Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review: Augen Gentouch 78 Android Tablet

I recently acquired an Augen Gentouch 78 Android 7" tablet. These are (were?) sold at Kmart for $150 - $170. That means they are probably the cheapest Android device of any kind sold in the United States. However, if you're just looking for a cheap Android device you may want to consider buying a gray-market Chinese Android-powered iPad knock-off with more features for about the same money OR just get one from one of the US phone carriers (they'll give you a low price on the device, but you'll have to pay a lot more in the long run for phone/data service).

Never heard of Augen? Nobody has. They're a tiny, 13 person company in Florida that made a deal with Kmart and a Chinese OEM manufacturer to import an Android tablet that met Kmart's sub-$200 price-point. There is a more fully featured version of this tablet available called the Dawa D7 which has a microphone, 3D accelerated graphics, at least 2 point multi-touch capability, 3G modem connectivity (but possibly only for Chinese modems), HDMI video output, and 2 USB ports (but I believe only one is connected to the USB 1.1 Host driver, which still means you can connect things like USB flash drives and some keyboards and mice). There's also a more functional no-name version available for about the same price with a camera.

There are probably others. What is disconcerting is that Augen removed so much of that functionality! So what DON'T you get with the Augen Gentouch 78?
  • No g-sensor/accelerometer. Reportedly has one integrated, but due to firmware issues it doesn't work.
  • No 3D Accelerated Graphics. Again, it's physically present but not enabled either due to an error in the boot init file or purposely because Augen didn't secure the proper OpenGL license.
  • No multi-touch. Generally resistive screens don't have this, but some have a "2-point" form.
  • No USB Host driver, rendering USB connection "data only" (and that doesn't work well either).
  • No microphone or camera. The circuit board is there, but nothing is soldered to it.
  • No HDMI output
  • No 3.5 mm headphone jack (it has a 2.5 mm and no adapter)
  • No Android Market (despite it being listed on the box) because Augen didn't license Google proprietary apps.
Most, if not all, of those things ARE available on the other versions of this tablet.

When I first turned mine on the older OS installed made the device virtually unusable! One of the first things I did was apply Augen's OS update which at least made it functional enough to use for web browsing and emailing. You won't get Flash to work on it, most Android games don't work (either because they require 3D graphics or 3-axis accelerometer). It came with Skype Beta installed, but without a microphone or a camera it's useless.

To install the OS update I had to dig out my old Windows XP laptop because it's the only reliable way to apply the update. Even with Augen's USB driver updates for Windows I have never been able to get it to transfer files from Windows 7, or from Mac OS X. I can explore the files and folders in the "nand" folder on the device, and copy them to the computer but they won't transfer in the other direction. This is a real problem considering Market is broken on it because it means I can't even "side-load" apps. If I can't find a straight download link in a web browser ON the Gentouch, I can't install anything. In fact, installation from browser downloads on the device was the ONLY way I added any software to it. Problem is most Android apps are IN the Android Market - even most software search sites just aggregate their listings from what is in the Market and send you there.

Ok, there IS a way to get the Android Market to work on it that involves "rooting" the device (gaining root access) via the Android SDK developer toolkit and a console. I had no success rooting this device and gave up trying before I bricked it. I was, however, able to temporarily gain access and download some apps (some of which couldn't install because of the limitations of the device), by doing a factory reset on the Gentouch - which wipes out all your user data - and set up a new Google account. That worked until I rebooted the Gentouch, after which Market was broken again. There is apparently some root-level cache that needs clearing to fix this. But the REAL issue is that Augen never got a license from Google to access the Android Market - despite the words "Download hundreds of apps from Android Market" on the box.

A bigger problem is if you happened to be somewhere on a wifi hotspot with someone else who had one. Augen shipped these things all with the same MAC address on the wifi radio! It's not even Augen's MAC address - it belongs to Atheros, the manufacturer of the wifi chip. What it means is every one of these made is identical to a network - thus the problems if you have more than one of them trying to connect to the same network. It also means that, if you only allow certain devices to connect to your home network with MAC filtering, the network can't tell the difference between YOUR Gentouch and anyone else's - AND that MAC address is all over the web - so it represents a risk to a secured wifi network. How could Augen have sold these with every one having the same MAC address? Well. . .

The FCC says they have no record of the Augen Gentouch 78. Anything that emits, sends, or receives radio waves (pretty much all electronics) have to be submitted to the FCC for inspection, documentation, and are then issued an FCC licence if they are found to be within Federal tolerances. Apparently Augen never did this, or the FCC surely would have caught the MAC address problem.

I'm planning to return it to Kmart as "defective" and get a refund. This is an incomplete product that probably isn't even being legally sold in the United States in the first place. Some of the problems aren't fix-able because the hardware for those features was omitted and the software/firmware errors are only repairable if Augen releases updates and acquires legitimate licenses. Kmart really should just recall the damned things as all being defective and send them back to Augen. Let them deal with it.

UPDATE: Returned it to Kmart for a full refund. I have ordered (elsewhere) a Haipad M701R tablet to replace it. I'll write a review of that whenever it arrives.

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