Best Cheap Tablets
- Published on
- By Michael Sweet
The original Apple iPad set a high bar for performance but also price. These days, consumers don't have to search hard to find good cheap tablets bearing price tags of $200 or less. Competitors such as Amazon, Samsung, Acer, Barnes & Noble, and Google have responded with smaller tablets that have fewer features and cost about half as much but are still functional and fun to use for web surfing and multimedia.
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.
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.
Android Tablet Reviews: Processor and Screen
Android tablet reviews indicate that two elements in particular separate a good tablet from a mediocre one: the processing speed and the screen. Reviews note that the CPU does more to affect performance than any other single component. Fast processing speed allows apps to open quickly and run smoothly and to zoom in on a photo or swipe to a new page with little, if any, lag. A high-quality tablet screen is essential for good-looking images and text and for interacting with the device. Most tablets today have high-definition screens, so in general videos and photos appear crisp and clear.
In Android tablet reviews, experts say the budget devices on our list deliver sufficient to very good speed. Google upgraded the Nexus 7 (starting at $229) to a nimbler 1.5 GHz chipset for 2013, and the original 1.2 GHz quad-core processor was already fast, according to reviews. An expert from Engadget described the 2012 Nexus 7 (starting at $199) as quick and snappy, and a reviewer from PC World reported that it "excelled" in performance tests. The Amazon Kindle Fire ($174 without ads; $159 with ads) also contains a 1.2 GHz CPU, but of the dual-core variety. Reviews say the Kindle Fire tends to lag when opening apps and an expert Android tablet review at PC Mag concludes that its performance is not quite on par with the newest crop of budget tablets -- a point that's also made about the Kindle Fire HD (starting at $214 without ads; $199 with ads).
The Barnes & Noble Nook HD (starting at $129) runs on a 1.3 GHz dual-core processor and a review at CNET asserts that its processing muscle shines while playing games. A 1 GHz dual-core CPU graces the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 (starting at $199), resulting in performance that Laptop Magazine asserts is slower than competing models. Still, reviews contend the Galaxy Tab 2's performance is decent even though the CPU is hardly a speed demon.
Somewhat mixed assessments of tablet speed attach to the Acer Iconia A110 (starting at $200) and Coby Kyros MID9742 (starting at $160). The quad-core 1.2 GHz CPU guts of the Iconia A110 should be pretty quick, and reviews generally say its performance shows no lags, but in testing Computer Shopper found it a tad slow compared to others in its class. Inside the Kyros MID9742 is a 1 GHz single-core CPU that isn't always up to the task. Posts at Amazon say this model has a tendency to lag and applications sometimes crash. Similarly disappointing results were recorded by an expert Android tablet reviewer at PC Mag.
Tablet Screens.A high-quality tablet screen is essential for the best user experience, be it movie watching, photo viewing, online surfing, or text reading. Generally, the higher the tablet screen resolution, the better the display will look.
Among the tablets we researched, the new Nexus 7 boasts by far the highest resolution, at 1920x1200 -- good enough for 1080p HD video. At Ars Technica, closeup images show how sharply the tablet renders text relative to a certain pricey competitor, as well as its 1280x800 predecessor. Reviewers also pay tribute to the 1440x900 display on the Nook HD. An expert from Slashgear says video looks "awesome" on this tablet screen and goes on to commend the all-around vibrant and crisp display and wider-than-average viewing angles. A review by CNET declares that the Nook HD delivers excellent clarity for both text and HD movies.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, Kindle Fire, and Acer Iconia A110 all feature a resolution of 1024x600. An Android tablet review at Laptop Magazine says the screen on the Galaxy Tab shows nice contrast in video but displays some fuzziness around text. A CNET review concludes that the Kindle Fire's display is OK but bested by both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD (no surprise, there). At PC Mag, an expert pans the Acer Iconia A110 tablet screen for its muted colors and poor viewing angles. The display also fails to impress a reviewer at Computer Shopper who notes that it lacks the clarity and detail of competing, higher resolution tablet screens.
In reviews of the Coby Kyros MID9742 by PC Mag and Computer Shopper, experts complain about the tablet screen's 4:3 aspect ratio. Most tablet screens use the familiar wide 16:9 aspect ratio, which is ideal for widescreen video such as HD movies. The 4:3 aspect ratio on the Coby Kyros MID9742 means you'll see space-wasting sidebars on the top and bottom of the screen while watching widescreen video. Reviewers are also lukewarm about the display's 1024x768 resolution.
Cheap Android Tablet Interfaces, App Stores
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.
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.
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.
Tablet Memory, Battery Life, and Connectivity
Most budget tablets have either 8GB or 16GB of storage. Some, such as the Nexus 7, offer as much as 32GB of tablet memory. If you're willing to go with the older 2012 model, you can get a tablet that size starting at $199. Otherwise a 16GB model will keep you in the Cheapism range (new 32GB Nexus 7's start at $269). A handful of tablets also include a microSD card slot that can expand the tablet memory by 32GB, which is a feature worth considering. The only other alternative is buying a tablet with a larger hard drive that commands a premium price.
Among our picks, the Nook HD, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, and Acer Iconia A110 boast a microSD card slot -- a good thing, as each of these models only contains 8GB of tablet memory. And in the case of the Nook HD, about 2.5GB of that memory is reserved for the customized Nook operating system and Barnes & Noble content.
The Kindle Fire, like the Nook HD, also has an 8GB hard drive, of which about 5.5GB is available for users, with the remainder taken up by the customized Android OS and other Amazon content. Although the Kindle Fire and the Fire HD (with 16GB of tablet memory) both lack a microSD card slot, Amazon lets users store all their Amazon-specific content in its cloud storage service at no cost. The Coby Kyros MID9742 also has 8GB of tablet memory and likewise lacks a microSD card, but it contains very little preloaded content.
Tablet Battery Life.
As with smartphones and laptops, the amount of time a tablet runs between charges is affected by how you use it. Most manufacturers claim eight to 10 hours of tablet battery life with typical use. Reviewers use different means of testing the battery life of tablets, so one reviewer may find that a tablet lasts about eight hours while another finds the same model only runs for, say, six hours.
Google's Nexus 7 has earned the most praise for tablet battery life. A reviewer at CNET lauds the 11.5-hour battery life the 2013 tablet demonstrated in the site's testing lab. An 8.5-hour result for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 proved better than average in testing by Laptop Magazine. The tablet battery life of the Coby Kyros MID9742 clocked in at a respectable 8 hours, 25 minutes, according to Computer Shopper but only 5 hours, 36 minutes, according to PC Mag. The same review source also tested the battery life on the Acer Iconia A110, which ended its run after 8 hours, 5 minutes. The Nook HD lasted for 7.3 hours in CNET's battery tests, which is about average for battery life. The Kindle Fire only managed 5 hours, 11 minutes in PC Mag's battery test and 5 hours, 24 minutes in the CNET tests; its sibling Kindle Fire HD managed seven hours in a PC Mag tryout.
Tablets are designed to be portable, handheld devices so you won't find many ports for connecting to other devices. All tablets should have Wi-Fi capability (as do all those on our list), and some, including the Acer Iconia A110, Google Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire HD, support Bluetooth connections as well. The Nexus 7 and Acer Iconia A110 also have a micro USB port. Somewhat ironically, the cheapest tablet we researched, the Coby Kyros MID9742, offers the most frills. It contains a mini HDMI output and a USB 2.0 port. The Nook HD can also output video via HDMI if you purchase a separate dongle.
Some tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, are available in 3G or 4G versions that you can use with your wireless service. You'll have to buy the tablet from a wireless provider, though, and sign up for a service plan, just as you would with a cell phone.
Tablet Cameras.Cameras were once popular features on tablets when they first hit the big time, but many new cheap Android tablets don't include cameras. Models that do come with a tablet camera usually have just one on the front, display side. This is typically a lower megapixel tablet camera that's useful for videoconferencing.
The new Nexus 7 has a 1.2MP front-facing camera plus a 5MP rear-facing camera for taking photos; the 2012 version doesn't include the latter. By comparison, the Coby Kyros MID9742 features a paltry .3MP front-facing camera and a 2MP rear-facing camera. The only other budget model with a rear-facing camera is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, which lacks a front-facing camera. The Acer Iconia A110 has a 2MP front-facing camera.