Buying a tablet on a budget: Android or iPad?

Apple's iPad may be more expensive than Android tablets. And it may offer less internal memory, but the wide array of apps and resale value of the device may make it a smarter purchase, says CNET's Maggie Reardon.

Thanks to Google Android, there are more tablet choices on the market than you can shake a stick at. But with a weak supply of apps to choose from and some buggy software, are these iPad knockoffs worth it? Or should consumers just pony up a few extra bucks and buy the iPad?

With the iPad 3 just around the corner, Ask Maggie tackles this question helping one reader decide if a low-cost Android option is better than a higher-priced iPad. Ask Maggie also helps a devoted iPod Touch user decide if he should get an iPhone as his first smartphone or a Google Android device.

The tablet war continues

Dear Maggie,
I am looking to buy a tablet and have a budget of $400. I would like an Android tablet because I can use the Nook app to rent my textbooks for college at lower prices than renting physical ones. I would also like to get one in the 10-inch range because of that same reason. I have been looking at the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and the Asus Transformer Prime.

I do not want a 3G tablet, because I would mostly be using it for school and basic Web/app use. I have Wi-Fi all across campus, at work, and at home and don't feel the need to spend the extra cash for 3G or even tethering.

The iPad is a good choice I know, but I don't feel my investment would be well spent due to the specs and storage capacity. I also know that I should probably wait as the summer release dates and Mobile World Congress is coming up so I am wondering what your opinion is.

Thank you,
Undecided in Florida

Dear Undecided in Florida,
First things first. Rumor has it that Apple will be coming out with the iPad 3 in March . Since it's already almost the middle of February, you should probably hold off on buying any tablet until the new iPad 3 is announced. For one, this perceived gap in specs may close with the introduction of a newer product. And even if you don't plan to buy the iPad 3, you should wait to purchase a new tablet, because once it's announced, it's very likely that Apple's competitors will drop prices on their existing products. In fact, Donald Bell, CNET Reviews' tablet guru, thinks you could snap up a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 "for a song."

The 10-inch Apple iPad compared to a 7-inch Amazon Kindle.

There are also rumors that Apple may offer a lower-priced version of the iPad . How low? Some say the price could be as low as $299, which could fit nicely into a budget. I'm not sure how much stock I put into this particular rumor. There are always hopeful Apple fans professing that the company will introduce two products, a high-end model and low-end model, when a new iPad or iPhone is about to be released. But what generally happens is that Apple takes the existing device, such as the iPad 2 and slashes the price on it, making it the lower-end model. My guess is that Apple will do something similar when the iPad 3 is announced.

A price reduction would obviously be great for you given your budget of $400, which is actually in a sort of no-man's land when it comes to tablets. You are somewhere in between the 7-inch budget tablets, such as the Kindle Fire, which sell for $200 and the higher-end 10-inch tablets, such as the iPad, Motorola Xoom, and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which sell for around $500.

If you want a quick guide of some of the best tablets on the market, check out the lists that Donald Bell has put together for CNET. There's a list of top tablets in each of the size categories as well as one for budget-minded shoppers.

Right now, the only 10-inch tablet that Donald recommends at the $400 price point is the Asus Eee Pad Transformer (16GB Wi-Fi). You may be able to find some of the other Android tablets mentioned in his list running for close to $400, but you may have to hunt for them. And as I mentioned, there could be big discounts coming when the iPad 3 is released.

I know you said you don't want to buy an iPad. But you may want to reconsider. And the reason I say that is even though the iPad 2 doesn't meet the same specs as some of these other tablets, it has a much broader set of apps available and it holds its value much more than these other devices, according to CNET's Donald Bell. What's more the iPad 3 is likely to have improved specs that more closely match those of its competitors.

"I would make the case that in spite of any concerns over specs and storage, there is no tablet on the market that has held its value better than the iPad," Donald told me when I asked him about your question. "Refurbished versions of the first-gen iPad (now almost two years old) are still selling for over $300. It's mind-boggling. You'll be lucky if you can resell the Motorola Xoom as a doorstop in two years."

Also, since your main reason for buying a tablet is to get textbooks on it, the iPad is probably the best device for you. Why? The iPad works with the largest number of e-book stores (both big and small), according to Donald. It also is integrated with Apple's iTunes University. And it's got a deep catalog of test-prep apps.

"As a college student, I would have a hard time passing it up," Donald said. "For the extra $100 you'll spend, that value will stay in the tablet when you go to resell it, and you'll never have to worry about a lack of access to the best selection of e-book and app content."

I completely agree with Donald on each of these points. But even though Android has caught up in many ways to Apple in terms of apps for smartphones, it's still way behind when it comes to apps for tablets. And I think this is a huge issue, because without apps, why even own a tablet? I've also found the Android software to be very buggy with the apps that are available. The browser on the Galaxy Tab that I've been using also crashes pretty frequently.

The only benefit I've found in using an Android tablet over the iPad is that Android supports Flash, which means you can reach more rich Web sites and even watch some video on the tablet. This is still something that is lacking on the iPad.

Part of the problem with many Android tablets today is that the majority of them still run an older version of Android software called Honeycomb. This version of Android was specifically developed for tablets, and it's notoriously buggy. It was meant as interim software for early Android tablets.

And because it's not meant to be a long-term solution for Android tablets, developers haven't spent much time creating apps for it. So what tablet users are faced with are some apps that are made for Honeycomb and some apps that are made for smartphone versions of the software that don't run well on the tablets. In the Android Marketplace it's tough to know if the apps you want are optimized for this OS or not.

Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich, is the latest Android OS. It was developed to merge smartphone and tablet software, so that apps could work on either type of device. That software, released initially on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, is only now just starting to trickle out for tablets.

So the bottom line is this: First, wait until March when the iPad 3 is introduced. If you need to stick to your $400 budget, you may be able to pick up a new iPad 2 for that price, if Apple drops the price. Or you could get one of the Android tablets listed in CNET's list for a lower price. But if I were you, I'd buy an iPad since I think you'll get better access to more textbooks and apps. And I also think the device is a better investment since it will hold its value better.

Good luck!

Trading in the iPod Touch for an iPhone

Dear Maggie,
I am planning on upgrading to a smartphone when I graduate from college in August. I currently own a fourth-generation iPod Touch. I use my current iPod Touch to read a ton of books on iBooks and I listen to music from iTunes. Also, I can spend about $200 with a two-year contract. I have two questions for you:

1. Should I go with an iPhone when I upgrade to a smartphone or should I get an Android phone?

2. If I buy an iPhone, will I still need my iPod Touch? Or could I sell my iPod Touch?

I really appreciate your advice!

Thanks!
Viroop

Dear Viroop
If you're already using an iOS device, it will be very easy for you to use an iPhone. You can use all the apps and load all the same music you'd load onto your iPod Touch onto a new iPhone. You will also be able to access all your iBooks that you've already bought on your new iPhone.

Apple

If you buy an Android device, you will be able to transfer unprotected music to your new phone. But anything that has iTunes DRM on it, won't transfer to an Android device. Also, all the apps you've bought and downloaded onto your iPod Touch will not transfer to a new Android smartphone. And the iBooks that you've already downloaded for the iPod Touch also won't work on an Android phone. So for these reasons, I'd say you should just buy an iPhone to preserve the investment you've already made in the Apple iOS ecosystem.

Since you're not going to upgrade until August when you graduate college, it's very likely that Apple will have a new iPhone on the market. There's no official word from Apple when a new iPhone will be released. But the company generally has a new one every year. And it's typically introduced these devices in the summer. If it doesn't come out this summer, my guess is that by October Apple will have a new product in the market. So in terms of timing, you're in very good shape.

The answer to your second set of questions is, yes. An iPhone will replace the need for you to have an iPod Touch, since the iPod Touch is essentially the same device as an iPhone, but without the cellular radio.

Since you don't really need both devices, you may want to sell your old iPod Touch. Apple products hold their value pretty well. An 8GB iPod Touch in good condition with all the original cables etc. can fetch you about $66 on the gadget-buying site Gazelle.com. And the 32GB version in good condition will get you about $90 on Gazelle. It won't cover the cost of buying the new iPhone, but it could certainly help defray the cost.

I hope this advice was useful. Study hard! And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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