“After a few days of intensive use I can say that this is one of the few cases in my career as a consumer when I got more for my money than I had expected.” Rüdiger Frank, a professor at the University of Vienna and frequent visitor to North Korea, bought a Samjiyon SA-70, the only tablet made in North Korea, at a shop in Pyongyang last month, for €180 (about $240). He has now posted a lengthy review of the device, named after the location of a Korean-Japanese battle in 1939. And he has some remarkably nice things to say about it.
When we learned just over a year ago that North Korea had developed a tablet that runs on Google’s popular Android operating system, we didn’t take the device too seriously. (For one, you can’t get online with it.) But Frank found 488 pre-installed applications like Angry Birds, a Siri-esque speech-recognition program, and a library that includes foreign books like Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Gone with the Wind, and Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet.
The tablet also included a Microsoft Office package, with Word, Excel and PowerPoint. According to Frank, the weakest feature of the device—which came with with 4 GB of memory and a 1-GHz processor—was that its seven-inch screen has a resolution of only 800 by 480 pixels. Google’s Nexus 7, the same size, has 1920 by 1200 pixels.
Frank’s account matches that of a tourist to Pyongyang who bought another version of the Samjiyon for about $200 earlier this year. The tourist, who gave his name only as Michael, said using the device to play games, take photos, or open different apps was a fairly fluid experience. “In terms of responsiveness and speed, it can almost compete against the leading tablets,” he told IDG News in July.
The tablet shouldn’t be taken as a sign that life has gotten dramatically better for millions of poor North Koreans. Only a small minority can afford it, mostly elite officials and others profiting from an emerging underground economy that’s allowing them to buy mobile phones or refrigerators.
The Samjiyon, however, is a window into the country’s development and political priorities. Frank recommends studying things like the pre-installed dictionaries and books, many of them about Kim Il Sung, for clues about the socialist country’s evolving ideology. An “IT dictionary” could demonstrate the country’s focus in terms of technology—or how far behind it is. The dictionary includes an entry for “Anna Kournikova”—a computer virus, not the tennis player, from 12 years ago. And it includes mentions of Apple and Yahoo, but not Google.