How Latte Tablets Work


The iMuz is the larger of Latte's two tablet offerings.
©Latte

A year after the release of the iPad in April 2010, Apple was selling millions of units at $500 apiece, and Google was working hard to jump into that new market. In 2010, many electronics companies launched devices intended to compete with the iPad that ran on Google's Android operating system. But there was a problem with that approach: Android was built for phones, not tablets. Because the underlying hardware was mostly the same, the Android tablets worked. They just weren't very good.

Google did its best to remedy that, and in early 2011, the company launched Android 3.0 Honeycomb, the first version of the OS built specifically for tablets. Honeycomb offered a new user interface and was optimized for larger 7- and 10-inch (17.8- and 25.4-centimeter) displays and the latest mobile hardware, like Nvidia's dual-core Tegra 2 system-on-a-chip. Even after the launch of Honeycomb, Android tablets had trouble catching on. By mid-2011, the tech industry was throwing around a popular phrase: "There is no tablet market. There's only an iPad market."

Nevertheless, companies keep trying. Before the release of Honeycomb, the most common Android tablets fit into a category called MIDs, or Mobile Internet Devices. The form factor wasn't quite as big as the common 7- or 10-inch (17.8- or 25.4-centimeter) tablet, but was bigger than the average smartphone with a 3- to 4-inch (7.6- to 10.2-centimeter) display. As smartphones began to replace MP3 players, these companies began to design MIDs as cheap Internet/media devices that didn't require a monthly fee with a cellular carrier.

Enter Latte's tablets. Latte is a California company that releases inexpensive electronics from Asian companies in the United States. Think of the big names in mobile technology -- Samsung, LG -- and then, well, think smaller. Latte sells tablets and MIDs that run on the Android OS. But their field is quickly shrinking. In November 2011, Amazon cut into the low-cost tablet space of the MID with the $200 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) Kindle Fire. While some critics noted the device was underpowered, it sold millions of units thanks to its low price. And in July of 2012, Google itself launched a tablet, the 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) Nexus 7, at the same price.

Over the next few pages we'll take a look at how the Latte tablets work and what (if anything) differentiates them from other Android tablets. With the Android market finally picking up, thanks to devices like the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7, MIDs and other cheap tablets are in danger of being squeezed out.

Latte Tablet Specifications

Latte sells two tablets on its Web site: the ICE Smart, which it originally launched in August 2011, and the iMuz, which launched in March 2012. The ICE Smart's screen measures 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) diagonally and runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a version of Android designed for smartphones. That makes sense: As a 5-inch (12.7-centimeter) MID, the ICE is slightly closer to a phone form factor than a tablet form factor.

Inside, the ICE Smart is running on an 800MHz processor, 256MB of RAM and 8GB of internal flash storage. A 2200mAh battery provides power, and the small tablet offers a pretty standard selection of ports: headphone jack, micro SD, USB and HDMI. The device supports micro SD cards up to 32GB for expanded storage. Like many other budget touch devices, the ICE uses a resistive touchscreen that supports two simultaneous touch points. Most smartphones and tablets use capacitive touchscreens, which support more accurate multitouch. Multitouch allows for gestures that involve more than two fingers.

The ICE Smart's touchscreen is an 800 by 480 pixel display, a common resolution for smartphones with screens measuring about 4 inches (10.2 centimeters). In 2012, many devices have begun to move to larger screens. The Samsung Galaxy S III, which has a 4.8-inch (12.2-centimeter) screen, offers an HD resolution of 1280 by 720 pixels, or 720p.

Because it's a newer device, the Latte iMuz, unsurprisingly, offers newer technology. Inside, it's running a faster 1.2GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, and the same 8GB of storage. Other differences include a larger 3200mAh battery, better graphics processing unit, a 0.3 megapixel front-facing camera, support for 802.11n WiFi and the larger 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) screen. Like the ICE, the iMuz offers headphone, micro SD, USB and HDMI ports. Both devices contain accelerometers, which are used to detect motion for games and rotating the device's screen. Both devices actually weigh the same at 0.7 pounds (318 grams).

While the larger Latte tablet does use a capacitive touch screen, it still runs at the same resolution of 800 by 480 pixels. Google's Nexus 7 tablet, launched in July 2012 -- just a few months after the iMuz -- runs at a much higher 1280 by 800 pixels. Of course, the usefulness of a tablet isn't just driven by its components. Next we'll dig into the features of each device.

Latte Tablet Features

The Latte ICE Smart is not too much larger than most smartphones.
The Latte ICE Smart is not too much larger than most smartphones.
©Latte

The 5-inch (12.7-centimeter) Latte ICE Smart advertises the following features: 1080p video support, TV mirroring output via HDMI, a media player capable of supporting many different video formats and access to the Android marketplace. Those are all features supported by most Android devices, but there are some drawbacks to note. There are some Android apps that won't work on the Latte ICE, including games which often require a better processor, graphics processor or more advanced sensor suite for detecting motion. The resistive screen, which only supports two-finger touch, will also limit the player's functionality.

Because it doesn't support 802.11n WiFi, the fastest wireless speed the Latte ICE can manage is 54 megabits per second. Many other mobile devices will better serve as portable Internet browsers, but the ICE Smart is perfectly capable of serving as an MP3 player, mobile video player or e-reader.

Thanks to its 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) form factor, the Latte iMuz can fulfill the role of a tablet more efficiently than the smaller ICE. It supports faster 802.11n WiFi, though only with 150Mbps single-stream technology (802.11n can be broadcast on up to three streams for up to 450Mbps). The 1.2GHz processor and Mali 400 GPU are also much faster hardware, which is important for smoothly running the tablet-focused Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS. That hardware also makes the Latte iMuz more capable of running apps and graphically demanding games.

The iMuz's capacitive screen supports five-finger multitouch and the same video and HDMI mirroring capabilities of the smaller tablet. It also adds the option to video chat via services such as Skype, thanks to its front-facing cam. And there are both advantages and drawbacks to that larger size: The screen will offer more real estate for reading e-books, watching videos and browsing the Web. But it has a lower resolution than most other 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) tablets, which run at 1024 by 600 or higher. That means text won't be as crisp and individual pixels will be more visible.

Neither of Latte's tablets do anything to differentiate themselves from the rest of the market: You can find the same features available in any number of devices. But they are cheap: The iMuz costs $170 and the ICE Smart costs only $130. Is that enough to make either Latte tablet a smart buy over the competition?

Latte Tablets and the Market at Large

The iPad dramatically changed the tablet market as soon as it was released. It created the "iPad market," and Android is still trying to play catch-up. Other devices, like the HP TouchPad and RIM BlackBerry PlayBook, tried and failed to tap into that market. Dozens of Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom and Samsung Galaxy Tab tried and failed to come close to the iPad's popularity. Finally, the Amazon Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7 have figured out how to sell Android on a tablet: Make it cheap. For $500, people want iPads. For $200, they just want something they can consume media on -- read books, browse the Web, watch video -- and the 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) form factor helps them do that with an inexpensive device.

At $170, the iMuz is only 30 bucks cheaper than the much more powerful Nexus 7. The iMuz does actually offer a couple features not found on Google's budget tablet: HDMI output and expandable storage. Those features do make the iMuz more versatile, but the Galaxy Nexus functions much better as a content consumption device, thanks to its higher resolution screen (which also has better viewing angles), faster Internet, double the memory, and its very fast Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip.

The Kindle Fire, on the other hand, offers close integration with Amazon's own video on demand, music and Kindle services. It's not as powerful as the newer Nexus 7, but makes sense for dedicated Amazon users. The $200 Nook Tablet offers a similar experience for Barnes & Noble users. Any of those devices -- but especially the Nexus 7 -- is worth the extra $30.

The ICE Smart does occupy a different niche. At $100, it's cheaper than a smartphone when you factor in the cost of monthly payments. Unsurprisingly, the ICE Smart has some problems you won't find in more expensive devices. Many user reviewers on Amazon remark that it's slow. It runs an older version of Android than newer phones and tablets, and likely won't be updated. It can't run a lot of games that require more powerful hardware. The average Android phone in 2012 also boasts a screen nearly as large as the 5-inch (12.7-centimeter) ICE Smart. With that in mind, do the Latte offerings have a spot in the market at all?

Kids who want to listen to music and play games on a small device would probably be better served by an iPod Touch. It costs twice as much at $200, but offers a better app ecosystem and more reliable hardware. New 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) tablets occupy the niche MIDs once filled. And there are plenty of choices cheaper than $200. For example, Coby'sKyrostablet costs only $110 on Amazon as of August 2nd, 2012 and offers better hardware than either of Latte's tablets.

Remember, these are devices designed to be used every day during your leisure time: Spending a little more will make that a much more pleasant experience.

Author's Note

Writing about tablets is a little weird. See, there are all these tablets you've heard about -- iPads, Xooms, Kindle Fires -- but there's a whole underground world of tablets from no-name manufacturers in Asia that you can get a whole lot cheaper. They're partially cheaper because they don't have a big name brand, but they're also cheap because, well, they're cheap. The parts aren't too great. I think companies like Latte are going to have more and more trouble selling budget devices when Google is willing to sell something as powerful as the Nexus 7 for $200.

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Sources

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