Friday, August 3, 2012
Test-driving the 'World's Cheapest Computer'
Euphoria over a cheap tablet with a 'Made in India' label grew after the Human Resources Development Ministry unveiled the Aakash in October 2011. But unresolved issues among various parties involved in the project seemed to have derailed it. Now it seems to be back on track.
Dozens of the new tablets are being field-tested now by teachers across India. A commercial version, known as "UbiSlate," is being made by the same manufacturer behind the Aakash-2 and is expected to be on the market soon.
The Aakash-2 will be available to Indian students through 20,000 colleges and 416 universities in the country, at a subsidized price of 1,132 rupees, or about $21. The commercial version of the product will cost between 3,499 rupees and 4,299 rupees.
As might be expected with a low-cost device, it comes in any colour you choose - as long as that colour is black.
At a weight of less than a pound, the rectangular tablet is heavier than a mobile phone but fits comfortably in one hand. The back of the device is made up of rubberized plastic, which keeps the device steady in your hand.
The front is entirely made up of the shiny, seven-inch-long capacitive touch screen, an improvement over the original Aakash, which had a resistive touch screen. (A capacitive screen is more responsive and allows for the use of more than one finger to navigate). Navigation on the Aakash-2's screen was simple and fast, needing only a light touch.
On the top right-hand corner of the touch screen, a panel displays information about volume, Wi-Fi connectivity, battery status and the time. And a menu icon along with another icon, which takes you back to the home screen, in case you wander elsewhere while navigating.
The new version has 256 megabytes of RAM, just like the old one. There is one USB port, a headphone jack and a small slot for a memory card, which can expand the external memory to 32 gigabytes. There are tiny slits along the periphery too, which are part of the design - they were created to release excessive heat from the tablet. A round button tucked along the right side switches the device on and off.
The charger port is a tiny hole with a pin in the centre, and the charger that comes with the device looks like an older model Nokia phone charger.
On the inside, Aakash-2 has been upgraded: the internal storage capacity of the tablet was increased from two gigabytes in the original Aakash to four gigabytes. The operating system has been slightly upgraded, from Android 2.2 to 2.3, and the new device has an 800-megahertz ARM Cortex-A8 processor, compared to the 366 megahertz ARM 11configuration in the old one.
The prototype India Ink looked at also allowed users to add a SIM card. This means that the tablet can double up as a phone, but this function is not available on all the upgraded versions. The Aakash-2 will come in two versions: one with a SIM card and one without, with the latter having a second USB port.
As for Internet connectivity, a mobile broadband dongle cannot be plugged into the Aakash-2. The device is meant to be used only with Wi-Fi. As part of the pilot project to distribute the tablet around India, 18,000 colleges and 403 universities in India have installed Wi-Fi networks, ministry officials said.
The two versions are being introduced simultaneously to see which better suits students, said a senior official from the Ministry of Human Resources Development who is working on the project.
Sample tablets will soon be sent to students for testing and feedback, a process the ministry officials said should be concluded in the next few months.
Over the next six months, the tablet's designer, DataWind, is contracted to deliver a 100,000 tablets to Indian Institute of Technology (I.I.T.) Bombay, which is spearheading the project.
As for apps, the home screen displays several icons common to any Android tablet, including an Internet browser, a calendar, e-books and games. But the Aakash- 2 also has several apps that have been developed for students studying computer languages like C, C++, Python and Scilab, an open-source version of MATLAB, which are all used to create computer programs. The apps appear to be designed mostly for engineering students, even though the tablet is intended for students of all disciplines.
Visually impaired students can also access content on the tablet, as it comes with software that can read aloud any pre-loaded material.
Apps created specifically for the Aakash-2 include "Proximity," which allows students to read tutorials and view class lectures, and "Clicker," which administers online quizzes to students.
Another app, "Robot Control," has been created for students of robotics, so they can learn hardware design and embedded systems using software. The app works with a robot, designed by a professor at I.I.T. Bombay, the kit to assemble the robot comes at an additional cost of 3,000 rupees.
In a demo of Robot Control, the robot, which is a small, wheeled machine with a camera on top, was connected through Wi-Fi to the Aakash-2 tablet, and video of the footage being recorded by the robot's camera streamed live on the tablet. How the robot might be used by students (besides for spying on someone in their home or dorm room) should become apparent over time.
A high-definition video coprocessor ensured decent quality video, with very little pixilation. The audio was clear during playback. With a headphone, one could hear a slight hum, but it did not distract from the audio. When the battery ran low, a video stream on YouTube faltered.
The battery of the upgraded device has been increased by just over 50 per cent to 3,200 milliamp-hours. Ministry officials said the battery can last at least three hours, but it depends on the functions performed on the device. The battery needs to charge for at least two hours after it has been run down.
The tablet will cost the government 2,263 rupees, so students are getting a version that is subsidized by 50 percent.
"Making the tablet affordable for students" continues to be a challenge, said NK Sinha, the director of the National Mission on Education Through Information and Communication Technology, the government agency responsible for the Aakash project.