Beware the off-brand tablet

A search for cheap tablets on sites like eBay will result in hundreds of tantalizing options from companies you've never heard of. My advice: steer clear of all of them.

I'm all for underdogs and fixer-uppers, but I've seen CNET readers burned too many times by offers like these. Even in the best-case scenario, these fly-by-night manufacturers rarely offer support or any hope for software updates.
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Bait and switch

These off-brand tablets are often advertised with amazing features, only to surprise you with shoddy construction quality when they show up. It may have a dual-core processor and a whole gigabyte of RAM, but if they left off a USB port and the screen looks fuzzy, then it's a bad deal at any price.
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Low-cost, brand name

Now, on the high-end you have products like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 or Acer Iconia Tab A100. These are full-fledged Android tablets backed up by companies who have an important reputation to keep.

These offer the broadest range of apps, and the broadest range of features. You get Google's app store, music, books, videos, Gmail, Maps -- all the stuff you'd find on a typical Android phone.

Also note that unlike the off-brand tablets, you can actually expect to have some resale values on these.
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Hardware for those who want it

On the hardware end, these name-brand Android tablets often have many of the same specs and hardware features as an Android smartphone. Extras such as cameras, GPS, Bluetooth, microSD memory expansion, and sometimes even video output. If features like these are important to you, then this is the type of tablet you'll want to spend your money on.
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Capabilities vs. compexity

Unfortunately, tablets based around Android's full-fledged OS can be confusing to use for first-timers. The multiple home pages, pop-up menus, widgets, and tiered settings menus, all echo the design legacy of a conventional computer OS design. It's great for those who feel comfortable on a computer, but it can be intimidating for others.

Besides, if all you want is a way to check e-mail, watch videos, and play games, they're overkill, and a simpler option may be more enjoyable to use.
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Lock-in tablets

For a more streamlined option, you'll want to look at devices like the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. Both tablets cut the hardware down to just the essentials and run custom software loosely based on Android.

These are the least intimidating tablets you can buy. They have all the basics, like e-mail and a Web browser. They even have high-quality screens.

So what's the catch and why are they so cheap? Well, both tablets are locked to app and media stores run by their manufacturer. If you want to buy an app for your Kindle Fire, you're buying it from Amazon. Likewise, buying an e-book on the Nook Tablet means purchasing one from Barnes & Noble. Essentially, the manufacturers sell their tablets for a minimal profit and make it up by selling you content.

Neither will offer all the latest and greatest games, but they both still have an impressive selection of entertainment.
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Kindle vs. Nook

Choosing between these two tablets in particular is a subject of much debate around CNET. We have a full rundown of the pros and cons, but the short answer is to look beyond the hardware and go with whichever store you're most invested in (Amazon or Barnes & Noble). If it's still a toss-up, consider whether the Nook's extra storage means more to you than Amazon's suite of free cloud storage options.

Ultimately, both have generous return policies, so give them both a shot.

For more buying options, check out CNET's running list of the best budget tablets.

For a video version of this buying guide, visit CNET's How To blog.
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