New Toys from Kmart (if you see a programmer carrying a screwdriver, run!)

OK, I usually don’t brag about buying stuff at Kmart, but this was kinda cool.

Remember when Kmart was the #1 computer reseller?  It was in the days of of the Commodore 64.  It was a bare-basic geek toy for $99.  Any self-respecting nerd over the age of 39 had one.

Well, the glorys days of Kmart may be returning (or I could be indulging in a little delusional nostalgia…. you choose).

I picked up an Augen GenTouch 78 Android-based tablet device last night.

Insert the usual justifications:

  • Eventually I need to learn Linux
  • It’s one-third the cost of an iPad
  • Reading ebooks on my phone, laptop and computer all stink

But the truth is… I wanted one, and at $192 (after taxes), it’s on the high-end of an impulse buy.

The good:

  • It was cheap
  • It was available at Kmart
  • I can return it for the next 90 days without too much of a hassle.
  • It comes with a 2100mA battery… pretty beefy battery for a cheap device.

The bad:

  • I’m shopping at Kmart on a Friday night.
  • The first two units I tested were defective.  When I called to see if they had them in stock, they said they had two.  When I got to the store, they had four.  Good news?  Not really.  The guy at the Electronics counter eventually dropped at he had two returns.  The first two units I tested were from open boxes… and oddly enough were defective.  When I tested the third unit (from a sealed box), it booted up fine.
  • No BlueTooth.  I hate wires.
  • No 3.5mm headphone jack.  The President of Augen regrets the decision to use a smaller jack, but is so repentant that he’ll send you an adapter or a free headset at his own cost.  Gotta respect that… if you mess up, admit it and make it right.

The ugly:

  • I’m shopping at KMart on a Friday night. 
  • You can’t ask questions about products at KMart.
  • No Android Market
  • No accelerometer (when you turn the unit from landscape to portrait, you have to tilt your head to read it… the screen doesn’t re-orient itself.)
  • Firmware updates are available from Augen, but installing them is a PITA.
  • The SD slot doesn’t line up properly… so when I put an old SD card into the unit… it was promptly lost.

Oh no!

So what’s a geek to do?  Of course, it was time to take this puppy apart and retrieve my beloved SD card.

Luckily it came apart pretty easily and I was able to retrieve the SD card.  That’s when I discovered it actually had a 2100mA battery.  Pretty cool, eh?  Amazing what you find when you poke around an electronic device with a screwdriver at 2am.

So then it came time to install the firmware updates, which requires hitting the “reset” button on the back.  The “reset” button is well protected by a tiny, itty-bitty, really small hole.  So small that I couldn’t use a finishing nail or a toothpick to press it.  Well, since I’d already had the thing apart, I took it apart again (with the SD card still installed).  I hit the reset button, installed the firmware updates and put the unit back together… and snapped off the SD card in the process.

I hate being a numbskull.  It’s a curse.

So another disassembly, retrieved the SD card (in two pieces) and put everything back together.  Miraculously, the thing still worked.

I found a great site that walked me through all of the little things that will make this a useable device.  Reducing the power consumption so the battery lasts more than 2 hours, setting up software that will allow me to manually reorient the screen so I can use it in portrait or landscape mode, connecting it to Android Market, setting up YouTube, tv.com and a couple of other things that will let me use this as a media tablet.

One little gut-check:  When I installed hacked firmware, I followed all the instructions up to the point of rebooting the device…. which didn’t work.  I had to hit that reset button again.  Rather than taking the thing apart, I found that stripping the plastic off the twist tie used to wrap the USB cable (exposing a metal wire) worked just fine.

Here are the links to the sites that allowed me to get everything just the way I want them:

Augen Gentouch 78 for Dummies:  http://augengentouch78.webs.com/apps/blog/

Yes, I know that the first article on this site recommends against buying this device.  I found this site AFTER I bought it and since KMart gives me 90 days within which to regret my decision to buy, I’ve decided to use at least 87 of them.

I also run with scissors, smoke and enjoy eating bacon with every meal.  Why would I start listening to advice now?

Gentouch78 Rooted v.03 WORKING MARKET FROM FLASH:  http://www.androidtablets.net/forum/augen-gentouch/1084-rom-gentouch78-rooted-v0-3-working-market-flash.html

The advice on this site is for educational purposes only.  No one should do anything recommended by this site (wink).  It would be illegal, immoral and probably lots of fun.  Ok, maybe not a lot of fun, but then again, the highlight of my week was shopping at KMart on a Friday night for an Android-based tablet.  Your mileage may vary.

Also downloaded EverNote, MyLetter and Note Everything… this device makes a pretty good note-taking device (and I think I’m going to look pretty cool using it to take notes in meetings).  I really dig using MyLetter to sketch out ideas, then email the sketches to myself (so I can find them later).  I may have used my last cocktail napkin/back-of-the-envelope.

YouTube on this thing ROCKS.  As long as I have WiFi connectivity, the playback is smooth and clear. TV.com and BluMediaLab.com’s Television Android app are also pretty nifty.  Gotta love National Geographic, Discovery and the Onion News Network.

My next adventure is to try out a few ebook readers.  I’ve checked out a few PDF versions of my ebooks… they’re OK.  Readable, scrollable… but not really spinning my propellor.

UPDATE:

After all the tweaking, upgrading and configuring, this device reliably gives me about 5-6 hours between charges.  I turn off the Wifi when I’m not using it, and have the brightness cranked up to about 80%.  Not bad for a $200 device bought at KMart.

While I am using the device to sketch out ideas, it is not very usable for hand-written notes and typing on the on-screen keyboard is not very useful.  I can do about 100 wpm on a physical keyboard, cut that to about 10 wpm on an on-screen keyboard.  Looks like I’m stuck with pen-and-paper for the forseeable future.

This device is GREAT for reading comic books.  I downloaded Robot Comics reader and a few of the free comic books available on Android Market.  Great way to burn a few hours.  The comics from Robot Comics were great and I got a few other comics from a friend. 

The comics from a friend were packaged in CBZ files (effectively JPGs compressed with ZIP and the resulting ZIP file renamed to .CBZ).  The JPG files inside the CBZ were huge and rendered slowly on the device.  So I unpacked the CBZ files and shrunk down the JPG files inside, then repackaged.  Whenviewing the reduced JPG (scaled to 800×480), the performance was fairly snappy.

I’m not thrilled with the device’s performance using Docs-To-Go’s PDF reader to view PDF-based ebooks.  I’m in the middle of the physical versions of “Microsoft SQL Server 2008 MDX Step By Step” and “Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Analysis Services Step By Step” and the PDF versions of the ebooks are horribly slow.  The EPUB version is pretty good when viewed through FBReader and the MOBI version is very fast.  My only concern is the graphics don’t seem to translate well into ebook formats (either that or whomever rendered the books into EPUB and MOBI versions didn’t do a great job at QA).

Net:  Not so good for large PDFs, pretty good for EPUB and MOBI ebooks.

But my latest facination with this device is using it to browse RSS feeds.  I installed NewsRob, which is a Google Reader client.  I love this arrangement because if something is really interesting, I can read it online, on a full-size monitor, using Google Reader (www.google.com/reader).  Everything says in synch between Google Reader and the device.  NewsRob will download either the full web posting or a “mobilized” version of the webpage that’s referenced in the RSS feed…. works completely offline.  I dove into the Harvard Business Review, Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, Lifehacker, Dilbert and Wired RSS feeds.  Now I’m alternating between wishing for another few hours in the day or pining for the days when I had 2 hours a day to read while trapped on NJ Transit busses or trains.

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