The CES 2012 Crap Tablet Gush Begins

Tablets have been a growing mainstay of the CES scene for the past couple of years, with Apple – never in attendance, but always looming large – driving rivals big and small to put out touchscreen slates. 2012's show promises more of the same: a few potential contenders from the serious names, and then a whole lot of swarf around them. Stand by for the great crap tablet gush of 2012.

There are cheap, ineffectual smartphones out there, and mediocre TVs, but the rise of Android, a glut of inexpensive 7- to 10-inch LCD panels and the halo effect of Apple's iPad has prompted above-average growth in the tablet segment. That glut of cheap options demands plenty of compromise along with the low sticker price. At CES this year, we're expecting to see...

Smartphone versions of Android

Android has flourished on tablets because, simply, Google gives it away. Or, more accurately, it gives some of it away: if you want the really eye-catching apps, like Gmail and the Android Market, then you have to toe the Google party line on what constitutes a "proper" Android gadget. Problem is, most cheap Android slates run Gingerbread or another smartphone-version of the OS, and with elements like integrated cellular wireless missing they're not eligible for Google's prime software.

That means no Android Market, no Gmail, no official YouTube app... in fact you're left with a pretty basic browsing tablet. Third-party software stores fill the gap somewhat, but it's definitely not ideal. Meanwhile, a UI designed for a smartphone starts to look stretched out and just plain wrong on a 7-inch or larger device, and Android's (relatively few) tablet-specific apps won't play ball either.

Underwhelming Interface mash-ups

[aquote]Like a bad Glee rap-power-ballad combo, these design tweaks are generally rough[/aquote]

Manufacturers are left either keeping Android's smartphone interface, with all the compromises inherent in that, or cooking up some tablety UI of their own. Unfortunately, like a bad Glee rap-power-ballad combo, these design tweaks generally turn out rough, add to sagging performance and sit uncomfortably with both sides: phone apps still look odd, tablet apps – if even present – usually suffer from minimal investment.

Add in the fact that development on these custom interfaces tends to dry up after the first iteration, and it's no surprise that many budget Android buyers turn to unofficial ROMs to strip away the manufacture's dross and replace it with either a native UI or a tablet-centric OS altogether. That's often beyond the skill-set of those drawn in solely by a sub-$200 price tag, however.

"Now you see me, now you don't" Displays

That mid-sized LCD panel glut which helped spur the cheap tablet market has a significant downside: many of the displays are just plain bad. Narrow viewing angles meaning you have to be looking directly head-on to actually see text and images properly, or a screen that's only usable when in either portrait or landscape orientation – but not both – are common complaints.

There's a reason Apple, ASUS and Samsung get praised for their IPS and Super PLS displays: having a screen you can actually see makes for an altogether more usable tablet. One you'll actually pick up on a daily basis, rather than being content to let expire under a stack of magazines.

Paper-performance, Real-world woes

[aquote]Models like the NOOK Tablet work because they fit into an overall ecosystem[/aquote]

You can see their argument: why buy a $200 Kindle Fire, and do without a camera, expandable storage and other features, when you could have a no-brand slate with far more ticks on the spec sheet for the same price? Problem is, models like the NOOK Tablet and Kindle Fire – and, indeed, the iPad – work because they fit into an overall ecosystem of video, music, books and other content. Each uses its tablet as a gateway into your pocket for ongoing multimedia and apps purchases.

Without that ecosystem built around the device, a cheap tablet is as good as the third-party apps and services you can access. Often that doesn't include the Android Market, as mentioned before, and so you're forced to use third-party app stores, sideload software and sync across media from your computer.

Meanwhile, even if you have a whiz-bang processor and the promise of a high-resolution camera, what sounds great on paper has a habit of disappointing if the software optimization, lenses and other kit aren't up to scratch. Megapixels aren't everything, after all, and neither are megahertz.

Although you'd think that budget manufacturers would've learned their lesson in the past 18-24 months, the sudden popularity of devices like the NOOK Touch is likely to have reawakened the hope that "maybe my cheap slate will make it." We'll be picking through the dross and bringing you the best tablets from CES 2012 all week, but you can send an even stronger message when you're out shopping for your next slate. Simply leave the too-good-to-be-true models on the shelves.