Watch out for Cheap Tablets!

curtis klu tablet computer

Serial readers of the Tech Answers blog probably know that I would recommend either an iPad Mini or a Google Nexus 7 for an eReader tablet and that, though they are very pretty (the devices, not the blog readers, who could be pretty, but I wouldn’t know), I would guide most away from retailer-specific hardware like the Kindle Fire or the Barnes & Noble Nook.  But that overlooks one very important buying category: Cheap Tablets.  These are sub-$150 and often sub-$100 devices that you’ll find at convenience and drug stores.  They almost always run a stripped-down version of Google’s Android mobile OS and they almost always (coincidentally) stink.  Sure they’re inexpensive . . . and that’s really all they’ve got going for them.  So, here’s what you’ll want to know for certain before you lay down any cash for one of these little Christmas morning disappointments-in-waiting.  

  1. Does it have access to the Google Play store?
    Google Play is the default and the best app store available for Android devices.  Sadly (boy, I say that a lot in my tech articles don’t I?) most cheap tablets leave it out in favor of their own inferior app stores which don’t have nearly the number or quality of offerings that Google Play does.  That and I don’t know that I’d trust my credit card info to any of these x-brand app stores.  
     
  2. Does it have a resistive or capacitive touch screen?
    You want a capacitive touch screen.  This is the same technology found in all high-end touch-based devices.  Basically, it means that you only need to lightly touch the screen for the device to recognize it.  A resistive touch screen is one that requires you to put some pressure behind your touch in order for the device to register it.  A capacitive touch screen is worlds easier to use.
     
  3. How much internal storage does it have?
    Most cheap tablets only have 1 or 2 GB of internal storage and much of that is taken up by the operating system and preinstalled apps.  That doesn’t leave a lot of space left over for your own apps, media, and files, which begs the question:
     
  4. Does it have expandable storage?
    Can you insert a SD or microSD card to expand the amount of storage available?  This is a must feature if you plan on transferring movies, music, or photos to the device.
     
  5. What version of Android is it running?
    The latest version of Android is 4.2, codenamed “Jellybean.” A lot of these cheap tablets may be running a slightly earlier version 4.0 codenamed “Ice Cream Sandwich.”  That is an acceptable version.  However, any devices running anything earlier, such as version 3 codenamed “Honeycomb,” 2.3 “Gingerbread,” and version 2.2 “Froyo” are not worth your money.  
     
  6. What’s the screen resolution?
    Chances are you’ll be using such a device a lot for reading eBooks.  The higher a tablet’s screen resolution is, the crisper text will look on it.  You’ll want a resolution of at least 1024x600, or somewhere close to that, but the lower you go, the worse text is going to look.  
     
  7. What’s the battery life?
    This is a hard one to gauge, as what is printed on the box is frequently out-of-sync with reality.  You can reasonably expect a cheap tablet to last around 4 hours.  I’d be careful about purchasing one that boasts a longer battery life than that.  
     
  8. Have you heard of the manufacturer?
    Examples of reputable tablet manufacturers are Samsung, Asus, Acer, Lenovo, Sony, Kobo, and Toshiba.  Other brands like iView, Coby, Pandigital, Mach Speed, Zeepad, Curtis Klu, Maylong, AGPTech, Huawei, and other similarly obscure brands you’ll want to avoid.  

Companies like Amazon, Google, and Barnes and Noble are selling impressively-specced tablets for $200—at cost, or possibly even at a loss—because they’re counting on their device owners purchasing content which will make up the difference.  $200 is a lot of money, but in the computer hardware world it’s cheap.  This practice has pushed down the pricing of other, cheaper hardware to even more appealing prices—the kind of prices that appeal to our affinity for making impulse buys.  You’ll want to ignore that impulse when it comes cheap tablets, however.  An iPad is an iPad. A  Nexus is a Nexus. A Kindle Fire is a Kindle Fire—accept no substitutions.