By Jon Jermey

Some older TeleReaders may remember Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor column in Byte magazine, in which Jerry demonstrated that there was no PC problem that you couldn’t have fixed in a jiffy, provided you had a five-figure domestic IT budget and speed-dial numbers for Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the U.S. President. There are moments–just moments–when some of our e-book bloggers seem to be in the same exalted position: “I didn’t like the new Speedlet eReader G53, so I sent it back and told them to change the color and add another button.”

What about the rest of us? Is there a way to get involved in e-reading and tablet computing without taking out a second mortgage? There is, and it’s no secret–it’s called eBay. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of manufacturers in China who will be delighted to sell you a generic Android tablet or some variant thereof, and will tell you so in charmingly broken English (and how much Chinese do you know?) at prices which are well below the cost of a name brand tablet, and steadily dropping over time.

Is it safe? Well, I’m on my fourth eBay e-reader, and I’m moderately happy. Here are my experiences, for what they’re worth.

Early attempts: For at least five years now it’s been possible to buy generic media players on eBay which claim to have ‘e-book support’. These are tiny devices modeled on the iPod, with a two-inch screen, mainly designed to play MP3 music files and MP4 videos. But by fiddling with the buttons, you can bring up a text file on the display and page through it. There’s no formatting, words are chopped in half at the ends of lines, and basically it’s a mess. I like the fact that they’re trying, but it’s really not worth the effort unless you want to carry around something vital like train timetables or emergency phone numbers. These start at about $17, including postage (I’m referencing Australian prices, but the U.S. Dollar is roughly in parity at the time of writing). (Editor’s note: 1 USD = 0.951971 AUD at the time of publication.)

First success: About two years ago, I bought a 16GB no-name e-reader with a 7-inch color LCD screen on eBay for around $100. This had a micro SD card slot, played MP3s and AVI videos, displayed pictures and supported several e-book formats including EPUB and PDF. It was possible to change the text size in EPUB and to zoom in and out on PDF. It had an exceptionally good battery and usually ran three days on a charge. There were four navigation buttons down the side and four across the base, plus an on/off button. No keyboard; no wireless; a USB connection to a PC was required to add or remove books. It worked perfectly and I was very happy with it.

Similar devices have recently arrived in Australian stores under the name Ematic. Others, which now include a keyboard, can be found on eBay by searching for “ereader.” If all you want to do is read e-books, and you have a way to get them into EPUB or PDF format, one of these will do the job nicely. The price of these hasn’t dropped much despite competition from Android tablets, but I would expect it to do so soon–assuming they survive at all. The cheapest, with 4GB memory, is currently around $50. What happened to mine? It died of a broken heart after I bought an Android tablet. (Or maybe it was because I dropped it.)

First failure: About six months ago, I ordered a Zenithink ZT280 C91–whatever that means –for $225 on eBay, and received a ten-inch Android tablet-shaped brick. A nicely packaged brick , and with lots of accessories and a faux leather case with a keyboard, but a brick that wouldn’t boot up. I returned it and received a functioning model about three weeks later, along with another set of accessories. This worked well for four months, and I was able to install Kindle software along with EPUB and PDF reading apps. I found, however, that the capacitive screen made it difficult to highlight text–which I need for my job– and this was exacerbated by the fact that the screen wasn’t aligned quite properly. It was also a bit weak on wireless reception. But it was fine while it worked, which was for about three months, after which it froze up and had to be sent back for repair. I can’t honestly recommend this one.

Second failure: While the Zenithink was still working, I thought I should compare it with other tablets. So I bought a seven-inch tablet with a resistive screen and a GPS receiver–not from eBay this time, but from an Australian-based supplier. Conclusion: I should’ve done some research. The device works as advertised, but is extremely slow to boot, slow to do anything, and slow to get a GPS signal (15 minutes!). What’s more, it runs Android 2.3–the current version is 4.1–and apparently can’t be upgraded to use the Google Play site and get at all the goodies there. So it’s taken the place of the dead e-reader as a special purpose device for reading and occasional bushwalks, and I’ve chalked another one up to experience, at a price of around $106. But I confirmed that a resistive screen is a little more accurate for work that requires close positioning.

Second success: This time I read the reviews, looked up the specs, and bought a seven-inch capacitive-screen Allwinner A13 with Android 4.1. This does everything the ten-inch tablet did, and even runs some games that the previous tablet couldn’t. It’s fast, smooth and wholly delightful, and all for $79.50- less than my e-reader cost two years ago. Provided it doesn’t freeze up, melt down, catch fire or explode in the next year or two, I will consider myself to have obtained a bargain.

What have I learned from this? Here’s a quick recap:

  1. eBay is your friend.
  2. Not all tablets are alike.
  3. Reviews may currently be few and far between, but they’re worth searching out and reading in detail.
  4. Patience is a virtue; eBay tablet prices are dropping around 10 percent every month, so hold out if you can. Or buy something cheap and cheerful to experiment with while you’re waiting.
  5. Be aware of screen types, accessories, connectivity options and operating system versions, and how they’re likely to affect your needs.
  6. Think about adding extras, like GPS or 3G via dongles, rather than paying a premium to have them built in.
  7. But mainly, have fun!

For the price of one boring ol’ iPad or name-brand tablet from a electronics store, you can become a multi-gadget Android maven. What’s not to like?