Asda grabs headlines with sub-£100 Android tablet

Asda is currently grabbing itself some headlines by dropping the price of the Arnova 8 Android table to below £100, but anyone looking to invest in a cut-price prodable PC should do some careful research first.

Asda's offer, which sees £10 knocked off the RRP of the Arnova 8 to bring it down below the magic £99 mark, isn't the cheapest deal around: the rival Binatone HomeSurf8 shares many of the same specifications as the Arnova 8 and costs just £69.99 from Comet at the time of writing. High street fashion chain Next also beat Asda to the punch, launching an own-brand 7-inch device for £99 late last year.

All these devices promise much: at a fraction of the cost of an Apple iPad or a Samsung Galaxy Tab, you too can enjoy on-the-go computing with access to a web browser, big-screen gaming, and impressive video playback. Sadly, they all have something else in common too: they fail to deliver.

At first glance, the Arnova 8 looks like it might buck the trend: while the included Android 2.1 'Eclair' operating system is hardly the latest, it's a significant improvement on ancient Android 1.6 offered with the Binatone. The processor, at a devilish 666MHz, is also surprisingly powerful for the price, and while the 4GB of solid-state storage is less than generous it can be supplemented via a microSDHC slot.

The 5.5-hour battery life compares surprisingly well to the iPad's ten-hour lifespan, too, when the price differential is taken in to account. All in all, it's tempting to take a punt on a budget tablet instead of a high-priced equivalent.

The buyer, upon receipt of the product, is likely to regret that decision. The Arnova, as with most budget Android tablet, features an ARM11-based processor which uses the ARMv6 instruction set. While adequate for basic functions, it lacks many of the improvements introduced in ARMv7. As a result, Android will feel slower and more sluggish than the 666MHz clock speed would suggest, while Adobe's Flash Player is out of the question entirely.

The resistive touch-screen will also come to grate: requiring a modicum of pressure before activating, it makes sliding your finger up and down the display to scroll a lot more cumbersome than it should, and scratches are a near-certainty.

It's the software that is likely to cause the biggest issue, however. While Android is open source, Google licenses it in a variety of flavours: those choosing to implement it for free get the very minimum of support, while those willing to pay royalties to Google get the full 'With Google' experience and the ability to pre-load useful apps such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Maps.

In an effort to shave those last few pounds off the cost and hit the sub-£100 milestone, budget manufacturers don't opt for a licence. Instead, they build Android themselves, which brings with it a major issue above and beyond the lack of pre-installed apps: no access to Android Market.

While manufacturers try to compensate for this lack with third-party equivalents - Arnova has opted for the AppsLib Market, while budget tablet maker Storage Options bundles the SlideME Market with its Scroll line - it's hardly the same. Without Android Market access, users are cut off from the majority of what makes Android impressive: a huge selection of applications from third party developers.

It's always tempting to try to save a bit of money, but the simple fact is that budget tablets just aren't there yet. There's a reason that the Galaxy Tab still costs almost three times as much as the Arnova 8, and the iPad still more. Buyers opting to fulfil their tablet longings on a shoestring budget are, sadly, likely to discover this to their cost.