Custom Android Hardware; is now the right time?

Economics and Rational of Custom Android Hardware

To measure the economic implications of making a custom Android tablet (or custom Android phone), first look at the company’s history with Android hardware. Does the company already purchase Android devices? If yes, which kind of Android device? For example, tier 1 brand Android devices, no-name brand devices, manufacturer-direct devices, or a custom Android device. If the company is just getting started, they should begin by using a basic retail device before making a custom one.

Starting from Scratch

With many tech projects, both software and hardware, product designers have a hard time knowing exactly how end users will react to the features and interactive designs they create. Trying to design an ‘end product’ from the concept stage is nearly impossible to do perfectly. The ways customers use a product rarely matches expectation. For this reason companies go through multiple rounds of beta testing before releasing a product to the general public. Each round of testing generates feedback that improves the product’s user experience.

Product improvement in the early phases is an ongoing process of quick iterations. The key is to avoid sinking too much money into custom Android development by making small changes on existing hardware. See how customers use the product first and, then decide whether a custom device would add value. Use a non-custom device as long as possible. During that time you’ll learn what custom features to implement. The education is highly valuable in order to develop a meaningful custom Android product.

Already Using Mass Market Tier 1 Brand Tablets or Smartphones

Companies that are already using a tablet or smartphone from a tier 1 brand, often become interested in making a custom Android device after a few years. The main reason companies want to change from the mass market device is because they don’t have control over the supply. Every year the brand starts making a new model and discontinues an old model. The availability of stock is not stable. Also the company’s engineers need to modify their app’s code with each new version of hardware, adding burden and complications.

In this scenario, the company historical distribution data for the tier 1 brand device. Based on that it can predict the future volume for a custom device to determine if there’s enough volume to justify the up front cost of a custom product. It’s likely that the unit cost of a custom Android tablet, including amortized development costs, is lower than the unit cost of a tier 1 brand Android tablet. The custom device comes with higher up front costs though. For a well financed company that has a history using brand name Android tablets, developing a custom Android tablet is a smart business decision that has economic benefit within 1 year.

Using no-name brand

For companies running their custom business application on no-brand mass market devices, is a custom Android product even necessary? Some use cases don’t require any custom hardware. Maybe a bit of firmware customization on a generic device is all that’s necessary. Generic no-name brand devices are usually the cheapest products to source. The buyer needs to be sure that they’re getting products with good components, like new, grade A memory, a high quality battery, and quality assembly. In this scenario, the company can stick to buying ‘off the shelf’ devices, but should at least get a custom firmware made.

Minimum customization options should include restricting downloads, so end users can’t install unrelated apps. Embedding the client’s special apps in the firmware, so they’re always there, can’t be deleted, and will still appear after a factory reset. Custom branding, like a custom launcher or displaying the client logo on startup or on the wall paper of home screen.

Already using an existing custom product.

This is a great scenario to start from since there’s already experience with a custom product. Over time a company will discover aspects of their existing custom device that are either extraneous, missing, or could be optimized. These improvements will get integrated into a new design. Every 5-6 years it becomes necessary to update the hardware of a custom Android tablet because components used during the original development stage become obsolete over time.

When it starts to get difficult to source components of an old design, your product supplier should propose designing an updated version. If it’s not necessary to redo casing, and there aren’t major changes to the hardware, then updating should be fairly low cost and quick. Having a team that is already familiar with the product makes redevelopment easier. Since there’s historical volume of the existing custom product, it’s easy to predict future volume. As long as the volume is 5-10k+ pcs/year, updating the hardware may require a deposit on future volume, but shouldn’t require a high reinvestment.


For companies that have experience using a generic Android device to run their custom software, custom Android hardware not only delivers a better experience to end users, but also costs less than brand name alternatives. Benefits such as control over the devices’ operating system, embedded applications, and component selection are a few examples of where a custom Android device has clear advantages. Using a custom Android device is like wearing custom tailored clothes. They have the best look, fit, and feel, but you should know your style before getting something expensive made.

Cost Savings from Android Tablet Customization

While customizing Android tablets comes with extra costs, in many situations, those costs outweigh the future costs of not doing the customizations.

We were recently approached by an organization that is procuring Android tablets for use in schools. Understandably, they are trying to get the best price for their tablets. Many schools are underfunded, so every dollar counts. They wanted to source the most generic tablets possible to leverage economies of scale cost savings and reduce development time and cost. After getting a better understanding of the use case for these specific tablets, I challenged their initial approach.

Here are important factors to consider about this specific project:

  1. Volume is relatively high. They are planning to procure hundreds of thousands of tablets over the next few years.
  2. The tablets are given to kids, not purchased by parents. This reduces the incentive for the kids to take good care of the tablets, but even with the best intentions, kids generally treat products with less care than an adult.
  3. The schools are located in hot climates.
  4. The procurement organization intends to source the tablets for 3-4 years and for the tablets to last 5 years.

There are more details to consider, but just these give enough reason to argue that the initial costs pale in comparison to the savings generated by these customizations.

Firstly, high volume is a luxury that opens many doors. Manufacturing companies love high volume as that drives down their manufacturing costs and provides reliable income. Moreover, with high volume, the one-time customization costs get amortized over a higher number of units, driving down that customization cost on a per unit basis. At the same time, if the customization makes the product better, then the added value of the customization adds the same value to all the units, while the cost required to achieve that value goes down with each repeat order.

Since the tablets are used by kids, especially kids who may not have much experience with electronics, it’s likely that the tablets will get beaten up over time. Even the most conscious people sometimes drop their own tablets or phones. This is unavoidable. Banging or dropping tablets result in broken screens, touch panels, cracked cases, or other damages that render the product unusable. Unusable devices must be replaced, repaired, or disposed of. All three of these outcomes come with a high cost. If the tablets are designed for this use case, they will survive more abuse. Designing bumpers into the case helps absorb impact on a fall. Applying a hard protective film on the touch panel increases resistance from cracking or scratching. (This isn’t a customization, just an add-on.) After thousands of recharges, USB ports sometimes get loose or break off. Fortifying the USB port by using a USB port component that has legs which go into the PCB, rather than just soldering pads that sit on the PCB, and designing the case to give support to the USB port serve to greatly reduce this risk.

Customizing Android tablets for education: Balance initial costs with long-term savings. Learn how strategic customization optimizes your bottom line.

Heat damages electronics. Since the schools are in hot environments, this is particularly relevant. Adding a heat sink on top of hot components, specifically the Android CPU, and designing the board in a way that hot components are spaced out, reduces heat. Avoiding designs that restrict the flow of air, such as a full silicone case around the tablet, also help to optimize heat dissipation. The protective benefit of this protective case design gets negated with excess heat that it generates. A custom tablet case with holes next to the hottest components promotes air flow. Adding a thin filter material beneath the holes serves to restrict entry of dust particles. If water penetration isn’t a concern, holes are a viable solution.

Designing a consumer product for industrial-grade performance requires changes. If product cost weighs heavily on the purchase decision, the higher upfront costs must be compared against the future cost savings. Using second-hand or lesser-known brands of important components is a common way Android tablet and smartphone manufacturers add to their profitability. Their added profitability comes at the expense of the end customer. A product with a 3-year lifespan is 25% more expensive than the same product with a 4-year lifespan.

Many of the examples of ‘customization’ mentioned above are more custom configurations than physical changes to the generic ‘off-the-shelf’ product. The others, which are real customizations, are fairly straightforward. Making a custom case definitely has a cost, but when that cost gets reduced to 1% of product cost, it’s a pretty simple decision for a high-volume product intended for long-term use. Designing a custom PCB for effective heat dissipation is relatively easy compared to having to replace thousands of units.

Hopefully, I did my job in explaining this to the customer so they consider all the factors that go into product cost, over the lifetime of the product.