’s servers. With the Datawind system, the browser is made to send a message to Datawind’s cloud-based proxy servers. These servers compress the Web page and send back the smaller package to the browser. “This shifts the processing burden from the client device to our cloud servers. This also results in lower data consumption which will translate in lower broadband bills,” said Tuli.

Perhaps, what sets the Aakash apart from most tablets in the market today is that it is also essentially a phone, people and make and receive calls with it. The device can connect to the Web using WiFi but it also works on GPRS networks.

GPRS capability is essential to the Aakash because this is primarily how its Indian users will be accessing the Internet, said Tuli.
With a population in excess of 1.3 billion, India only has an estimated 48 million Internet users. This is because the expensive broadband network we are accustomed to in North America is nearly non-existent and very economically restrictive in the country, said Tuli.

What India has is a lot of mobile phone user, nearly 900 million of them. As much as 97 per cent of the population is on GPRS.

“The government and Datawind is also talking with service providers so that GPRS Web service can be brought down to $2/month,” said Tuli.

Target market

“I wouldn’t buy this thing. It’s a $35-paperweight,” a colleague remarked. I’m inclined to agree – if we were talking about the general North American market. If you’re used to AMOLED displays, multi-touch interfaces and quad core tablets than the Aakash is definitely ho-hum.

But remember, the Aakash is meant as a bare-bones tablet for a very different market. It is meant as a tool that will help users access the Internet cheaply and fast through an existing GPRS network in order to boost education and connectivity.

In this respects the Aakash covers all the bases and then some. For instance, unlike other tablets, it has standard USB ports. This enables users to connect many other devices to the Aakash. For instance, there’s a mini-microscope which students can use to view images of specimen onto the tablet’s screen.

Warehouse workers or retailers can also connect a barcode reader to the tablet. Of course users can also view movies, video, slides and data saved on USB thumb drives.

The Aakash has only three-hours of battery life, but with it can be hooked up to a USB powerplug.

According to Tuli, the average income is the country is around $200/month. Majority of consumers (70 per cent) typically spend $30 to $60 for a mobile phone and laptops sell at a price range of $300 to $400.

Either at the subsideized price of $35 for students or the $49 retail price, the Aakash is perfectly priced for the Indian market.

Nestor ArellanoNestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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