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The best cheap Android tablets to start 2013

In a very crowded Android tablet space, which are the best cheap Android tablets to start 2013? Which tablet is right for you?
December 28, 2012

We have a breadth of low cost Android tablets available to us, but let’s be honest in that some of them are just worthless. Android, being open source, is sometimes a curse. We obviously get some wonderful things from it, but we also get some stuff that makes us scratch our heads. More than most other consumers, we as Android fans need to be educated about what’s out there. We love our variety, but we hate being ripped off.

Let’s first define what “cheap” or “low cost” means. Every person has their own definition, so what i’m going to do is let the market decide. The Nexus lineup seems to have set the bar in terms of cost, so we’ll use that as our guideline. As the market settles into the seven-inch and ten-inch form factors, we have a better idea of which tablets are worth the cash.

Don’t buy a tablet…

Just hear me out on this one. The Chromebook may actually be a great option for some people. I know, I know…we’re talking Android tablets here, but tablets are still a foreign concept to some. Some people can’t really grasp life without a keyboard, and apps just confuse them. It really is a newer way of thinking for some, this world of apps and mobility. If you know someone like that, the Chromebook may just be a great option. While it isn’t Android, it has the same basic function in so much that you can get it in WiFi or 3G, and it runs many of the same services. Sure, you don’t have them in app form, but Chrome apps are coming along nicely.

If gaming is your thing, the Chromebook is definitely not for you. Playing games on a keyboard is just not a good idea, and games for Chrome are fairly lacking. Then again, if you’re the type who can’t live without a keyboard, maybe those types of games will appeal to you. A Chromebook may be a bit underpowered for what it is, but for those people who need something portable and easy to use, it may be a better option than a tablet. Just do yourself a favor and consider it when you are thinking about your next portable computing purchase.


Oh, that Kindle Fire

It really is a force, isn’t it? The Amazon Kindle lineup has really captured people, and for good reason. It’s cheap, easy to use, and doesn’t let you stray too far from home. It has many of the same pros and cons as a Chromebook, just in tablet form. The Kindle also started the low cost tablet era, so in many ways, we have Amazon to thank for all this good stuff we have.

Now, for many consumers a Kindle is just not an option. While it’s technically Android, it’s not Android as we know and love it. It’s a severely altered version meant to do one thing, and one thing only: access Amazon services. You can get many Amazon services with other tablets, but with a Kindle you are fenced in to Amazon’s world of apps and services. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it’s not as much variety as many people would like. Many people consider Google’s variety of services to be what makes Android so wonderful, so a lack of access to those services will just not satiate them.


If you’re the type of person who enjoys the Amazon bubble, then by all means get the Kindle. They are nice devices, and really pack in some great hardware. The new Kindle Fire 4G LTE with AT&T service may be a really good option for those who need quick access on the go. The ability to access 250MB of data monthly could be a real lifesaver for some, and at $499 with an optional annual payment of just $50 for the data, it’s not a bad financial decision.

The Fire HD is a direct competitor to the Nexus 7, at $199 with a seven-inch screen. Each tablet has their own specs which are meant to do different things. The Kindle Fire HD goes with a 1.2 GHz dual core processor, and tucks in dual-band, dual-antenna WiFi for faster downloads. It’s not lip service, either. It really screams when downloading. With two other options, the Fire and Fire HD 8.9”, the Amazon Kindle family has a tablet at just about every price point you could want, and all have very respectable specs. At $159 and $299 respectively, you won’t feel bad for purchasing either. For me, the best part is that you can go into just about any Best Buy store and they have an Amazon kiosk which has every Kindle available for a trial run.

The best screen available

I’ll be honest, I never really got the “eReader” thing. They came out about the same time as tablets, and I just didn’t see the benefit to having a dedicated eReader when you could have a tablet that does so much more. Either way, the NOOK from Barnes & Noble entered the market at what many consider the wrong time. A good little eReader that was released at the genesis of the tablet revolution, Barnes & Noble’s NOOK had to switch gears quickly to adapt. They have done so admirably, but is it a good enough showing?

The NOOK does much of what the Amazon Kindle Fire family of tablets does. It is a great piece of hardware hampered by the restrictive nature of it’s ecosystem. If your goal is to read books…like, a LOT of books…then the NOOK may be for you. With access to Barnes & Noble’s gigantic library of books, the NOOK is an avid readers dream.


Let’s respect that building an ecosystem is not an easy task. Barnes & Noble sunk a lot of cash into transitioning to the future, which is a large part of why they’re the only real bookstore around anymore. Their investment into the NOOK lineup is admirable. Make no mistake, though, this is a fairly dedicated eReader. Sure, you have games and a few apps here and there, but much like Amazon, the real draw is the direct access to what Barnes & Noble can sell you. They have an impressive lineup of books and movies available for purchase, and the ability to visit any Barnes & Noble to get a hands-on or help with your NOOK is a really neat feature.

In terms of specs, the NOOK is a sleeper hit. Fairly competitively priced with the rest of the market, it packs some great features. The expandable storage is a great option, and the screen is the best on any Android tablet, hands down. The screen is what baffles me about the NOOK. With such a marvelous screen, it’s a shame their ecosystem is so restrictive. I would love to be able to get a few awesome games on Play Store for that screen, but I can’t. At 1440×900 with a 243 PPI, it’s too good for simply reading, but that is it’s focus.

At a bit higher cost than it’s competition, the NOOK HD is a tad confusing to me. Amazing specs slowed by a really restrictive ecosystem is a conundrum I just can’t come to terms with.

The Nexus

When the Nexus 7 was announced and specs began leaking out, the Android world turned on it’s ear. Could it be true? Were we about to have a seven-inch tablet with those specs at that price? In the Nexus 7, you have the fulcrum of the tablet world. It brought balance to the force.

The Nexus 7 was a bit like the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album; the world simply wasn’t ready for it. Amazing specs, world-beating price, pure Android experience. Geeks gasped, gamers giggled. Tegra 3 chipset, a great screen, lightweight and functional. What more could we want? No matter what discussion you have about tablets, someone will always say “just get a Nexus”. At $199 for the seven-inch model, you’d be hard pressed to ignore it… or would you?


The Nexus line gives us so much, but rarely. The one Achilles’ heel of the entire Nexus lineup is the one thing we simply can’t do without; the tablet itself. We can’t seem to readily get our hands on one. Always “sold out”, always “coming soon”, always “ships in 6-7 weeks” it seems. You also can’t actually get a hands-on like just about every other tablet on the market. Such a powerhouse in it’s sector with no actual retail presence. A simple trip to Best Buy will get you a hands-on with just about every tablet out there, save for the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10. The entire Nexus line has been mired in supply and demand issues, and it’s wearing on Android fans.

On the bright side, it’s easily the best tablet available for the price. A stellar screen, great chipset, and a wide open ecosystem. Nexus tablets offer a very clean Android experience, with no bloatware or restrictions. You have access to the Play Store, the most robust of all ecosystems.


Sure, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have their strengths, but you can get the NOOK app as well as many Amazon apps from the Play Store. There is no membership fee as there is with Amazon Prime, and with the NOOK app it is easily comparable to that respective device.

What the Nexus 7 did for the seven-inch form factor, the Nexus 10 did for the ten-inch model — wonderful specs at a reasonable price. You can’t go wrong with either. While other tablets have one or two strong suits that offset some real letdowns, the Nexus family never disappoint. They may not blow you out of the water in any regard, but there will definitely not let you down.

The rest of the bunch

We’ve concentrated on the major players to the low cost tablet market, but what about all the other tablets? There is a huge variety out there, and a lot of them are very respectable tablets. They all utilize the Play Store, which is an across-the-board bonus. They also have bloatware, which for an Android enthusiast is a bit annoying. With any other tablet, you’ll wait for updates to come from the manufacturer. So, while all your Nexus toting buddies are enjoying Jelly Bean or Key Lime Pie (yeah, i’m gonna go ahead and run with that), you could very well be stuck in Ice Cream Sandwich land. Not that it’s bad to be on ICS, it’s just not as cool as being up-to-date.

Samsung has some very decent offerings in the Galaxy lineup, as well as tablets that confuse. First, the Galaxy Tab 2 is a very solid performer and available via just about any mobile provider if a 3G tablet is your flavor. They are a very solid all-around performers, but simply don’t hold up to the current crop of tablets. The Galaxy Tab 2 has seen better days.


Where the Galaxy Tab 2 leaves off, the Galaxy Note picks up. Now, the Galaxy Note series is responsible for blurring the lines between tablet and phone. The original Note (and Note 2), a 5.5-inch “what is it?” device, has thrown the industry a curve ball. In a nutshell, it’s a really good tablet… that can make phone calls. The question is, do we want that? Is that too big a device to carry around?

The newer Galaxy Note 10.1 is positioned as an all-around workhorse, much like it’s little brother. With some really nice specs like a quad-core processor and expandable memory, it packs a punch. Is it better than the Google Nexus 10, which is $100 less? If you were to lay eyes on the Nexus 10’s amazing 2560×1600 screen, you would probably say no.


Acer also has a very nice tablet lineup with it’s Iconia family of products. Where the Iconia usually succeeds is it’s expandable memory and USB slots, making it a bit more than just a tablet. Plug in a wireless mouse or keyboard, and you’ve got yourself a little makeshift computer. The processors on the Iconia lineup are fairly slow, and the screens never impress, positioning them low on the totem pole of tablets. If you are in need of a tablet that can handle peripherals, and is quite a bit more affordable than other tablets in the ten-inch class, then Acer is a brand you should consider. News of an entry level Iconia seven-inch tablet currently have the world on notice, but it may never make it’s way stateside.


Asus has alway done a great job with tablets, most notably with the Nexus 7. Prior to that, they were in a two-horse race with Acer, blowing them away with the Transformer Pad lineup. The Transformer line is their only Android offering, and all three models are available in the ten-inch variant. If you’re looking for a seven-inch offering from Asus, you’ll look no further than the Nexus 7 which is their only foray into the seven-inch class. Much like Samsung, Asus tablets always make a strong showing and are worth consideration.



The tablet market is bottlenecked. So many tablets that are similar, and at similar price points. If you want a seven-inch tablet, you will be hard pressed to find a good one at less than $200 or so. For a ten-inch tablet, the Nexus 10 with it’s $400 price tag may be the middle of the road pricing for it’s class, but the tablet is not. You can get a less expensive ten-inch tablet like the Acer Iconia A200, although it may disappoint with it’s performance.

It’s also worth noting that your needs are what should drive your purchase. All the tablets noted today have very similar specs, but some have their strengths. For instance, if you have kids, an amazon Kindle Fire may be just what you need. It has a very interesting feature that allows you to be comfortable with your child’s browsing and shopping activities. Maybe you don’t want to take risks with relying on WiFi. If that sounds like you, then maybe a Samsung Galaxy Tab or Note available via any major mobile service provider is for you.

Then again, if you’re just looking for a good tablet at a good price, you almost can’t miss. Each tablet manufacturer likes to put their own apps and services on their products, so if you have a favorite brand that works for you, by all means feel free to keep it consistent. If you’re just in the market for an awesome tablet that will not let you down, you’ve probably heard it before…and you’re going to hear it again. Get a Nexus.