Why Sprint's New $99 ZTE Optik Tablet is More Expensive Than the iPad

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For $99 bucks, Sprint's latest Honeycomb tablet, the ZTE Optik, brings a lot to the table. Hitting the carrier's stores on Sunday, February 5, the 7-inch slate runs Android Honeycomb and includes powerful components inside, but that cost of entry requires a two-year contract with Sprint that makes the Optik more expensive than any Wi-Fi only tablet you can buy.

Inside, the Optik sports a 1.2-GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor, 7-inch 1280x-800-pixel WXGA screen, 16GB of storage, 1GB of RAM, a 5-megapixel back-facing camera, and 2-MP front-facing lens.

In the connections department, the Optik feels like a device from 2010 as it offers 802.11b/g, but not 802.11n Wi-Fi and access to Sprint's 3G network, with no 4G support. If you want a contract-free, Wi-Fi-only Optik, you'll pay $349. The Sprint 3G version is a wallet-friendly $99.

A hundred bucks seems affordable, but at that price, you'd also need to spring for a monthly 3G data plan. Sprint's cheapest plan is capped at 1GB for $20 a month with a max cap of 12GB for $80 a month. In between are monthly options for 3GB at $35 and 6GB for $50. That means at minimum, Optik buyers will pay $580 over two years, including the tablet. The figure climbs to nosebleed heights with the 3GB a month option: $940 over two years. And that's without faster 4G speeds.

By comparison, a competing subsidized tablet, the 7-inch Springboard for T-Mobile, costs $379 with a two-year contract. The cheapest data plan available to T-Mobile tablet owners is 2GB of data a month for$20, but over two years the total rises to $860, including the cost of the Springboard. A point of difference: The Springboard supports both T-Mobile's 3G and 4G data networks. 

Another alternative for Optik buyers is to connect the tablet to a Sprint smartphone's 3G/4G hotspot feature. Sprint ratcheted up prices for its hotspot service last fall, so it now costs $30 a month for 5GB, or an extra $720 on your smartphone bill. At least users will be able to take advantage of 4G speeds.

For those forgoing monthly contracts and hotspot plans, the ZTE Optik's Wi-Fi-only flavor is $349. That's about 80 bucks cheaper than another Wi-Fi only tablet, the 7-inch Toshiba Thrive, but way more expensive than the $199 Kindle Fire or $249 Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet.

At that price (and with its solid array of specs), the ZTE Optik looks to be a solid new Android tablet. But, if you're thinking of signing on, keep in mind that the costs over time will be much bigger than, say, buying a $499 iPad.