While the advent of the phablets means that increasingly-large smartphones are our go-to gadgets for pretty much everything, there are still a few very good reasons to own a tablet. They're still best for reading, watching movies and actually getting work done.
If your smartphone is your primary device, you obviously don't want to spend a huge amount of money on something that you know you aren't going to use quite as much. Thankfully, not all tablets cost as much as the iPad Pro, and finding yourself something for less than £150 isn't a challenge anymore.
The main issue is that people still tend to think of cheap stuff as a bit rubbish, and might be a bit wary of dropping any of their hard-earned cash on something potentially awful. As luck would have it, we've tested a number of cheap tablets to help you figure out what's actually worth handing your credit card over for.
It's worth mentioning before I begin that the tablets I'm testing are all available off-contract, and can be purchased (in a new, unopened state) without much hassle. That's why we've left the original iPad, Tesco's Hudl 2 and EE's Harrier Tab out.
Being a budget list, you won't find any tablets running Windows or iOS here -- just versions of Android. You should be glad to know that cheap doesn't necessarily mean old. None of the pure Android devices here run anything older than Lollipop.
Why do people buy tablets? To do the things they struggle to do with a laptop or smartphone. That's the main thing I've been considering. I'll be looking at how each device feels in day-to-day use, and analysing their displays. Are we looking at crystal clear quality, pixelated garbage, or something inbetweeny?
We all know tat battery life is incredibly important too, especially when it comes to devices you want to carry around with you. Rather than focusing on arbitrary figures, I'm going to make each tablet stream the 95-minute classic Wayne's World II over Wi-Fi with the brightness on maximum. The more power left at the end, the better.
We all hate unnecessary bloat, to I'll also be making note of any pointless junk the devs decided to throw onto each device. I've chosen to ignore the Google-mandated bloat, since you can't use Android without having to suffer through it. A note will also be made of just how much internal storage each device has, how much is available for you to use, and whether it's expandable or not.
One thing I'm deliberately ignoring is the rear camera. While there are legitimate cases for using a tablet's front camera, like video calling, there is a special place in hell for people who take photos on a tablet. Especially in public.
The final point concerns any special features that aren't widely available elsewhere. They won't have any bearing on the final result, instead being counted as handy little extras to sweeten the deal.
1st Place: Nexus 7 16GB (2013), £115
It's been nearly three years since the last generation of Google and Asus' Nexus 7 hit the shop shelves, and yet it's still remarkably easy to get hold of. Upon testing it, it's not difficult to see why. This is a lovely little tablet, and I hope that when the rumours of an update finally come to fruition, the new piece can live up to the name.
First up, the battery test. The Nexus 7 ended up with 77% of its total power left, the best of the five tablets tested. If you plan on using this without access to a consistent power supply, you should be fine for a long time. The other advantage is that, being a Google product, it gets all the latest Android updates pretty much straight away. You can't install the Android N preview through official channels, but you'd be hard pressed to find a budget tablet that even has Marshmallow. In fact, in the short time I had the Nexus 7, I'm pretty sure it had more software updates than my last two tablets combined.
Its 7-inch screen size means it's small and light enough to hold in a single hand if you're reading or watching videos. however, at the same time it's also big enough to make eBooks and TV shows far more inviting than your average smartphone or phablet can. That's helped by the fact that it has a Full HD display, so there's none of the minor grain that you see with the other tablets like Vodafone's Tab Speed 6 or the Galaxy Tab E.
There are two speakers on the back of the tablet, one at each end, and the quality of sound coming out of them is pretty good. Most importantly, they're situated on the curve on the back, so the sound doesn't get muffled if you place it on a flat surface. They can also get quite loud, which is always a good thing.
On the software side, it's straightforward. Sure, there are all the usual Google-built bloatware apps, but every Android device has them. As the Nexus 7 runs stock Android, it misses out on the special features that skinned devices can come with, though that can be seen as either good or bad news
One definite downside is that there's no storage expansion here, so you're stuck with the 16GB or 32GB of storage that comes packed in (I was testing the 16GB version, with 12.2GB actually available to use). If you want a Nexus 7 with cellular connectivity, you're also going to have to dish out more. [Buy it here]
2nd Place: ASUS Zenpad 8.0 (Z380C), £110
The first thing most people will notice about the Zenpad 8.0 is its unusual design. Not content with a bland plastic body, Asus (yes, them again) decided to throw in a textured gold back plate that you need to remove for access to the microSD slot. It's a slightly odd move, since there doesn't seem to be much else under there. Not that I'm complaining -- I quite like the fact that the company decided to do something different.
One big attraction of the Zenpad is its front-facing speaker. Just the one, mind, but the fact that it's at the front means it's always pleasantly loud and clear. The only potential danger is covering it up with your hand, but that's a matter of common sense. The tablet's nice to hold too, although the fact it has an 8-inch display does make one-handed use a little tricky. Unless you're a bear-person.
The 1,280 x 800 display isn't quite up there with the Nexus 7's Full HD screen, but it's on par with the other tablets tested, and it's perfectly adequate. Things begin to look pixelated when you bring your eyes really close to the screen, but that's a pretty silly thing to do.
It's obvious from the get go that the Asus runs a skinned version of Android (known as ZenUI), but that's no bad thing. For starters, it doesn't ditch the app drawer, and secondly it offers a bunch of handy new features and customisation options for you to play around with. You're allowed to change the scrolling effect, there are motion gestures you can toggle on and off, the option to lock certain apps and share media with other devices over Wi-Fi. There's also a blue light filter to help you sleep at night.
Easy mode, which is hidden away in the settings menu, totally changes how the device can be used, removing customisation options in favour of a very user-friendly experience focused on apps. The settings are also cut down to their bare essentials, though you can re-discover the full menu by tapping the 'more settings' option. We imagine that most people ould stay away from the feature, but by including it Asus has made the Zenpad 8.0 far more appealing for the tech-shy. There's also a kid's mode to make sure your children don't use the tablet to access things they shouldn't be looking at, like hardcore porn.
On top of that, there's a system app that lets you change audio settings according to how you're using the device. This can be done using default settings (movie, music, gaming etc.), or you can fiddle with some of the levels yourself.
If you hadn't guessed already, the downside here is that the Asus has quite a bit of bloat: 12 apps that can't be removed, and six pre-installed apps that you have to seek out and delete yourself. Annoying really, and to be honest there's no point having things like email clients of browsers installed when Google demands that all of its (much better) services come pre-loaded on each device. Please get the hint, manufacturers. At least the bloat doesn't really affect the internal storage, since a solid 11.31GB chunk of the 16GB total is available to use.
One final point, the battery level came out at 71% after the test. That's pretty good, level with the Galaxy Tab E and only slightly below the Nexus 7.
Overall, the Zenpad 8.0 is a great little tablet. It's got a range of settings that make it an ideal choice for kids and technophobes alike, without taking away any of the things that would draw the rest of us in. [Buy it here]
3rd Place: Samsung Galaxy Tab E, £130
With a 9.8-inch display, the Galaxy Tab E is the largest tablet on this list, and that's its main draw. Though it's not the most exciting handset, it still comes with a range of special features, including multi-tasking. Like the newer iPads, you can use the Tab E to work on two apps at the same time.
The 1,280 x 800 display doesn't sound like much on paper, but in reality it's bright, sharp and vibrant. What's not so good is its use of an old-school TFT LCD panel, rather than one of the OLED displays included on Samsung's flagship devices.
Battery life, however, is great, with the Samsung model coming out with 71% at the end of the 95-minute film. That's the same figure as the Asus, and puts the Tab E only slightly behind the Nexus 7.
There's very little in the way of bloatware, too. In fact, aside from the standard Google bloat, there are only six apps that don't need to be there. One of those is an Office doc viewer, though, so its usefulness is... debatable. That bloat, combined with the system stuff, takes up just over half of the Tab E's already-measly 8GB of internal storage, but you can expand that with a microSD card.
A major flaw is that there's only a single, small speaker on the back of the tablet. Anytime you lay the tablet on its back, you instantly block the speaker and muffle the sound, which at its best is quiet and lacking any sort of depth. I had to turn the volume up to maximum just to hear anything clearly.
While some people have a soft spot for physical buttons, I do not. The back and window-view buttons respond to very small amounts of pressure, and I found that anytime I'd try to use the tablet horizontally, I'd end up either accidentally hitting the back or multi-tasking key. This can be annoying, and makes holding the Tab E harder than it should be.
While there's nothing blow-your-socks-off fantastic about the Samsung, it's a solid device that does what you expect it to do. If you want something large-screened for a small amount of money, it's a good option -- especially if you prefer to use your tablet for work. [Buy it here]
4th Place: Vodafone Tab Speed 6, £125
The Tab Speed 6 is a little bit bigger than the Nexus 7, and while that signals more screen space, it also means it's slightly less comfortable to use with one hand. While I was happy just holding the Nexus 7 in one hand to do my thing, the Tab Speed 6 doesn't feel quite as natural. For me, this is a two-hander.
On the software side of things, the Tab is as close to stock Android as you can get, which will please a lot ofyou. It's also pretty friendly on the bloatware side of things -- aside from the standard Google bits, there are eight apps you can't get rid of. It's your usual stuff, email, videos, speech recorder, as well as the main Vodafone app and hub for finding and updating other optional Vodafone services. The device itself comes with 16GB of internal storage (of which 11.61GB is available to use), with the option to ram in a microSD card for extra goodness.
Sound quality is relatively good (and rather loud), but there's only one speaker on board. It's positioned at the back, and as such is easy to muffle when you lie the Tab down on a flat surface.
Unfortunately, there a few more potentially significant flaws. The Tab Speed 6 doesn't have a Full HD display, and at times the screen looks a little fuzzy. It also fared relatively poorly in the battery life test, coming out with 56% of its power remaining.
That said, despite its low price, the Tab Speed 6 does come with LTE connectivity as standard. Most manufacturers tend to demand extra for that privilege. Despite the fact that the Tab Speed 6 is locked to Vodafone, if you need mobile data, this is a damn good option. Buying it also grants you a sweetener of 6GB of 4G data, valid for a month after activation. [Buy it here]
5th Place: Amazon Fire HD 8, £130
Earlier, I said that all of the tablets in this Battlemodo run Android, but that comes with a twist in the Fire HD 8's (or any of Amazon's tablets for that matter) case. Fire OS 5 is almost like a cross between Android and iOS. It features all the customisation options of iOS -- i.e. none at all. Okay, if there are customisation options, they're hidden away in a place where most people would never look.
In case you couldn't tell already, software is the main issue I have with the Fire HD 8. Like iOS, all the apps you download get thrown straight onto your home screens. The same goes for a load of Amazon bloat (10 apps) that can't be uninstalled or disabled. That's a big problem, since home screen space is so precious. Some of them are useful, but many are not. If you don't like them, you have to throw them all into one of those 'pointless' folders every iOS user has created.
Fortunately, that bloat doesn't actually take up much room, and from the 16GB of internal storage, 11.18GB is free to use. It's expandable through a microSD card slot too.
Annoyingly the software is designed to flog you Amazon's products, like Prime Video, music, apps, games, and stuff from your own wishlist. I'm not sure about you, but I don't particularly enjoy feeling like I'm being advertised to before I've even opened up an app. Personally, I find Fire OS very clunky, and much prefer the inherent customisation offered by Android and Windows Phone.
Unlike other Android-based devices, you only have access to a single app store. It's possible to side-load most Google Play apps, but that's all dependent on being able to find the APK online. Also, Amazon sends you an email receipt every time you download an app (even the free ones), which I find incredibly irritating.
If you can get past the interface, and having to use Amazon's App store, then the Fire HD 8 has a fair bit going for it. The sound is good, coming from two speakers situated on the left-hand side of the tablet (if you're holding it vertically). The display isn't bad either, and while it doesn't have a Full HD resolution (it's 1,280 x 800), the imagery is nice enough and doesn't get especially fuzzy or distorted unless you compare it directly to a 1080p display.
The tablet's casing is made of plastic, and there's a giant silver Amazon logo on the back, which looks a little tacky. That's a minor point, though, because there are loads of cases on the market. In the battery stakes, the Fire HD 8 came out with 63% at the end of the 95-minute movie. That's hardly terrible, but by no means brilliant either.
The final point to mention is that Fire OS has a blue light filter, to help you get a restful night's sleep even if you've been glued to your tablet all night. It's a nice addition, especially for keen readers.
If you're used to an Android or Windows Mobile device, it's hard to recommend switching to a Fire tablet simply because of how different it is. If you're an iOS user who can no longer deal with dropping many hundreds of pounds on a new iPad, we'd definitely recommend giving this baby a spin. [Buy it here]