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I’m a big fan of tablets, that new wave of mobile devices that sits comfortably between smartphones and laptops. They’re not for everybody. In fact, some people consider them a waste of time and money, preferring instead to split their time between the two other devices mentioned previously. I prefer to think of tablets as luxury items: no one really needs one but many people desire owning one.
The thing is, not all tablets are created equal. There are vast array of tablets out there, led by the latest iPad, premium Android tablets, and the Microsoft Surface. If you can’t afford one of those options then there is a risk of buying a dud. A well-chosen cheap tablet can do a great job, but a poorly-chosen cheap tablet will leave you regretting your decision not to spend a few dollars more.
What follows are five things to look for when buying a cheap tablet. They may not make the tablet in question useless, but they will severely limit the appeal.
Tablets are still maturing, but they’re maturing at a rate of knots. This means that the operating systems on some cheap tablets will be old, outdated, and/or defunct. You should probably avoid tablets that ship with the following:
Android 2.3 & Earlier
Android wasn’t built with tablets in mind until Version 3.0 (Honeycomb), which was actually a tablet-only update. Then it skipped to Version 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which was an Android designed for all mobile devices. Unfortunately this means that a tablet running Version 2.3 or earlier will offer a generally muddied performance. If the hardware is good enough it is possible to manually upgrade a tablet to ICS, but this won’t be for everybody.
Another defunct operating system you may see installed on tablets is webOS. This is certainly the case with the HP TouchPad, a short-lived tablet from Hewlett Packard which gained good reviews but which ultimately failed to take a bite out of sales of the iPad. It is possible to run Android or Linux on the TouchPad, but anyone who would rather not mess around with hardware in order to even make it worth owning should avoid at all costs.
Microsoft has now caught on to the tablet craze, which is why Windows 8 was built with touchscreens in mind. Much to the chagrin of many desktop users. Before Windows 8 came Windows CE, which you’ll still find on some cheap (and not so cheap) tablets. The problem is it won’t live up to the expectations of those who have seen an iPad or Android tablet in action and want one of their own.
Google Play, the marketplace for Android, currently boasts around 500,000 apps (our pick of the best available). While the iTunes App Store boasts at least 650,000 apps (our pick of the best available). Microsoft cannot claim anything close to that amount of Windows 8 apps yet, but it may get there one day. The point is by sticking to the popular platforms you’ll be able to get all the apps you have seen others use and want to try for yourself. By opting for an alternate OS your choices will be severely limited.
There is something else to watch for with apps: The cheaper Android tablets aren’t officially licensed to install Google Play. With Google Play being open-source they’ll still have it installed, it just won’t be the full version. Some apps therefore won’t show up in searches, as I found out for myself when I purchased a cheap Android tablet earlier this year.
Resistive Vs. Capacitative
There are two types of touchscreen available, both on tablets and smartphones. Resistive touchscreens are more accurate and better for using with styluses, while capacitive touchscreens are faster and more responsive. Neither is bad, but they do offer different experiences.
I’d argue that for tablets intended for mainstream consumers a capacitative screen is by far the better choice, which is why the iPad and the other premium tablets all feature capacitative touchscreens. However, many of the cheaper tablets being sold have resistive touchscreens that will severely hinder their usefulness for any activity that requires fast, fluid controls. Even Web browsing will be somewhat of a chore.
There are two things related to Internet connections you need to consider when buying a cheap tablet.
The first is rather obvious but could be missed by ignorant/n00bish people. No 3G/4G. Most cheap tablets will be Wi-Fi-only, so don’t buy one expecting to be able to use it anywhere and everywhere without first needing to tether it to a smartphone or turning your phone into a wireless hotspot.
Secondly, some cheap tablets will have poor Wi-Fi range compared to the premium competition. This is something else I discovered for myself only after buying a cheap Android tablet. If I use it while sat in the same room as my router then it works just fine, but if I head to the kitchen or (shock, horror) dare to venture upstairs, the Internet slows to a crawl until it becomes useless.
The latest version of the iPad boasts a battery life of up to 10 hours. As does the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. And the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity can last up to an astonishing 14 hours on a single charge. Cheap tablets don’t offer anywhere near that, with most topping out at six hours, and many offering between two and four hours for anything other than simple Web browsing.
Coupled with the Wi-Fi issue outlined above this means cheap tablets are generally only suitable for using indoors where a power outlet and router are both close at hand.
This article isn’t intended to put you off buying a cheap tablet as a whole. In fact I’m an advocate for researching all the products that are available and purchasing the one that best suits your individual needs at a price you’re comfortable with paying. But there are pitfalls to buying a cheap tablet, some which won’t show up until after you’ve actually got your hands on the device you eventually settle on.
This is therefore a reminder that things are sometimes too good to be true, and there’s ultimately a reason for a gadget being priced lower than you’d expect it to be. These are the five main potential problems you could encounter with a cheap tablet, but there are likely many more. To be absolutely sure of not being ripped off it may be better to spend a little more and buy a Google Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD at this point. Or an iPad Mini, if you’re that way inclined.