As I ate Thanksgiving dinner, I had at least three people ask me which Android tablets were worth buying on sale and which were total clunkers. It's a good question. I'm putting a year on this one, because the answer will change - rapidly. This article is designed to navigate you through Christmas 2012. As soon as January starts up, there will be a new crop of really amazing tablets announced, and we'll start all over again.
Last year was basically the first year for the true Android tablet. Several models were released running Android Honeycomb, and they're all still decent enough tablets, even though they don't necessarily run the latest OS or get around with quite as much zip as the new models. There were also some not so good cheapies released then, and they remain cheap. Those duds are total disappointments all around. So, here's a few guides for bargain shoppers:
Have reasonable expectations.
If you want the latest apps, get the latest tablet. If you're looking for something capable of playing musing and movies, reading e-books, and surfing the Web, you can go for last year's model. Keep in mind that it may not play the latest apps, it probably has lower screen resolution, and it may not have great battery life. It's still going to work just fine for people that aren't expecting the world out of the device.
Go for name brands.
Samsung, Sony, Asus, Acer, Motorola, Barns & Noble, and Amazon.com all released tablets last year that are still perfectly functional today. Lessor known companies that released tablets tended to release tablets that didn't work so well back then and are still not that great today. If you've never heard of the company, you're probably better off not taking the risk.
That isn't a blanket statement that all off-brand tablets are bad. There could be a hidden gem there, but I would definitely suggest spending some hands-on time with any tablet from a brand you don't already know. Some of the earliest tablets were also made without Google's blessing and weren't allowed access to the Google Play store. Make sure the packaging clearly states that it has access to Google Play or the Android Market.
Beware the proprietary stores.
There's a bit of a caveat on the Barns & Noble and Amazon.com tablets. The Nook and the Kindle run proprietary versions of Android that prevent you from easily downloading apps from outside their walled garden. It can be done, but if you really like to use Google's apps, you won't get it on your Nook or Kindle. No Chrome browser for you. No Google Earth. No Google+ App. You can still do quite a lot just through the browser app, so you're not completely cut off.
Look at the size.
Pay attention to the size of the devices. The Motorola Xoom was the first ten inch Android tablet blessed by Google, but it was built like a brick. Very heavy. Most other tablets are lighter in comparison, but do look at the size. Unless you're mounting the tablet on your wall or keeping it on a shelf permanently, you want something light. My husband has use of my old Xoom, and he mostly props it up on a coffee table to read or on the exhaust fan of our stove to watch movies while cooking. If those uses are fine, the Xoom or another heavy tablet would work for you.
Look at accessories.
Can you buy a case that fits? The Sony S-Tab has a huge edge that's meant to resemble a folded magazine spine. Sony thought this would make the tablet easier to hold, but it also makes it harder to fit inside a case. At the time when the tablet was newly released, the official Sony case was selling for around $80. I remember the guy at Best Buy took a look and said, "Wow. Sony must be really proud of those cases. " I opted for a generic neoprene netbook case I already had lying around my house. You're going to run into similar problems with things like the Galaxy Tab 2, which has buttons on the sides in exactly the wrong position to fit first generation Kindle cases, in spite of being very close in size.
If you're willing to just throw it inside a sleeve when you're not using your tablet, you're probably going to be fine. You'd run into accessory problems with new devices too.
Data plan or no data plan?
If your tablet doesn't have cellular data capabilities included, it can't be retrofitted later. The one exception was the initial release of the Xoom, which could be sent back to add 4G data. If you're buying one new or refurb, this should have already been done. Otherwise, it either has it or it doesn't. Generally I'd recommend sticking with a Wi-Fi only tablet for your cheap model from last year. If you have to enter into a contract, you'll regret it sooner rather than later with an older tablet.
My recommendations for tablets worth picking up cheap:
- Asus Transformer - This tablet came with or without a keyboard and was a solid performer for its time. It was well-built and highly praised among early Android tablet adopters.
- Acer Iconica - Although these tablets felt a little more plastic than the Asus models, they were very good tablets that worked well. They were also priced more competitively. I know a few users who still love their Acer tablets.
- Samsung Galaxy Tab 10 - The 7 inch model had problems with battery life when I tried it, although the size was great. I'd buy a new 7 inch, but the 10 inch Tab was a great model. It's super light and thin. It loses points for having a proprietary connection. Most new tablets went for standard micro-USB connections. This did not come with a pressure sensitive stylus.
- Kindle Fire - If you can get it cheap, and you only use Amazon.com for your purchases, you'll be happy to have this. However, it doesn't have a camera, and it's stuck in the Amazon.com store. That said, I used this far more than I expected I would until I replaced it with a new Nexus 7.
- Sony P Tablet - This tablet folds together for easy storage. It also has a big split in the screen where it folds, so not everyone will love it, and not every app works well. If you're a gamer, you probably don't want this one, since it interferes with game play to have the dead zone down the middle. But for easy storage in order to do a little Web surfing or book reading, it will work well and can be found at low prices.
Full disclosure: Samsung and Sony have both provided review units in the past, although not necessarily of the models I am recommending in this guide.