Price: R999, from R59x24 months on contract
We can talk about infrastructure and we can talk about connectivity, but the only thing that’s going to get more people online in South Africa is simple: price. We need cheaper data bundles and we need cheaper devices to make use of them. And that sneaky ol’ red operator Vodacom may just have met both of those criteria in one go.
For in front of us is the Vodacom Smart Tab 3G. It’s a seven inch Android tablet that goes on sale tomorrow (15th October), and absolutely can’t be faulted in terms of value for money. Not only is the tablet itself cheap – R999 to buy out right – the data bundles available with it are some of the best value the operator has launched so far. Buy it outright, and it includes a SIM card and three months’ of data at 100MB a month. Buy it on a 24 month contract, though, and for R59 a month you get the tablet AND 500MB of anytime data AND 500MB of nighttime data every time the calendar ratchets up a new ‘un.
To put that in context, a 30 day 500MB data bundle for a Vodacom SIM card out of contract is R99. This is almost half the price and you get the tablet free.
Which leaves us just one question, doesn’t it? Is the tablet itself any good?
Pulling the Smart Tab 3G out of its shrink wrap is an almost surprisingly pleasant experience. It’s longer and thinner than most 7inchers, thanks to its extreme 16:10 widescreen resolution of 540×960, but it feels well put together. At 259g it’s lighter than, say, a Google Nexus 7 too: mainly because it’s only 8mm deep.
On the front, the screen appears to have a plastic finish as opposed to a tough Gorilla Glass one,
but doesn’t seem to be overly vulnerable to scratches and our review sample has already picked up one deep mystery gouge, although it doesn’t seem vulnerable to circular scratches from cleaning. The back plate is fixed in place and feels a little on the fragile side, as though it might crack if dropped too carelessly, but its certainly higher quality than many Android tabs I’ve tested over the years. Plus, it has a faint texture to it so it isn’t slippy and again – won’t show the scratches.
Controls are simple and standard – a power button top right and on the side, just above a volume rocker. There’s a micro USB port at the top and on the left hand side a covered set of ports for the SIM card and optional microSD storage.
Powering up the Vodacom Smart Tab 3G is again, surprisingly devoid of… um… surprises. At 560×960 the screen isn’t exactly ‘retina’ sharp, but at 160dpi it’s not overly ugly either. You’ll wince a bit if you’re coming from a high end smartphone, but the low resolution does mean that overall the tablet isn’t that demanding, because there’s not many pixels to push about.
What does that mean? Basically that the dual core processor feels springy as it chops its way through the setup tasks. But more on that later.
It’s not all great news, though: the display itself is clearly a TN panel of dubious provenance and there’s a very cool blue cast which vaguely taints everything on it.
That’s made more pronounced by the fact that viewing angles are dire by modern standards. It’s fine if you look at it dead on, but at 45 degrees everything is more or less invisible – especially if you’re looking down the long end of the tablet (ie. in portrait mode). It’s no worse than the original Sony Xperia Z, mind, if a little more prone to jaggies on the edges of text and 3D models while gaming.
It’s not too bad for viewing outdoors – although it’s not great either.
I mention the cameras because review protocol suggests I should. There’s one on the front, and one on the back. But to describe their performance I want you to imagine a beautiful African sunset, burning out the red sky from behind a lone mesa with a silhouetted a baobab tree in the foreground. Now imagine that same scene viewed through the cardboard of a damp cereal packet. In a hall of mirrors. From the wrong end of a telescope. While someone is repeatedly poking you in the eye with a dirty pinkie finger.
Yeah, the cameras are something like that. They’re terrible, and I mention them now just to get the worst news out the way early.
On the plus side, the rear speaker is surprisingly OK for listening to YouTube vids and the like. Next to the USB port is something described as an “IR lens”, but this doesn’t actually appear to do anything. There’s no infra-red hardware detected by universal remote software to make it useful.
The Smart Tab 3G comes with an unencumbered installation of Android 4.4.2. Literally the only customisation made is the addition of a ‘Vodacom’ folder on the first home screen which has the firm’s own app store and account management app in. That means you get the stock browser and keyboard by default – which is a bad thing as they both suck like an overclocked hoover desperately trying to keep the brand alive. But hey, this is Android – so you can quickly replace them with more palatable options like Firefox and Swiftkey from the Google Play Store.
Then you’ve got yourself a pretty fine tab, with plenty of the latest Android features including screen streaming to a remote display, if you’ve got the rest of the set-up that is.
Options for rooting are going to be slim at first – I imagine – but we’ll keep an eye out to see if anyone has success.
In our standard run down test, the Vodacom Smart Tab 3G put in an impressive 13 and half ours of web browsing and mixed use activity. That’s awesome. In the real world we think you’ll get slightly less – our initial impressions are that the 4060mAh cell is good for around nine to ten hours of general web browsing and info apps – and that’s based on current rundown performance of just over 10% an hour.
Some battery saving measures – like a light sensor for adjusting the backlight dynamically – are missing from the hardware.
After the cameras, the only real downside of the Smart Tab 3G is the storage. There’s a paltry 2GB built-in, so you’re going to need a microSD card early on. Android, of course, can store apps on the expanded storage but it’s not so straight forward that we wish there’d been some level of instruction included with the Smart Tab. Especially when you consider that this isn’t exactly aimed at an audience likely to be familiar with moving files around to a different drive on a phone handset.
Inside the Vodacom Smart Tab 3G there’s a Mediatek MT8312 processor which trundles along at 1.3GHz over both of its cores. That’s paired with a very meagre 512MB of RAM, which really should mean that this tablet is a bust before it begins. If you believe everything you read on a spec sheet, of course.
In practice, we’ve yet to notice it feel sluggish when switching between apps and games run absolutely fine. There’s the occasional stutter when swiping text or between homescreens, but really not enough to worry yourself about.
Games-wise, the four core Mali-400MP graphics processor is a few years old now so it’s not going to compete with an iPhone 6, but there’s nothing we found that won’t run on it. Yet.
We’ll be adding more benchmarks and updating our review as time goes by, but at this point in time our overriding opinion is that the Vodacom Smart Tab 3G is much better than it has any right to be, considering the price. I’ve reviewed some stinker tablets in the past, and this isn’t one of them.
It’s certainly not the first sub-R1 000 tablet we’ve reviewed, and other firms do have decent tabs at even lower prices. A quick flick through Kalahari.com suggests no shortage of even cheaper tablets if you’re after something basic and don’t mind slightly older versions of Android and even lower res screens.
But the kicker is that none of them come with a 3G modem built in. And the fact that the data options are so cheap is more than icing on the cake – it makes a truly democratic device for taking connectivity to the masses. And frankly, even if you are ADSLed up to the max, it’s still a decent enough cheap second tablet for the kids or doing some funky home automation stuff (if you’re that way inclined).
We’ll add a final score once we’ve finished benchmarking the tablet, but first impressions are very promising indeed. The tablet itself may be merely average, and another R1 000 will get you something much nicer but still WiFi inline. But the overall package looks perfectly pitched.
Price: R999 prepay (with 100MB data/month for three months), From R59/month x 24 on contract
Display: 7inch, 540×960 TN display (160ppi)
Operating System: Android 4.4.2
Processor: Dual core Mediatek MT8312, 1.3GHz
Memory: 512MB of RAM
Storage: 2GB, expandable to 32GB
Battery: 4 060mAh
Camera: 1.9MP rear, 0.3MP front
Networking: 802.11n WiFI, Bluetooth 4.0 and 3G/HSDPA+