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LITTLE WONDERS – how little tablets can be cheap and cheerful

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Tablets are wonderful things, but they can be pricey: while £400 isn’t much compared to the price of a high-end laptop, it’s still £400.

But you don’t need to spend that much to find a perfectly good tablet: in fact, there are good ones for as little as £99. The £99 tablet is Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which dropped from £129 to £99 in November (if it’s gone back up again, don’t worry — you can be sure the price will fall again very soon). While it isn’t exactly state of the art it’s still a perfectly decent tablet for watching videos, playing Angry Birds, using Facebook and so on.

If you fancy something a little more powerful but not much more expensive, Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD is very good too. It boasts a much better screen, which is superb for video, and comes with more storage, faster Wi-Fi wireless networking and a faster processor. Prices start at just £159 for the 16GB model.

Before you spend £159, though, check out Google’s offering, the Nexus 7. Like the Kindle Fire it’s just £159 for the 16GB model, and as it’s Google’s own device it’s a proper Android tablet without the customisation that some manufacturers add to the operating system. Once again it’s a seven-inch device with a powerful processor, integrated Wi-Fi wireless networking and good battery life.

smart phonesThere are two other £159 tablets to consider: the Kobo Arc and the Nook HD. The former comes from Kobo, Amazon’s main rival in the e-reading sector, and it’s aimed primarily at e-book readers who fancy the odd video, song or bit of web browsing, while the latter is by US bookselling giant Barnes & Noble and hopes to carve a niche offering electronic magazines as well as apps. Technically speaking they’re very good — the Nook HD in particular has a wonderful screen, is very light and easy to use — but tablets rise and fall on the strength of their content libraries and Amazon has the edge in that department. If you want a tablet that has lots of stuff to choose from and which is very easy to use, the Kindle Fire HD will look very attractive; if you’re more techy and want something you can fiddle with too, Google’s Nexus is more likely to appeal.

You can’t mention tablets without mentioning Apple, and while Apple also has a cheap tablet we’re talking cheap in Apple terms: the iPad mini starts at £269, which is significantly more than other seven-ish-inch tablets — although it’s a good bit less than a full-sized iPad. Apple claims it’s “every inch an iPad”, and that’s a fair claim: it’s essentially an iPad 2 crammed into a smaller case, so it runs existing iPad apps quite happily. It has more available tablet apps than any other small tablet, it has a slightly bigger screen — it’s 7.9 inches rather than the rivals’ 7 inches, which doesn’t sound much but makes a big difference when you’re using it — and to our eyes it’s much better-looking and better-engineered than any rival. Is the iPad mini worth the extra cash? If you want a premium tablet, you’re using other Apple products or you’ve already amassed a stack of iOS apps then yes. If not, you may well find that a smaller rival will be just as much fun for considerably less cash.

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