Can Aakash 2 aim for the sky?

Fans hail it as one of the most revolutionary tech products in recent times. Critics assail it for being substandard and a waste of money. All you have to do to start a fight in tech circles is utter the word ‘Aakash.’ The low-cost tablet, which was supposed to revolutionise Indian education, got off to the worst possible start in 2011 with its first version. It flopped on all fronts — design (sloppy), hardware (inadequate) and software (slow and buggy).

However, the government refused to give up on the project and, now, the Aakash 2 has been launched at an amazing price of Rs 1,130 for students and Rs 4,499 for other consumers (to whom it will be given under the name, Ubislate 7 Ci). It was unveiled by the President, and has even been displayed in the UN. Unfortunately, it has not been seen in the market even by many of those who placed orders for it. That said, Aakash 2 is a vast improvement over its predecessor.

Better design
While the first Aakash had been a bit of an eyesore, the Aakash 2 (we used the commercial version, the Ubislate 7 Ci) looks sleeker. No, it won’t win beauty contests, but we don’t see people wanting to hide it away either. It is compact, solid and very comfortable to hold with a glass display and a plastic back. The design is relatively minimalistic — there are no hardware buttons on the front of the device, and the back only houses the speaker grille. On the sides are the volume rocker, a 3.5mm jack, a micro USB port, the screen and power on/off button and a slot for a pin charger. There’s also a slot for a microSD card, although this is placed on the back rather than sides.  There is no rear camera — just a VGA one in front. Simple and solid, we think, with just the right shade of smartness thrown in with no rough edges.

It is not just the design that has got a makeover. The less than responsive resistive display has given way to a seven-inch capacitive one of 800 x 480 resolution, which responds very well indeed to one’s fingers. Under the hood is a 1 GHz processor, 512MB RAM and 4GB of onboard memory which can of course be expanded. For connectivity, there is inbuilt Wi-Fi and you can also connect a USB data card to the device using the packaged USB adaptor (it worked fine with our Tata Photon Plus). Software too has been rejigged — the Ubislate runs on Android Ice Cream Sandwich, and has customisable homescreens and onscreen navigation buttons. The students’ edition of the device will have lots of educational software bundled on it. The Ubislate 7 Ci which we received did not have too much in the way of education but came with an office suite, PDF reader, file and multimedia utilities, and a few games. And of course, there is always Android’s app store, Google Play, to head over and grab more apps. 

It works, but is it revolutionary?
Of course, all this is just so many figures on paper. What works for the Aakash 2 is the fact that well, it works. Unlike its predecessor which was plagued by a less than responsive display and buggy software, we found our unit handling routine tasks like browsing the Web, handling e-mail and checking social networks with a degree of ease. Where it did take a battering was in multimedia where the sound quality was mediocre and lags crept in the moment we moved into HD territory, be it in video or games. We also noticed lags when we opened more than three or four applications, but then again, that does not seem too high a price to pay for a device that comes with such a small price tag. All in all, if you are looking for a device to just browse, mail and do lots of reading on, the Aakash 2 is not a bad option at all. Our biggest quibble actually was about the battery, which generally struggled to reach the four hour mark — not really enough for a day in college or school, we think!

So, is it as revolutionary as its supporters make it out to be? Had we seen the Aakash 2 a year ago, our answer would have been a resounding “yes.” However, a year is a long time in technology and today, low cost tablets are no longer the novelty they were when the Aakash was first announced. The likes of Micromax, Byond and Swipe have tablets that cost in the vicinity of Rs 5,000 and unlike the Aakash 2/ Ubislate 7Ci are very much available in the market. What could mark the Aakash 2 as special would be the software that comes on it — the version we saw was nothing to rave about, to be honest. Yes, the students who get it for Rs 1,130 are getting a very handy and usable tablet but then, we have not heard of too many of them actually receiving it. Which is perhaps the next big challenge for the manufacturers. The Aakash 2 repairs a lot of the damage done by its predecessor, but needs more apps and accessibility to move up from being a good bargain to a great product. 

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