When Amazon launched the $50 Fire tablet back in September, many bloggers were surprised that, in the words of Ars Technica, "it didn't suck". The seven-inch tablet was far better than they were expecting, but they really should not have been surprised.
While the Fire tablet is better than most tablets in that price range, the difference in quality is smaller than you would think. Take the Digiland DL718M, for example.
This tablet carries the brand of a company that most tablet buyers have never heard of, and it was made by some random Chinese OEM. Given my experience with Android tablets, those two black marks, when combined with what I thought was an impossible low price, would be enough to for me to warn others away from buying this tablet.
But in spite of the strikes against this tablet, the DL718M is a surprisingly decent tablet that gives the Fire tablet a run for its money. It is not _as_ good as the Fire tablet, in many ways, but I would still call it am acceptable alternative.
The tablets have almost exactly the same specs, and similar performance, which comes as a surprise. They also have similar 90-day warranties (although one is obviously backed by Amazon).
Note: As I sat here writing this post, I checked for another sub-$50 tablet I might review next week. All of the ones I found on BestBuy, MicroCenter, Walmart, and Fry's were either older units with weaker CPUs (and sometimes lower resolution screens) or newer units with only half the RAM (512MB vs 1GB). So the Fire tablet and the DL718M could be unique (or they could be the first of the new wave).
Edit: And it turns out they were only the first of a wave. Walmart was hiding a couple tablets with similar specs (Walmart has a terrible website, which is why I couldn't find them). Thanks, Chris, for the tip!
And while the Fire tablet does use slightly better components (shell, camera, screen), the Android 5.1 Lollipop running on the DL718M makes for a tablet which is both more open and versatile as well as easier to use.
Both tablets run on a quad-core 1.3GHz MediaTek MTK8127 CPU with 1GB RAM, a Mali-450 GPU, a pair of cameras (2MP and VGA), Wifi/Bluetooth, and a single rear-facing speaker.
They have about the same amount of storage (8GB-ish, and a microSD card slot), and they have the same screen resolution (1024 x 600).
As I said, the two tablets have similar specs on paper, but once you have them in hand the differences are obvious. The Fire tablet is slightly larger, slightly thicker, and at 313 grams it is fractionally heavier.
Both tablets have equally functional touchscreens (I'm happy, anyway) but the screen on the Fire is noticeably better. It has wider viewing angles, better color, and a brighter backlight. I also found that the screen on the Fire has a yellow tint when viewing an ebook in the Kindle app.
The Fire has the better screen, but that does not mean that the DL718M has a bad screen. I found the screen on this tablet to be quite satisfactory. I am happy with it, and that says more than you might think. I have reviewed pricier budget tablets and set them aside unsatisfied because I did not like the screen. I have no similar objections to the DL718M.
I'm not quite so happy about the speaker - on either tablet. The Fire tablet has the louder speaker, but both tablets have their speaker on the rear and neither speaker is as loud or as clear as I would prefer from a media tablet.
But these are fifty dollar tablets so we have to make allowances. And the same is true for the cameras. Both tablets have the same camera resolutions (2MP and VGA) but the Fire tablet has the better sensor.
Here are photos I took this morning at a Chik-fil-a. The one on the left is from the DL718M, and as you can see it had trouble coping with the reflected sunlight (which wasn't all that bright). The Dl718M also had trouble with light sources in general (all the photos showed either a halo around light fixtures or reflected glare). The Fire tablet's camera handled it a little better.
And sorry about the different aspect ratios; I didn't realize until after I uploaded them that they had different dimensions.
Just so you know, I culled all but the best photo I took with the DL718M, so the one at left is literally the best it can do. That is unfortunate, but it is also not a surprise; these are cheap tablets after all.
But do you know what did surprise me? How the Fire tablet did not have significantly better battery life. My tests showed that the Fire tablet had around six and a half hours of video playing time, which slightly out lasts the five-ish hours that the DL718M would last.
That's not a big enough difference to declare one device a clear winner, and the Fire tablet's persistent problem with standby time further complicates the issue. .The DL718M will last days in standby, and if not for heavy use I wouldn't have charged it in five days I have owned it. The Fire tablet, on the other hand, has mysteriously drained itself several times in the months since I bought it.
Perhaps the difference is due to software?
The DL718M runs Android 5.1 Lollipop, and as we all know, Amazon's Fire tablets run its own version of Android. In the case of the $50 Fire tablet, the operating system is Fire OS Bellini. I'm told it's based on Android 5.x, but the parts we get to see are entirely Amazon.
The Fire tablet is based around a multi-screen, multi-panel, multi-directional home page. And if that sound complicated and confusing, good, because so is the user interface.
Fire OS Bellini
The UI for the Fire tablet software is a mess on the scale of iOS; seriously, it's almost as if Amazon's developers looked at the growing complexity of interface on iOS9 and viewed it as a game of one-ups-man-ship.
And to make matters worse, the Fire tablet's home page isn't designed to show you your content so much as it is designed to sell you shit from Amazon's myriad services (retail, video, music, ebooks, apps, and games).
And to be clear, I am not just talking about the adverts on the lock screen; the entire home page is designed around the goal of selling you shit, and not designed so you can use the content after you buy it. (Proving this point is beyond the scope of this post, so I'll expand upon the point in a comment. Or, ask and I'll write a follow up post.)
I am making the point about sale vs use because while Amazon had used the previous versions of Fire OS to make the Fire tablet a media tablet, the UI was focused more on use rather than sales. I have a Fire HD 7 on my desk, and it's still running the older Fire OS. Its home screen is based around using the damned carousel to show you the content on your device, and while there is a small space devoted to pitching content those pitches can be disabled.
But with the new OS, Amazon is putting sales first and use second. That runs contrary to the usual Android SOP.
Android 5.1 Lollipop
The Fire tablet's UI is designed around selling, while the DL718M runs a stock version of Android 5.1 Lollipop and is designed around use or action rather than the sales pitch. And even though this is the first time I've used Lollipop and I'm still getting over the shock of a change from KitKat, I appreciate the differences between this OS and Bellini.
It's not just that I have Google Play, and thus I don't have to worry about Amazon forbidding me from using competing reading apps, but also that Lollipop comes with default security measures that warn me when apps are secretly trying to use a hardware component like Wifi or the camera.
For example, Antutu thought it desperately important that it take a photo when it launched, but it was blocked by the OS. (I'm still trying to figure that one out.)
Quirks & Bugs
And it's not just the security measures that put the DL718M ahead of the Fire tablet; the Fire tablet is also plagued by minor but annoying software bugs. It consistently fails to be recognized when I plug it into my laptop, it frequently neglects to sync and download the apps and ebooks I push to it, and there's also that mysterious battery drain.
And to give you an idea of the persistency of the software bugs, I've just had to reboot my tablet for the second time while writing this post just so I could get the USB feature to work.
That's twice in a single afternoon, and to top things off I still can't get the Fire tablet recognized as a USB device (it's why I haven't explained the ssales pitch gripes mentioned above).
And as I finished editing this post Sunday morning, I restarted the Fire tablet for the third time and I still can't get the USB to work (even though the tablet insists it is working).
So yeah, the stock Android on the DL718M is really growing on me, even though it does have a couple issues (like the default portrait view puts the power and volume buttons on the lower edge). And I also encountered an issue with unsupported audio drivers in the stock video player, but that was readily fixed by installing a competing app.
Aside from the issue of installing Amazon Video on the DL718M (the app is only supported on Android phones), for the most part I didn't have an issue with apps on either tablet. The apps I have installed on the 718M look and behave the same as the ones installed on the Fire tablet. This includes Amazon's own apps such as Kindle and Audible.
What we have here are two pretty decent tablets that are designed to fill different needs and serve different purposes. One is a sales platform for Amazon, while the other is a tool for users. So if you are invested in the Amazon ecosystem, the Fire tablet is a great buy. But if you want to use your tablet rather than simply consumer content from Amazon, you should get the DL718M.
If not for the fact that I already own tablets that fill its niche. I would keep the DL718M around so I could test Android apps. But I cannot justify the cost.
Where to Buy
- BestBuy (Digiland 718M)
- Amazon (Fire tablet)