As I was reading up on articles about that “terrible” $10 TracFone, I started to get interested, and then curious. A fairly common reaction to the Ars Technica review was that the reviewer was being a little unfair in his assessment, comparing a $10 phone to much more expensive devices. The phone wasn’t just “better than nothing,” it was actually a lot better than nothing.
This, in turn, made me wonder how well it might work as a super-cheap way of reading e-books. The Ars Technica review focused on how it fared as a general-purpose phone—but it said almost nothing about using it as an e-reader. It touched on web browsing enough to point out the color dithering inherent in viewing web pages, but didn’t look at how good it looked for reading plain black-on-white text. And given that at least 54% of people who read e-books read them on a smartphone part of the time, and 14% use a smartphone primarily, it seems like a good thing to know. A $50 Fire tablet is nice and all, but a $10 Android phone would be a lot easier to carry in a pocket—and even less of a financial loss if accidents happen.
So, I went out and grabbed one of the LG Sunrise phones for myself, and spent a couple of hours playing with it. And I am happy to report that it is a reasonably useful e-reader—and the fact that it only costs ten bucks makes it an excellent e-reader.
First of all, it should be noted that the phone isn’t normally $10; this is a sale by Wal-Mart, and will end sooner or later. The normal list price of the phones is in the $30 range. Even that isn’t bad, but it’s not as big a bargain as $10. But even after this phone stops being $10, it sooner or later will be again, or there will be other sales on it or some other phone like it that bring them into the same range. Best Buy had a Moto E for $10 for Black Friday, a considerably better phone, though it was locked to Verizon.
And at $10, well, why not? After all, the phone includes an AC-to-USB travel charger, a USB cable, and a 4 GB SD card, and those are worth $10 all by themselves.
So here are some of the good things about the phone.
First of all, unlike some other pay-as-you-go phones I’ve used in the past, this one works as an Android device right out of the box. You don’t have to activate it with TracFone, or spend more money buying monthly minutes; you can simply boot it up and use it as a WiFi-only mini-tablet and media player. Remember how a few years ago I complained that there was no Android iPod Touch equivalent available? Well, now there is—and it just costs ten bucks.
Slap a 32 GB SD card in there and load it up with MP3s, and you’re set for hours and hours. You won’t be able to make phone calls (except for 911 emergency calls, which are required by law to be available) or use cellular Internet, but then, you couldn’t do that from an iPod Touch, either, but could still do plenty of Internet things from it. Besides, the phone only has 3G Internet access, and TracFone’s data rates aren’t all that great anyway. You’d get a lot faster and cheaper Internet from a 4G hotspot like a Karma Go. (You wouldn’t be able to make phone calls through it from this phone, but who actually makes phone calls anymore? And other voice-over-IP apps, like Skype or Hangouts, would still work.)
But let’s move on to the main event: e-books. The phone has a 3.8” 320×480 display—the exact same resolution as a late-model Palm PDA or an early-generation non-Retina iPhone or iPod Touch, in a slightly larger form factor. It’s not the best screen in the world, but it’s amply legible. As an Android phone, it comes with Google Play Books as a standard pack-in, plus it has the genuine Google Play Store for downloading other apps. For my tests, I stuck with Play Books and the Amazon Kindle app, since that’s what so many people read e-books from anyway. (The Kindle app even came with the new Bookerly font included.)
Here are a couple of screencaps of Google Play Books using the default font. They really don’t look too bad at the size of the phone, plus you can bump the font size at the expense of losing a bit of the text. Yes, you don’t see a whole lot on the screen at once, but it’s still legible enough—and some have found that smaller screens are better for e-reading because they make it easier to focus on the bit of text you’re reading without losing your place.
I also took some comparison shots of this phone next to my first-generation Moto X, which has a bigger screen and higher resolution. Most of them didn’t come out very well, but at right is a shot of the Kindle app on both devices, using the Bookerly font. The Moto X comes off noticeably better as far as readability goes, but the Sunrise isn’t too bad. And a ten buck not-too-bad reader is really an excellent value.
So there you have it: the ultimate inexpensive e-reader. Yes, there are compromises in terms of resolution, but only compared to modern phones. I read happily for many years on my color Clié and my first-generation iPod Touch, and this screen is no worse than those—and it’s more than twice as good as the 160×160 LCD screens from the original Palm series on which I first fell in love with e-books. And while the Sunrise may seem like a toy with mediocre build quality, it’s a toy that has access to the genuine Google Play Store and most of the apps therein right out of the box—which is more than you can say for the $50 Fire without a little after-the-fact modification.
It may not have the fastest processor in the world, or very much memory at all (you’re going to be lucky to be able to install a few useful e-reading, chat, and social media apps; forget about games like Hearthstone), but how much of those do you really need for reading e-books? Granted, it would be nice to have more room to store all the e-books you download, but you can remedy that at least partly with a bigger SD card. Most e-books are only a few megabytes at most, and the Kindle e-ink readers themselves only have a few gigs of storage anyway.
Its version of Android is still 4.4 Kit Kat, but many of the improvements to Android since then have been incremental, and many of them are included in Google Play Services anyway. The biggest drawback is that this older version of Android does have a number of unpatched security vulnerabilities—but generally the folks who engage in the sorts of risky behaviors most likely to expose them to these exploits are going to be using a lot more expensive and more powerful phones.
Bearing in mind Project Gutenberg and all the other great free e-book sources out there, just ten dollars for this phone will be the passport into hours or days of happy distraction for someone who previously had no other way to read e-books. I’m not so sure it would be much good for bridging other areas of the digital divide—the screen is awfully small to use for filling out much in the way of online paperwork, for example—but it definitely has the e-books and reading area covered.
Aside from e-reading, you could do a lot of useful stuff with a ten buck smartphone, even if you already have a more expensive phone you use yourself. You have a toddler who likes to push phone buttons? Give him a non-activated Sunrise to play with, and you don’t have to worry that he might break your expensive gadget or accidentally spend all your minutes on a long-distance call to Timbuktu. Or get one as a “burner” phone for your grade school or tween kid to use until they’ve proven they can be trusted not to break it. (And you can control how much they talk on it by rationing out airtime cards.)
You could keep a couple on hand for houseguests to use to check their e-mail via your WiFi network if they don’t have a tablet or notebook of their own. If you use a Roku, install the Roku remote on it so you have a stand-alone touch-sensitive remote you can use while using your own phone for something else. Use it in electronics projects. Throw one and a charged-up USB battery pack into your car’s glove compartment or toolbox as a way to make a 911 call if something’s happened to your own phone.
What couldn’t you do with a ten buck smartphone? It doesn’t have to be very good—it’s cheap enough that it really doesn’t matter.