Black Friday is right around the corner and, as I mentioned in a previous post, you need to be wary of getting suckered into buying an ultra cheap tablet. I admit it. I like a deal. I've looked at a lot of cheap tablets on Ebay, Amazon, Alibaba, and just about anywhere that sells them. Rather than give you a whole list of specs for a variety of tablets, I'll boil it down to the bare minimum you should look for and why, so you can cross the super cheapies off your list right away and move on. Keep in mind when I say minimum, you're not sacrificing anything. I'm just trying to spare you the aggravation of a tablet that can't handle what the majority of people want to do, with smooth performance. A lot of cheap tablets cut corners by using old or crummy tech to bring the price down. At the very least you want...
Capacitive Touch (screen): this screen type responds better to touch and it's more precise than its predecessor, the resistive touch screen. Essentially, it takes a lighter touch to use. Since touch is how you interact with it, you don't want to sacrifice this extremely important feature.
ROM (hard drive): Tablets are listed at 8GB, 16GB, 32GB, and so on. This spec can be tricky when you're looking at the side of a box or a website description. Why? Because the OS (iOS, Android, etc.) will occupy part of the hard drive. For this reason, I wouldn't bother with anything with less than 8GB plus on-board storage in the form of a micro SD card, preferably one that can handle up to 32GB. The reason I suggest this combo as a minimum spec: everyone I know goes a little app crazy once they own a tablet. Some apps can't be moved to the SD card and work well. You want some wiggle room if you want to take pictures without having to upload them or move them and to store media to use away from home, so you'll need that storage. If you're less likely to go app crazy and don't plan on having countless books, songs, and movies along for the ride, you can start out with more ROM (16GB) and (generally) do well without an SD card. A lot of content can be moved to and from a tablet as you need it, if you plan ahead--or you can rely on cloud storage services like Dropbox. If you use Wi-Fi to stream content most of the time, you won't need a lot of on-board storage either. Think of ROM as the foundation of your house.
1GB of RAM:
A lot of cheapo tablets are in the 512MB range or lower. To put it as
non geekily as possible, RAM will determine how well everything flows
between the processor and ROM. If your RAM is small, you can except
bottle necks and frustrating performance. Think of RAM as the plumbing in your house.
Dual Core Processor: like a PC, dual core tablets will handle
heavier tasks better than a single core model. Most people tend to
switch between tasks using apps, without closing them, plus your tablet
will have background processes (the software that makes it function in
general) so having a dual core model is key. If you want to do anything that has intense graphics, like playing games more complicated than Angry Birds, you'll want this processing power too. Think of the processor as the water pump that works with the plumbing (RAM).
Wi-Fi: Believe it or not, some cheap tablets don't have Wi-Fi. Crazy, huh? This means you have to attach them to a PC with a USB connection to upload/download. Other things make Wi-Fi tricky. Most info just lists Wi-Fi as a generic spec, but not all Wi-Fi is created equally. You can dig deeper into the info, but to sum it up, it's better to have Wi-Fi that can communicate with a wide range (and ages) of routers using b/g/n standards. Some off-brand tablets also have a bad reputation for Wi-Fi antennas that aren't soldered well, which can lead to issues with connection instability. Research Wi-Fi issues on specific cheap tablets before you're parted with money. 3G? 4G? I'm not a fan, since they require you to shell out money. If you own a smartphone you can tether it and use your phone data in a pinch. More often than not, you'll be able to use Wi-Fi at home, the office, and in a lot of public places. If you have good Wi-Fi there are tricks to make the most of it.
Encasing/Backplate: This is the non-screen material that
surrounds the tablet--more or less the back. Much to-do has also been
made over metal used in tablets for aesthetic reasons. In reality, metal
can hinder the Wi-Fi and the Bluetooth connections. So, it may be
"purdy", but you're generally better off with plastic. The quality of
the plastic casing will vary from tablet to tablet, so read reviews.
Some pictures are dead giveaways though...if it looks bulky and cheap
around the edges, chances are it is.
Screen Resolution: A great deal has been made of screen resolution, but unless you're going for the bottom of the barrel of 800 x 460, I think there's a lot of hype around this spec. Sure, there are differences, but more often than not, these specs are only meaningful after you've seen them in person. For that reason, I recommend that you go to a store and look at screens with different resolutions, like you would with a TV, to see what suits your needs. In addition to video, you'll want to look at text from a book, since this is one of the biggest places you'll notice any fuzziness.
OS (Operating System): Android is an open OS, which frees a wide variety of manufacturers to produce tablets using it. The good news for consumers is that, like non-Mac PCs, there are a wide variety of prices and devices--and that's why you see so many tablets using Android. Each updated version of the OS is named after a sweets/desserts. It's gone through several changes since its launch, but many cheap tablets are running very old versions of the OS--and with off-brand tablets you aren't always guaranteed updates. A story to put this into perspective: my sister was given a Coby
tablet as a gift last year; within 6 months it was almost useless; Coby
didn't support the device anymore and that meant no bug fixes or software
updates. For this reason, I'd look for Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) at the minimum. Not only does it have better features and functions, it's more user friendly and efficient. Have a look at this chart to help you understand the differences.
App Stores: At the very least (with Android tablets) you want full access to the Google Play app store. If you don't have that, you'll find terrible limits on app selection. I've read countless tales of people bemoaning their cheap tablet decision for this reason alone.
Everything else is usually gravy depending on how you'll use a tablet, but I will mention one spec you want to look at: camera quality and location. If you're not trying to be the next Ansel Adams, you might not need the best camera ever (mine is 3MP without a flash and it's fine for quick shots). Search Google for examples of photos taken with cameras in specific tablets if you're uncertain what your mega pixel minimum requirements are. Some tablets have rear facing or front facing cameras only. If you're not going to use video chat like Skype and you're not snapping shots of yourself left and right, you'll be fine with a front-facing camera only.
There are other things to consider like battery life, but I've found that I can control that a great deal with the features built into my tablet. For example, I dim the screen when I am reading or watching a movie, since it's I'm usually in low light when I do these things. Not only is it easier on my eyes, it does make a huge difference in the battery life. If you're really concerned about battery life, the Transformer line by Asus has an optional keyboard that has a reputation as the best way to get the absolute most battery life away from home. HDMI ports are swell if you want to take it on the road and hook it up to a TV, but (in my opinion) it's impractical to attach a device that's meant to be portable to a TV at home.
The tablets I'd consider if I was buying one (today) are all Android based and not tied to a specific store. This has to do with having the freedom to buy content from places I choose, rather than feeling trapped into buying from a manufacturer (iOS + iTunes) or only from Amazon. If you've invested in a lot of Apple products and in iTunes, you may disagree. I still think that Apple makes a lovely product, but frankly, I think you can get a great tablet without their "prestige" pricing. The new Kindle Fire HD has decent specs, but you're locked into using their awkward re-skin of the Android interface and it can be frustrating if you don't want to use it the way Amazon thinks you should. At this point they aren't providing a general Android app for the Amazon video service, but you'll find tons of other options for streaming video. There is a Kindle app though and it works like a dream on all of the Android devices in our home.
If you haven't read my earlier posts on tablets, I'll recommend them now, so you can consider how you'll use a tablet, what to consider when you want portability, and why I haven't brought up the new Windows tablets just yet.
So what's good cheap tablet? You're better off with a tablet that has a non-sale price that starts around $200. Yeah, it's not a $50 or $100 tablet, but you'll have one that will last a heck of a lot longer and do what you want to do without making you angry.
Here are my picks (linked to Amazon) in no particular order:
ASUS TF300 B1-WH 10.1-Inch 32GB Tablet (White)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (10.1-Inch, Wi-Fi)
Asus Google Nexus 7 ASUS-1B32 32GB Tablet - Quad-core Tegra 3 Processor, Android 4.1
Google Nexus 7 Tablet (16 GB)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7-Inch, Wi-Fi)
In addition to a tablet, don't forget that you'll need accessories. Plan
on picking up a case that's used as a stand too. I like easel cases for
this reason, to hold my tablet in a horizontal position, like a TV. You'll find
many to match the tablet you choose, but I'll vouch for the quality and
durability of Poetic products. When it comes to USB cords, chargers for
the wall/car, and other extras, we've picked up cheapies that work fine from our local Walgreens pharmacy and if we loose them, no sweat. Skinomi makes excellent (inexpensive) screen protectors and trust me, you want to protect the screen!