Tablets come in a variety of sizes now from 5-inches all the way up to 11.6 and beyond. Most larger tablets settle in the 9.7 – 10.1-inch range, buyers looking for a device to carry everywhere and use even in cramped quarters or with one hand tend to go for the 7-inch slates.
Consumers looking for a tablet this size have several to choose from and now many good choices under $300. Price isn’t the only factor, of course. You also have to consider how easy it is to use, access to content, the operating system, and app selection.
We’ve compared four of the top contenders below — the Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet, Lenovo IdeaPad A1 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus — to help you figure out which one is best for your needs.
Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus — $299
The Tab 7.0 is the most expensive of the tablets in this roundup and also one of the two that counts as a fully-fledged model and not a limited functionality device. It has all of the features consumers expect from modern tablets including a dual-core processor, front and rear cameras, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a microSD card slot.
It runs on Android 3.2 (Honeycomb) and Samsung announced that they will upgrade it to 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) sometime this year. The only drawback to this is the 1024 x 600 resolution on the screen — the tablet OS is made for a higher res, though overall works okay. Samsung’s user interface skin smooths out some of Android’s rough edges.
Owners get access to the Google Play Store/Android Market and all of the apps available without restriction. In addition, Samsung’s Media Hub provides a place to buy or rent movies similar to iTunes and Amazon.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus Is For: Consumers who want a full tablet experience with no compromises and are comfortable with Android.
IdeaPad A1 — $199
The Ideapad’s biggest advantage is that it costs the same as the limited functionality tablets in this face-off yet is a fully functional tablet. Like the Galaxy Tab it has what you’d expect in a tablet in terms of cameras, Bluetooth. microSD slot, etc. However, the reason why it’s $100 less than the Tab 7.0 is that it has a single-core processor, less RAM and a less impressive display. While it won’t blow you away with speed, we found that it performs well.
It’s also running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), not one of the operating systems made for tablets. This isn’t a huge disadvantage, especially for people looking for a simple tablet, but does mean that it can’t run some apps specifically made for tablets. The user interface Lenovo skins on top of Android doesn’t modify the OS too much and makes it a little easier to use for novices.
Owners get access to the Google Play Store/Android Market and apps available to phones without restriction. Apps made for tablets may not show up when you search for them.
The Lenovo IdeaPad A1 Is For: Consumers who want an inexpensive, basic tablet but don’t want to give up functionality or lock themselves into one ecosystem.
Read: Lenovo IdeaPad A1 Review
Kindle Fire — $199
Amazon’s first tablet is of the limited functionality type. There are no cameras, no Bluetooth radio, and no micro SD slot. It does have Wi-Fi connectivity and a dual-core processor, though. The Fire is meant to be basic and focused on consuming media.
It runs on Android 2.3, but Amazon customized the entire experience so thoroughly that you wouldn’t know it was Android just by looking. This has the effect of offering a much simpler and more straightforward experience — great for people less comfortable with technology or who just don’t want to be bothered with complexity.
It’s also more restricted than most tablets. You can only install apps from Amazon’s App Store, not the general Google Play Store. Though the selection here is decent, it’s small compared to Google’s. Users can’t install any eBook app they want, for instance (without rigamarole, though there are workarounds). IdeaPad A1 and Galaxy Tab owners can install the Kindle, Nook, Sony and Kobo apps on top of Google Books.
However, the Fire is the only tablet with official access to the Amazon Instant Video app. From here owners can access any video they purchase or rent. If you’re an Amazon Prime member you can stream video, too.
The Amazon Kindle Fire Is For: Customers already tied to Amazon’s ecosystem who want a tablet that’s easy to use and want to focus on media and eBooks.
Nook Tablet — $199 – $249
Barnes & Noble pioneered the idea of a limited functionality tablet for a low price with the Nook Color, then improved on it with the Nook Tablet. Originally priced at $249 (16GB), the bookseller recently introduced a $199 8GB version to compete with the Fire. Like that tablet, there are no cameras or a Bluetooth radio. The Nook does have a microSD card slot for expansion and a dual-core processor.
The Nook’s focus is on giving users the best eReading experience and does that very well with eBooks, eMagazines and digital comics. The comfortable design and great display make it one of the best non-eInk eReaders I’ve used. The bookseller offers a wide range of children’s books, many of which are interactive and can help improve reading skills.
Though there isn’t as heavy a focus on multimedia on the Nook, B&N does pre-load Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora for streaming goodness.
Barnes & Noble also pioneered creating a heavily customized experience over Android 2.3. And again, the goal here is to make the Nook simple to use for those who aren’t tech-savvy or who just don’t like dealing with complexity. It does mean that you’re locked into the company’s app store, and there are far fewer apps here than even on the Kindle Fire.
The Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet Is For: Consumers who want a tablet primarily for reading eBooks and magazines that’s easy to use and comfortable to hold.
I should also give a shout-out to a couple more 7-inch tablets not covered by this roundup.
The first is the Nook Color, the predecessor to the Nook Tablet. At $169 it’s an attractive option that offers many of the same perks as the Tablet. It isn’t as fast performance-wise and doesn’t do Hulu, but is a good choice for people more focused on the eBook experience.
The second is the Galaxy Tab 7.7. I didn’t include this newer model in the Tab family due to price: $499 with contract on Verizon Wireless. There’s no Wi-Fi version in the U.S. yet. If you’re going for a premium 7-incher, it’s worth checking out.
The last is the ASUS Eee Pad MeMO. The company said at CES that it will cost $249 when it launches and it’s a sweet, sweet tablet that compromises nothing (or it seems so on paper). The problem is that it’s not out yet. When it is we’ll be sure to compare it to the choices above.