Since the iPad first hit the streets a year and a bit ago tablets have prospered and multiplied. My main problem with them has been my inability to sincerely justify their existence: there is nothing they can do that I cannot do with other facilities at my disposal, and with all due respect to the iPad it's just too expensive for an impulse buy (not to mention the issues I have with Apple's closed garden approach, which I will leave aside for now). The cost concern has been recently subdued by Kogan, who now sell a tablet of their own (here). For $160, delivery included, I was able to put my hands on a tablet running Android 2.3.3 with specs more than resembling the Samsung Galaxy Tab P1000 7" tablet. That Samsung unit was selling in Australia for $1000 back when it was released, October 2010 (now you can get it for $400 if you know where to look); the Kogan, therefore, seemed like terrific value for money. The question was whether catches existed and how much. The purpose of this review is to try and answer that question.
The first catch revealed itself even before I put my hands on the unit. Kogan delivers its products through courier services, in our case Toll. We received email notification of the upcoming delivery, and because these couriers require someone to be home I coordinated a specific delivery date with them. However, I wasn't at all surprised to see the tablet left at my door step a day before the coordinated date, raising some questions about Toll's quality of service and liability in case something did happen to the unit.
Not a confidence inspiring start for Kogan when trying to satisfy customers approaching its products by looking for the catch.
Next it was time to unpack the unit and survey it. The first thing I noticed is that the Kogan tablet only accepts a non standard charger input: you cannot charge it via USB, which is a shame. It means you have to take an extra charger with you while travelling, and it also means you cannot charge it from a PC or a laptop. I asked Kogan whether anything can be done about this and received the following prompt reply via their email support:
There is no way to charge the tablet via USB. You will need to check with your local electronics store if they have a USB adapter with the charging plug.
The Kogan tablet does feature a mini HDMI output, and it can accommodate for a micro SD memory card (it accepted a 32GB card very willingly). In contrast to modern trends the unit has a mini USB input instead of the now more common micro USB, but it is a mighty USB connection indeed: it's a master USB connection, which means you can plug it to your external hard drives or flash drive. There aren't many other tablets that can do this, and Kogan even goes further by providing an adopter plug converting from mini USB to normal USB (thus allowing you to easily connect your flash drive).
Kogan does not supply a printed manual with its tablet. Instead you can download a two page quick start guide from their website here. They will also point you to Google's own Android 2.3 guide, but that guide is too generic to apply to all the specific settings implemented by Kogan on their tablet (read below for some examples).
Unit switching itself on and off:
Charging the unit for the first time, I couldn't avoid noticing the unit turning itself on every minute or two and then turning itself back off a few seconds later. I contacted Kogan's support again to receive the following reply:
The android platform is designed with 3G use in mind. Every now and then, the device may turn on briefly to check if there is 3g connectivity.Indeed, it does seem as if the problem disappears when you switch the unit into airplane mode to make it stop looking for the 3G signal that is never there (the unit is wifi only). The problem is, though, that there is no way to disable 3G without disabling wifi, too (in contrast to our Nexus S Android phone, running the same Android version, where this is easily achieved).
The problem might sound minute but it is actually quite severe and, to my mind, indicates that a half baked product was released to market here. Think of the implications: you can let the unit turn itself on and off all the time at the price of waking you up in the middle of the night with constant flashes and at the price of severely draining the battery (my tests indicate these on/off sessions alone drain the battery that otherwise lasts about 5-6 hours of action over a day and a half of doing nothing).
You can also try doing something about the problem. You can switch the unit off altogether when you don't use it, but then you'd have to wait a minute or so every time you turn it on, losing the main advantage tablets have over PCs - instant turn on and instant Internet readiness. Or you can switch the unit into airplane mode when you stop using it and then switch it off airplane mode when you do: that's the compromise I chose to use by clicking the on/off button for two second, which brings up the airplane mode menu.
The fact this is a problem in the first place indicates how pathetic the tablet really is. Having to turn the wifi on and off manually all the time on a tablet is like having to empty the petrol tank on your car whenever you stop driving. As I said, the Agora tablet was clearly half baked.
Added on 20/6/11:
Further experiments make it clear that switching the unit to airplane mode does not solve the problem, and the Agora still continues to turn itself on and off. This phenomenon has huge impact on battery life: when I leave my Agora tablet on standby mode, the battery doesn't even last me a single day (regardless of how much I actually use it otherwise!).
It seems like the only viable solution is to fully switch the tablet off in between uses. The price is having to wait a long while for it to turn on later.
What poor design! Isn't it great to have Kogan treat its paying customers as if we are beta testers?
Component wise, the key question about the Kogan Agora was always to do with the quality of its screen. How good a screen could Kogan source given the price tag on their unit? The answer, it seems, is "not that good". Although the unit sports a capacitive screen, it has a visible crisscross pattern of small squares all over it - nothing like the smooth and uniform screens of an iPad or an iPhone. The screen's reaction can be incredibly poor, especially when using virtual keyboards to type information in. The Agora's experience is a far cry from the quick typing I am used to on my iPhone and Nexus S: it's slow, it's error prone, and for some reason that eludes me the items at the bottom row of the virtual keyboard don't react too well. The result is that you wouldn't want to type much using the Kogan Agora, not even Twitter length text; the experience resembles medieval torture. It drove me crazy.
Still, the screen is not totally unusable. It displays videos fine (albeit in relatively low resolution) even if Kogan did not bother to supply a video playback app on the unit, and Angry Birds plays just fine.
Typing insensitivities are not the screen's only problem. The unit's orientation accelerometers are clearly of inferior quality to the ones in my iPhone: tilt the unit back slightly but quickly, say 30 degrees away from an upright start, and for a few seconds the Kogan Agora will think you tilted it by 180 degrees and turn the picture upside down. Occasionally it would go into a frenzy of switching the picture again and again until it relaxes a good few seconds later. To me this reads like poor quality components are in use.
Although running plain Android, the Kogan Agora comes with numerous applications pre-installed. These include Twitter and Facebook, to name but two examples. My problem with these pre-installed applications is that I cannot get rid of them even if I want to: as I personally don't see eye to eye with Facebook's approach to user privacy, I see no reason why their app should occupy space on my tablet.
I encountered some pretty inconsistent app behavior. I started by installing browsers to complement the default Android web browser. Firefox worked at first but later wouldn't even start, while Dolphin does start and will get me comfortably to my first page of choice but would not take me to any of the links I click on that first page. Given a tablet like this is supposed to act primarily as an easy gateway to the Internet, this is another severe issue with the Kogan Agora. Worse, it indicates towards a problem I thought I left behind when I stopped using Windows Mobile PDAs: the problem where doing the same thing again and again gives you different results every time for no apparent reason. I have never encountered such issues with my iPhone, nor have I encountered them on the Nexus S.
Flash does work on the Agora, but only to a limited extent. ABC's iView, for example, doesn't work; but the TinyShark app for playing Grooveshark contents, an app that relies on Flash being installed, works well. So does basic Flash functionality on the browser, such as some stuff on Flickr.
Skype was another catastrophic app experience. The Skype app would install but will earn me a lovely error message while trying to sign in, effectively meaning Skype is unusable on the Kogan. When I asked Kogan for help I got the following reply:
The Skype application is currently not supported. You will need to check with Skype to see when a new version is released that will be compatible.
VPN and rooting:
I use VPN services for various reasons, including - amongst others - to prevent others from eaves dropping on me when I use public wifi networks. The Kogan Agora, however, seems quite VPN unfriendly: whereas Android offers the facilities to set VPN up (as cited in Google's Android guide that Kogan refers to in its support facilities), the relevant menus seemed to have been removed from the Kogan. Kogan's had the following to say about VPN setup:
You will need to download an application to allow you to access this.
I figured that perhaps I will gain more control over the unit, including the retrieval of 3G suppression and VPN menus, by rooting it. The problem with the Kogan is that due to its nature - Kogan is not a big time manufacturer - I don't expect a community to form around the unit and provide rooting instructions to the public. I asked Kogan if they intend to do so themselves and received the following feedback:
We do not support rooting of the tablet and cannot provide any instructions on how to do so.
Sound and vision:
The Agora has a built in speaker that sounds the way I would expect a built in speaker to sound on such a unit. I tried connecting the Agora to my hi-fi via the Agora's headphone output only to find the unit's sound abysmal, by far the worst quality I got out of an MP3 player (and that includes my iPhone as well as cheap $20 players from Dick Smith).
Results from the unit's forward facing camera are pretty similar: the picture quality is quite bad. I can now start seeing how Kogan was able to supply a tablet for the price it did.
There can be no doubt the Kogan Agora tablet is cheap and nasty through and through. The question is whether it would be useful for whatever you had in mind for it.
If you wanted an Internet tool then you should forget about the Agora; it's pretty bad there.
If you wanted high quality entertainment then the Agora is probably not the device for you either. Nothing it delivers is delivered particularly well; everything is dominated by that cheap and nasty feel. Further, it is running an operating system intended for phones (as opposed to the newly released Honeycomb Android tablets that run an operating system designed for tablets). You feel that you're dealing with a twisted phone all the time.
Indeed, I will argue the Kogan Agora demonstrates the weakness of Google's strategy with Android: In my opinion, the only thing Google guarantees with the sale of units such as the Kogan Agora is that the next tablet its consumers will buy will be an iPad. Granted, they will pay more for the pleasure, but they will get a quality product.
However, there are niches where the Kogan Agora will do. I bought my unit primarily for my three year old, and he loves it: he likes using it for his games and videos while I like not having to care too much about him breaking a unit that did not cost me much and for which I cannot truly care otherwise. Between buying him a portable DVD player or the Kogan Agora, the tablet will always win.
Given the Kogan Agora can still deliver to a respectable niche, I can still give it 2 out of 5 stars.