Although budget tablets have been the object of numerous discussions over the past six months or so, when Google announced the Asus-built Nexus 7 tablet in late June at the Google I/O conference, the speculation dam just imploded as most of the online tech media has begun publishing stories on how other tablet manufacturers will respond to this move.
As it turns out, all of the major tablet manufacturers are believed to make their presence felt in the 7-inch tablet market by the end of September: Apple is rumored to be working on an iPad Mini, Amazon is bound to release a successor to the original 7-inch budget tablet, the Kindle Fire, while Samsung is the proud manufacturer of the best budget tablet currently available for purchase, the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2.0.
Please note that since the Apple iPad Mini has been rumored for the past year or so, the credibility of the info we have on it has a lot to suffer. But we can still make some educated assumptions. Throughout the rest of the article, I will presume that Apple is indeed working on a 7-inch tablet.
While the Kindle Fire 2 is also an unconfirmed device, we’re pretty sure that Amazon won’t simply give up a fight that it started itself, which is exactly what the numerous rumors that have surfaced about the Kindle Fire 2 seem to confirm. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t consider this article to be a buying guide, but rather an opinion piece on the future of budget tablets, based on the specs we have for the Google/Asus Nexus 7 and the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2.0, spiced by the rumors regarding the iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire 2.
Now that we got the introduction out of the way, let’s take a look at the future of 7-inch budget tablets, as we go though the five points of interest of any device: display, hardware, extras, OS and price.
Nowadays, the quality of the display is a very important buying factor for all devices, but tablet buyers tend to place the display above all else when considering their future purchase. As all of the four tablets covered in this article have 7-inch displays, the resolution plays a decisive role in the overall quality of the display, although the actual technology behind it shouldn’t be overlooked either.
The Google Nexus 7 IPS LCD display runs at a 1280 x 800 pixel resolution, which translates into a 216 PPI (Pixels Per Inch) density, not bad for a budget tablet and definitely better than what the 7-inch Galaxy Tab has to offer via its Super PLS display running at 1024 x 600 pixels (170 PPI).
While Amazon did not make any announcements regarding the Kindle Fire 2, CNET sources reported that the retail giant will actually release four different tablets that will bear the Kindle Fire brand, featuring two different displays: one that runs at 1024 x 600 pixels and one that runs at 1280 x 800 pixels.
According to insider sources quoted by The Wall Street Journal, the iPad Mini will feature an LG display (we think it’s going to be an IPS+ LCD display). The display will not be of Retina quality, although I’d expect Apple to try and steal the show via the quality of the display, as was the case with all three 9.7-inch iPad versions. On the other hand, chinese sources claim that the iPad Mini will employ IGZO displays made by Sharp, capable to offer 330 PPI quality, or Retina quality.
Overall, it’s going to be really hard for Amazon or Apple to beat the quality of the display on the Nexus 7 (they could match it though), as it looks like you can’t go any higher on the quality ladder without pushing the price too high.
Hardware: CPU, GPU & RAM
Although the display is more than decent, it’s the Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC (1.3 GHz quad-core A9 CPU and 12-core Nvidia ULP GPU) alongside the 1GB of RAM that make the Nexus 7 a hard-to-beat budget tablet. Considering that the Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC is also powering arguably the best Android tablet currently out there (the ASUS Transformer Prime), it’s hard to see how any tablet manufacturer could offer better specs and still keep a competitive price.
Some sources report that Amazon is considering the use of the Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC inside the Kindle Fire 2, an impressive upgrade from the OMAP4430 (1GHz dual-core A9 processor and PowerVR SGX540 GPU) used by the original Kindle Fire. The Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 features the same outdated TI OMAP4430 alongside 1GB of RAM, thus losing badly in this sector.
As far as the Apple iPad Mini goes, sources were unable to provide an indication for the processor, although it doesn’t seem that improbable for Apple to equip the Mini with the same 1GHz dual-core A5 processor you can find inside the iPad 2.
1GB of RAM seems to be the standard for all tablets these days, so I wouldn’t expect any of that 512MB nonsense on the Kindle Fire 2 or iPad Mini.
The first things a tablet manufacturer spares when designing a budget tablet seem to be the rear camera, the 3G/4G radios and the microSD card slot. While I personally don’t find it very comfortable to use a tablet for taking pictures and while 3G/4G radios on a tablet are a matter of personal preference, a microSD card slot is definitely something all users want from their devices, whether smartphones or tablets, high-end or budget. Unfortunately, the Nexus 7 does not feature such a microSD card slot, as is the case with the original Kindle Fire, or the existing iPad versions. While Amazon could place an SD slot in the Kindle Fire 2 (although I wouldn’t bet on it), it’s highly unlikely that Apple will go that way with the iPad Mini.
If, for whatever reason, you cannot conceive buying a budget tablet that lacks an SD card slot, the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.0 is the best choice for you.
I know some of our more casual readers are not seeing any truly significant differences amongst these tablets thus far, but this is the segment where all that will change.
The 7-inch Galaxy Tab runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (the first Android version that doesn’t suck – in a major way – on tablets) and should get its Android 4.1 Jelly Bean update in the future, although all manufacturers are historically late to provide the updates. If you’re a major Android fan (and with this being an Android website, I sincerely hope you are), the main advantage of buying the Nexus 7 tablet is that it comes with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean out of the box, as well as the promise that all future OS updates will reach the Nexus 7 weeks (if not months) before it arrives on other devices – it’s the Nexus mantra, if you will.
The Kindle Fire 2, just like its predecessor, will run on a heavily modified version of Android that makes the tablet incompatible with a lot of Android apps. Hopefully, those of you that want a Kindle Fire 2, especially for access to the Amazon Appstore, won’t be too discouraged by this.
Last but not least, in the eventuality that the iPad Mini turns out to be real product, the device will run Apple’s latest iOS vesion. If Apple can think of a way of scaling all the apps designed for 9.7-inch iPads down to a 7-inch display, the iPad Mini would be the budget tablet with the highest number of high-quality apps available, as was the case with the three 9.7-inch iPads rolled out by Apple so far – quite an advantage if you don’t think much of tweaking your devices.
All of these tablets will be priced roughly the same: the Nexus 7 costs $199 for the 8GB variant and $249 for the 16GB variant, the Kindle Fire 2 should be priced the same as the original ($199 for 8GB), while the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2 costs $249 (the 8GB version). The iPad Mini should be designed to compete with these tablets, meaning we expect it to be priced under $250 as well.
Now that we have analyzed these four tablets, let me draw the line and sum up your options for you:
If you want to get a budget tablet today, don’t think too little of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and desperately need an SD card slot, the 7-inch Galaxy Tab 2.0 is the budget tablet for you.
If you’re an Android purist on the lookout for the tablet that offers the best price / performance ratio, you should wait a few weeks and get yourself a Google/Asus Nexus 7.
If you’re deeply tied into Amazon’s ecosystem, my advice is that you wait a couple of months and get yourself an Amazon Kindle Fire 2. I assure you that the bump in performance over the current model will be worth the wait.
If you hate Android but still want a budget tablet, you might have to wait as much as until the end of the year until Apple releases the iPad Mini. Of course, you also run the risk that all the rumors surrounding the iPad Mini may turn out to be completely false.
What do you guys think of the future of budget tablets? Impressive? Foreseeable? Please drop us a line in the comment section below and share your perspective on the matter!