Looking for a low-cost tablet? There are hundreds of models that run Android or Windows software.
Trying to decide which operating system to use? Generally if you want a wide selection of touch-friendly, full-screen apps you’re probably better off with Android. If you want support for desktop apps including Office, Firefox, or Photoshop, you’re better off with Windows.
But there are some tablets which don’t ask you to choose… because they run both Android and Windows.
When I met with Eric from Geekbuying in February he brought me a a Cube i6 Air 3G dual OS tablet and I’ve been using it off and on for the past few months.
The 9.7 inch, dual OS tablet is available from Geekbuying for about $200.
More than a year ago a number of companies including Asus, Intel, and AMD were starting to line up behind the dual OS concept, but they canceled their plans in response to pressure from Google and Microsoft.
But Chinese tablet makers didn’t get the memo, and companies including Pipo, Chuwi, Teclast, and Cube have all released dual OS tablets. You might not be able to find them at Best Buy, but online retailers including Geekbuying, GearBest, PandaWill, AliExpress, and others will ship these Chinese tablets overseas.
The Cube i6 Air 3G is one of those dual OS tablets, but that’s not the only thing that makes it special. The $200 tablet has the kind of specs that’d make it a good value even if it ran only a single operating system.
It features a 9.7 inch, 2048 x 1536 pixel IPS display, an Intel Atom Z3735F Bay Trail processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of built-in storage, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, support for 3G networks, a 5MP rear camera with auto-focus, and a 2MP fixed-focus front camera.
It has an 8000 mAh battery that seems to be good for around 6 or 7 hours of battery life, depending on how you use the tablet (it doesn’t seem to matter much whether you’re running Android or Windows, but gaming will run down the battery more quickly than web browsing).
On the sides of the tablet you’ll find a microSD card slot, a single micro USB port, and a micro SIM card slot, as well as power and volume buttons.
There’s a speaker on the back which is reasonably loud and clear, but a little tinny (like most tablet speakers).
The IGZO display is sharp and bright and offers wide viewing angles, although the screen can look a bit grainy under close inspection (possibly due to an anti-glare coating which doesn’t really prevent glare all that well).
The tablet feels surprisingly responsive for a device in this price range, whether you’re running Windows or Android.
The Cube i6 Air 3G measures 9.3″ x 6.6″ x 0.3″ and weighs about 1.2 pounds.
All told, the table the tablet is about the same size (although a bit heavier) than an iPad Air but it sells for half the price and it runs both Android and Windows rather than iOS.
So is the tablet more than the sum of its parts?
The Cube i6 Air 3G uses technology from Insyde to shoehorn two operating systems onto a device with just 32GB of internal storage and allow you to switch between one and the other.
Out of the box it features Windows 8.1 and Android 4.4 KitKat. You can switch from Windows to Android by running the InsydeQ2S app. When you’re using Android, you can pull down the Quick Settings panel and tap the “OS Switch” tile to switch to Windows.
In both situations you’ll need to reboot the tablet to switch operating systems, and that can take a minute or two. So you probably won’t find yourself editing a document in Windows one moment and then taking a break by firing up an Android app for a quick game the next. You could do that, but you’ll need to factor in the amount of time it takes to reboot your device into your procrastination routine
Instead, I spent most of my time using one operating system or the other. For a month or two I found myself almost exclusively using Android, because many of my favorite tablet-style apps just aren’t available for Windows.
Finally I decided I needed to test the Windows functionality, so I bought a Logitech K480 Bluetooth keyboard from Amazon. Not only does it let me type without using a virtual keyboard, but it makes the Cube i6 Air 3G feel more like a notebook thanks to the built-in tablet stand which props up the tablet while I’m using it.
I don’t have a Bluetooth mouse, but I was able to plug the USB dongle for my wireless mouse into the micro USB port using an adapter. Just note that since there’s only a single port, you can’t do this and charge the tablet at the same time — so if you plan to use the Cube i6 Air 3G like a notebook you might want to get a Bluetooth keyboard and a Bluetooth mouse.
Theoretically you could just use Windows for to run both tablet apps and desktop apps. Microsoft designed Windows 8 with this use model in mind. The Start Screen offers a finger-friendly way to find and launch apps. Edge gestures let you pull up settings, adjust the display brightness, and perform other actions with just a few flicks. And you can download touch-friendly apps from the Windows Store.
But two and a half years after the launch of Windows 8, the Windows Store still has a relatively limited selection of apps. Some of the best tablet apps available for iPads and Android tablets are missing from the Windows Store.
Microsoft is hoping to change that with the launch of Windows 10 by offering tools that will make it extraordinarily easy for developers to turn iOS, Android, and web apps into Windows apps while re-using much of their existing code. But it’ll still be up to developers to actually take advantage of those tools, so it could be a while before we know whether Microsoft manages to succeed in bridging the app gapp.
On the other hand there’s one area where Windows still excels: desktop apps. Microsoft’s operating systems have dominated the consumer notebook and desktop PC business for decades and there are thousands of apps that run on Windows which are not available for iOS or Android (or Chrome OS, for that matter).
As a blogger, I really only need two apps to get most of my work done: a good web browser and a decent image editor. Technically that could be just one app: there are web-based image editing apps after all, which is why I’m almost as productive when using a Chromebook as I am when using a Windows laptop.
But usually my tools of choice are Google Chrome for researching and writing stories and Irfanview for cropping and resizing pictures. From time to time I might also use Handbrake to shrink videos before uploading them to YouTube or a handful of other apps for viewing documents or other light duty tasks.
In other words, I don’t need a super-powerful computer to get work done… but I generally do need one with a strong internet connection, support for running multiple apps side-by-side, and which can open a dozen or so browser tabs at a time without slowing down (and without constantly refreshing those browser tabs as part of a memory management scheme).
I can do those things when running Windows on the Cube iWork 6 3G with a keyboard and mouse. If I feel like it I can also pick up the tablet and hold it in my hands while reading an article, but mostly I’ve found myself using this 9.7 inch tablet the way I use most Windows tablets I test… as if it were a notebook.
But this isn’t just a Windows tablet. It’s also an Android tablet.
I’ve confirmed that the same Bluetooth keyboard and wireless mouse setup works in Android. I just don’t find that combination very useful when running Android, since I don’t use Android devices for the same type of work.
Yes, you can edit images, surf the web, and compose blog posts using Android. But Android browsers are designed to be touched and to show one page at a time. I’d only use the WordPress app to compose Liliputing articles as a last resort.
I do like to read on Android devices. My workday usually begins when I sit down to breakfast with and read the latest news on my phone. Devices with larger screens are great for reading eBooks, magazines, and comic books — and I spent a lot of time using the Marvel Unlimited app to read digital comics on the Cube i6 Air 3G… sometimes I read for fun, not for work, OK?
Speaking of fun, the tablet has a nice display that looks great when you’re streaming videos. There are Netflix apps available from both the Google Play Store and the Windows Store. One advantage to using Windows on the tablet is that you can also stream videos from Hulu in a web browser without paying for a Hulu Plus subscription. You’ll need to subscribe to use Hulu with Android.
As for games, there are plenty available for both platforms, but for now there are probably more high-quality titles available in the Play Store than the Windows Store.
On the other hand, this device can run desktop Windows software which opens up the possibility of playing thousands of classic Windows titles. Just don’t expect a $200 tablet with an Intel Atom chip to be able to handle recent bleeding edge games.
The option to reboot into a different operating system makes the Cube i6 Air 3G feel kind of like two completely different tablets for the price of one. But since you do have to reboot, it really does feel kind of like two tablets, because if you’re running Android but you want to fire up a Windows app you have to stop everything you’re doing, wait for the tablet to reboot, and login to a different operating system.
It’s an odd solution for folks that may think an Android tablet isn’t good enough for getting work done, or that a Windows model doesn’t support enough tablet apps. But at least it is a solution…. albeit one that involves a few compromises.
Some of the same features that make this tablet special can also make it a bit… quirky.
For example, the Cube iWork Air 3G has 32GB of storage… but the two operating systems on the tablet eat up more of that space than a single operating system would. And the free storage space isn’t shared between the two operating systems.
When you use the system as an Android tablet, you have just about 4GB of free space for apps, media, or other files. The Windows partition is only about 17.5GB and after installing a few applications I had less than 10GB of free space.
There is a microSD card reader which you can use for additional storage. But it’ll probably be slower, and you won’t want to install apps to an SD card unless you plan to leave it inserted at all times.
At a time when inexpensive Windows tablets offer as little as 16GB of storage, I suppose it’s possible to find models with even less free space than the Cube i6 Air 3G. But if you find built-in storage to be more useful than a second operating system, this tablet might not be the best option.
Another blessing/curse feature is the high-resolution display. The 9.7 inch tablet has the same resolution and pixel density as an iPad Air thanks to the 2048 x 1536 pixel display panel.
Android apps look pretty great on that screen, as do Windows Store apps, pictures, videos, and much other content.
But if you want to run desktop Windows apps, you may occasionally run into problems. Windows 8.1 includes an option to “make text and other items larger or smaller” or to choose a scaling level for all items.
By default the scaling is set to 200 percent, which means apps should basically scale up at twice their normal resolution so that everything looks sharper, but text, buttons, toolbars, and other items aren’t too tiny to see (or tap).
In other words, the 2048 x 1536 pixel display has an effective resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels when you’re running desktop apps. If you don’t mind tiny text and want to take advantage of the high-res display, you can adjust the settings to do that.
This works pretty well… most of the time. There are some apps that don’t respect your Windows system settings. For instance, both the GIMP and Irfanview image editing tools ignore the scaling. When I load an 680 x 480 pixel image in Google Chrome, the web browser uses the default Windows scaling settings and the image looks nice and large. Fire up the same image in GIMP or Irfanview, and it looks much smaller, as shown in the picture above.
The edit, save, and other menu options are also super tiny in those apps. Fortunately part of the reason I love Irfanview is because of how easy it is to get things done using a series of keyboard shortcuts — so I don’t have to click those tiny buttons.
GIMP, however is another story, as shown in the picture below:
It’s not really Microsoft’s fault that some developers haven’t updated their apps to scale well for high-resolution displays. But this is one of the reasons Microsoft is pushing its new Universal Windows App platform and encouraging developers to create software designed to run across a range of devices including smartphones, tablets, notebooks, desktops, game consoles, and even holographic computers. Those apps should look good no matter what resolution your display is set at.
One other weird thing I’ve noticed about this dual boot tablet is that switching between operating systems seems to do a number on the system clock.
Almost every time I switch from Windows to Android or vice versa, I notice that the time changes and I need to re-sync the date and time settings.
The Cube i6 Air 3G is a pretty decent tablet whether it’s running Android or Windows.
It never felt sluggish with either operating system, and I ran a series of benchmarks which confirm that it’s at least as fast as you’d expect from a device with an Intel Atom Bay Trail processor. The Dual OS setup doesn’t seem to slow things down at all.
In fact, it scored much better than I would have expected in Windows tests.
For example, it was able to transcode video files more quickly than than any other computer I’ve tested with an Intel Atom Bay Trail processor.
Whether using VirtualDub and Xvid codec or Handbrake and the H.264 codec, the system came closer to the performance of an Acer Aspire Switch 11 with a Core i3 Haswell processor than it did to an Aspire Switch 10 with an Atom Z3745 chip.
The same was true for my Liliputing folder zip test.
Results for the Audio transcoding test were less surprising… but in every test I ran, the Cube i6 Air 3G came out ahead of another computer with an Atom Z3735 chip I reviewed recently: the Intel Compute Stick.
That’s pretty amazing when you consider that the Cube tablet costs just $50 more than the Compute Stick, but it has a high-resolution display, a speaker, dual cameras, support for 3G, and two operating systems. It also has better WiFi performance than the Compute Stick.
I also ran a few Android benchmarks including AnTuTu and C-Bench, and the Cube tablet came out ahead of the Asus MeMo Pad 181C (with an atom Z3745 processor, and the Rikomagic MK902 II TV box (with a Rockchip RK3288 processor), but behind several other recent devices with NVIDIA Tegra K1, Qualcomm Snapdragon 805, and Allwinner A80 chips.
In other words, it’s not the fastest Android tablet money can buy… but it’s reasonably speedy… especially for a dual boot device that costs just $200.
Keep in mind that there’s only 4GB of internal storage space allotted for Android, so you could quickly run out of space if you decide to install a few games. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic alone eats up 2.2GB of disk space.
But 4GB should be plenty of space for a handful of casual games and apps and you can use a removable microSD card if you want to load up the tablet with music, videos, or other files.
For the month or two that I used the Cube i6 Air 3G primarily as an Android tablet, I found it to be a pretty good device for reading digital comic books and occasional web surfing. It’s small and light enough to hold in your hands for a long time and it gets decent battery life for extended reading, viewing, or playing sessions… although there are certainly plenty of other tablets that can last longer than 6 or 7 hours between charges.
Since the Windows tablet ecosystem is less robust at the moment, I found myself rarely booting into Windows until I hooked up a mouse and keyboard. At that point, I was pleasantly surprised at just how zippy the tablet was.
It can be difficult (but not impossible) to interact with Windows desktop apps using your fingers. But with a keyboard and mouse it’s easy to treat the Cube i6 Air 3G like a Windows 2-in-1 notebook with a detachable tablet section that you can pick up from time to time if you really want to.
The small, 4:3 aspect ratio display doesn’t really lend itself to running multiple windows side-by-side… unless you adjust the text and image size settings a little bit to make the machine more squint-worthy. I found myself doing this occasionally and positioning the tablet a bit closer to my eyes when I wanted to keep two browser tabs on screen at the same time: one for researching and one for writing. It’s a nice option to have from time to time, but not one I’d recommend using all the time.
One thing I didn’t test on this tablet is its 3G capabilities, since I don’t have an appropriate SIM card or data plan lying around. But the tablet should support GSM 900/1800 MHz bands and 3G WCMDA 900/2100 MHz bands.
With 6 hours of battery life, limited storage space in either operating system, and an odd screen aspect ratio and resolution for a Windows tablet, the Cube i6 Air 3G probably isn’t the best Android or Windows tablet you can buy.
But for $200 it’d be a decent value as an Android or Windows tablet. The fact that it function as both means that you can get away with buying one device instead of two…. even if you rarely wind up switching from one operating system to the other.
If you can’t decide if you want an Android or a Windows tablet, there’s not much of a downside to picking up a tablet that’s both. But if you do know which you want, you might be better off getting a single-OS tablet.
You’ll probably have more free storage space for the OS of your choice and you won’t have to reset the clock every time you reboot your device. You may even be able to save a few bucks… but just a few. We’re living in an age where Android and Windows are both available to makers of small tablets for the same price: nothing. So it doesn’t cost Cube more to release a dual OS tablet than it does to release one running just a single operating system.
Dual OS tablets might not be the perfect solution to the limited selection of tablet apps for Windows or for the lack of some key work-friendly features in Android. If you’re using Android and then want to use a Windows app (or vice versa), you need to wait for the tablet to reboot. So you might not find yourself switching very often.
At first I worried that this would make Dual OS feel like a useless gimmick. But it doesn’t. Instead it makes a single tablet feel like two different tablets. And that’s OK. Because I’d rather spend $200 on a single tablet that can be used two different ways than $400 on two different tablets that have some duplicate functions.
The Cube i6 Air 3G is available from Geekbuying for under $200. Thanks again to Geekbuying for providing us with this review unit.