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Cheap Tablets Buying Guide

Our top pick is the Google Nexus 7 (starting at $199 for the original 2012 model, $229 for the new 2013 version), a tablet made for Google by Asus that consistently wins raves for its combination of price, performance, and features. The Barnes & Noble Nook HD (starting at $129) is an affordable tablet with a gorgeous screen, snappy performance, and a microSD card slot for expanded memory.

The latest version of the Amazon Kindle Fire ($174 without ads; $159 with ads) is a step behind the top two cheap tablets in terms of features, speed, and battery life but costs less than either. (The Kindle Fire HD has more to offer but carries a price tag just north of $200 unless you're willing to accept ads on the display.) The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 (starting at $199) is a solid tablet by all accounts, although its lower resolution display doesn't meet the standard set by our top two picks. Apple has released its own smaller tablet, the iPad Mini, with Retina display, but that model sells for $329 and up -- still outside Cheapism's comfort zone.

We also identified two cheap tablets that fail to make the grade: The Coby Kyros MID9742 (starting at $160) has a large 9.7-inch screen but is marred by performance problems and the display's 4:3 aspect ratio. The Acer Iconia A110 (starting at $200) is dragged down by mediocre reviews and a low resolution screen that just doesn't look very good.

Cheap tablets aren't known for having lots of frills -- a welcome strategy for frugal shoppers because it helps to keep prices low. Things are starting to change, however, and new tablets sport more features than their predecessors. There still aren't many to sort through, but some are worth noting: the tablet's operating system, amount of storage, and ports and connectivity, for example. The best cheap tablets also have fast processors, access to lots of apps and multimedia content, good battery life, and a sharp and responsive touchscreen.

There are limited options when it comes to operating systems. Inexpensive tablets run some version of Google's Android operating system, typically either Android 4.0 (whimsically nicknamed "Ice Cream Sandwich") or Android 4.2 (a.k.a. "Jelly Bean"). The Kindle Fire and Nook HD both use modified versions of Android that are designed to work with the online content libraries maintained by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, respectively. A hefty amount of memory is useful for storing space-hogging media files, particularly because the available space on a tablet's hard drive is sometimes less than the total storage listed in the specs. Absent a microSD card slot, cheap tablets fare only modestly well on this measure.

Note that cheap tablets rarely come with multiple ports or connectivity options. There may be a USB port in addition to HDMI and headphone ports, but don't expect much more than that. Any low-cost tablet worth buying should support Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth counts as a bonus. Some budget tablets also support 3G or 4G connections, but they tend to be more expensive and you have to pay your cell phone provider for 3G or 4G service.

In terms of processing power, the faster the CPU, the faster the apps will open and the smoother a tablet will run. The battery on the best cheap tablets should last for about eight hours when playing video and up to 10 hours when reading books. As with any electronics, though, the battery life depends in large part on how you use the device. Many tablets these days have high-definition screens for viewing video and photos, and the best also offer high-resolution displays. The physical dimensions of those displays vary in size and may be as small as 7 inches and as large as 10 inches.

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Amazon ushered in the era of the cheap tablet with its first Kindle Fire. That device was a big hit and inspired a lot of competition. Today, consumers get their money's worth with the best cheap tablets: screens that are easy on the eyes, speedy performance, user-friendly handling, and plenty of available content.

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