The $100 tablet challenge

Tablets have come a long way since Apple first introduced the original iPad in 2010. They’ve gotten thinner (and, sometimes, thicker), smaller (and, sometimes, larger), more durable, and, of course, cheaper. But how cheap is too cheap? Does a worthy tablet exist for just $100?

Mainstream budget tablets typically start at around $200, making them cheap enough to appeal to budget-minded shoppers, but not so cheap that you can just buy them and forget about them. There’s another class of more generic Android tablets that cost less than half of that, though, when on sale. The bigger question is whether any of them are worth your time and money.

Google's Nexus 7: How do the bargain tablets compare?

To answer that question, I drove all over Silicon Valley to look at the tablets being sold in stores for $100 or less, and to see how they compared against my Google Nexus 7. This was not an easy feat—and will likely be impossible if you don’t live in a similarly tech-oriented area—since most of these tablets are usually seen online only, and not in physical stores. These budget tablets are also mostly from companies you’ve probably never heard of.

The upshot? Sub-$100 tablets are, for the most part, disappointing. However, it’s not all bad, so long as you do your research beforehand and know what you're getting into before you buy. Here are some things to look out for if you’re thinking about buying an ultra-cheap budget tablet.

Display

The most visible and, arguably, the most important part of a tablet is its display. However, large, high-resolution capacitive touchscreens aren’t cheap; the display, in fact, is one of the most expensive components on a tablet. Of course, this means that the screen is one of the first features to get its specs axed in the tablet race to the bottom.

There are a few things to look out for when it comes to a tablet’s display. The first is whether it uses capacitive or resistive touchscreen technology. Capacitive touchscreens are what you’ll see on mainstream tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and all versions of the iPad. This type of touchscreen, which is made of smooth glass, uses the electricity from your body to register taps, swipes, and gestures.

Text issues on the Coby MID7033-4.

Resistive touchscreens, on the other hand, are made of two flexible sheets of material that are ever-so-slightly separated. A resistive touchscreen uses pressure from your finger or a stylus to register taps and swipes. Many cheap tablets, such as the $85 Coby MID7033-4 7-inch tablet, use resistive touchscreens. If you’re looking for a media device, a resistive touchscreen might not spoil your tablet experience since you won’t be touching the screen quite as often. But resistive touchscreens are generally much less responsive than capacitive ones.

However, if you’re looking to play games or even surf the Web, I definitely recommend a capacitive touchscreen. Most of today’s popular games involve swipes and gestures that are nearly impossible to perform smoothly on a resistive touchscreen. As for surfing the web, tapping out addresses and performing multitouch gestures is smoother and less frustrating on a capacitive screen than on a resistive touchscreen.

It’s also important to realize that just because a device has a capacitive touchscreen doesn’t mean the experience is going to be an entirely smooth one. On most of the sub-$100 capacitive touchscreen tablets that I tried out, the touchscreen was still subpar. For example, multitouch gestures such as pinching and swiping were stilted and jerky. This could be due to the type of touchscreen used, or it could be due to the tablet's internal guts.

Cheaper tablets also tend to be smaller in size—7 and 8-inch tablets reign supreme here. And they have poorer screens in general: lower resolution (usually 800 by 480 pixels), lower brightness, and poor off-axis viewing angles. Text, icons, and images can be noticeably fuzzy and pixelated on a lower-resolution screen. Cheaper tablets also tend to have lots of screen glitches, which can be due to a number of factors. For example, the Coby MID7033-4 cuts off the tails of y’s and g’s on the lowest row of apps on the homescreen.

Processor

A tablet’s processor also affects your overall tablet experience. Today’s mainstream tablets mostly run dual- or quad-core processors, such as the Nvidia Tegra 2 and Tegra 3. Cheaper tablets often come with single-core processors based off of the ARM Cortex-A5 processor, though the $99 Nabi Jr, a tablet designed for kids, is an example of one that sports a dual-core Tegra 2 processor.

Multicore processors mean a faster, smoother tablet experience, but that doesn’t mean that a single-core processor is impossibly slow for many ordinary tasks. I compared several budget tablets with single-core processors with my Google Nexus 7, which has a quad-core Tegra 3 processor. The budget tablets lagged on some tasks. For example, they were slower by a few seconds while opening up the settings menu, whereas the Nexus 7 was instantaneous. You'll also see more differences in gaming apps, which often make more use of multicore processors' horsepower.

Memory

There are two types of memory: RAM and internal memory. Cheaper tablets skimp on both  these categories, but it’s a bigger deal when it comes to RAM.

Coby MID7034

Most sub-$100 tablets have between 256MB and 512MB of RAM. For example, the $56 Idea USA tablet has just 256MB of RAM, while the $90 Coby MID7034-4 tablet has 512MB of RAM. Mainstream tablets, such as the current generation iPad and the Google Nexus 7, usually have at least 1GB of RAM, although the iPad Mini has 512MB. The difference between 512MB of RAM and 1GB of RAM is mostly noticeable when you’re running multiple apps at once. Tablets with more RAM will be slightly snappier, especially when you’re switching between apps.

Internal memory, or built-in flash memory, is another story. Although many cheaper tablets come with just 4GB of internal memory, almost all the cheaper tablets I saw had a MicroSD slot for expanding the internal memory by up to 32GB. This is more than I can say for some higher-end tablets, such as the iPad, which does not have an expansion slot.

How much internal memory you need really depends on what you plan on using your tablet for. Videos, photos, and music all take up a decent amount of memory (in that order), while certain apps, such as graphics-intense games, can take up almost an entire gigabyte of space.

Google services

Barnes & Noble Nook HD.

There are really three types of Android tablets: Those that ascribe to Google's strict guidelines for certification; those with open source Android that lack Google's apps, including its Google Play store, Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, and Navigation; and those that run a customized version of Android, such as the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble Nook HD.

Virtually all cheaper tablets you'll find in the wild are running the open-source versions of Android—usually Android 4.0, but sometimes earlier varieties of Android. This means that if you purchase a cheaper tablet, you won’t have access to the Google Play store, among other things. While there are plenty of alternative Android app stores out there (including GetJar and Amazon’s Appstore), there will be some apps you won't have access to at all since they're only sold via the Google Play store. And your tablet experience will be a little more fragmented than it would be if you had access to Google’s licensed apps.

What you get for a little more

Clearly, setting your sights on a $100 tablet means making significant compromises. But if you’re willing to drop just a little more money, you can pick up a perfectly usable tablet backed by a reputable company.

Amazon Kindle Fire, $159.

For example, the Amazon Kindle Fire (with Amazon's Special Offers advertisements) costs just $159. This 7-inch tablet has a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of internal memory (no expansion slot), as well as a smooth capacitive 1024 by 600 pixel touchscreen. It’s also backed by Amazon’s Appstore and a variety of book, music, and video media content for purchase.

For just $40 more than the Kindle Fire, you can nab Google’s Nexus 7 that has a 7-inch HD IPS screen with a native resolution of 1280 by 800 pixels. It’s also got an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 16GB of internal storage, as well as access to all of Google’s apps and services.

Products mentioned in this article

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