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Comparing Android Operating Systems and App Selection

Almost every budget tablet runs some version of Google's Android operating system. The most popular versions are Android 4.0 and the newer and slightly faster Android 4.2.

The 2013 Google Nexus 7 is the only cheap Android tablet among our picks that uses the latest version of the operating system -- Android 4.3. The Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 and Coby Kyros 9742 both use Android 4.0. The Acer Iconia A110 uses the 'tweener Android 4.1.

Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble use modified versions of the Android 4.0 on their cheap Android tablets. These customized operating systems tightly integrate the Amazon Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD, and Nook HD with their respective online content libraries, although Barnes & Noble lately opened up the Nook HD to Google Play, Google's online library of Android content.

The operating system provides the structure -- i.e., the interface -- for interacting with a tablet. If you have an Android-based smartphone, you'll find that the interfaces on many cheap Android tablets are similar. (The same is true for iPhone fans who use the iPad 2.) Good tablet interfaces are intuitive. You don't want to muddle through a bunch of menus or flip through several screens to find your favorite tablet tools and apps. The interface should be quick and responsive, as well.

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Reviewers generally agree that today's Android tablets have well-designed interfaces that are easy enough to master. For example, a reviewer from CNET calls the design of the Nook HD interface clean and intuitive. The interfaces on both the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD provide no-hassle access to Amazon's services, and reviews say it's relatively easy to work through. An expert at CNET terms the Kindle Fire interface sleek and streamlined although occasionally sluggish.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 interface earns a pass from a Laptop Magazine expert, who likes it well enough but says the Amazon tablet interface is more straightforward. The interface on Coby's Kyros MID9742 tends to lag, a PC Mag expert says, and apps sometimes stop responding. Reviewers had no complaints about the interface on the Acer Iconia A110.

Tablet Apps and Multimedia.

Apps may very well be the soul of a tablet. Fortunately Google, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble all offer a good selection of popular apps for their cheap Android tablets. Barnes & Noble's library is the smallest in terms of apps, games, and video, but now the Nook HD can also access apps and content from Google Play. Nook users are not wanting for reading material, either. Amazon maintains a huge multimedia library just waiting for Kindle Fire and Fire HD users.

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Other Android tablets use either Google Play or another means of downloading apps and content. Google Play is preferable because this is Google's official online source of Android content. The Acer Iconia A110, the Nexus 7, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 all access Android content using Google Play. The Coby Kyros MID9742 uses GetJar instead. GetJar offers a lot of free Android apps, but they're mostly designed for mobile phones rather than tablets, so it's a curious source to include on a tablet. A PC Mag expert points out that users can ignore GetJar by installing Amazon's app store to obtain apps.

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