Last year, on Black Friday, I saw a K-Mart doorbuster for a $139 Augen Android tablet and “threatened” to go get it. I didn’t really intend to, because I was certain it would be a disappointment. My wife snuck out with our friend who was visiting to buy it for me – but instead, she got the alternative, a Coby Kyros MID7015 Android tablet.

The Coby device fits in a niche of low-end tablets that exist somewhere between Chinese counterfeit knockoffs and legitimate name brand devices. You only need to look at the COBY logo – it’s no accident that they use almost the same font as SONY uses for their corporate identity – to get a feel for how this company operates.

Notes: This post was first published as two separate entries in the former TechRepublic Out Loud blog.

From the very start, this device represents the paradox of the Android platform. On one hand, it’s an opportunity for a small importer of inexpensive Chinese electronics to compete with big brands like Samsung and Apple. The opportunity for a company like Coby to compete with these big firms probably benefits consumers with a more competitive market. After all, Acer was once a small upstart offering inexpensive electronic solutions.

On the other hand, Android also offers an opportunity for abuse and neglect. Smaller companies may bite off more than they can chew, with grand aspirations that they can’t quite deliver in their products. Less scrupulous organizations may not really care, looking to mislead consumers and make off with a quick profit by selling devices that are little more than expensive paperweights.

I was honestly surprised when I opened the gift. Even though I probably wouldn’t have bought it for myself, I put on my best, “What a great gift!” face and decided to give it a shot, if only to show my wife my appreciation.

Out of the box, the device actually surprised me with the build quality. I only have hands-on experience with one other tablet, my iPad, and the Kyros feels of similar quality. The device is surrounded by a metal band that gives it just enough heft – not so light that it feels cheap or plastic and not so heavy that it’s uncomfortable to hold. When it’s in the included leatherette case, it looks like a small padfolio.

Initially, I thought to myself, “At the very least, I’ll load this up with e-readers and e-books, and it’ll probably make a good, inexpensive digital library.” The truth is, this device would be a very good purchase for that role when compared to the price and features of dedicated e-readers. However, there are some significant caveats.

This is not a Google-authorized device. In fact, none of the current tablets available at the time of this writing are, to my knowledge. That means no “Android Market” and no “Google Experience,” which includes a bundle of apps that are available on many Droid devices, such as Navigation, Google Maps, and other assorted goodies.

Instead, the device carries an alternative app market called AppsLibs. Not only was the AppLib site down for several days right after Christmas, due to a deluge of Android tablets and netbooks, but when it was accessible, I couldn’t find many of the big name apps I know and love from my Droid 2 in the AppLib library. I’ve argued in other posts that it doesn’t matter if you’ve got 200,000 or 20,000,000 apps, as long as you’ve got the right apps. AppsLib doesn’t quite meet this expectation.

This one/two combination led me to start flexing my Android skills. The first thing I realized was that with a File Manager like Astro, you can easily back up Market Apps to .apk format, copy them from one microSD card to another, and side-load them on another device. This worked in most cases – like Facebook and The Great Land Grab.

However, the official Twitter app didn’t work, which was disappointing – but at the price point, there was already enough of a value proposition in this compromise that I decided the device was worth keeping. The biggest value was the freedom to do something that should be my right to do – the trust in my abilities, my competency, and my honesty that the Android OS grants me (things that the “other guy” denies me).

Emboldened, I decided to root the device. This was a far more trivial process than I expected (install an app, click a button), and I’m not setting myself up for a cat-and-mouse game with Coby where new firmware or OS updates require me to go through outrageous hoops. Hackers and gadget-geeks who like to tinker with their devices will certainly find this appealing.

After rooting, I was able to install the Android Market and Google Experience. While this is warranty voiding, unauthorized, and requires a certain degree of technical competency beyond the average consumer, there isn’t even the vaguest threat that the manufacturer, Google, or some other corporation might come after me with a legal team.

I don’t have to worry that by rooting my own device I am placing my fate in the hands of a court system presided over by judges that barely understand the technology in the cases they oversee. That is refreshing. The reason we’re not doing more with these devices isn’t because they’re not capable. It’s because the manufacturers of the mainstream devices are preventing us from experiencing their full potential. See the gallery: Unleash the full potential of the Coby Kryos.

And once the full potential of the Coby Kyros is realized, it’s actually a pretty impressive device, especially for under $150. A lot of technology bloggers are being hard on these devices, but most reviews by reasonable owners of the Kyros generally tend to agree with my own perception. The construction is of good quality, it has reasonable specifications and features, and even without rooting, the AppsLib library would probably satisfy most tablet consumers.

Truly, we’ve forgotten where we were a few short years ago, and now – especially among journalists – the iPad is the bar that must be met in order for a device to be considered worthy. But I don’t think that the iPad bar is necessarily the bare minimum. I did, but that was before I spent some hands-on time with the Kyros.

So, where does the Kyros fall short?

  • The Resistive Touch screen. My Droid 2 has a much higher quality feel and response than the Kyros, but it isn’t unusable or frustratingly unresponsive.
  • The battery life is very poor, especially compared to an iPad. I have to charge it every night with moderate use.
  • The system has far more instability than iOS devices. Apps lock up and frequently require a Force Close, and you have to reset the device when it reboots or hangs.
  • Some graphics don’t render correctly on Angry Birds – and other apps, like Skype, just refuse to work.
  • There are times when, for no easily discovered reason, it just starts to run SLOW.
  • The Wi-Fi has terrible range and is picky, sometimes dropping connections or failing to see access points.

Some of these problems are unique to this device and others are Android quirks. This is the LINUXness of Android – the kind of half-boiled, DIY, roll-your-own grass-roots-ness of Linux that I so often disparage. But in this case, the weakness is the strength for the right consumer.

Face it, at $499, the entry-level iPad is too expensive and not full-featured enough for the average user. My kid got a 32GB iPod Touch for Christmas. She’ll need every bit of that space, and it still cost $100 more than the Kyros. No one is going to disagree that even the Touch is a more pleasant, higher quality experience – but as a value proposition, the Kyros does the vast majority of things that the Touch or the iPad do, and it’s capable of a few things that are more difficult if not impossible to do on some Apple devices if you’re willing to put up with a few headaches.

I think the success of Windows proves that most consumers are willing to put up with a few headaches when the trade-off is a value proposition and empowerment, which is the most important thing that Android devices deliver. If you’re modestly technically inclined, you can do a lot more with the Kyros than you can do with an iOS device and for a lot less money.

I’m a pretty well-off, middle-aged gadget-geek, so I can have my cake and eat it too. But if I was in my early 20s, freshly married, struggling to work full-time in a low paying job while putting my wife through school, the Kyros would be my choice over the iPad. It’s the reasonable, practical, rational choice for most people. It may not be quite ready for everyone yet, but the Kyros certainly represents proof of concept that this is a completely achievable goal.