A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a representative from online retailer Gearbest, which wanted to send along a review unit of the Teclast X89 “Kindow” “tPad” tablet. This 7.5″ diagonal 4:3 tablet dual-boots Android 4.4 Kit Kat and Windows 10, and the listing for it on their web store pitches it as a uniquely capable e-reader. Intrigued, and never one to turn down the chance to play with new hardware, I told them to go ahead and send it.

Just to note, we planned from the outset that I wouldn’t be keeping this tablet for free. It’s one thing for me to get an inexpensive pair of earphones, USB battery pack, or Bluetooth speaker to try and keep, but we drew the line at accepting an actual tablet costing $80 at the time the offer was made, $68 a few days ago, and $80 to $85 just now.

IMG_20160630_150728Hence, in the name of journalistic objectivity, we determined that if I didn’t like it, I would go ahead and donate it to a worthy cause when I was finished reviewing it—but if I did like it, I’d buy it. Or, rather, I would buy another one and donate that.

(It seemed less complicated than trying to convince the company to let me pay for a unit I’d been sent free, plus it would put another tablet in the hands of that worthy cause—in this case, the Horizon House homeless shelter that hosts one of the Public Collection free libraries, and also has a job search center to help its tenants find placement. I also passed along that Voyager II Android tablet there after I finished with it.)

IMG_20160630_100006So, as I begin this review, let me be clear on how I feel about this tablet—I liked it more than enough that I’m definitely keeping it. Hence, David Rothman and I have split the cost of buying another one to pass along to Horizon House in the interest of bridging the digital divide and helping someone find a job. Meanwhile, this tablet is going to be a useful addition to my TeleRead blogging gadget bag—in fact, I’m writing this very post on it now in Open Live Writer, with the aid of my Anker Bluetooth keyboard and PhiferSmart tablet easel, as I enjoy my breakfast by the bank of Indianapolis’s scenic Canal Walk. (I’ll edit it further from home to add links and images before posting it, though.)

Is the tablet perfect? No, it does have a few limitations that bespeak its overall inexpensive nature. However, those particular limitations are on things that are less important to me overall, so it’s a good fit for my needs. When I have a steady job again, I may well order one of the more expensive tablets of the same brand, in the $200 range, to see how well they work. My full review follows.

Unboxing and Start-Up

IMG_20160627_144348The tablet was shipped to me from the Netherlands, which explains why it took so long to get here. In fact, I’d begun to doubt I was going to receive it at all, which was why I was so eager to try the $49 Vulcan Journey from Fry’s. Naturally, the Kindow arrived just a couple of days after I’d bought that one! But it was fortunate that it did, because the Journey provided me with an excellent basis for comparison.

The Kindow box contained about the same stuff as the Journey, though it didn’t include a wall wart. (Which was no hardship for me, as I already have several wall multi-chargers!) It did include a USB-to-micro-USB-OTG dongle and a USB cable, as well as a number of instruction manuals in Chinese (and a rudimentary one in English).

On boot, the tablet presented me with a touch-sensitive screen prompting me to choose between Android and Windows to boot up. I opted for Android for my first choice, and after a reasonably quick startup, I was presented with the familiar visage of Android 4.4 Kit Kat. There was the usual new-tablet process of signing into Android, updating the operating system, and downloading necessary applications—nothing new about that.

Screenshot_2016-06-28-03-32-11Screenshot_2016-06-28-09-54-55One thing that was a bit new was the inclusion of a number of OEMware applications in Chinese, including the Baidu search engine and a Chinese web browser. They were interesting enough to play around with (especially when they would offer me screens full of notifications that I couldn’t read), but best of all from my American perspective, they were all amenable to being uninstalled once I found out how little space the Android partition actually had to spare. (More on that a little later.) There were also a few directories and MP3 files I could get rid of when I connected it to my desktop via USB and browsed it.

Two_TedsOne of the applications on the Android side was a mode switcher that would reboot the tablet into Windows 10. (There’s an equivalent app pinned to the taskbar in Windows for rebooting into Android, too.) After a while playing around with Android, I tapped on that and the tablet very promptly rebooted me into Windows, at which point I was treated to a repeat of the same experience I had with the Journey—logging in with my Microsoft account and meeting Ted Kaczynski again. (I subsequently found out how to disable desktop theme sync across my computers, selected a new background, and that was effectively that.) The photo at left shows the relative screen sizes of the Kindow (top) and Journey (bottom), taken before I took the Journey back.

One interesting thing is that, even though it’s a tablet, the Kindow starts Windows in desktop mode—to put it into tablet mode, I have to tap on the notification center and then tap the “tablet mode” icon. It’s an odd choice for a tablet, but as I later found out, it’s just as well—I think the majority of the time I plan to use this tablet in Windows will be with a mouse and keyboard, so on the whole I’d rather not have to switch it out of tablet mode every time I boot it up.

Sometimes You Get More Than You Pay For

It’s funny to consider that this tablet represents a sort of “triple threat” of names or features that Western companies would probably find undesirable. For starters, it’s a dual-boot device, and both Microsoft and Google were so down on the idea of their operating system sharing hardware with that other guy’s that Asus’s Transformer, which used to have both Android and Windows modes, now only boots Windows. Then there are the names: “Kindow,” which probably wouldn’t please either Amazon or Microsoft, and the “tPad” designation that probably would make Apple unhappy (as was the case when it apparently forced Neofonie to rename the WePad to WeTab instead). It’s only the fact that this tablet comes from a Chinese OEM that nobody much has noticed that allows it to get away with these things. But in this case, what they don’t notice is our gain.

On the whole, I find it hard to believe this tablet costs under $100. (The web site claims the MSRP is on the order of $170 or $204, depending on where it ships from, but MSRP tends to bear only a vague relation to reality on Internet retail sites.) For only $19 more than the sluggish, unresponsive Vulcan Journey, I got a multi-mode, perfectly responsive little tablet. I’ve had no difficulty whatsoever getting the screen to respond to my touch, so I can use the tablet perfectly well in either Android or Windows mode.

If the idea of getting a fully-functional Windows tablet for $49 was amazing, how much more so is the idea of getting a fully-functional and useful Windows/Android combo for $68? It’s so much better that there’s simply no comparison. I can only suppose that by getting it from a web retailer who apparently gets it right from the Chinese OEM, more of the money you’re paying ends up in the hardware rather than a middleman’s pocket. Of course, it’s $80 to $85 now, but it’s still worth it at that price—and if you wait a while, the price will probably drop again.

IMG_20160630_143544The tablet’s specs are really quite good for the money. Beginning with form factor, it’s just as tall as the Journey but a bit wider, giving it a 4:3 aspect ratio. The dimensions are very nearly a perfect match for my iPad Mini 2, meaning that it could probably use any case that was sized to fit it. It goes nicely in my Travelocity soft case, and I may end up getting another cheap portfolio case for it, too.

The CPU is an Intel Baytrail Z3735F. The one in the Vulcan Journey was a Z3735G—a very similar CPU save that the F has 2 GB of RAM and twice the memory bandwidth as the 1 GB G. So, effectively, it runs at the same clock speed, but with more memory to let more things run at once. Another key difference is that, whereas the Journey only came with 32-bit Windows 10, the Kindow gets the 64-bit version.

The screen resolution is 1440 x 1080 with 240 pixels per inch—not a patch on the iPad Mini 2’s 2048 x 1536 326 ppi retina display, but still perfectly respectable for a tablet in that price range, and capable of 720p high-definition video. Where the Journey had 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of internal storage, the Kindow doubles that: 2 GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage.

However, the 32 GB measurement is a bit misleading, because that storage is divided up into individual partitions for each operating system that can’t be accessed from each other’s operating system. As with the Journey, the Kindow gets 16 user-accessible GB for its Windows mode. Most of that is taken up by the Windows 10 operating system installation, so to install very much else you’ll need an SD card. It’s also a good idea to use the “properties” dialogue to transfer all your user subfolders (Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Video, etc.) to the SD card, too—though if you do this, you need to remember to treat the SD card like an expansion hard drive and never boot the tablet without it.

However, it only gets 7 user-accessible GB for Android—and it doesn’t permit transferring Android apps to the SD card, either, so don’t expect to be installing any huge apps like Hearthstone or XCOM: Enemy Within. It’s not clear where the other 7 GB is (as with any “32 GB” storage drive, the actual usable space on the drive is just under 30 GB), but I’d guess it might be bound up in installation media partitions so you can factory-reset Windows if you need to (like I couldn’t do with the Journey). As I mentioned, when I tried going into the Windows 10 Reset dialogue from the Kindow, it didn’t stop me for lack of installation media the way the Journey did.

In any event, I’m not too upset with that limitation, as the micro SD card slot supports up to 128 GB SD cards, like the Fire’s. I picked up a $17 Samsung 64 GB card (like the one I recommended for the Fire) at Fry’s when I returned the Journey, and it seems to be working out pretty well so far. I effectively consider this tablet to be a much better version of the Journey, with a bigger screen, 2 GB of RAM instead of 1, and the added ability to boot into a decent Android mode as an unexpected extra bonus.

Where else does the budget show? The 5,000 mAh battery’s only good for about 4 to 5 hours of continuous use, and that’s a liberal estimate. Just one hour of use drains the charge indicator by 20%. Even leaving it in sleep mode drains the battery almost as much as keeping the screen on. If you plan to use the tablet over extended periods, better get in the habit of carrying along USB battery packs and/or AC adapters, and be sure you actually shut the tablet down when not using it. (It boots pretty quickly, especially into Windows 10.) But then, most laptops have fairly poor battery life, too, and plugging those in isn’t a hardship.

IMG_20160628_043206The front and rear cameras aren’t terribly great, being 0.3 MP and 2 MP respectively. (I took the photo at left as an example of the 2 MP rear camera’s quality.) But you’re not buying a tablet this cheap for the cameras anyway. And it also has the usual fingernail-sized speaker that isn’t terribly loud, but if you’re wanting to get good sound out of a tablet this cheap you’ll use earphones or Bluetooth instead.

The tablet also has a micro-HDMI out, for hooking it to external monitors, but I haven’t been able to try that out yet. But just try finding one of those on any other tablet this affordable!

How Does It Run?

Where Windows is concerned, it’s amazing how much difference that extra gigabyte of RAM makes. I’m not likely to install Steam and Borderlands 2 on it, but there’s no appreciable delay in launching applications or switching between them. Right now I have a web browser with three tabs, a Google Hangouts window, and this instance of Open Live Writer open and I’m not noticing much lag when it comes to switching among them. The Windows apps I use the most, like Hangouts, Chrome, and the PuTTY SSH client, run just fine. (Because Windows runs Chrome as a desktop app, the smallness of the screen does lead to problems viewing some web sites that rely on frames, though—such as Google Inbox. But I can deal with that.)

There’s no problem with touch screen sensitivity, either—it responds to my every touch. I can use Windows in tablet mode without any tapping trouble, and I can read in the Kindle or Freda e-book reading applications with no problem. I did notice that the Kindle app seems to have the same issue with only using the middle half of the screen, but usually if I change orientation to landscape and back again it goes away and switches to a full-screen view. I’m not sure what’s causing it; perhaps the scaling factor Windows uses to make apps look large enough on such a small screen? In any event, the “Kindow” name is well-earned here.

Kit Kat Android runs pretty well, too. It’s missing some of the OS flourishes of newer versions of Android, but it still runs most of the apps I need, and pretty quickly, too. Antutu gives it a benchmark score of about 48,000, which is pretty decent for a low-budget Android tablet. I had no problems reading in Kindle or Google Play Books.

There are a few video apps that won’t work properly, perhaps because they’re not compatible with a version of Android this old—Disney Movies Anywhere, Google Play Movies, and Vudu—but the most popular apps, such as YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video work with no problems, and if I need to watch videos from the ones that don’t, I could just boot into Windows 10 and do it that way. The e-book apps I tried worked fine–including the Kindle app, which popped up a notice that it now had Page Flip available. However, it’s possible some apps, or features of apps, might not work with the older operating system.

It’s worth noting that there’s a very similar Teclast tablet for sale that comes with a better CPU, Windows 10, and Android 5.1 Lollipop, for just a few dollars more than the Kindow. If I were buying a tablet like this for myself rather than having one sent to me, I’d probably choose that one. I doubt any updates to the next version of Android will be forthcoming for this tablet, unless I should want to root it and do it myself.

But for my purposes, the version of Android makes very little difference, so I’m not upset this one comes with an older version. The Android mode’s space and operating system limitations are such that I probably won’t use this tablet in that way too often. I have better Android devices already. But by the same token, it’s a great mobile Windows device—even if using it in Windows mode points out the limitations Windows has when it comes to mobile operating system use.

Windows 10 began as a desktop operating system, and a desktop operating system it will always be, even if they try to retrofit some mobile flourishes to it in the form of a “Tablet Mode.” Even in tablet mode, a number of applications still present desktop interfaces—most notably the ones installed from desktop installers outside the Windows Store. You still have to fat-finger teeny-tiny “X” icons to close the apps, and so forth. Even if it can be used in tablet mode, a Windows device like this is a lot better with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse—the way I’m using it right now. (The fact that Windows doesn’t offer a Swype-style swiping keyboard for tablet use is just the icing on the cake.)

In that light, this tablet (or one of its later-Android-version siblings) represents an excellent compromise for someone who only has room to carry one device on the go. When he’s able to sit down, he can bring out his keyboard and mouse and use it as a Windows micro-desktop. But if he doesn’t have room to lay those things out, he can boot it into Android and use that operating system’s much better mobile interface for web browsing, e-reading, and so forth. In that way, one device can do the duty of two. It’s really a shame that Microsoft and Google won’t let bigger brands get away with incorporating that feature.

How Does it E-Read?

Screenshot_2016-06-30-14-29-29Screenshot_2016-06-30-14-30-27As mentioned above, both the Android and Windows modes run their respective e-book apps just fine. What’s more, as with the iPad, I find the more page-shaped 4:3 aspect ratio to be more comfortable for reading, regardless of which app or operating system I’m using. (The screenshots here are taken in Android mode: Kindle at left, Google Play Books at right.)

I’m not sure that I would use it as my primary e-reading device of choice—I have too many other good ones, including a couple of e-ink Kindles—but I’ve already found myself turning to its wider screen when doing my Press RSS trawls to look for TeleRead stories, just because I like that wider form factor for reading, and I prefer the Press interface to the Reeder interface on the iPad Mini. (The wider screen also means that swipe-typing with the Swype keyboard is easier, because the keys can take up that much more room.)

As with the Journey, there’s not really room to run desktop Dropbox in Windows 10 on this tablet, so I don’t have all my e-books directly at my disposal. However, the mobile Dropbox app can download any EPUB from my Dropbox individually, and then tell Freda to open it, so that’s not exactly an obstacle.

The Kindow or the Fire?

This is a lot harder question than it was with the Vulcan. The Vulcan was nothing but cheap, without a whole lot to recommend it other than the price. The Teclast X89 Kindow is considerably better even in just Windows mode, and with the addition of an Android mode as well it’s hardly even a question anymore. Not only can the Kindow run Amazon’s standard suite of apps in its Android mode, it can access Amazon’s services in Windows, too. And as long as the price remains relatively close to the Fire’s, you can get a lot more use out of it—or its sibling with a more recent Android—for only a little more money.

Of course, the tablet may have to be shipped from overseas (though I noticed there was also a Louisiana shipping depot listed for order), so it’ll be a while before you can get your hands on it even after you do order it. And you’re probably not going to find it as easy to get warranty support as you would something you ordered directly from Amazon. But those quibbles aside, it’s definitely a good value for the money, and more useful in more ways than the Fire.

Bear in mind that, at this price, it’s not going to be the best tablet ever made no matter how good a value it is for that amount of money. If you want real top quality, you need to be willing to spend several times as much. But from the standpoint of someone on a tight budget, getting a useful version of Windows—and a fairly decent version of Android—at a rock-bottom price is pretty hard to match. Take it from me—after trying one out, I went ahead and bought it.