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Android tablet gives rare glimpse at North Korean tech

Thanks to a tourist, a detailed look at one of North Korea's latest tablet computers is possible

By , IDG News Service
July 30, 2013 05:05 PM ET

IDG News Service - An Android tablet brought back from North Korea by a tourist has provided a glimpse at some of the restrictions placed on IT users in the famously secretive country.

The Samjiyon is the third tablet to have gone on sale in North Korea. It was unveiled at a trade show in the capital, Pyongyang, last September and received some coverage on state television, but few westerners have had a chance to see it up close.

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The tablet was likely manufactured outside of North Korea and the hardware itself is fairly unremarkable, but the software and the usage restrictions placed on the device provide some insights about life in the country.

The device has a 7-inch screen with 1,024 by 768 pixel resolution and runs Android 4.0.4, known as Ice Cream Sandwich. Under the hood is a 1.2GHz processor, 8GB or 16GB of internal storage, depending on the model, and a 2-megapixel camera.

The tourist, who provided images and a detailed description of the device to IDG News Service, said he was surprised to find the tablet on sale at a gift shop in a restaurant. The tourist asked that only his first name, Michael, be used, because he wants to avoid any publicity that might complicate return trips to the country.

"We had just finished lunch at a hot-pot restaurant in Pyongyang and had time to kill while some of us smoked," Michael said. He saw the tablet at the gift shop and asked to take a photo.

 
Samjiyon tablet (3)
Martyn Williams
Angry Birds on North Korea's Samjiyon tablet
 

"I asked if it was for sale, as more of a joke than anything, and I was surprised to have the woman behind the counter tell me it was for sale for just US$200," he said.

That's a bit cheaper than Google's latest Nexus 7 tablet but still way out of reach for most North Koreans, who earn on average less than $100 per month. Tablets in the country are a luxury device.

The Samjiyon is "surprisingly impressive" to use, said Michael, who uses several Android tablets in his job.

"In terms of responsiveness and speed, it can almost compete against the leading tablets," he said. "Tapping and launching apps feels fairly fluid, initializing the camera is as fast as the world's leading tablets, and there is no noticeable lag when playing games I'm familiar with, like 'Angry Birds.' "

The tablet was almost certainly manufactured outside of North Korea by an Asian contract manufacturer. North Korea's high-tech industry, to the extent it has one, is focused on software, and the country isn't thought to have any computer hardware manufacturing capability.

The version of Android on the device doesn't include Google services such as YouTube and Gmail, but the other familiar Android icons are there, including the browser, image gallery, calculator and camera. That's probably because the Google services would require a license, and in any case the Internet is scarcely available in the country. Instead, there's a nationwide intranet that has many of the same services, such as email and video streaming, but that's tightly controlled and doesn't extend outside the country's borders.

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