How MID Tablets Work


The iPad is categorized by some as a mobile Internet device (MID), but the term is more commonly used to refer to less expensive devices.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the 1940s, around a hundred years after Charles Babbage envisioned the concept of a mechanical computing device, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was created. The first working computer, the ENIAC was a 30-ton beast that took up a huge room and whose processing power was provided by thousands of vacuum tubes. Shortly thereafter, the transistor was invented, and these replaced the vacuum tube. Around a decade later, a process was developed to carve all the needed transistors and other components out of solid blocks of material, which ushered in the invention of the microchip, or microprocessor, a tiny chip that performs all the data processing tasks of a computer. These became smaller and smaller, until we were eventually creating them at the atomic scale, and due to this miniaturization of computer components, the devices that housed them also got smaller and smaller. As more transistors fit onto increasingly tiny chips, their processing power grew and grew as their size diminished.

Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, the U.S. military developed ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet. It was largely a data-sharing tool for scientists and other academics until the 1990s, when Tim Berners-Lee came up with the World Wide Web, which made the Internet the repository of all useful and useless knowledge, and the enabler of much impulse shopping that we know today.

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And as the computing world went from wired to wireless, it was only a matter of time before we insisted on being able to carry the Internet around with us wherever we go.

This led the human race to create the Mobile Internet Device (MID), a small, highly portable gadget that allows us to get on the Web to check e-mail, update our social networking sites of choice, play games and locate ourselves on a map, among many other things.

But what devices can be considered MIDs?

What is a MID Tablet?

The meaning of the term Mobile Internet Device (MID) has evolved subtly over the years. In the mid to late 2000s, the time before tablets reigned supreme, MID was used to refer to a sort of middle-of-the-road device between a smartphone and a laptop or netbook in size and functionality: something handheld and highly portable, with a bigger screen than a smartphone so that you could more easily view and interact with full-sized Web pages, but smaller than a laptop so that you could slip it into a coat pocket and use it anywhere. It could have a small built-in keyboard, a touch screen or both as input methods, and could utilize WiFi or cellular networks for connectivity. Sometimes, people would lump phones and netbooks into the expression MID as well, to mean any highly portable Internet-enabled device. Smartphones aside, sales of the earlier mid-sized mobile devices foundered at first, being sought mainly by technology enthusiasts.

But in 2010, something happened that in a way changed the face of modern computing. The Apple iPad debuted: a 10-inch (25.4-centimeter) touchscreen tablet running Apple's proprietary iOS operating system. It allowed you to download applications from Apple's proprietary iTunes store and run them on a larger screen than the iPhone. It was very similar in function to the iPhone and the other touchscreen smartphones that followed it, but everything was scaled up. It was easier to read the text on Web pages and books, and made for an experience closer to that of operating a computer or laptop with a normal sized monitor, but with a highly responsive touch screen that allowed you to eschew the mouse, and far greater portability. You could use it anywhere in the house easily if you had a WiFi network, or outside the house if you found a WiFi hotspot or opted for one of the more expensive 3G cellular models. Bulky, expensive tablet computers existed before, but were more geared toward business use. The iPad made the tablet computer something the general population realized that they wanted for the first time. It sold, and is still selling, incredibly well.

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And, as one would expect, many companies are trying to jump on the bandwagon of Apple's success with similar, and often cheaper, devices that provide some of the same capabilities. Now that tablets are taking over much of the market share once held by laptops, and to a lesser extent held by the small mobile devices once dubbed MIDs, the name MID is generally used to encompass both the smaller tablets and the full-size tablets themselves, often in a connotation referring to the cheaper tablet competitors. Some of these even take the name MID, like the MID M80003W, a super-cheap 8-inch (20.3-centimeter) tablet that sells for under $100, or the spate of slightly more expensive Coby-brand tablets that have MID in their model numbers.

They range greatly in price from the slew of recently released cheaper models around $100, to more expensive fare from major computing manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola and Toshiba, the latter of which are more in-line with the iPad's $399 to $829 price range. But there are some mid-ground priced models that review worse than their expensive parents, but better than their cheaper brethren.

Read on to learn more details of MID specifications.

MID Tablet Specs

Coby is one of many brands of tablets that are often referred to as MIDs.
Coby is one of many brands of tablets that are often referred to as MIDs.
Courtesy of Coby

MIDs these days have tablet form factors that generally include touch-sensitive screens in the 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) to 10-inch (25.4-centimeter) diagonal size range, allow you to get on the net via cellular or WiFi and surf to your heart's content, let you install and run various applications (almost universally referred to as "apps") and include a wide variety of other options that run the gamut. They all have small, lower-powered and relatively inexpensive versions of the components found in larger computers, including central processing units (CPUs) to handle most computing tasks, graphics processing units (GPUs) to allow for rendering of images, an input device that is most often a capacitive touchscreen (rather than the mouse or keyboard of yore) and some method of connectivity, which for wireless devices can include WiFi, cellular or Bluetooth.

Their microprocessors and other internal components were designed specifically for mobile devices. The core processing components (the aforementioned CPU and GPU, and additional items that interface with peripherals) are most often included in one tiny package as a system on a chip (SoC) rather than being installed as separate items. There are different mobile device processor architectures, including those developed and licensed out by the companies ARM and MIPS, and that of Intel's Atom chip line based on its x86 architecture. ARM was early to create chip designs optimized for the needs of small mobile devices, and they have since dominated the market. ARM-based processors and SoCs are present in the vast majority of mobile devices, including the iPhone and iPad. Intel and MIPs are having a hard time catching up, but they have come up with similarly impressive architectures that meet the needs of mobile devices.

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These SoCs are optimized to have a good trade off between things like performance and battery life, with enough speed and processing power to allow your device to run games, play high-definition videos and browse the Internet without taking up too much space, draining the battery too quickly or generating a lot of heat. This allows manufacturers to pack a lot of processing ability into a very small device, enabling them to forgo things like cooling fans which would make the devices too large.

With the help of these small but powerful components, MIDs' speeds vary from 600 GHz to 1.5 GHz, on average. Most have 512MB to 1GB of random access memory (RAM), with a few on the fringes with as little as 256MB and as much as 2GB. Most come with anywhere from 2GB to 64GB of built-in flash memory for application and data storage space, and many have SD card slots and USB ports that allow you to plug in cards or drives that expand the available storage.

Screen resolutions mostly range from 800 by 480 pixels to 1240 by 768, with lots of variation in resolution and aspect ratio in between. Some of the cheapest ones rely on resistive touchscreen technology, which requires an amount of pressure be put on the screen and does not allow for the multi-finger screen manipulation that many of us are used to today (it does, however, allow for the use of a stylus). But even many of the cheaper ones now have the better and more responsive capacitive multi-touch touchscreens that allow you to simply slide your fingers across the screen, and enable you to do things like use two fingers to zoom in or out of a Web site or image. The less expensive MIDs are also often running the older model single-core ARM processors, with their more expensive compatriots running newer, faster and more powerful dual and quad-core models that are better at multitasking.

MIDs include an array of potential connectors, including HDMI, HDMI-mini, full-sized USB, micro and mini-USB, microphone and headphone jacks and various sizes of SD card slots, among others. These can be used to plug in storage devices and other peripherals including Bluetooth dongles (if the tablet doesn't already come with Bluetooth), additional USB hubs, keyboards, mice and the like. If there is an HDMI port, you can use an adapter to connect the device to your television or other HDMI monitor and use the larger screen for output. Some of these connectors also come in handy for loading data to the device that you can't just download from the Web. Some have tiny built-in speakers. At least one even has a keyboard docking station that both powers the device and converts it into something resembling a laptop, if that's what you need. The devices also have various sensors like accelerometers and gyroscopes that allow you to use the motion of the device itself as an input (say, tilting the MID one way or the other to move through a game).

All of them, even the economy models, contain impressive hardware. Read on to find out about more about their software, especially the most common MID operating systems.

What Operating Systems Do They Run?

Most of the MIDs floating around out there run the Android operating system, an OS developed initially by Android Inc., but continued by Google after their acquisition of the company in 2005. Google developed Android along with the Open Handset Alliance, a collection of 80 or so hardware manufacturers, software companies and other related entities. Android is free and open source, meaning that anyone can gain access to the source code, making development for it much easier than for a closed operating system like Apple iOS or Microsoft Windows. New versions and updates come out regularly, and new apps even more frequently. The OS is maintained and updated by the Android Open Source Project.

There are many versions of Android (all, incidentally, named for foods), up to the most recent release: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Early releases were optimized for the smaller smartphone form factors, but Android 3.0 and beyond were made to more easily handle scaling of applications to the larger tablet screen sizes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of MIDs floating around today (especially the cheaper ones) are running Android 2.2 or 2.3 versions. Many of the newer and more expensive devices, however, are running the later and more secure versions of Android, 3.0 and beyond, and even some of the incredibly cheap tablets that are starting to emerge are running 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

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Aside from the standard Android installations that are available, many manufacturers add their own software to create an interface that differs somewhat from vanilla versions of the Android OS. Some keep it mostly the same, but add useful utilities, while others make the operating system nearly unrecognizable (which is made possible by the extreme customizability of open source code). Often, the cheaper tablets do not allow upgrading of the Android operating system, leaving you stuck with whatever version was on there when you bought the device (creating security and newer software compatibility issues). Devices certified by Google are able to include Gmail, the Chrome browser and other similar apps that have become standards, and allow access to Google Play.

Formerly known as the Android Market, Google Play is a central repository of Android apps for download or purchase. It includes a wide variety of games, productivity apps and the like. When it was rebranded as Google Play, movies, music and other media were added to the mix (perhaps to compete better with Apple iTunes). Unfortunately, not all devices have access to the market. Many devices direct you to their own app stores, or even potentially less secure third-party markets. For the cheaper devices, this is often Archos's AppsLib market, but some manufacturers come up with their own. The cheap MID M80003W, which runs Android 2.2 Froyo, directs you to its own very small market. Some higher end manufacturers have their own, as well, but in those cases, it may actually increase security by allowing them to approve the apps you can download, as there is little vetting of the apps in the Android Market. Amazon even created its own Appstore for Android that many devices can access.

Despite all this Android talk, there are also MIDs floating around with other operating systems, including some devices with the Intel x86 compatible Atom processors running both a mobile version of Windows and Android simultaneously. These are harder to come by, and not very cheap, but Intel and Microsoft are trying to gain a foothold in the mobile market. iPad, the definite leader in the current tablet market, runs Apple's proprietary iOS operating system, but no other device can avail itself of this OS. Though Apple has the largest market share, the various Android devices are collectively their biggest competitors.

Read on to find out what you can do with these powerful mobile devices.

MID Tablet Features

The potential uses of MIDs are just as varied as the hardware choices. They can all be used to access the Internet. But their capabilities depend heavily upon the hardware components they contain and the OS version they are running, which affect whether or not the available apps that you can download will actually work (or, in the case of your device's flash memory, how much will actually fit on the device). Some MIDs come with manufacturer skins installed over the OS, with a certain set of preinstalled apps and perhaps more available for download from the company. But most have access to one of the previously mentioned app markets, allowing you to choose how to use your MID via selection of software. You can find global positioning system (GPS) apps, e-readers, movie and TV show streamers (like Netflix, HBOGo and HuluPlus), apps to help you learn foreign languages, games, music players, business productivity apps -- you name it.

Access to a WiFi network is necessary to get the most out of your device. This can be via a home WiFi router or a hotspot provided by a business. Many restaurants and coffee shops allow you to get on a publicly accessible network, but private ones you have to log into are more secure. There is some variation in what WiFi types MIDs support, with most supporting WiFi 802.11 b and g, and quite a few also supporting n. The ones that are b/g only might be a little slower to connect than the b/g/n capable ones (n being the latest WiFi standard). All are supported by most newer home WiFi routers. A few MIDs also come with Bluetooth capabilities, which allow you to wirelessly connect to various peripherals like Bluetooth-enabled keyboards and mice, or to exchange data with other nearby devices.

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Some MIDs also have cellular capabilities as a connectivity option. This will usually result in a higher device cost due to monthly data plan fees paid to providers like Verizon and AT&T. Incidentally, a device's cellular capabilities often only work with certain providers due to variations in types of cellular networks and the different internal chips required for devices to access them. So, if you buy a 3G or other cellular network enabled device from one carrier and later decide to switch carriers, you may have to get a new device, or just use the old one via WiFi. The availability of a cellular option allows you to get on the Web even when you aren't near a WiFi hotspot, provided you are within range of your carrier's network. It might also allow you to make phone calls, depending upon the hardware and available apps, although you might not want to use a somewhat unwieldy tablet as a phone. Cellular also allows for proper use of GPS or any other app that needs to know your current location.

Most MIDs come with front-facing cameras (meaning facing you while you look at the screen) and built-in microphones, allowing you to use video communication apps like Skype and various voice over IP (VoIP) apps to make the Internet equivalent of a phone call over WiFi. Some also come with rear facing cameras, usually with better resolution than the front facing ones, allowing you to use camera apps to take photos with the devices.

MIDs can read a number of audio, video and other file formats, but this, too, varies a bit from device to device. The hardware specifications should list supported formats (including things like MP3, MP4, MOV, WAV or Flash for video or audio, and various e-book formats for books). But the fact that every MID doesn't support all the available formats means that there are likely some audio, video, book or other files types that won't work on your device. But to be honest, this file type compatibility issue has existed for all devices since the inception of computing. You just need to examine the specs to see if formats you use commonly are supported.

And, as mentioned earlier, the available ports on your device can affect what features you can use. They can be used as avenues for getting more content onto your device, or to connect to larger monitors and TVs and in other ways that can increase functionality. All touchscreen devices have built in on-screen keyboard functionality, but you can also do things like dock your device to a real keyboard for ease of typing.

With all this variation in hardware and functionality, continue reading to find out how MIDs stack up against each other.

Are all MIDs created equal?

The iPad is widely recognized as the leader in the tablet market, but its proprietary OS and lack of customization and expansion options cause some consumers to turn to Android-based alternatives.
The iPad is widely recognized as the leader in the tablet market, but its proprietary OS and lack of customization and expansion options cause some consumers to turn to Android-based alternatives.
Courtesy Apple Inc.

The obvious competitor to the Android MID is the iPad. Apple leads the pack in tablet market share by a long shot, and is a leader in quality. Their devices are well designed and constructed, and have access to a host of applications vetted by Apple through iTunes. But there are Android tablets that rival the iPad, with solid construction, sharp graphics and a multitude of connection ports that the iPad is missing. And Android (like most Linux distributions) is less confining than Apple's proprietary OS.

Android doesn't have as many available applications as Apple. But there are tens of thousands to choose from. Productivity apps are one area where Android has a bit of an edge on iPad as far as selection. The allowance of widgets gives some apps a little more functionality on the Android side. And some Google-specific apps like their Maps program are improvements over the iOS versions. But there are far fewer games and other similar entertainment applications to choose from for Android, and they vary greatly in quality and device compatibility.

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Android has some decided advantages, like allowing you to run multiple applications at a time, add widgets to customize your home screen (for things like social networking streams), replace the keyboard function with a different app, or run your choice of e-mail program or Web browser. For the most part, unfortunately, the tablets that come close to rivaling the iPad in quality are equally expensive. And the cheaper choices often have drawbacks.

The capabilities and the quality levels of the various Android MIDs vary wildly. The reviews of the more affordable devices like those manufactured by Coby and ViewSonic contain complaints about things like sluggishness when Web surfing, cheap materials, issues with some file formats not working and lack of access to the official Google app store. But they also get some good marks for video play back and general usability, and all sound like they make passable e-readers. But many of them cannot be upgraded to newer Android OS versions, further limiting their functionality. The incredibly cheap ($100 or less) no-name devices get much worse reviews with complaints about slowness, bugginess and poor video quality. And cheaper devices with older processors will not run applications very smoothly or quickly. With MIDs, the old adage "you get what you pay for" is as true as ever.

The tier of storage space you select will also make a difference in your experience. You may find yourself running out of room for apps and music rather quickly if you opt for a device with 8GB or less of flash memory. The connectivity methods or ports the device has will alter its usefulness, as well. Many Android devices have ports that allow for adding extra storage, streaming to your TV and getting data to or from your device from other devices (say, hooking directly to a camera rather than being forced to use a desktop application as an intermediary). With the iPad, aside from the headphone jack, there is one built-in proprietary connector.

The Google Nexus 7 device might prove to be an exception to the price versus quality tradeoff, at $200 or $250, depending upon whether you choose the 8GB or 16GB model. It's well reviewed so far, but it lacks some useful features like an HDMI port and rear-facing camera. It's also the first device to run the latest Android OS, 4.1 Jelly Bean. This version includes support for some pretty advanced features, like Android Beam, which allows you to share data by holding two Android devices back to back.

The version of the Android OS that you're running creates potential for differences in quality. There are security issues with the older versions of Android, and releases below 3.0 were made to handle smartphone sized screens, not larger tablets. The differences in OS versions, along with fragmentation in the available hardware and the different proprietary app markets, also lead to a decrease in selection of applications. Not all apps work on all devices. Many were created for ARM architectures and won't run on MIPS, for instance, and apps made for Android 4.0 might not run on 2.3. Google Play is apparently supposed to show you apps that would work on the device with which you connect, but this is reportedly not always the case.

The cheapest MIDs are often running earlier releases, mostly Android 2.2. or 2.3, and as mentioned earlier, many cannot be upgraded. The vast majority of Android devices in the wild around February 2012 were running Android 2.3.3 or 2.2, with less than 5 percent running 3.0 or above [source: Gold]. There has been some improvement, with August 2012 figures showing instances of Android 4.0 up to around 16 percent and 4.1 at nearly 1 percent, but 2.2 and 2.3 are still in the majority with over 76 percent of distribution [source: Android Developers]. These figures include tablets and phones, but it still means that the majority of MIDs in the wild are running outdated and potentially insecure versions of the OS. This will change over time as the older devices are replaced and more and more new ones are made to run newer flavors of Android.

MIDs in the Big Picture

Since the iPad exploded onto the scene, and tablets began taking over more and more of the computing device market share, MIDs went from items only purchased by gadget enthusiasts to everyday electronics in high demand. This newfound popularity of the tablet form has led a slew of manufacturers to throw a bunch of Android MIDs into the market. Some are cheap and flimsy, and some quite sleek and powerful and seriously worthy of consideration over competing Apple devices. Although it's up for debate whether the nicer and larger ones are really called MIDs or just tablets. But whatever the name, tablets running the Android OS are a viable option for those who either can't afford the steep price of an iPad or would prefer the open source and customizable nature of Android.

With the higher quality choices being so expensive, there is a gap in the low to mid range tablet market that the various cheaper Android MIDs are filling. There is also a size gap, as iPad currently comes only with a 10-inch (25.4-centimeter) screen, although there is a rumor floating about of a 7-inch (17.8-centimeter) iPad in the works. Google Nexus 7 and even media players like the Kindle Fire might help fill the void partially. But where there is a popular device, there is always a cheaper knock-off, and an even cheaper knock-off of that knock-off, so the existence of a number of variously priced and reviewed devices was inevitable.

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With the popularization of the touchscreen and tablet form, it's doubtful these devices are going away anytime soon. If a consumer needs a computer more for entertainment and Web access purposes than business productivity, he or she may even choose a tablet over a laptop or desktop and not miss much. And MIDs have potential business uses, as well. They can be used to take inventory, orders or payment, where before paper, desktops or credit card machines were required. As they become more and more prevalent, there is no doubt the number and usefulness of available productivity apps will increase, as well.

And despite the existence of the lower quality MIDs, this variety isn't all bad. It means you can research what's out there and choose based on your price and capability needs. Just be sure to read tons of reviews and specs before making a purchase.

Author's Note

Being a tech and Web addict, I am already the owner of a smartphone, an iPad, a laptop and a Kindle, among other devices. But I would probably use a mid-sized Android-based tablet if I had one. I love the size and feel of my little Kindle e-reader, and something that could access Web pages or play games on a fuller sized screen than my phone, but slip easily into my purse or coat pocket and handle more like a small e-reader would be welcome. I've also been a Unix/Linux enthusiast for years, so I fully approve of devices running an open-source OS like Android. If a well reviewed MID comes along that won't break the bank, I will seriously consider adding it to my electronic menagerie. I just might need to invest in a larger purse.

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