Tablets are an important tool for students; they can be used for carrying your eTextbooks, taking notes during lectures, or doing online research. They are so light that you would hardly even notice one in your backpack. Heck, you can even get a decent education just from Android apps.
Whether you’re looking for a cheap 7-inch tablet or a full-featured 10-inch tablet, this guide can help you out. For those unsure about which size tablet to get, you’ll want to check out Matt’s article on how much screen size really matters — do you want a heavier, more expensive tablet with a large screen; or a lighter, less expensive one with a smaller screen? Every student is different. Some may need a stylus for sketching or taking notes while others might need a keyboard. The good news is that there are so many great tablets available right now that your hardest choice isn’t going to be finding one, but deciding on one.
Many tablets come with 4G options, but today we’ll just be looking at the cheaper WiFi-only models, since 4G coverage can be expensive and most universities have WiFi across their entire campus.
If you’re a newbie to the tablet world, don’t forget to check out our Tablet Buying Guide: Summer 2013 before you get started. Right now, we’ll be starting off with the most inexpensive tablet and working our way up the price ladder.
Lenovo IdeaTab A1000 $130
The most affordable option we’ll be discussing is Lenovo’s IdeaTab A1000. For $130, it’s not the most feature-packed tablet out there, but it is still a solid offering. It has a 7-inch, 1024×600 screen, a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, 8 GB of memory, front and rear cameras, and dual front-facing speakers. It’s also pretty thick at 0.42 inches (10.7 mm), but it does have a Micro SD card slot for expanded storage.
For those of you on a tight budget, you might want to consider this tablet. Unlike other cheap, no-name tablets, this device can access the Google Play Store, giving you access to all the same apps other Android tablets have. Running Android 4.1, it doesn’t have the absolute newest software, but 4.2 and 4.3 have been incremental updates anyway, and 4.1 will run well on this device.
If $130 is all you can scrounge up, go for it; but if you can get another hundred dollars together, you may want to spring for our next option.
The Nexus 7 boasts the highest pixel density of any tablet, besting even the iPad with Retina Display, and reviewers have loved its pixel-packed screen. It’s thinner and lighter than last year’s model, and it packs a speedy Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2 GB of RAM for incredible performance. Its dual stereo speakers offer great sound quality for such a small tablet and, being a Nexus device, it will always have the latest version of Android. It weighs in at only 0.64 lbs (290 g) and reviewers have praised its admirable battery life.
Plus, Google recently opened up a Textbooks section of Google Play, giving you instant access to cheap eTextbooks right on your tablet. Personally, electronic textbooks have changed the way I go to school. No more lugging around heavy books all day, you can easily search through your text for whatever you need, and highlighting and bookmarking features all work seamlessly. If you’re looking for a cheap, small, no fuss tablet, look no further than the Nexus 7.
Apple iPad Mini $330
For a hundred dollars more than the Nexus 7, you can get a shiny new iPad Mini, which we reviewed a few months back. The iPad with Retina Display nearly made this list, but at $500 for the base model, the Mini is just much better value. By saving that extra $170, you sacrifice power (the Mini uses an A5 processor compared to the iPad with Retina Display’s A6X) and screen size. But you also get slimmer bezels, and a much lighter and thinner device. The Mini weighs in at only 0.68 lbs (309 g), so slightly heavier than the Nexus 7, but it also has an inch more screen space.
The Mini is a great choice if you love iOS, otherwise, the Nexus 7 is a stronger device for $100 less. But iOS remains the simplest OS to use, and if you’re tied into the iOS ecosystem from an iPhone or even an old iPad, the Mini is a superb option. Apple’s App Store has a plethora have apps designed for use on a tablet, and some would argue that Android is still trying to catch up in terms of quality tablet-optimized apps.
Battery life for the Mini is incredible. If you’re looking for something to carry around all day, this device won’t weigh you down and it will easily make it through the whole day. Plus, there are a lot of cases available, many with keyboards, so your accessory options are endless.
If you decide to go for the iPad Mini, be sure to download these 10 amazing iPad apps for school.
Microsoft Surface RT $350
We reviewed the Surface RT a few months back and it didn’t look too favorably on it, but that was back when it cost $500. After receiving a $150 price cut down to $350, I think this device is worth another look, especially for students. This gorgeous device has some of the best hardware out there. It has a unique 10.6″ screen, slightly bigger than the average 10″ device but smaller than 11.6″ laptops. While most reviewers are disappointed by the lack of apps and the glitchy software, they generally love the hardware. Microsoft clearly put a lot of time into crafting this device and that effort shines through the sturdy VaporMG casing and kickstand. It’s also the only tablet with a full-size USB port for easily transferring files, and it has a great magnetic charger.
The downside, at least as hardware goes, is that the Touch Cover will set you back another $120 unless you buy the bundled Surface RT and Black Touch Cover for $450. The Touch Cover, while thin and light, doesn’t provide any tactile feedback, so if you’re looking for a more solid keyboard, the Type Cover could be more up your alley, but it’ll set you back $130. Still, at $480 for a 32 GB Surface RT with Type Cover, the price still manages to stay below the $500 limit where most 10-inch tablets land without any kind of keyboard. Keep in mind, however, that you only get about 14 GB of free space out of that 32 GB Surface RT.
Software-wise, you get Microsoft Office Home & Student bundled, which is a very welcome addition for students. Unfortunately, since the Surface RT runs Windows RT rather than full-blown Windows 8, you won’t be able to download any legacy Windows 7 apps like Chrome or iTunes. Here, you’re stuck with the Metro or “Modern UI” apps. While these look and behave a lot better on the tablet than any desktop app would, your choices from the Windows Store are incredibly limited. Most notably, Facebook has yet to release a Modern app, and Google refuses to make the Chrome browser available for RT devices.
In the end, though, if all you need is a thin, light device to carry from class to class and type some Word documents, the Surface RT is perfect. It won’t have the full range of apps available for Android or iOS devices, but it makes up for it with a relatively low price tag and innovative keyboard cover.
Here’s a tablet for those stylus-lovers. The Galaxy Note 8.0 is a relatively new device from Samsung that basically looks like a stretched out Galaxy S4. It’s thin, light, fast, and comes with a built-in stylus; so what’s not to love? Two things, really: the screen and the price. It’s 1280×800 screen is nice, but it’s nowhere near Nexus 7 status, and at $380, this thing charges a hefty price for the addition of a stylus.
The killer feature for this tablet, I think, is Multi-Window. It allows the user to have two apps open side by side. Combined with the stylus, this could be incredibly useful. You could look up information using the Web browser or watch that documentary for class on the left while taking notes on the right. Not to mention that the stylus is great for taking notes if you have one those grumpy, stuck-in-the-past professors who won’t allow you to type on a keyboard or screen while in class.
Polaris Office also comes preloaded, which is great for working on Microsoft Office documents like Word, and it has an IR blaster if you’re lucky enough to have a TV in your dorm.
So multi-tasking, stylus-using students, this is the tablet for you.
Sony Xperia Tablet Z $500
Now I know what you’re thinking: the iPad with Retina Display should be the $500 tablet to buy. But while the iPad with Retina Display is a very capable device, so is the Xperia Z — and the Xperia Z is waterproof. This 10-inch tablet weighs only 1.09 lbs, considerably lighter than the iPad’s 1.44 lbs. The Xperia Z is also a good deal slimmer: 6.9 mm compared to 9.4 mm. Despite this, it has a 1920×1200 display that, while not as good as the iPad’s, is still amazing. It also runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, has 2G B of RAM, an infrared emitter for controlling your TV, an 8 megapixel camera, and runs Android 4.1. And if you order it from, you get an 8 GB micro SD card to for expanded storage.
On the downside, it does not have the best battery life among the tablets featured in this article. That’s disappointing, but I think the tablet makes it up for it with its waterproofness. Imagine being able to use your tablet in the rain, or even carry it in your backpack in the rain without worrying about getting it wet. If you spill something on it, you’re fine, and if it gets dirty you can just rinse it off with water. This is such a killer feature that I can only expect most other tablets to follow suit very soon.
Each of these tablets brings something unique to the table, and any of them would make life as a student much easier. As a college student myself, it’s amazing to have something thin and light that doesn’t weigh down my backpack and can be used to take notes in class and watch Netflix at night. It all depends on what you need, though. Below, I have summed up the main reasons why you would choose one of these devices.
- IdeaTab A1000: Inexpensive, expandable storage.
- Nexus 7: Fast processor, great display.
- iPad Mini: Tied into Apple Ecosystem, great battery life.
- Surface RT: Unique kickstand, runs Microsoft Office.
- Galaxy Note 8.0: Included stylus, multi-window feature.
- Xperia Tablet Z: Waterproof, thin and lightweight.
And if you really are headed back to school, I’m right there with you. I’ve also compiled a list of some other great back to school gear that you should check out.
So which of these devices will you be heading back to campus with? Or do you have a device that I didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments.