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A conference attendee examines the BlackBerry PlayBook during its launch in Mumbai June 22, 2011. (© Danish Siddiqui / Reuters/Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)
A conference attendee examines the BlackBerry PlayBook during its launch in Mumbai June 22, 2011. (© Danish Siddiqui / Reuters/Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)

The ultimate cheap tablet buyer's guide Add to ...

When I first tested the Kobo Vox a month ago (it was a pre-production version), I thought it was fantastic: Cheap, Android-based, with a glare-free screen. Sure, there were all kinds of bugs, but that’s to be expected in a pre-production version. Surely they’ll fix this stuff before they try to make people pay for this thing, I thought.

They didn’t. The first Vox models to hit stores were terrible. The occasional screen swipe simply didn’t register. When it did, the resulting command was executed in a painfully slow manner. The keyboard was unjustifiably moody, occasionally refusing to surface anywhere on the screen for no apparent reason. The review unit I received constantly thought I was tapping the bottom of the screen, which led to hilariously inept cycles through Web pages every time I loaded the browser, as the tablet kept taking me to whatever link was at the bottom of the page I ended up at, and kept doing this until I came to a page with white space at the bottom. Thanks to the same glitch, every time I tried to type something, the keyboard thought I was just hitting space bar over and over again. That last glitch is easily the most annoying bug I’ve encountered on any piece of hardware I’ve reviewed this year. For Kobo’s sake, I hope it’s just unique to my review unit.

But more recently, Kobo has issued a software update to deal with a bunch of the glitches in the Vox. This is good news. And, to be sure, there are some cool Vox features, such as the social reading app, which lets you share comments and generally Facebook-ize your reading experience (if you’re into that sort of thing). But it doesn’t excuse the fact that Kobo seems to have rushed this thing to market, and is doing quality assurance after the fact. The Vox is the same price as the Kindle Fire (and, an added bonus: you can actually buy it in Canada), and it may one day become a better tablet. But if the Fire comes to Canada any time soon, it’ll be a safer bet than the Vox.

UPDATE: Shortly after we wrote this guide, Amazon responded to criticism of the Kindle Fire's user interface with, you guessed it, a wireless software update.

Fire Sales!

Device: TouchPad

Maker: Hewlett-Packard

Vital specs: 10-inch screen, 1.2-gigahertz processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM

Price: As low as $100, if you can still find it

Grade: A-

There are horror-movie victims who were treated better than HP treated its flagship tablet. Pretty much as soon as HP released the TouchPad, it killed it. Nobody was buying the thing, not with an iPad-like price tag. But still, the insanely quick about-face was embarrassing.

The upside, however, is that HP suddenly found itself with warehouses full of the commercial equivalent of concrete life-vests. To get rid of the inventory, the company slashed prices on the TouchPad by about 80 per cent. And, guess what, they sold out in a hurry.

The TouchPad runs on WebOS, which is the operating system HP got when it purchased smartphone-maker Palm. I’ll say again what I said when Palm phones were busy being commercial failures – WebOS is a great operating system. It runs well, rarely crashes and generally looks good. It’s too bad HP will almost certainly find a way to make absolutely no use of it.

The TouchPad does everything but apps pretty well. And, as opposed to almost all Android flavours out there, the user interface is actually nice to look at. You can also pick one up and wait for one of those hacks that lets you put Android on it.

The biggest problem, of course, is that the ultra-cheap TouchPad is a lot harder to find these days (the “last” batch melted down eBay over the weekend). If you do come across one, and you don’t mind a basically non-existent app environment (as you’d expect, developers aren’t exactly lining up to build stuff for an operating system that’s on death row), this is a good buy at the fire sale price.

Device: PlayBook

Maker: Research In Motion

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