T-Mobile Springboard: Solid Hardware, Speedy 4G

T-Mobile's Springboard tablet offers a speedy 4G connection and solid hardware, but the attached two-year contract could prove a deal-breaker for some customers.

As expected, the era of the cheap tablet is now fully upon us.

Later this month, Amazon will deliver the $199 Kindle Fire, just as archrival Barnes & Noble offers up its Nook Tablet for $249. Samsung is readying the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus, which T-Mobile will start selling Nov. 16 for $249.99 with a two-year mobile data contract. And Research In Motion's 7-inch PlayBook continues to sell for a reduced price.

It was inevitable that tablet prices would dip. A similar phenomenon grips all consumer technology once various competitors start flooding the market with their own versions of a particular product. The question is whether any of these new devices can substantially erode the Apple iPad's dominating share of the tablet market.

T-Mobile's Springboard, built by Huawei, might not prove to be that iPad-killer, but the 7-inch tablet is a solid entrant into the market nonetheless. T-Mobile is selling the device for $179.99 (after mail-in rebate) with a two-year data plan.

As tablets go, the Springboard offers a bare-bones Android 3.2 (Honeycomb) experience. T-Mobile declined to skin the user interface with design bells and whistles in the manner of Samsung's TouchWiz or Amazon's outright reimagining of Android. The display boasts a crisp 1280x800 resolution, and the 1.2GHz dual-core processor is more than adequate for most users' application and multimedia needs.

Even though Apple CEO Steve Jobs once famously denigrated the 7-inch tablet size as inferior to larger touch-screens, there are benefits to being able to hold your device in one hand and tap with the other. The Springboard is relatively lightweight, at 1.34 pounds, but (thanks in part to its slightly curved metallic backing) doesn't feel cheap.

The Springboard features a 5-megapixel rear camera, paired to a 1.3-megapixel front-facing aperture. For those wishing to take the occasional on-the-fly image, this is sufficient. Compared to the 8-megapixel lenses available in an increasing number of smartphones (and older point-and-click digital cameras), it falls a bit short.

T-Mobile insists that Springboard is good for seven hours of continuous use and 12 days worth of standby time. After a few days of testing by eWEEK, there seemed no need to question this number. In addition to some pre-included applications from Netflix and other content providers, Springboard users can rely on Google services for music, email and the like. For those who like to store their media on a local hard drive (helpful for when you can't get a signal), the device offers 16GB of onboard memory, upgradable to 32GB via the microSD card slot.

What could prove more exciting is the Springboard's 4G connection, which makes the tablet a truly versatile (and speedy) companion while on the road. WiFi-only tablets feel hobbled by comparison. But that connection requires a two-year contract; given the rapid-fast pace of the tablet market, the Springboard could prove badly outdated long before the contract expires-a risk that some users might be willing to take, for that price. Others might find themselves less inclined.

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