Update2: Google themselves have released a new answer in the Nexus 7, a quad-core tablet built by Asus. At $200 and running the latest Android OS (4.1 Jellybean), there is really no other budget tablet worth buying.
Update: It looks like Samsung has answered this question. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 is a $250 7″ tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich. It will be out soon and looks to be a good deal for the price. Based on the reviews so far, I think it is a great cheap alternative to the iPad.
The new Apple iPad is out! [If you are reading this in the distant future - like next year - I mean the iPad after the iPad2] This is exciting for tablet bargain hunters. The current king of tablets, the iPad2, will now see a price drop. However, there are many less expensive options in the world of tablets. How do they stack up to this cheaper iPad2 ($420cdn new or $350-400 used/refurbished)? And how does living in Canada affect this selection?
What makes the iPad2 still great?
Apps. There are so many more apps for this device it makes it difficult to consider the competition at all (for now). When your device is just a screen and the app essential becomes what the device is, this is important. There is just so much to do on this device and so many high quality games. All the current apps work great and everything will work on this device for years to come.
Apple iPad2 – New budget king?
Hardware. There is nothing out there that is significantly better, unless you couldn’t possibly live without an sd card reader or usb port built-in (but trust me, you can). The screen is not the super HD screen of the new iPad, but it’s still as good as anything else on the market at this price point. One knock to the hardware is that it is a 10” tablet, so, if you’re looking for a smaller 7” tablet, it might not be for you.
The BlackBerry Playbook
RIM BlackBerry Playbook – All bark but no apps
Let’s start with one the home team. The 7” PlayBook from RIM has been out for almost a year now and has just received a big update with its 2.0 OS software. It can be found as cheap as dirt for $199 new. It has a great screen and the build quality is high. The operating system has a slick interface and multitasks really well. The apps it has (like the new email app and the browser) are as good as anything I have seen.
Unfortunately, there is not much else in apps. There are some nice productivity and ereader apps, but games are practically non-existent. And it’s weird to have to pay $5 for Angry Birds when I can get it for free everywhere else. So, if you want to do browsing with video (flash works great on this device) then this is an option. But who is that market? The porn-on-the-go types?
Cheap Android Tablets
When it comes to hardware and build quality, you won’t find anything compelling in this market. The really cheap sub $200 tablets are all awful. These devices are built to fill in price points in the market; nothing more.
On the software side, you will notice me mostly ignoring any tablets with versions of Android less than 3.0. Tablets running Android 2.2 (codename Froyo) and 2.3 (Gingerbread) are hardly worth your time. These are versions of Android designed for phones and, because of this, they don’t do a good job of simply being a tablet. These monstrosities are almost all underpowered, slow, and buggy. You should save yourself the frustration and avoid them.
I want to point out this device specifically. It is another tablet designed in Canada at a low price point. However, this machine is running a forked version of Android 2.3. This means it is not supported by Google and will not feature the Android Play Market or Google apps like Gmail or Maps. This device is slow and buggy with a horrible screen. So, it’s cheap for a reason. Even on their own materials, Kobo calls this thing a colour ereader and not a tablet. If you want a tablet, don’t get this.
Mid-ranged Android tablets
Most of the mid-ranged Android tablets have at least Google’s Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system. Honeycomb was designed with tablets in mind, so the interface works fairly well. Unfortunately, it is not quite as good as Google’s latest version of Android, 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich or ICS). It would seem that almost all the tablets released with Honeycomb are going to get an ICS update sometime soon.
The name Acer usually conjures up images of cheap-crappy computers for a large portion of the population (whether Acer deserves that distinction will not be discussed here). However, their tablets are actually not bad. They are well built and include Gorilla Glass fronts and aluminum backs. The Iconia line starts with the 7” A100 that can be found for $280cdn making it a model interesting to this discussion.
Acer Iconia A100 – Good, but could be cheaper
At this price, if you prefer a 7” screen and can deal with only having 8GB of space, this might be the tablet for you. It does not have Android 4.0 yet, but it will come very soon as the Acer Iconia A200 (a 10” tablet priced at $330) already has Ice Cream Sandwich. I still think it is pricey at $280… a price closer to $200 seems more suiting. I’m sure it will get closer to that in the coming months.
While Archos might not be a name many people will know, the most gadget-addicted of us have been seeing their cheap wares for years. They always try to give the latest tech at a reasonable price. Their current line of Android tablets are pretty nice spec-wise, but are still behind in build quality compared to the iPad and premium Android tablets. So, you might want to take a look at the 9 series (which has ICS rolling out to devices now), but the lower build quality keeps me away.
Lenovo recently entered the tablet market with two interesting low cost IdeaPad tablets, the A1 and the K1. The A1 is another slow Android 2.3 tablet and is not even worth its current lowly $200 price tag. Yes, it supports the Android Play Market, but you will find a lot of apps probably won’t work the best. Its screen is also pretty bad. It might become a good hacking tablet if Lenovo or the Android community get Ice Cream Sandwich on it.
Lenovo IdeaPad K1 – Almost hits the sweet spot
However, the K1 is a very interesting option at $300. It is a decent 10” Android Honeycomb tablet with good specs including 32GB of storage. However, we are still not sure when this tablet will get Ice Cream Sandwich (Lenovo has stated it is coming in the first 6 months of this year). I think it is a good buy for $300 if you don’t mind not having ICS right away. If it were to have ICS, it would hit a sweet spot at this price.
Expensive Android Tablets
I’m going to glaze over a hell of a lot here… I’m bundling all Android tablets that are over $350 into the “expensive” category. Why? Because once you get to that price point, the device is directly competing with the iPad2. None of the Android tablets at this price strike me as being significantly better than the iPad2.
Sure, there are a lot of terrific premium Android tablets. The Asus Transformer and Transformer Prime, Toshiba Thrive, Galaxy Tab, Moto Xoom, etc, etc; they are powerful and work well. I’m sure they will all find a home with the Android lovers out there. But this article is about comparing the cheaper iPad2 to other cheap tablets and most people would rather have an iPad2 over any of them.
Special rant: While I do like a lot of these premium Android tablets, one that I particularly hate is the Sony Tablet S. I don’t know what all the reviewers where smoking when they picked this up, because it is generally well reviewed. Don’t listen to them. It’s a cheap piece of plastic crap.
Hacked Android Tablets
Trying to outsmart me, huh? “What about hackable tablets?” you might be saying. “They are cheap and can run all the latest stuff.” Well, there were a lot of people that bought the HP TouchPad with WebOS intending to extend its life and usefulness by installing Android on it. While the porting of ICS to the device has been going well… there are still a lot of bugs in it.
I’ll give you the same warning with the TouchPad that I would give anyone buying a cheap Android tablet with the intentions of hacking… be prepared to be frustrated. I own a very hackable Android tablet (Viewsonic gTablet) and while I have learned a lot about Android from it, it has been far from a cakewalk. I have spent some long hours getting stuff working on this machine. There is work to it and, if you’re not the type to enjoy messing around with hardware and voiding warranties, this should be avoided.
Not an Option – Kindle Fire
Amazon Kindle Fire (Not Available in Canada)
I’m sorry if you are just finding this out here, but the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s awesome little 7” tablet, is not available in Canada. This is due to regional restrictions. Sure, you could buy one and bring it to Canada, but none of the Amazon services would work (apps, video, music, etc), defeating the whole point of buying the device. This would be my answer to almost everyone that asks me, “Which cheap tablet should I buy?” were it available here. It not being available in Canada yet is the only reason this article exists.
So, let’s talk only about price points. As a bargain-hunter today, I would avoid any Android tablet that is over $300 unless I was dead set on only using the Android ecosystem. Once you get to that price, just save up a little more for an iPad2. It is worth it.
The 7” Acer A100 and the 10” Lenovo K1 32GB are fair options at their respected sizes. The Playbook would be great if it had some apps, but I don’t see many developers really supporting this platform. The Android tablets are a little behind the iPad when it comes to apps, but the big name apps are there and it is getting better all the time. Like Android did with phones; it is catching up in tablets.
If you are willing to wait, some new 7” Android tablets running ICS will be available at $250 or less soon like the Asus EeePad MeMo. This looks like a great buy with these specs and price.
Asus Eee Pad Memo 370T – Future awesome budget tablet?
Having said all that, everyone is different. I would be happy to help anyone pick out the tablet that will suit them best. There are lots of deal-breaker features on these tablets that some people will require (sd card slots, hdmi ports, etc). Sure, the iPad2 is not for everyone, but at its current price in this market, it’s going to be most people’s best option.