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What to look for in a 2014 bargain Android tablet

I guess I owe an apology for not writing and posting this last week, when $40 tablets were all the rage as doorbusters. Cheap Android tablets are back again, and people are going to buy them–so it pays to buy one worth having, rather than one that’s going to drive you nuts.

Here’s what I look for, and you should too:

CPU. Just like last year, the minimum you want is a 2-core, 1 GHz CPU. At the sub-$100 price point you rarely get any more detail than that, but that’s sufficient. If the CPU is made by someone you’ve heard of–and “ARM Cortex” is a class of processors, not a manufacturer–that’s a plus, but at this price point you probably won’t be getting a Qualcomm CPU. You may be able to score an Intel CPU because Intel is aggressively trying to get into this space, but not every app will run on Intel x86 because some apps use C or assembly code to get performance at critical points–so going with an ARM-architecture CPU is actually a bit of a safer bet.

RAM. Some cheap tablets still ship with 512MB of RAM, which usually isn’t enough to run more than one or two simple apps at a time. 1 GB is the best you’ll do at low price points, but don’t budge on this.

Resolution. 1024×600 is the absolute minimum you want, and it’s probably what you’ll get, though some $99 tablets have a 1280×960 screen. At the $40 price point, don’t be surprised if you get 800×480, which will make for some really ugly text.

Storage. Many cheap tablets only have 4 GB of storage, which will fill up very fast. Make sure it has an SD card slot if the storage is that paltry. At the $99 price point you can often get 16 GB, which is much more reasonable. 8 GB is the realistic minimum, but even that gets crowded fast.

Android version. Android 4.4 (Kit Kat) is the only version worth having, period. At this price point you won’t be getting updates from the manufacturer or from the enthusiast community, so make it count. Most of the low-end tablets I’ve seen did indeed have Kit Kat on them, so that’s a plus.

Google certification. If it’s certified, you get the Google Play store, which means lots of apps. Some tablets aren’t, so the app selection will be very slim. This is getting more rare, but it’s worth looking for.

Pay more? Wait until next year? With all these caveats, I’m sure you’re asking if it would pay to just wait. That’s possible. In a year you’ll see tablets with Android 5.0 (Lollipop), which promises to be much faster on the same hardware than previous versions. And the prices on the other components will be lower, so tablets will either be cheaper or better for the same amount of money. The $40 tablets of today are (marginally) better than the $80 tablets of 12-18 months ago.

Then again, the expensive tablets will be better next year too, so given the choice between buying a $200 tablet today or a $100 tablet today and next year’s $100 tablet, I’d seriously consider doing the latter.


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