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Introduction to cheap Android devices

1 Oct 2012 18:35:52 hardware

Buying a cheap Chinese Android tablet for no particular from Singapore may not have been my brightest idea, but what’s done is done. This writing is sort of report on how things have turned out.

Ainol Novo 7 Fire

tl;dr: good but unfinished hardware with a load of software bugs

Dual core Cortex-A9 running at 1.5 GHz, dual core Mali-400 GPU, 1 GiB of DDR3 RAM, 16 GiB flash RAM, 7-inch IPS(?) panel with 1280*800 resolution, 5-point capasitive touchscreen with WiFi, Bluetooth, Android 4.0.4 and Google Play for 130 euro, including shipping. These specifications described the device on which I was going to spend my money. Little did I know what I was getting into.

I placed my order on August 28th and collected the package on September 8th. Having shopped cheap things on DealExtreme I was surprised how neat the sales package was. DX packs things well, there no doubt about that, but their products often have little or no packaging (which is fine unless you’re buying the sales package instead of the thing inside). Excited about such a package I quickly opened it and powered on my first Android device ever.

As expected, I was greeted by a green Android figure. However, this time the screen module was not sitting on a prototype board and there was no serial cable connected to the device. I was booting up an actual product. Eventually an animated Ainol logo appeared, and after a few moments I was looking at the home screen. Now what?

The device felt physically well built. The seams were tight, it didn’t make any squeaking sounds when I tried to bed it (and it didn’t bend), there weren’t any sharp corners, the screen felt nice under my fingers and the touch panel was really responsive. The device felt a bit heavy but this could also be seen as a good thing: it wouldn’t feel like a cheap plastic toy.

Exploring the device and discovering (some of) its flaws

I started exploring the device by opening settings and going through every single option I could find. I tweaked screen brightness to something that wouldn’t burn right through my eyes, played with developer options (and actually left “show touches” option checked for a few days) and tried different screen locking options. This is when I discovered first two issues with the device. Waking up the device from sleep wasn’t without surprises.

When I first pressed the power button (after putting the device to sleep) nothing happened. Wondering what I was supposed to do the screen suddenly came back to life. It had only taken two seconds but I had already got worried. A loud, single “pop” sound that came from the speaker didn’t help to ease my growing suspicion. I tried the same thing again and surely enough the same happened again.

I continued playing with settings until I found speech synthesis. After trying out some configurations the device fell completely silent. Gone were the touchscreen sounds (good riddance!) but gone were also the speech synthesis samples. I shrugged and browsed back to sound options. After confirming that everything looked fine there I gave up for time being and moved one. At one point the sounds simply came back. I don’t know what caused this but it just happened.

Trying out the bundled Chinese applications I also watched two Ainol commercial videos that were on the internal memory card. This is when I really got to see how brilliant the screen was. I had little comparison for the screen, but I was amazed by how good it looked. The screen was bright, colourful and I didn’t notice any ghosting. I even stopped paying attention to my own fingerprints on the screen.

During the evening I ended up creating a new Google account for the device. Being paranoid, I wasn’t ready to give my “real” login to a cheap Chinese Android tablet. Besides that, I didn’t want to connect my actual Google account to this device. Having the account created I launched Google Play application. I had never seen Android Marketplace or Google Play before so I didn’t know what to expect. I soon discovered that many applications that I knew were not compatible with my device. Several days later I found this to be because of exotic system fingerprint and missing system configuration files. For example, Google Goggles was marked incompatible but would run perfectly fine if you somehow got it installed.

Next I remembered Humble Bundles that I had bought earlier. I downloaded and installed several games and eventually managed to fill up the system/application filesystem. I soon discovered an option to move the games to the internal memory card. While I was moving the games one by one, the system suddently showed a notification simply saying “SD card removed. Insert SD card.” I noticed the games on the internal memory card were no longer available. After a quick reboot everything was back to normal and I continued with the task at hand. When the memory card disappeared again I did an internet search. I ended up reformatting the memory card to FAT32 (from Linux), which solved the issue.

Having installed YouTube application I decided to give it a try. Everything was smooth, an episode of Rap News was playing nicely until I decided try seeking. Seeking the video worked fine, but the sounds were gone again. Just like before, the sounds did however came back eventually. This behaviour really started to bother me, but there was nothing I could do. Interestingly enough, these issues with sounds have rarely happened after the first night. In fact, the only times I’ve had the same problem again has been with the YouTube application - but certainly not every time I use it.

During the first night I tried number of other things too. Here are some observations:

  • Having your mobile phone to share internet connectivity using Bluetooth doesn’t work. Seems that Android is to blame here. It’s a shame because I wanted a device with Bluetooth just for this purpose.
  • Having your mobile phone to share internet connectivity using WLAN/WiFi doesn’t work. This also seems to be an issue with Android in general. How can ad-hoc APs be so difficult? It works with my N810/N900 just fine. It appears that wp_supplicant can be replaced with a version that does support ad-hoc networks. I haven’t tried this, though.
  • The screen makes a faint buzzing sound when on. I can’t hear it while using the device normally, but if I happen to bring my ear close to the device the sound is there.
  • The microphone is useless thanks to the buzzing screen; the microhone captures the buzz just fine. Voice recognition/voice search hardly recognises anything, probably just because of this.
  • The internal speaker is fed power all the time, even when the device is in sleep. This can’t be good for power budget. Besides that, it’s badly placed and easily covered by your right hand by just holding the device.
  • Sometimes plugging in and plugging out headphones causes the maximum volume level of the internal speaker to be noticably reduced. Rebooting helps and I think the problem also randomly resolves itself after (a few) sleep/wake cycles.

On the positive side

Despite its long list of flaws, I must say I don’t regret my purhace. The device does just what I wanted: it satisfies my curiosity without causing loss of sleep or apettite. Device fingerprint and feature files can be changed to fake Nexus 7, which allows you to install pretty much any application from Google Play. I have to say having a compass would have been a nice addition for toys like Sky Map but I can live without.

The device doesn’t have a GPS, but I didn’t buy it for navigation anyway. With less than 50 metre error, network-based location works surprisingly well. If I internet tethering would work this would be mostly enough even in the field. With the above changes the device should also be able to use external BT GPS dongle.

I’ve already wasted several hours playing games on the device. It just seems to be something it does very well. My absolute favourite so far has been Anomaly: Warzone Earth (from Humble Bundle) and it works flawlessly. I’ve also spent some quality time with (Major) Mayhem and Spacechem.

Without any prior experience I can’t compare battery life with other devices. For me, the battery lasts long enough. I can play Anomaly (or I could play, but having completed all challenges already…) for three hours without having to recharge the thing right after. I’d imagine it’d happily play videos for at least as long. It seems to consume quite a bit of juice in sleep mode, though.


In my opinnion the hardware is good value for money. Unfortunately the software doesn’t live up to the same standards. Hardware isn’t perfect either, but for this price I didn’t expect it to be.

The manufacturer is providing updates for the OS and some hobbyists are also creating firmwares of their own. The most active project appears to be Pat Moss’s Flambe, which provides Nexus 7 fingerprint and some fixes that are not included in the official package. Manufacturer has kind of promised to release an update to Android 4.1, but that remains to be seen.