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When the iPad first came out in 2010, I thought, "No one needs one of those," and truthfully, the fact remains that no one needs a tablet, but they're super convenient.
Let's all admit that the iPad is probably the best tablet out there (Apple haters are encouraged to come at me with whatever you've got), but it's awfully pricy, at $500 for the iPad Air 2, the current incarnation of Apple's tablet. Is there a good cheap tablet out there that's not a waste of your time (or money)?
How 'Budget' Is Budget?
Tablets are expensive. They're computers, so if you demand too cheap a machine, you're going to lose a lot in the performance department. That's why our article title doesn't have a price in it; we're not quite sure yet what a "budget" tablet should cost.
The Kindle Fire HDX is a 7" tablet -- meaning the display is 7" diagonally, and costs $199. Compare that with 9.7" for the iPad and 7.9" for the iPad Mini; the Kindle Fire HDX is affordable, but it's on the small side. The larger Kindle Fire, an 8.9" tablet, is $394.
Electronics review website The Wirecutter called the NVIDIA Shield its Best Android Tablet, thanks to a high-resolution 8" screen and great performance. But at $299, it's on the high end, especially of smaller tablets.
The Kindle Fire is a great little tablet, but unless you've had one before, there's a secret you don't know about it. The Kindle Fire is technically powered by Google's Android operating system; however, unlike almost all other Android devices, you can't get apps for the Kindle Fire from the Google Play store. You must get them from the Amazon App Store, which contains far fewer apps.
"Budget" tablets usually achieve that status by skimping somewhere, and it's usually on performance. It's crucial that you test an inexpensive tablet before you buy it to make sure it's snappy enough for you. Earlier generations of the Kindle Fire, for example, felt sluggish -- especially compared to the iPad, which doesn't cut corners on ensuring a smooth user experience.
Shut Up and Take My Money
So what's our price limit? Isn't this column called "Best ____ Under $_____"? It normally is, but we had trouble figuring out where the price point should be for inexpensive tablets. Under $200, you're really pushing it in terms of getting a quality product. And over $400, things are getting expensive. We think $300 is a good limit for an "inexpensive" tablet.
And we pick the NVIDIA Shield. Its Android implementation allows full access to the Google Play store, and it beat most similar tablets -- including several Google Nexus tablets -- in performance tests. Though it's marketed as a "gaming" tablet, all that means is that it's designed for high performance, which is a steal at $300 (especially compared to the other tablets at -- or even above -- that price).