Guilford County Schools, a public school district that serves 71,000 students in and around Greensboro, NC, announced on their website on Friday that they had withdrawn all 15 thousand Amplify tablets that had been issued to students. The tablets were distributed as part of the PACE pilot program, and were funded by a $30 million grant from the Dept of Ed. Race to the Top-District program.
GCS says that they pulled the tablets after receiving 175 complaints of malfunctioning power supplies, some 2,000 complaints about defective cases, and after 1,500 Amplify tablets were returned with broken screens. That is a 10% breakage rate, and it is almost unheard of in consumer tablets.
Of course, that 10% doesn't mean anything without context, so I did a little digging.
SquareTrade, the 3rd-party warranty service, reported in early 2012 that 9.8% of iPad 2 and 2.8% of original iPad tablets broke in their first year of use.
This means that the Amplify tablet broke at a rate 12 times as great as that of the iPad 2, and yes you can draw a conclusion about the relative build qualities.
Update: A couple people have taken me to task for my misuse of statistics. Clearly I don't know nearly as much as I thought I did.
On a related note, I have also been told that Worldreader, the nonprofit that distributes Kindles to remote schools in Africa, saw a 30% breakage rate when they first distributed Kindles in Ghana in 2011. Susan Moody Pietro, a spokesperson for Worldreader, told me that in order to fix the durability issue:
So we did a couple of things. We did in class exercises to teach the students that e-readers are delicate devices (one example is that we had the kids drop an egg and we showed them that the screens were breakable, like an eggshell. And we sent the broke Kindles to Lab 126 and they got to see that the screen needed reinforcement, which came out in the next launch of Kindles. I should mention that the breakage rates we were seeing at the time matched a similar school program in Clearwater Florida, so it wasn't a developing world vs. developed world issue.
Amazon responded to Worldreader's high failure rate by figuring out how to build a better Kindle, and between that and Worldreader's training program I was told that Worldreader's breakage rate was now under 4%.
In the end most accidental damage to tablets is caused by either user error, random bad luck, or poor construction. And that brings me back to the Amplify tablets bought by GCS.
According to the product page, the Amplify tablet has a 10" screen and runs a modified version of Android 4.2 on a Tegra 3 CPU with a 5MP rear-facing camera, wifi, and a microSD card slot. It is leased to schools at a princely $200 per year for 3 years, but curiously enough only comes with a 1 year warranty.
This tablet was always intended to go into schools, and that is why it was supposed to have been built with a layer of Gorilla Glass over the screen. This was in the contract that GCS signed, and it was also mentioned prominently in the early news coverage of this tablet. According to the school district, none of the Amplify tablets that they bought had that protective layer, which might help explain why so many tablets broke.
Or to put it another way, the absence of Gorilla Glass is a sign that someone cut corners on the build quality for this production run. Given that there were also complaints about misfitted cases and defective power supplies, I am not terribly surprised.
But do you know what does surprise me?
I was frankly surprised to learn that the Amplify tablet is supposedly based on the Asus MeMO 10" tablet, and that Asus was supposedly involved in producing the tablet. Asus isn't known for such obviously shoddy build issues, so I have to wonder just how much they had to do with producing the Amplify tablet.
Also, that MeMO Pad 10" tablet costs under $300, which means that schools are paying at least an extra $300 just to get the software from Amplify. I wish I could say that I was surprised.
As I reported when the Amplify tablet debuted in March of this year, this tablet is NewsCorp's "solution" to the "problem" of education:
This 10" Android tablet is the focal point of a new educational platform whose goal is to move more money from the $500 billion K-12 education sector and put it in Newscorp's pockets.
And here I thought I was being snidely cynical when I wrote that back in March. Nope.