The Need For Budget Tablets

When Apple announced the iPad in January 2009, the entry price for the tablet market was set at $499. I saw (and still see) the web tablet as the successor to the netbook, so I assumed that it would go down over time, and we would eventually see tablets settle in the $350-400 range that netbooks sold for in their brief period of atomic glory (see what I did there?) ASUS and Acer are pushing that agenda for the moment, with the $399 Eee Transformer and the $449 Iconia A500. It’ll take some time for the market to settle, but all trends point to there. I’m sure at some point in the next 18 months, Steve Jobs will get on a stage in the Bay Area and proclaim to the world that he has decided to drop the price on the iPad. “We’ve decided to make this magical device accessible to even more people. How great is that?”

So we’re going to see prices go down, as with any new technology that matures over time. But what about the people that want a $350 tablet now? Like, this minute? Well, there’s a lot of choices, but surprisingly few that aren’t terrible. The Viewsonic we briefly looked at in December was Dreadful, with a capital ‘D’. Worst screen in the world. It’s not the only one, there’s a fair number of $150-200 tablets sold by assorted companies you’ve never heard of, with awful screens, mediocre processors, and some really buggy version of Android. A simple search of Amazon for tablets brings up three or four on the front page - the Superpad, the Coby Kyros, the iRobot APad iPed EPad (seriously), the Zenithink ePad, etc. I swear I didn’t make any of those up. 
So there’s technically plenty out there, but when you start looking for high quality devices, your selection gets much smaller. The WiFi-only version of Samsung’s 7” Galaxy Tab is the first one that comes to mind, offering most of what the previous 3G versions did, now at a $349 price point. Next is the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, which is surprisingly easy to hack and makes for a capable Gingerbread tablet with a few simple mods. And that's about it.
Budget Tablet Specsheet
  Samsung Galaxy Tab (WiFi) Barnes & Noble Nook Color
Height 190.1 mm (7.48") 205 mm (8.1")
Width 120.5 mm (4.74") 125 mm (5.0")
Depth 12.0 mm ( 0.47") 12.2 mm (0.48")
Weight 380 g (13.4 oz) 449 g (15.8 oz)
SoC TI OMAP 3630 TI OMAP 3621
CPU 1 GHz ARM Cortex A8 800 MHz ARM Cortex A8
GPU PowerVR SGX 530 PowerVR SGX 530
RAM 512MB 512 MB
Cameras VGA Front/3.2MP Rear None
Screen 7.0" 1024 x 600 LCD 7.0" 1024 x 600 IPS LCD
Battery Integrated 14.8 Wh Integrated 14.8 Wh
MSRP $349 $249
Between the Nook Color and the Galaxy Tab, we’ve got two rather promising budget tablets, legitimate options for those looking to get in on the tablet movement without breaking the bank. First up, the Nook.
Meet the Contenders - Nook Color
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  • Johnmcl7 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    I'd assumed the two Tabs were identical bar the 3G, I found out about the downgraded Wifi version recently thankfully after I'd bought the 3G version as I'd been annoyed to have bought the wifi version and then found out about the inferior spec.

    I think you're quite right to say here the SoC downgrade is pretty terrible but I'd say the article doesn't make that very clear on the first page and the Tab intro.

  • VivekGowri - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    To be completely fair, it's not the biggest deal in the world - unless you're gaming a lot, you won't notice. And when I say gaming, I mean serious 3D games; Angry Birds and other casual games run just fine on OMAP 3.

    It just bugs me that Samsung was really, really not forthcoming about the SoC change at all.
  • Oscarcharliezulu - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    As a consultant, the cameras are extremely useful to take pictures of (non electronic) whiteboards, a presenter's ppt at a conference (where you might not be able to get a copy easily or quickly) and then add your notes to it. Lots of my colleagues do this also.

    I also use it to take pictures for eBay listings.

    Im always surprised when a journalist states they can't imagine what the camera is for just because they don't use it. Hope this helps your research.
  • VivekGowri - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Okay, this is exactly what I want - I don't use it, so I want to know what people do use it for. Thanks for your response!

    See, I do take a lot of pictures of documents, notes, homework sheets, etc, but even though I usually have a tablet with me (usually either my iPad or whichever one I'm testing), I mostly end up taking those pictures with whatever smartphone I'm carrying. It just feels much more natural to take pictures with a smartphone, either because the similar size of the phone and a point and shoot, or because we're just conditioned to cameraphones.

    Like, I guess my question is more - when everyone has a smartphone/cameraphone, do tablets (which generally have the same or sometimes worse sensors than their smartphone cousins, and are more awkward to take pictures with) really get used as cameras that often?
  • mushu - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the writeup Vivek. Good to see a comparison here on anandtech. A few of points:

    - the OC kernel for the nook supports speeds up to 1.2 GHz and the previous kernel went up to 1.3.

    - Many people feel there're significant differences wrt performance and usability between the latest linux (2.6.32-based) kernel and the one preceding it (.29).

    - If you use the 2.6.32 kernel make sure you also use the latest B&N bootloader, otherwise you'll encounter several performance related problems, notably with video.

    - Make sure you have good battery data and that you don't only look at one kind of task. When mucking about with custom ROMs and kernels and bootloaders you run the risk of suffering from errors related to battery calibration. I regularly get 8-10 hours of surfing and reading on my NC, ie. with screen and wifi on and never at peace.

    - I hope you looked at the cyanogenmod settings dialog where there is a set of tablet tweaks! Most important of these is the ability to have the softkeys and the status bar at the bottom of the screen. About as limited as honeycomb tablets may get without standard hardware keys :P Ie. not very limited at all. Move the keys down Vivek :o

    - Never mind the stock browser on any non-honeycomb android device. Check out opera mobile.

    The nook is a great device for those who enjoy tinkering and who do not want to pay extra for things like cameras.
  • VivekGowri - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Haha, right now I wish I had talked to you before I started this article. You know a lot more about this than I do, all of which I picked up in a brief amount of surfing on the XDA forums. I went for a quick root - just the latest rev of CM7 (about three weeks ago?), Google Apps, and that's it. I'm not a huge proponent of overclocking mobile devices, since the long-term wear and tear it results in tends to shorten the life of the system.

    I like the bar being at the top, and I didn't mind the softkeys being up there, it just required a little bit of mental recalibration. I'll check that out though!

    Battery-wise, that's about what I was expecting - B&N quotes 8 hours of life with the wifi off, so 6.5 hours with a stressful wifi test sounded fine to me. I understand that people can do a ton of tinkering and tweaking to the OS for performance, battery, usability, whatever floats their boat, and I really love that about the Nook Color. I just wanted to get a feel for what it was at the base level.
  • MonkeyPaw - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Yeah CM7 is constantly improving with nightly builds, so 3 weeks ago is actually a long time. There are other options that update, too. I ran rooted 1.2 until the beta 3.1 with sleep fix. I've been running the beta for a week and had great luck. Took maybe 15 minutes to get it running. The NC really is a great piece of hardware for the price. If you like playing with new ROMs as much as you like using it as a tablet, its a fun purchase. There's even an Ubuntu build under development.
  • VivekGowri - Thursday, May 26, 2011 - link

    I had the Nook for exactly 2 weeks, I didn't want to spend a whole bunch of time experimenting with various ROMs and nightly builds. I just grabbed the latest nightly and went from there. But that's basically what I was referring to - if you want to get really into that, there's a great community behind development for the Nook.
  • Shadowmaster625 - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    Can we get battery life and surface temperature readings of an 800 MHz Nook vs a 1000 MHz Nook?
  • RomanMtz - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - link

    How does the Viewsonic G-Tablet compare to these at $289?

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