If the hype is to be believed, 2013 is going to be a tablet Christmas and, over the next few weeks, these handheld devices are set to outsell personal computers for the first time.
Once dismissed as a product that would never catch on, tablet computers have transformed the way households access the internet and entertain themselves.
Want to catch up on a missed TV programme or watch a downloaded film on the go? It’s now possible, and on a screen whose quality puts many TVs to shame. Then there’s email that you can talk to rather than type, a web-surfing experience done by touch rather than mouse, and more games and apps than you can shake a stick at.
With the countdown to Christmas starting in earnest, Guardian Money decided to check out the non-Apple market – ie, the options for those who don’t have the minimum £250 it costs to get your hands on the smallest iPad. We’ve weighed them up, checked the camera quality and surfed a thousand websites, so you don’t have to. We also talked to the experts who live and breathe this stuff.
Aiming at the lower end of the market, we have been largely restricted to seven-inch screens, and ones that use Wi-Fi rather than connecting via a phone network. But having weighed them up, we reckon the sub-£200 market will, for most people, come down to a choice of two.
In the £120 price bracket, the one to go for – somewhat to our surprise – is the Tesco Hudl. However, if you can find an extra £60 – and we’d urge you to, if you can – the Google Nexus 7 (from £180) is Money’s top pick. Technology comparison website TechRadar.com‘s expert Gareth Beavis says that pound-for-pound it is the best – and it’s hard to disagree. The smallest iPad Mini is £249 at Currys, though you can get £20 cashback, as long as you don’t forget to claim it afterwards.
If you haven’t tried a tablet, it’s worth giving it a go. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say many users would rather go on a near starvation diet than hand their tablet over, so dependent upon them have they become!
The fact they are always on – albeit in sleep mode – and can be fired up in a second to end the dispute over which actor starred in a certain film, has helped make them indispensable.
New voice recognition software is a boon to those who find typing difficult. A few swipes of the screen and you can dictate your email. It’s not perfect but pretty damn good.
Simon Lawrence at Carphone Warehouse predicts 2013 is going to be “a huge Christmas for tabs”, adding: “Last year was supposed to be big, but while that might have been a little overstated, this is going to be the year.”
He says the big change is the range of products that have come on to the market. “There are now some fantastic tablets that can be picked up for less than £120. They have the advantage that they can do as much, or as little, as you want.
“Those looking to just watch the odd film, surf the web and send emails can do so on an easy-to-use level. If you’re more technically advanced, they have the capacity to meet your needs, too.”
Tesco Hudl: £119 (less with Clubcard vouchers)
Following in Amazon’s footsteps, Tesco surprised a few people when it launched its seven-inch tablet (it’s pronounced huddle) – and it’s fair to say it has wowed a sceptical press that probably hoped it wouldn’t be very good.
For £119 this can’t be beaten. The screen is sharp and offers good TV/film watching. It’s well made and feels as though it will probably take a bash or two and carry on working. It has the tried and tested Android operating system, and a fast-ish processor that allows users to whizz around pretty smoothly.
This tester actually thought the keyboard was better than the one on our iPad 2, and the voice recognition system works surprisingly well given its price.
It comes with a standard memory of 16GB, which will be more than enough for most. But it has the major advantage that this can be increased by adding a micro SD card (to be bought separately). Other more expensive tablets, including Apple, don’t offer this.
If you want to connect it to your TV to watch films bought from Tesco’s LoveFilm equivalent, Blinkbox, you can do so via its micro-HDMI slot, although again you’ll need to buy an extra lead.
Tesco, which can’t be making much money (if any) on the price, pre-loads the Hudl with Clubcard points and its shopping channels, but these can be removed.
The only real downside we could find was its weight, at 370 grams. It feels pretty heavy in the hand – substantially heavier than its expensive rivals. This might be a problem if you plan to use it a lot as an e-reader.
Battery life is fine – some have said it is slow to recharge but, given most people do this overnight, we don’t see it as a problem. The built-in camera isn’t amazing but it is good enough.
The processor occasionally struggled to keep up, the built-in speakers could be better, and the screen could be brighter, but this is nitpicking.
If you want a simple tablet to browse the net, read the occasional book on the go, or for younger kids to use, it is a great choice that beats the others at this price.
Money score: 8/10
Kindle Fire: HD £119, HDX £199
When Amazon launched the original Kindle Fire tablet there wasn’t a lot of competition, but there is now. The latest version uses a slightly different operating system to other Android tablets, and our impression is that, unlike the others, it has been designed primarily to access the media bought from Amazon – films, music etc. It feels nice to hold, the screen is good, and the speakers better than the Hudl’s.
Amazon shoppers will enjoy the fact that everything they have bought is stored and easily accessible. Shopping is a doddle. However, the cheaper Kindle Fire HD only gets an 8GB memory – the 16GB version costs £139 – and you can’t extend it. On the downside, Amazon’s Appstore still lacks many of those on Google Play. For us, the fact there is no camera is a major omission.
If you’re happy to be limited to using Amazon’s services for apps, games, books, music and videos, then you won’t be disappointed.
The previous model is now just £99, but for everyone else it probably makes more sense to opt for the Hudl.
The same is largely true of the more expensive Kindle Fire HDX. For the extra £80 you get a significantly lighter tablet. The processor is faster and the screen and sound are great. There is only a front-facing camera, which means taking anything other than a “selfie” is tricky.
The major advantage it offers is the “Mayday” button, which you may have seen advertised. It’s aimed at those who struggle with technology and can be dialled day or night. Amazingly, it works well.
Overall, the HDX is outdone by the Google Nexus, which is cheaper.
Another option to consider is the larger Kindle Fire HD with the 8.9-inch screen. It normally costs £229, but is currently £179 – a great price for the bigger screened version.
Money score: Fire HD 7/10, Fire HDX 8/10
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3: £139
If you crave the iPad look and feel, but can’t afford Apple prices, the Samsung comes the closest – in looks, at least. It’s a similar design and the way it is set out has an Appley feel – superficially, at least.
The trouble is that it all feels a tad slow and clunky in comparison to the other tablets tested. It is difficult to type quickly or accurately if you have anything bigger than a child’s fingers. That said, it does the job and has a classier feel than, say, the cheaper Hudl. It has sold in big numbers.
When looking at websites, the screen feels smaller than it should be as the taskbar is quite big.
Gareth Beavis at TechRadar.com says that while Samsung produces fantastic smartphones, its tablet range is “too expensive for what they are, and there are better ones out there”.
Money score: 6/10
Google Nexus 7: 2012 model £119, 2013 model £180-£200+
The Nexus 7 was one of the best last year, offering buyers at the time a great tablet for £159. This is now available for £119, and is still great value, despite being eclipsed by the Hudl. However, the 2013 model, which is also built by Asus for Google, is our top pick.
It now starts at £180 (at Amazon) for the 16GB version – the 32GB costs over £200. Out of the box it has a quality feel akin to the iPad. It’s slimmer and lighter than last year’s model, and now comes with two cameras – the front is 1.2 megapixel while the rear camera is 5. It’s fast to use and the screen is brilliant. Watching BBC iPlayer this week, the programmes looked amazing. The battery has a long life and it is light enough to use as an e-reader.
The only downsides are that there isn’t a micro SD card slot to allow you to expand the memory, and the speakers aren’t as good as the Kindle Fire HDX.
Gareth Beavis says that, pound-for-pound, there isn’t a better tablet out there. Having played with the main contenders this week, it’s hard to disagree. The iPads certainly have more fans, but this tablet, in our view, offers incredible value for money.
Money score: 7.5/10 for last year’s, and 9/10 for 2013 model