Budget Android tablets: which one is right for you?

2nd Dec 2012 | 10:00

Budget Android tablets: which one is right for you?

Which of the cheaper Android devices suits your needs?

Google and Asus may well seem to have sewn up the Android tablet world with the very well received Nexus 7 tablet (£160), but there are many Android tablet options out there for much less money.

This is thanks to a vibrant 'white box' Chinese manufacturing scene, which sees wave after wave of super-cheap Android tablets crashing into our shops, and surprisingly, some are pretty good.

While the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity costs a whopping £600, and the majority of other big-name tablets hover around the £200 to £300 mark, some of the smaller 7-inch Android tablets, even those running Ice Cream Sandwich, can be had for around £70 online or £90 on the high street. But for that kind of money, are you going to look like a bit of a mug?

Of course, you don't get something for nothing, and while on paper, at least, budget Android tablets may look as powerful and potent as their big-name, large-price-tagged brothers, there can often be glaring omissions.

One of the first potential pitfalls to beware of is Google Play - the Android app store, which also peddles movie rentals, music downloads and ebooks. Google Play is often unavailable on bargain-basement tablets, which means that you're limited to a handful of badly made, unsupported titles.

The second common trap is the questionable quality of the components that make up your low-priced tablet. The gumph may about boast a high-resolution screen, but this is a common shortcut, which can undermine the whole experience, and really expose your frugal tendencies.

If you're looking for a cut-price Android tablet, read our essential guide to avoiding possible pitfalls and saving money on buying the right device for you.

A decent display

Even the cheapest of the generic Chinese Android tablets tend to feature capacitive displays these days, which are a vast step up in quality compared with the older resistive models that we used to see only a couple of years or so ago.

Capacitive technology means that the displays are more sensitive to the touch, making the experience of using even the cheapest of tablets, such as the budget Kogan Agora (£119), much more satisfying than trying to poke the wobbly, plasticky resistive screens of previous generations of technology.

However, as nice as the newer, cheaper displays might be to touch, you also want to examine the resolution they offer. A 7-inch screen outputting at just 800 x 480 isn't going to look very clear or sharp, because that screen resolution is already a little out of date, even on the smaller screens of Android smartphones nowadays.

A decent budget option, however, such as the Archos 70 (available for about £170), offers a 7-inch display running at a more respectable 1,024 x 768, which will make everything from web text to apps appear much clearer than something that's expanding a lower resolution image to fill a 7-inch screen.

Another legacy Android issue that still affects some of the cheaper tablets these days is access to the Google Play Store. Some models from lesser known brands, such as the ViewSonic ViewPad 10e (available for about £140) don't have the certification to offer access to Google's official app store on board, although most of today's newer budget models now do.

Again, official Google Play access is something to add to your pre-purchase checklist, because you really don't want to be stuck using a terrible, unofficial Chinese app store to access all your apps and games.

Power and control

This new wave of cheap Chinese tablet tends to run on versions of the All Winner chipset, coupled with a Mali 400MHz GPU. It works well enough for most apps and general use, but the key thing you want to be looking out for is the amount of system RAM alongside it in the tablet.

Some of the cheaper tablets skimp here to save money, and only offer 512MB, which means the multitasking aspect of Android - one of its key boasts - is compromised, and performance is inevitably slower all round. At least 1GB of RAM ought to be the minimum to run Android 4.0 with any degree of success, and that's something that most of the sub-£100 tabs are actually offering today.

Brands for less

budget android tablets

Thanks to the insane level of competition in the Android tablet world, you don't have to stick with the no-name models if you're looking for a good deal. Samsung's second-generation Galaxy Tab 2 models have been reduced to under £200, while Motorola's Xoom, and its Xoom 2 sequel, can be picked up for around the £150 to £200 mark, giving you some seriously well-made technology for the money.

The problem with Samsung's models, for some people, is the manufacturer's continued use of its TouchWiz interface. While TouchWiz is great when used on a mobile phone, it makes a tablet feel like, well, just an enormous phone. It kind of takes the fun out of owning and exploring a new machine when it's running the same OS as your mobile.

Plus, makers such as Amazon take the skinning of Android even further, with the new Kindle Fire HD (£159), completely hiding most of Android's best features in favour of Amazon's own user interface. Yes, it's an Android tablet, but it's an entirely different experience to the rest of the pack, and something you may or may not prefer.

Also down to personal preference is your display size. For some, a 7-inch screen is more than enough, while others prefer the larger 10-inch option. In practical use, the only real hindrance of the smaller option is having to be a little more precise with your presses around the edges of the screen.

Google hides lots of Android functionality behind software toggles in the corners of the display, so for the big-fingered technology fan, the extra space afforded by the larger models is something to consider.

Cheaper tablets, with their fatter, chunkier bezels, also make getting to the edges of the display a little tougher, too.

Can it be updated?

The majority of the cheaper Android tablets under the £100 mark will arrive with an unskinned vanilla version of Android, untouched by the maker. While this is a good thing for most, because you're getting the purest vision of what Google and its team think Android should represent, it probably means you'll be stuck using the same version for life.

The advantage of spending a little more money on a branded machine from a western company means you should at least see some updates to the tablet's OS when Google releases a new version. That's one big reason people are plumping for the Nexus 7 in such large numbers, because with Google's official backing, it ought to be first in line to see upgrades to future versions of Android, while it's unlikely there will be any such easy upgrade path for your random £70 Chinese SuperTab 7G XL.

Some companies have shown they're in it for the long term, and have won over fans with their approach to OS upgrades. Asus, for example, is continually releasing updates for its excellent Transformer series of machines, but those are high-end devices for which you'd expect a little more support.

In terms of the budget Android tablet makers, little French company Archos leads the pack in rolling out upgrades and supporting users, with owners of its cheaper machines benefitting from quite a few updates, including the newer versions of Android and minor bug-fixing repairs.

So don't just look at the hardware alone. Cheap tablets shouldn't be disposable and you have every right to expect some level of support from the manufacturer over the next year or two. And that's worth paying a little extra for.

3G and connectivity

Another consideration is whether you're the outdoorsy type or not. To save money, most of the cheaper tablets, and even Google's Nexus 7, ditch 3G connectivity, so you're stuck with using Wi-Fi to assess online features and download apps.

If you've got used to piggybacking on friends' and pub Wi-Fi, that won't be an issue for you, but it's one of the reasons the cheap tablets are so very cheap, so bear it in mind.

Finally, something of an Android hot potato at the moment is support for upgrading the onboard storage. Many of the phone and tablet makers seem to be moving away from offering SD card support, with even the Nexus 7 failing to include it. Ironically, that's one area where the cut-throat super-budget Chinese tablet scene always emerges as a winner, with virtually all of the cheapest Android models including an SD card slot.

Again, as with 3G, it's down to personal choice, and whether you want or need the ability to shuffle around your media on SD cards.

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