Aakash 2 hands-on: the $40 educational slate with revolution on its mind

Efforts to put cheap computers in the hands of students have always hit major stumbling blocks. Most notably price. The OLPC project had noble goals, but ultimately ended up well above its target price of $100. The Classmate was more of a "me too" product than anything truly revolutionary. What started as India's effort to launch a $10 laptop, slowly mutated into a $35 tablet that, even then, struggled in its initial incarnation. What ultimately became known as the Aakash was painfully underpowered and had carried a cost almost double its $35 target. With the second version DataWind is hoping to make good on the promise of an ultra-affordable tablet that can actually be used by students and educators. CEO of the company Suneet Tuli swung by our offices with the Ubuslate 7Ci, the commercial version of the Aakash 2, to give us a chance to put the device through its paces and talk about the transformative power of education.

There's something to be said for unbridled idealism and Suneet has it in spades. The man sincerely believes that many of our ills can be solved through education and access to information. Putting the internet in the hands of the hundreds of millions of Indian children is a major priority for this Punjab native. The Aakash 2, he believes, can be the tool that ignites a quiet revolution thanks to its exceptionally low price. The slate finally hits the magical mark of costing less that 20 percent of monthly income for many of the most impoverished in India. According to Suneet that's the point at which PCs in the US when from common, to ubiquitous. DataWind is selling the rebranded slates for roughly $40 to the government, which is only about a 5 percent profit markup on the bill of materials. Instead of pure hardware, DataWind is relying on advertising, services and support contracts to help pad its margins.

The Aakash 2 is certainly no threat to the iPad or the Nexus 7, but we're actually pretty impressed with what is served up for less than the price of an Amazon Prime subscription: 1GHz Cortex A8 CPU, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of expandable storage, Android 4.0 and a capacitive touchscreen. Now, there are some serious issues with the device that would probably prove to be deal breakers for Western consumers -- even at such a negligible price -- but it's important to remember the target audience here. That being said, this is light years beyond other cheap tablets we've toyed with in the past. The Matrix One, Novo 7 and Novo 7 Basic actually feel significantly cheaper and are quite a bit bulkier than the Ubislate 7Ci and performance wise they're simply no competition. The Aakash is hardly a speed demon, trudging through SunSpider in 3,767ms, but it simply blew the MIPS-powered Novo devices out of the water. In general the UI was responsive, and less demanding tasks like reading e-books and checking email were pretty painless. Even HD video on YouTube proved to be no problem for this tiny slate.

Aakash 2 handson the $40 educational slate with revolution on its mind

The biggest problem with the device is its screen -- both its touch layer and stunningly poor viewing angles. Often our swipes were misinterpreted as taps, which sent apps and links launching with little warning. In landscape mode held directly in front of you the 800 x 480 screen isn't much to look at. Tilt it up or down just the slightest bit however and the screen starts to look like a photo negative. Strangely, if you turn the screen horizontally, you don't experience the same effect. Our other quibble is with the need for a special AC adapter to charge the tiny 2,100 mAh battery. While there's a micro-USB port along the top edge we couldn't get the slate to take any juice through it.

Are we rushing to put the Aakash 2 on our Christmas lists? No. We expect more from our tablets. We're demanding westerners that want to play Grand Theft Auto and compose entire albums on our devices. But, unless ASUS, Samsung or Apple suddenly decide to start taking a serious loss on hardware sales, the DataWind device seems like the best bet to get the internet into the hands of millions students in developing nations. And that's where technology has a chance to make a real difference.