There are tablets aplenty running Android; every month I see some brand or the other being offered at a discount at my local Aldi store.

But no tablet has taken on the task of appealing to the free software and open source crowd as much as the Zatab, released recently by ZaReason, a small company based in Berkeley, California. It is a typical hacker set-up, harking back to the days when software and hardware were produced by people who loved what they were doing.

ZaReason has been in business for five years, selling Linux boxes, both desktops and servers. Debian, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Mint and Fedora are the distributions supported.

For the Zatab, ZaReason used a modified version of Cyanogenmod 9, the free fork of Android. It is based on Android 4.0.

There is a lot to like about the Zatab - the tablet comes with source, gives the user root access and there is no problem with data transfer as there are multiple ways of doing it. There are two micro-USB ports, a micro-HDMI port and a microSD card slot which allows for a 32GB card to be added. The tablet comes with a card and also an USB cable.

The 9.7" IPS display is excellent and permits viewing from any angle. Battery life is remarkable; you can watch movies for as long as 14 hours.

But the processor is, sad to say, not the best. Asked about the choice, Cathy Malmrose, the chief executive officer, told iTWire: "The Allwinner A10 SoC, which includes the Mali-400 GPU, is the best balance of low-cost, long battery life, decent performance, and is relatively open-source friendly.

"While most of the drivers in the ZaTab are fully open source, there are still a few binary drivers, particularly the 3D driver. There are simply no options for an open source 3D driver in the embedded space. There is the Lima driver (which supports the Mali-400) which is the furthest along towards a reverse-engineered open source 3D driver. Allwinner has also provided assistance in developing open source drivers for many drivers, so Allwinner's A10 was a clear best choice at this time."

But she added that while performance was not the best at the moment, there was new firmware in development which would greatly enhance the responsiveness.

Malmrose also said that Allwinner was developing a new processor that was likely to be used in the next revision.

As Android does not include a package manager, changes can only be made as one big firmware download. Malmrose said: "Android doesn't include a package manager like Linux distros do. The only updates to the core system require a large firmware install.

"Here's where we must admit that we don't have the manpower of a company like Samsung or Google to do frequent firmware releases. But work is progressing on an updated 4.0 firmware, after which we'll switch our efforts into a Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) firmware update."

The Zatab sells for $US349. The company will shortly have a store in Wellington, New Zealand, and has plans to set up shop in a few other countries.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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