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Cheap, Cheap, Cheap – the goldmine around the Mobile World Congress

The Mobile World Congress, the annual international electronics show that focuses on the mobile industry, is finally here. Almost every phone maker — only Apple avoids MWC, but they needed to amass billions in annual profits to escape its orbit — uses this week to formally announce their new flagship devices. To a certain type of consumer, the end of MWC marks the beginning of month of anticipation that ends with a night camped out in front of a phone store, to become the first person to own the latest shiny-shiny.

Though I’m as keen as anyone to see the specs of the new Samsung Galaxy phone (et al), I’m also pleased by a lovely coincidence: over the past few weeks, some newly released hardware has arrived in the office and they’re all just as exciting as anything that will come out of Mobile World Congress this week. But for a different reason:

They’re affordable.

Wait . . . what am I saying? This stuff is cheap. Suspiciously cheap. As in “What a great deal on this gold necklace! But why are this little clumps of raw skin embedded in the links?” cheap. So cheap that in two of these three cases, I didn’t even bother to ask for a review loaner. When a computer costs $35 and a Windows tablet costs $59…geez, filling out the paperwork and then re-boxing it and shipping it back later on will cost me more than that, just in time and labor.

Raspberry Pi 2

Raspberry Pi 2: 35 Damn Dollars

The original Raspberry Pi was designed from the ground up to teach schoolkids about computers. It’s a bare, Post-It-sized $35 Linux-based computer that tries its best to be open-source wherever it can. It’s probably the first popular computer in a quarter century that the user can totally control. It keeps no secrets about itself from its owner.

Which is why the Pi was so quickly discovered and embraced by hobbyists. What does the Pi do? Whatever you want. It has four USB ports, HDMI, Ethernet, and an onboard microSD slot that serves as a boot drive. It’s powered by a standard microUSB connector. A header strip lets you buy and add — or even design and build — whatever additional hardware or accessories you want.

The Pi 2 receives one major upgrade from its immediate predecessor, but it’s a doozy: a quad-core CPU that promises six times greater performance. I’ve had my Pi for two weeks now and it seems to be the real deal.

That opens up the Pi to new possibilities. The previous Pi was weak when you tried to make it work like a desktop. You could install Ubuntu on it, it ran apps like LibreOffice and a web browser…but it started to vibrate a little at those high speeds.

The Raspberry Pi 2 has the power of a low-end PC and it can even credibly be used like one. It’s kind of mind-blowing that $35 buys a computer that’s this capable.

WinBook TW700

WinBook TW700: 59 Damn Dollars

Until recently, a veteran tech journalist would be pleased to see the phrase ”sub-$100 tablet computer” on the news release for a new product. Normally, we would have needed to carefully test a piece of hardware for days, likely whole weeks, before conclusively proving that it’s a total piece of garbage. We would only actually write about them if a nicely-turned, if meanspirited, line popped into our heads and it seemed like a shame to waste it.  (“The $89 DiscoTab 817 is incapable of giving any kind of pleasure to any kind of rational creature. If DiscoTech Inc. had made it out of chew toy leather inside and out, it would have at least been fun for dogs to play with. Such a thing would also stream Netflix with fewer freezes than I experienced…”)

I’ve had the $59 TW700 tablet (a US-exclusive from Micro Center) for a couple of days. Please don’t run out and buy it until I’ve wrapped up my testing, but the fact that I actually see the need to continue testing it after the first hour is a serious achievement. It appears to be a well-made, for-real 7″ Windows 8.1 color tablet that runs both Modern (multitouch) and desktop apps.

I stress again that this is way too soon for me to recommend it to anybody. I’m merely sharing some data points: within two hours after setting up the WinBook, it was connected to a keyboard, mouse, and an HDMI monitor, it was running the Windows version of the same Mac desktop app I use for all of my columns, and all of my Mac’s project files had been synced to its internal storage and back to my Mac via Dropbox, just like all of the other computers on my network. I had begun this session simply as a test drive, but being in front of a keyboard and screen with the Scrivener appopen in front of me triggered a Pavlovian response in my brain, and I wound up doing a couple of hours of actual writing.

On a PC that cost fifty nine bucks and was also a pocketable tablet!

Moto G

Motorola Moto G and Moto E (179 and 149 damn dollars)

And we’re back to phones. In the US, $200 phones are affordable only because they’re heavily subsidized by carriers. They typically cost between $650 and $800 if you’re not locked into a two-year service contract. There are plenty of advantages of having an unlocked, take-it-to-any carrier phone and by comparison-shopping voice and data plans you can often recover all of those extra costs well before those two years would be up.

But let’s not overlook the fact that there are plenty of people who can’t get that two-year contract because of either bad credit history or no credit history. Many consumers would also rather not make a two-year commitment to an expensive plan, or just to one carrier. And then we must remind ourselves that phone prices aren’t subsidized all over the world.

This is why I regard Motorola’s low-cost devices as “important” phones. They’re just as interesting as the Galaxy Note 4 or the iPhone 6. Are they premium devices? No, but their specs are solid. The latest Moto E was just announced on Wednesday and I haven’t had a chance to handle it yet. But I have the Moto G in my library and there’s nothing chintzy about its construction or performance. For just $179 (Moto G) or $149 (for the high end Moto E) you own a phone outright that will work with almost any carrier anywhere in the world. Or, hell, don’t even bother putting a SIM in it. Just use it as a media player that runs modern Android apps.

The Moto G and E serve as a reminder that premium phones are premium phones. Just because the high-end devices get all of the ad dollars and attention doesn’t mean that a phone with a 1024-core CPU and a display with such high definition that it lets you can see straight into the soul of pure evil should be considered “normal.”

Fun At The Shallow End Of The Pool

The phrase “the race to the bottom” is often used by analysts to refer to the way that intense competition can often lead to hardware makers undercutting each other on price. Thus, many people associate this phrase with cheap, shoddily-built, unreliable goods sold at disastrously-thin profit margins. The best place for a maker to be, they say, is in a premium marketplace where your product is heavily differentiated.

I’m a tech columnist, not a business analyst. I generally stick to questions like “how well does a thing work,” “does this represent a trend that I like,” “do I personally find this significant or interesting”…that sort of stuff.

Full columns on the Raspberry Pi 2, the WinBook 700, and the Moto E will arrive after proper testing and reflection. Until then, I’m thrilled by this ongoing evidence that cheap, well-made, useful hardware like these items exist and that there are companies eager to put something great in the hands of people without too much money to spend.

Even just talking about them creates some valuable insights. The conversation isn’t about curved screens, sapphire covers, and the difference between “Champagne Gold” and “Rose Gold.” It forces us to talk about what a device can do for us. A piece of technology should do more than just trigger our pleasure receptors, or help us to give off a vibe of status and sophistication. Technology should help us get through the hard things in life more quickly, help us to enjoy the good things in life more deeply, and help us to explore a larger world and the greater parts of ourselves.

Plus, of course, there are so many people in the US and around the world who just flat-out can’t afford the stuff with top-of-the-line specs, or even the midpriced stuff. The fetishization of the premium market often makes it seems as if there’s a sign hanging on the door of the consumer tech world that reads ”Go be poor somewhere else.” That’s immensely troubling.

And when it comes to the relationship between kids and technology, there’s the simple power of get to own something outright instead of having to share it with siblings, parents, or classmates. A shared computer is like a fork in a kitchen drawer. It has no identity or particular importance. Give a kid a notebook or a tablet that belongs to them. They’ll put stickers on it and cover it with paint. They’ll customize the wallpaper. It becomes an extension of themselves and an means of expressing who they are. And it’s always there for them.

A shared device never can never do that. From that perspective, a $200 Chromebook can be much more powerful than even a $1500 premium notebook. If I had kids, I’d much rather that they go to a school that had hundreds of Raspberry Pi 2s than a dozen high-end Macs or Windows PCs.

But I really love cheap tech because it underscores an important principle: technology is supposed to improve and elevate everybody.

Otherwise, all of these phones, laptops, and other assorted beep-boops are just Beanie Babies: vectors for trendy, embarrassing consumerism. Only, you know, without the superior durability.