Tablets can be handy for everything from communications and entertainment to productivity, and the smaller ones are quite portable. I use them every day. But despite price drops in recent years, they can still seriously dent your budget.
The king of the tablet world, Apple’s iPad, can’t be bought for less than $299, and that’s for the 2012 version of the iPad mini; the latest mini starts at $399. My favorite Android tablet, Google’s Nexus 7, costs less, but still starts at $229. Amazon’s current seven-inch Kindle Fire HDX starts at $214 without built-in ads. And all of these are Wi-Fi-only prices, which get you models that can’t connect to the Internet over cellular networks.
But last month, Sprint began selling a seven-inch Android tablet with both Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity for $29.99. That’s not a typo. We’re talking thirty bucks. This tablet, the Optik 2, is made by the brand-name Chinese mobile device company ZTE. And the price was so low that I decided to see just what you could get in a tablet for so little.
Granted, because Sprint is a cellular carrier, this is a subsidized price that requires a two-year contract, which adds to the cost. But that contract can be had for as little as $5 a month for a small amount of cellular data — 25 megabytes. That’s enough for those moments when you are out of Wi-Fi range and urgently need connectivity for, say, a quick check of email. And, over two years, it means the total cost of the Optik 2 is still just $150.
I expected the Optik 2 to be inferior to tablets like the iPad mini and the Nexus, and that’s exactly what I found. It’s bulkier and has a cheap-feeling plastic body. It uses older technology. It has a lower-resolution screen. And, in my tests, its battery life was roughly half that of the small iPad. After all, I figured, you can’t expect to get for $30 what you get for $200 or $300.
However, I did expect that it would function acceptably, like the many Android devices I have tested before. Instead, I ran into a persistent problem — too little storage — that stopped some key functions, such as syncing Google’s Gmail, and effectively crippled the Optik 2.
Sprint and ZTE at first said that this problem was an anomaly caused by a fluke in my evaluation device. Later, a senior ZTE product manager said there was likely a bug in the system that his team would work to fix, and that it was exacerbated because I was a heavy Gmail user, who at first chose not to use a memory card. But based on my tests, I can’t recommend the Optik 2 at any price.
The Optik 2 is sold online and through the carrier’s channel for businesses. It’s a chunky black-and-silvery rectangle that feels heavy and thick for its size. It has only eight gigabytes of internal storage — half the minimum of the Nexus or iPad mini or Kindle Fire seven-inch HDX. And it runs a year-old version of Android.
Its screen resolution is just 1,024 by 600, well below that of its latest, pricier, rivals. When I went to download a video from the Google Play store, I was advised that the device couldn’t play high-definition movies.
Not only that — and surprising to me for a product sold by a phone carrier — its cellular function only works over the old, slow 3G network, not the much faster 4G LTE network that Sprint touts everywhere. In my speed tests, cellular data speeds were pathetic, rarely reaching even one megabit per second, compared to the 10-20 Mbps typical of LTE. Even the Optik’s Wi-Fi radio only managed about half of the 35 Mbps speed available in my home in most of my tests.
In my tough battery test, where I set the screen brightness to 75 percent, leave the radio on and play videos until the battery dies, the Optik 2 lasted just under five and a half hours, compared to more than 10 hours for the iPad mini and six hours for the Nexus 7.
It also has a bunch of built-in craplets — apps you never asked for and may not want — from Sprint and Sprint’s partners.
Still, the Optik ran a handful of third-party apps, such as Twitter and Facebook, and the core Google apps, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Chrome — until that storage problem reared its head.
After a while, I began receiving ominous warnings that I was running out of storage, and that critical functions like syncing of data from the cloud might not work. Sure enough, my Gmail accounts stopped syncing, and I was unable to download new apps. This persisted even after I cleaned out as many items as I could, inserted an optional memory card to add storage, and rebooted.
Sprint and ZTE representatives told me this was because my test unit didn’t have the latest software. So I updated the software, but the problem didn’t go away. At their request, I then reset the whole device to factory settings — wiping out my downloaded apps, accounts and data. I then restored everything manually, and all seemed well. I then removed the memory card, since I prefer to test products as they come out of the box.
But, a day later, the storage warnings and failure to sync returned. I reinserted the memory card, but to no avail. The ZTE product manager suggested that if I had been using a memory card from the start, the problem might not have occurred. But the card isn’t included, and is optional.
The problem appeared to be in the little-understood portion of internal memory where system and app files get stored, which on this unit is a tight 1GB. I still had plenty of room in the 8GB advertised storage and on the memory card.
Bottom line: I expect tablet prices, subsidized or not, to keep dropping. (Sprint sells the Optik 2 without a contract as a pure Wi-Fi device for $170.) But even at $30, a tablet that stops working properly isn’t worth it.
So, based on my tests, I can’t recommend the Optik 2. If you still want to go the sub-$100 subsidized route, Sprint offers the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 for $50, with double the storage and LTE.
But remember: You get what you pay for.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.