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Why you should avoid cheap tablets

These days it's easy to find 7-inch tablets for $100 or less and 10-inchers for under $200. Here's why you should avoid them like the plague.

A 7-inch Android tablet for $99.99? Sounds great, but you'll hate everything about this limited, underpowered knockoff.
A 7-inch Android tablet for $99.99? Sounds great, but you'll hate everything about this limited, underpowered knockoff. Screenshot by Rick Broida

A couple weeks ago I received a phone call from an excited relative. He'd just spotted a 7-inch Android tablet for $90 and wanted to know if there was any reason he shouldn't snap it up.

Sorry as I was to burst his cheapskate bubble, I gave him a strict warning: avoid these cheap tablets like the plague. They're terrible.

In the past year or so, I've seen dozens of no-brand tablets--mostly 7-inch models, but also some 8- and 10-inchers--selling for mighty tempting prices. Anyone who perused Black Friday circulars a couple weeks ago probably knows what I mean.

And the online "deals" continue. For example, Ben's Outlet has the Google Android Panimage 7-inch color touch-screen tablet for just $59.99. And an outfit called ebestshop4u sells the MID 806 Google Android 8-inch tablet for a mere $99.95. Crazy-good buys, right?

No. Crazy-awful. For starters, most of these dirt-cheap tablets have very slow processors, meaning they run like molasses. You tap an icon, and nothing happens for several seconds. And scrolling a Web page is an unresponsive exercise in frustration. The usability here pales in comparison to what you get from a more mainstream tablet.

Also, bargain tablets tend to employ resistive touch screens, which require physical pressure. That's in contrast to the capacitive screens used in iPads and other mainstream tablets, which respond to the slightest brush of your fingertip. With a resistive screen, you have to push--and that ruins the entire experience. Plus, with those slow processors, it's very difficult to tell if the tablet has registered your input, so you end up push-tapping again--often with unwanted results. Aargh.

Another big issue: these models typically lack Android Market, meaning you're severely limited in the apps you can add. They might have knockoff app stores, but with none of the apps you'll want. Kindle? Forget it. Angry Birds? Try angry buyer (that's you).

I'm not saying that all inexpensive tablets are bad. For months now I've been talking up the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, an e-reader that does a mighty fine tablet impression. Just a couple weeks ago it was down to $119 (now sold out, alas).

However, if you're eyeballing an Android tablet that sounds too good to be true, that's made by a brand you've never heard of, that has a processor slower than 800MHz, that runs Android 2.2 or earlier, and that has a TFT or resistive touch screen, steer clear. I guarantee you'll hate the thing, and it'll sour you on tablets overall--which is shame, because a good tablet can be really great.

Have you had any experience with cheapie tablets--good or bad? If so, tell me about it in the comments!