Guest Post by Brian James


For a brief overview you can scan the presentation or read on below for a more detailed analysis.


Spurred by smartphones, the success of the iPad, falling prices, and our ever-growing love for mobility, the tablet market has exploded over the past few years.  After playing catch-up with Apple for a short-while, Android has become the clear market leader and now boasts an incredible range of tablets to choose from in a variety of sizes.  These same features make 7” Android tablets great tools for mobile ministry.  They boast (typically) excellent battery life, good multimedia features, and the ability to tackle some productivity tasks (email, word processing, etc.).

In August 2014, a review was conducted of several such tablets.  The main criteria were as follows:

  • 7” screens: Seven-inch tablets hit a sweet spot by providing significantly larger screens than most smartphones while maintaining excellent portability (even pocketability). Their larger screen size, compared to smartphones, is helpful for:microSD card slot: microSD cards allow for expanded storage, quick and easy media access, and the ability to copy/share media files.
    • sharing video content, especially with multiple people at a time;
    • organizing and finding files for easy sharing
    • creating content – documents, graphics, videos – in addition to simply consuming it (this might be helpful for such work as Bible translation
  • Low-cost: A maximum cost of $150 in the U.S. This puts these tablets in the budget range, making them more affordable for missionaries, lay leaders, and others interested in purchasing a tablet for ministry use.
  • Global availability: While not a strict criteria, attention was also given to global availability for purchase and support.

The five tablets chosen for this comparative review included:

  1. ASUS MEMO Pad 7
  2. DataWind UbiSlate 7Ci
  3. Lenovo A7-050
  4. LG G Pad 7
  5. Hisense Sero 7 Pro

Each of these tablets were used extensively over a 1-month period and were evaluated primarily from the perspective of their usefulness as tools for mobile ministry.  Some of the key criteria on which the evaluations were based included multimedia capabilities (screen quality, audio quality, photo & video capabilities, etc.), battery life, ergonomics (size, weight, comfort when holding/using, etc.), build quality, and overall user experience. 

The Datawind Ubislate 7Ci was really in a separate class as an ultra-low-cost tablet (under $40 where available).  It does not compare well to the others (low screen resolution, poor viewing angles, no Bluetooth, no access to the Google Play Store, etc.) so is hard to recommend, but still has some value as a mobile ministry tool for those who simply can’t afford to spend a little bit more. 

The other four tablets (ASUS, Hisense, Lenovo, LG) were all capable performers with fairly similar specs and no clear winner.  All scored well and proved to be capable media tools for mobile ministry including media creation and playback as well as Bluetooth file sharing.  The Hisense earned distinction as perhaps the best overall value given its combination of low cost and superior feature set (best camera, best battery life, NFC support, mini-HDMI port). However, it was also the heaviest and largest (width and length) of the four and has only 8GB of internal storage (only the Lenovo and ASUS had 16 GB).  As a second-tier brand, it also lacks the product availability, customer support , and track record (reliability) that the other brands enjoy.  Factoring in these less tangible criteria, the top pick, if one must be chosen, came down to the Lenovo A7 and the LG G Pad 7.0 with the nod going to the Lenovo A7.  This distinction was earned by its excellent screen (brightness, rich colors, viewing angles), good overall performance, good specs on its front and rear cameras that rivaled the Hisense (though no LED flash), and double the storage space of the LG (a big help when shooting video and storing apps).


Datawind UbiSlate 7Ci

The UbiSlate 7ci was developed in India for the India market, but is also being sold in the U.S. and other countries.  At an average cost of under $50, it is, in every sense, the epitome of a budget tablet.  As such, it is significantly outclassed by the other tablets in this review. However, it was helpful to include in this review as it seems somewhat indicative of similar budget tablets that you might find advertised at, for example, department stores.

The major specs on this tablet are a good indicator of what users will experience.  Briefly, it offers a low-resolution (800x480) 7” screen, a VGA-quality front-facing camera, 2.4 GB of storage, a microSD card slot for additional storage, a 2800 mAh battery (estimated 2:23 run time), a single rear-facing speaker, and a sluggish processor (ARM Cortex A8) – all housed in a plastic and weighing in at 11.2 oz.  At the time of this review (August 2014), it ships with Android 4.2.2 with no apparent upgrades available at this time.  The two most noticeable features missing that are found in most other Android tablets and useful for mobile ministry purposes are Bluetooth and a rear-facing camera.

Specs aside, what really matters is the actual user experience, which is dependent on what the user’s expectations are (back to that in a minute).  My first impression holding the tablet is that it is cheaply made, which, in fact, it is, at least compared to name-brand tablets.  For example, the screen is not flush with the bezel (the frame around the screen), and the corners are not as smooth in your hands as they could be. A nice touch for tablet newbies, however, is that all of the buttons and ports are clearly labeled so you know just what each is for:  Mic, USB, DC-5V (apparently this can be powered/charged by either USB or DC-5V power), Power, Headphones, Volume Up, Volume Down, and TF Card (an archaic reference to what is now popularly called a microSD card).  This can be really helpful for those not yet experienced with mobile devices.

Once the tablet is powered on, however, you begin to really notice the “budget” aspect of this tablet.  The lock screen includes an advertisement (pulling from revolving ads based on your IP-sourced geographic location), a surprising and unpleasant intrusion that is also present in some of the bundled apps.  Speaking of apps, a sizeable collection of lower-tier apps are included, most geared toward elementary education and entertainment.  While most seemed functional (I did not try all of them), of the several I tried some gave error messages or did not work at all.  Worse still, my test unit did not come with the Google Play Store pre-installed. Apparently the tablet began shipping with the Google Play Store, but DataWind is no longer including it. This is a big deal as the Play store is the official Android app store offering both the widest selection and latest version of apps.  This certainly limits its usefulness. Included in all units is Datawind’s own app store, which seems to be just an initial interface for the anemic SlideMe app store (failed searches seamlessly open the SlideMe app store interface, which you can also access directly via an app icon, as well).  Another third-party app store, GetJar, is also included.

The fun continues when you immediately notice the very sluggish performance.  While everything seems to work, swiping through screens, opening and running apps, downloading files, and other basic activities all exhibit a frustrating amount of lag. However, for units shipping with the Google Play Store, a quick switch to the Lightning Launcher as the default launcher will reportedly improve performance (for those wanting to tinker, it might also be possible be possible to side-load this app).

The screen is surprisingly vibrant for such a cheap tablet; at maximum brightness it is even somewhat visible in full sunshine.  Curiously there seems to be little difference between the minimum and maximum brightness settings.  The greatest disappointment with the screen is the exceptionally poor viewing angles.  You need to hold the tablet with the screen square to your eyes for a clean viewing experience. A slight tilt in any direction compromises the view.  This does not seem as problematic with apps as it is with viewing photos or videos.  Videos are still viewable, but it is not a great experience if you don’t keep the screen at the proper angle.  Unfortunately, this significantly degrades the potential of this tablet as a ministry tool since one of the key uses of tablets for mobile ministry is showing videos.

The rest of the multimedia experience was a mixed bag. Unlike most tablets, the UbiSlate utilizes a plastic screen that is magnet for fingerprints and scratches. The upside is that you don’t have to worry about cracking or shattering the display. The single, tiny speaker on the back of the tablet was not great, but was reasonably clear with acceptable volume (when set on high) when playing back a video.  The front-facing camera offers two resolutions – VGA (640x480) and QVGA (320x240) and does include a panorama option. Video features include time-lapse, digital zoom, and “Silly Face” effects.  The quality of photos and videos is not great.  In my sample photos, colors are washed out, and there is quite a bit of noise.  Video is passable as long as the lighting is decent and there is little movement (as would be the case if you are doing a video chat).  However, when using the bundled camera app to shoot video with audio, the sound is low-quality and is not synched well with the video.  I was hoping for better, but for under $50, you can’t expect great quality, and a working camera is certainly better than no camera at all.  I did uncover one very pleasant surprise with audio.  Using a downloaded recording app (the free version of Hi-Q MP3 Recorder) with the audio settings at their highest (48 kHz), the resulting audio was reasonably clear.  It was not pristine, of course, and you need to play it back on headphones or external speakers to appreciate it, but for anyone wanting to record and share stories, podcasts, lectures, sermons, etc. and not having dedicated audio equipment, this could really come in handy.

This tablet is Wi-Fi enabled, of course, and I was able to quickly and easily connect to and maintain a connection with my home router. I found battery life to be in line with the stated specs. With Wi-Fi enabled and screen brightness at its maximum setting, I was able to play my test video (stored locally, not streaming) for 2 hours 14 minutes.

All things considered, the UbiSlate is just what it bills itself as – a low-end, budget tablet. The fact that it can offer what it does at a retail price of under $50 is commendable and a good sign of things to come.  It may serve emerging markets well, providing an entry point to those who simply cannot afford to spend a little more on something better.

ASUS MemoPad

The MemoPad comes across as a quality tablet with a professional look and feel to it – solid and refined.  The back of the tablet has a textured feel making it comfortable and easy to hold (though it will likely be used with a case).  Two things did strike me as awkward.  First is the placement of the power port at the top of the device just right of center. Most tablets have this port on the bottom of the device, or others on the side, so this seems counter-intuitive. Similarly, the on/off button and volume rocker, while placed on the upper right edge of the tablet right where I intuitively seek to find them, are toward the back side of the device instead of on the edge. This makes them slightly harder to find and to use.

After stepping through the startup procedure, which included updating the OS to KitKat 4.2.2 and adding access to my Google account (and therefore the download of some data to my device) storage shows 9.68GB of free space, 4.87 GB is reserved for the OS, and 899 MB of apps are installed (a hefty 51 apps appearing in the apps list).  Internal storage space is certainly one of the selling points for this tablet, only one of two in this round-up that came with 16GB of total internal storage.

Multimedia:  The MemoPad is a decent overall performer on the multimedia front.  The screen looks fairly crisp and bright on the home screen.  Video playback was smooth with an acceptable picture, but it definitely fell short of the Hisense, Lenovo, and LG in terms of screen brightness and colors.  It does sport both front- and rear-facing cameras, but the resolution is disappointing – just 2 MP on the rear and a paltry 0.3 MP on the front.  Sample photos and videos reflected the low specs of these cameras.  Given the usefulness of cameras for scanning, creating videos, and more, it is disappointing to see such low-end specs, especially since this was the most expensive of the tablets tested (~ $150).

One big selling point of the MemoPad, in addition to the 16GB of storage, is the excellent battery life.  In the video playback test (full screen brightness with Wi-Fi enabled), the battery consistently lasted at nearly 8.5 hours of use, second only to the Hisense.  It also scored higher than the Lenovo A7 on the video rendering test.

The ASUS MemoPad 7 is decent all-around tablet and is very enjoyable to use.  Due to its lackluster cameras and high price, however, shoppers should consider other models. 

Lenovo A7-50

Lenovo has earned a tremendous reputation in the notebook computer market and has been introducing a variety of 2-in-1 devices and dedicated tablets recently that warrant consideration. The A7-50 is a good example of Lenovo’s expertise.  Holding it, everything feels just right with comfortable, curved edges, a smooth back, and intuitive placement of the power and volume buttons.  The setup was wonderfully brief, though the font used at times was annoyingly tiny – a slight annoyance to my eyes, and I was immediately greeted with the availability of a system upgrade, which installed KitKat 4.4.2. Once the Android upgrade was completed, my device showed 44 installed apps and a total of 12.1 GB (out of 16 GB) of free space – the best of all tablets tested.  Included is Lenovo’s new SHAREit app (free for all users in the Google Play Store) for incredibly fast, easy, wireless file transfers with other Android, iOS and Windows devices also running the SHAREit app.  WPS Office, a Microsoft Office compatible suite for viewing, editing, and creating documents, presentations and spreadsheets, is also included. There seemed to be very little app bloat aside from the extensive suite of default Google apps.

Multimedia:  The Lenovo ranked at or near the top in terms of screen brightness, viewing angles, and colors (edged out only slightly by the LG).  Video playback was a joy with no noticeable stuttering even when playing HD videos.  Media creation also worked reasonably well.  Like the Hisense Sero 7 Pro, it boasts a 2.0 MP front-facing cameras along with a 5.0 MP rear camera (the Hisense has the distinction of also having an LED flash for the rear camera).  Both cameras suffered in low-light situations, typical for budget tablets, but are still far superior to both the LG and ASUS cameras.  The A7 put in a respectable score in the HD time-lapse video rendering.

The only area where the Lenovo noticeably lagged the competition is battery life.  Its 3,450 mAh lasted just over 6:30 (six hours, 30 minutes) in the video playback test (Wi-Fi on with a locally stored HD video looping continuously with brightness set to maximum).  Better battery performance would have made this tablet the knock-out winner in this tablet roundup. 

One important note:  This tablet comes in two models, the A7-50 reviewed here, and the A7-40, which has half the internal storage (8 GB) and no rear camera (the front-facing camera is the same as the A7-50).  Costing as little as $10 more, buyers would be wise to go for the A7-50 model if they can afford it. Had this review used the A7-40, the LG and Hisense tablets would have easily come out ahead.

Bottom line:  The A7-50 is made by a solid company with an excellent global presence, has great specs, performs well, and is an excellent option for anyone shopping for a budget tablet. Despite its anemic battery, it earned the top overall spot in this review.

Hisense Sero 7 Pro

Hisense has been cultivating a good reputation lately for quality, low-cost electronics. While Hisense’s distribution channels mean you may have a hard time finding them globally, the Sero 7 Pro is worth a look if you can find it.  While it comes standard with just 8GB of internal storage, it offers a 1280x800 7” display, both rear-facing (5 MP) and front-facing (2 MP) cameras with an LED flash on the rear camera, Bluetooth and NFC, and a 4,000 mAh battery (estimated 7 hours of HD video playback, 10 hours of web surfing over Wi-Fi).  It even boasts a miniHDMI port for easy video output to an HDMI-equipped TV, monitor, or projector, a useful feature found on very, very few tablets.

Like most of the others, the Sero 7 Pro has smooth rounded corners that are comfortable to the touch. The back, though plastic, has a metallic finish that is textured which helps make it more secure in your hands (for those rare occasions it won’t be in a case).  There, are however, two negatives in comparison to the others:  it is slightly heavier, and it has the largest frame and bezel of all five test tablets.  These are not deal killers, but they might slightly detract from the user experience if you have smaller hands or hold this for long periods of time.

Multimedia:  On paper, the Sero 7 Pro boasts awesome multimedia features, particularly for a low-cost tablet.  In real-world use, it doesn’t disappoint.  Its dual speakers pump out surprisingly crisp sound with good volume.   It has perhaps the brightest of all the screens tested and colors render well, though the brightness does cause brighter scenes and images to appear slightly washed out. Even with its bright screen, its battery lasted an impressive 9:15 in the video playback test. Viewing angles for video were good, arguably the best of the four contenders.  And, of course, it has the sole distinction of having a miniHDMI port for easy video output to a larger screen.  For mobile ministry, this can really come in handy for showing videos, scriptures, apps, presentations, etc. on a bigger screen for bigger audiences.  In terms of video rendering, it placed tops on the time lapse video creation.  The 15-minute, 2fps test video was rendered at 720p in just 5:53.

Final call:  As a newcomer, reliability is unknown, and unfortunately the availability of this tablet is limited.  For those able to find this tablet, however, especially for significant savings over the Lenovo and LG, the Sero 7 Pro offers a complete package and is an excellent value for anyone who doesn’t mind the slightly extra weight & size.  Current prices show this as low as $85 new, making this by far the best overall value.
 

LG G-Pad 7

While the specs of the LG G-Pad 7.0 don’t lead the pack, it is nonetheless an enjoyable and fairly capable tablet.  It offers a 7” 1280×800 display, a quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM, a 3 MP rear camera and 1.3 MP front-facing camera, 8GB of internal storage, and a removable 4,000 mAh battery.  The setup process also greets the user with the immediate availability of an update to Android KitKat (4.4.2).

Ergonomics on this tablet are very good.  It is very comfortable in the hands with nice, rounded corners.  Its light weight (the lightest of the top four tablets) helps when holding the tablet for longer periods.  I did find that the power and volume buttons were awkwardly placed toward the back side of the tablet, making them less intuitive to find.

Multimedia:  The G Pad proved to be a wonderfully capable multimedia tool.  As with most of the other tablets, screen life was very pleasing and video playback was smooth.  Colors were rich and perhaps the most accurate (natural) of all of the tablets tested.  While its cameras certainly lag the Lenovo A7 and Hisense Sero 7 Pro, they are far better than those found on the ASUS MemoPad 7 and are good enough to be useful  for a variety of tasks if the lighting is good.

Additional high notes for the LG are the strong battery life.  It consistently lasted just over 8 hours in the video playback test.  Its skinned Android UI also allows it utilize a split window so that two apps can be open at the same time.  This is not a make-or-break feature on tablets, especially on a 7” screen, but it is useful nonetheless, and I wish more tablets offered this capability.  Add to this LG’s strong global presence and you have a solid all-around package.

Bottom line:  The LG is a very enjoyable tablet to use.  With all five of these tablets on my desk, the overall user experience consistently led me to choose from either this or the Lenovo.  Its strong battery life compared to the Lenovo makes it a tempting option.  In the end, Lenovo’s better cameras and higher internal storage space were enough for it to win this tablet war, but the LG came in a solid second.

 

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