Were you curious about how good that $10 Android smartphone on offer at Wal-Mart is? Ars Technica has given it one of the exhaustive reviews that they usually do of considerably more expensive hardware—and it turns out, that’s the wrong question. The right question to ask would be exactly how terrible it is—and it turns out, the answer is very terrible.
The cognitive dissonance in reading a review this thorough of a device this cheap is considerable. It’s like having a professional sommelier report on MD 20/20, or reading a high-performance sports car magazine article about a Yugo. Ars Technica probably paid Ron Amadeo many times more money for writing it than it paid for the phone itself!
As for that phone, Ars says, it’s “better than nothing, but not by much.” The build quality is terrible, the specs are terrible, the viewing angles are terrible, the screen is terrible (it can only display 65,000 colors, not the 16 million most screens today use, so anything you view on it is going to be dithered), the camera is terrible, the UI is terrible…terrible terrible terrible.
What isn’t terrible? Oddly enough, the operating system.
It feels weird saying this about a device that runs an OEM-skinned version of Android 4.4 KitKat in 2015; but the software is the highlight of the LG Sunrise. It runs a real version of Android, complete with all the apps and features you would expect from any other smartphone. You’ve got the Play Store and access to over a million apps, along with all the Google apps and access to just about every Google service. Running on Android 4.4 doesn’t really slow the Sunrise down when it comes to Google apps. You get up-to-date versions of everything, thanks to Google Play Services filling in most of the functionality gaps.
I’ve used my share of cheap TracFones, including TracFones that pretend to be smartphones but aren’t. Even getting a terrible smartphone at that price is pretty amazing when it’s a real smartphone. My parents still use TracFone “dumbphones” and for this price, it’s tempting to get a real Android phone for one or both of them just because even the lousiest smartphone would be so much more useful than their cheap candy-bar phones.
And for $10, it almost doesn’t matter that this looks like somebody took a toy phone you’d get out of a Happy Meal and stuck the guts of a real (cheap) phone inside it in place of the sticker on the front. If you need some kind of inexpensive burner phone that can actually run real Android applications, well, there you go. Just remember you’re going to have to buy TracFone cards to keep using it over time.
For my part, it’s interesting to contrast this to what you can get in a tablet. Even though the cheapest tablets you can get these days are in the $30 to $50 range, even the cheap Chinese OEM tablets have considerably better performance (assuming you can get one that doesn’t come with trojans embedded in it). Amazon’s Fire is amazingly better-made. Granted that a $10 device would be great for helping bridge the digital divide in theory, in actuality I’d tend to recommend someone save a few more $10 bills and get a tablet instead—it’ll be considerably more useful for the money in the long run. (If they’re just getting one device, anyway. I suppose there isn’t any harm to having one of these instead of a similarly-priced dumbphone as long as they’re not relying on it to be their only digital device.)
But this is probably to be expected. Unlike tablets, cell phones have to have a cellular radio transceiver in them. Due to patent licensing and such, that transceiver usually accounts for a hefty chunk of the expense of the device—much more than the cost of parts alone. That’s why smartphones are usually a hundred-plus dollars more expensive than a tablet with similar specs. So when you get any smartphone that’s only $10, even less of that cost could be spent on ordinary phone parts.
And this is probably just the forerunner of things to come. Sooner or later, there will be higher-quality $10 smartphones—and today’s $10 phones actually will be Happy Meal prizes. And won’t that be great for the digital divide when it happens?