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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 ...

Vital specs: 7-inch screen, 1-gigahertz processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM

Price: $200 (or $100 if you know how to get the insider price)

Grade: A (at $200) A+ (At the insider price)

I can say with a straight face that the PlayBook is, in many ways, the best tablet on the market today, iPad included.

Hear me out, hear me out. The PlayBook does true multitasking; it has amazing HD video playback; it has excellent on-board speakers; its battery life is second to none.

That’s why it’s a tragedy that RIM put this thing out way too early, when it was still rife with bugs (See: Kobo Vox). The first version of the PlayBook ran like a pre-production prototype, and that’s why a lot of reviewers hated it. It also didn’t help that the PlayBook app store was a sad joke.

Since then, RIM has pumped out software update after software update, in the process fixing almost all those bugs (the app store still sucks). It’s too bad a lot of people were turned off by the (completely justified) early negative review, because underneath that lack of polish was some great hardware and a bomb-proof operating system.

Now that RIM is hemorrhaging losses on the PlayBook line, it has cut prices dramatically. You can now get a PlayBook starting at about $200, which is the best bargain on this entire list. But wait! There’s more.

If you happen to know somebody who works at RIM, word is they can get the employee discount, which cuts that entry-level price in half. As recently as last week, at least one person I know at the company was busy buying a half-dozen of these things at that price. I have no idea how long this will last, but if you know somebody on the inside, don’t miss out on what is essentially a towering-inferno sale atop another fire sale.

The Android Wasteland

Device: Middle to Upper-End Android Tablets

Maker: Motorola, Probably Somebody Else, Who Knows?

Vital specs: Mostly 10-inch screens, all manner of processors and storage

Price: Around $400 and up

Grade: D

If you’re an Android die-hard and you really, really need a 10-inch tablet from a big-name, manufacturer, go for it. But the sad truth is that even the highest-end Android tablets can’t really compete with the iPad. Perhaps the new Motorola Droid tablet, due out in the U.S. this month, will buck that trend. But for now, the iPad is smoother-running, more app-friendly and not susceptible to the ridiculous fragmentation that comes with launching a new version of Android every other day. The only real advantage these Android gadgets have is that they’re less locked down than Apple’s tablets, so you can tinker around with them. But if you’re the kind of person who buys tablets so you can hack them and install an obscure Klingon-language version of Ubuntu Linux, you probably already know where to get your hardware from.

Device: Low-End Android Tablets

Maker: A Bunch Of Companies Nobody Has Ever Heard Of

Vital specs: Mostly 7-inch screens, all manner of terrible processors and storage

Price: As low as $80

Grade: (Do we have a skull and crossbones symbol?)

Avoid like the plague. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, three more ultra-cheap Android tablets have hit the market, and two of them exploded. Sure, the price tags are appealing, but if you buy one of these quick-and-dirty Android ports that’s made by a company whose name sounds like a He-Man villain, you will almost certainly come to regret it. Virtually every one of these things we tested was sluggish, ran on an outdated version of Android and had a clump of tofu for a processor. You’re much better off waiting for one of the high-end Android tablets to be sold off in a fire sale.

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