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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 ...

An app developer friend of mine told me recently that there really is no such thing as a tablet market. There’s an iPad market, and then there’s an everything else market.

In a sense, that reality makes reviewing tablets pretty easy: If you want a tablet, and you have enough cash to buy an iPad, do so. It’s far and away the best gadget of its kind out there, now and for the foreseeable future.

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But if you don’t have the $600 or so necessary to pick up a new iPad, you may find yourself forced to wander into the rancid swamp of second-, third- or possibly fifteenth-tier tablets. Many of these devices, you’ll soon find, come with their own little quirks, and by “little quirks” we mean “horrible, device-crippling malfunctions.” So as a public service, we’ve listed and graded some of the best and most popular cheap tablets on the market today.

An important caveat: these grades are based primarily on value for money. As such, a cheaper tablet that may not have as much functionality as a more expensive unit may still end up with a better grade. Conversely, if the Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox were priced at $600, they would get big fat Fs.

E-readers On Steroids

Device: Kindle Fire

Maker: Amazon

Vital specs: 7-inch screen, 1-gigahertz processor, 512 megabytes of RAM

Price: $200 (Only available in the U.S. so far)

Grade: B

There’s evidence to suggest that the most significant indicator of how well you’ll do in life is your choice of parents. In that respect, the Kindle Fire has hit the jackpot.

Our full Kindle Fire review can be found here.

The short version is this: for $200, you get a perfectly adequate tablet running on a modified version of Google’s Android operating system. The user interface is clean and intuitive. The Web browser is a bit of a letdown. Most annoyingly, the device feels a bit too heavy, but that’s probably not a deal-breaker.

But because the Kindle Fire is an Amazon device, it’s going to sell like hotcakes. For one thing, Amazon is going to push it through its online store, where the Fire is already probably the best-selling new item in stock. And because a lot of people already get their books, music and who knows what else from Amazon, the Fire is going to be a logical fit. If you’re one of those people, or you plan to use your tablet mostly for buying and reading books, the Fire is probably the way to go. If you’re looking for a good Web browser or video-playing capability, look elsewhere.

Device: Vox

Maker: Kobo

Vital specs: 7-inch screen, 800-megahertz processor, 512 megabytes of RAM

Price: $200

Grade: F (Last week), C+ (This Week), ?? (Next Week)

Ubiquitous automatic software updates are the best and worst thing to happen to the technology industry in the past few years. On one hand, it’s great when you find a bug in the software you’ve purchased, and the company you purchased it from can fix their mistake quickly, without forcing you to go through customer support hell.

But on the other hand, too many manufacturers are using wireless software updates a some kind of Get Out Of Jail Free card, allowing them to rush out shoddy, badly tested products to market, and then say, “Yeah, we know we accidentally mapped the spacebar to the “Format hard drive” function, but we can fix that later with a software update!”

This phenomenon is particularly acute in the tablet world, where every company not named Apple has scrambled to get competing devices to the marketplace as early as humanly possible (See: BlackBerry PlayBook), even if they still had major, major bugs. This basically meant that, if you were an early adopter, you were getting slapped in the face, more so than usual.

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

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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