A parent's dilemma: Replacing the family iPad on the cheap

CNET's Marguerite Reardon helps a busy working mother figure out how not to break the bank when a work-issued iPad has to go back.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

What's a busy working mama to do when the family iPad suddenly has to be returned to the office? The first thing is not to panic.

Kids and iPads are like peanut butter and jelly -- they just go together. Sure, there are lots of debates about the appropriate age for when kids should be allowed to use tablets and smartphones. There are warnings about limiting kids' screen time, even as they get older.

The reality is that children are among the heaviest users of tablets. From occupying a toddler in a restaurant so mom and dad can finally get a decent meal to entertaining elementary-age kiddos on a long flight or car trip, parents see tablets as a useful tool to help preserve their sanity.

But let's not beat around the bush: Children of any age aren't known for being gentle on anything, let alone expensive technology. So what happens when a family's most-relied-upon piece of technology suddenly disappears? In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help one mother figure out options for replacing her family's most-prized gadget.

Dear Maggie,

Help! One of the office managers at my work just emailed to ask our team to turn in our work iPads. We got them two years ago for a grant we were on at the time. I actually left that program and have been working at a different program. Since then, I've let my kids use the iPad to play games like Minecraft. Now it looks like the party's over!

My question is how can I replace this iPad as cheaply as possible? We don't need a lot of bells and whistles. The kids really just use it for Minecraft, Stack the States and maybe a movie or two here and there. Would buying another brand save me some money?


B'more Momma of Five

Dear B'more Momma of Five,

Apple products are pricey. Buying the latest and greatest Apple anything is likely to set you back at least a few hundred dollars. Apple currently offers four choices of new iPads. The lowest-priced model is the iPad Mini 2, which starts at $299. The most expensive option is the iPad Air 2, which starts at $499. With all of the models, the price escalates when you tack on additional storage.

Apple currently offers four new models of iPads. Apple products screenshot

So the first thing you need to ask yourself is how much money are you willing to spend for a device that's primarily going to be in the hands of your children. I'm guessing they may be somewhat clumsy or forgetful when it comes to expensive gadgetry. Am I right?

Fortunately, you've got a few options for replacing the family tablet on a budget. One way to save money on an iPad is to buy it used or refurbished. If you're looking for even more savings, another option is to buy a tablet from just about any brand other than Apple.

Recycled iPads

You've got two options when it comes to buying an older iPad. You can simply buy a used device or you can buy one that is "certified pre-owned," or sales-speak for a product that has been refurbished. What's the difference?

The words "used" and "refurbished" are often used interchangeably. But there are important differences. Buying a used iPad means the product will come in the condition that it is in when it's being sold, whether that's like-new, old, dirty or just worn out. Refurbished iPads are supposed to look like new and be in good to excellent condition.

Apple's iPad Air and iPad Mini 2 CNET

When you buy a refurbished iPad, it's been cleaned and any cosmetic damage is fixed. The device is tested to make sure it functions properly and if any hardware isn't functioning, it's replaced. The device is also wiped of old data and software is restored to what it would be for a new device.

Another difference is that refurbished iPads, particularly ones sold by Apple, come with a one-year warranty. Used devices often come with no additional warranty. So if the original manufacturer warranty or AppleCare extended warranty are expired, you're likely out of luck on.

Of course, a certified pre-owned iPad is going to cost you more than simply buying a used iPad. For instance, Apple is selling a refurbished 16GB iPad Air with a Wi-Fi-only data connection, which was originally launched in 2013, for $339. A new iPad Air sold from Apple costs $399.

Sites like Gazelle.com also sell refurbished Apple products. Gazelle offers a refurbished iPad Air for $309. That's $30 less than Apple's refurbished model and $90 less than buying a new one from Apple.

You may be able to get an iPad for even less by buying it used. Amazon sellers are offering a used 16GB Wi-Fi-only iPad Air for $250 or less. You may be able to get the same iPad Air for even less on auction sites, such as eBay. There's also Craigslist and a whole host of local or specialized Facebook group sites where you may also find used electronics, such as iPads.

But there are significant risks to buying used. The device could be damaged or not work at all. So even though it's tempting to buy a used device, I would probably opt for spending more on a certified pre-owned iPad.

iPad alternatives

Apple may be the leader in the tablet market, but it's not the only game in town. If you're truly looking for the least expensive option, you may want to consider alternatives, such as tablets based on Google's Android, the software that powers most non-Apple smartphones. Amazon also offers an inexpensive and kid-friendly Fire tablet.


Before you make this decision, you should be aware that none of the apps or games you currently own for the iPad will work on any of these other devices. This means you'd have to buy new versions of Minecraft and Stack the States, because the software powering the tablet is different and incompatible with the iPad.

This is a big decision because not only is it likely that the experience of the tablet may differ from that of the iPad, but you will essentially be locking yourself into a new library of apps. In essence, the choice you make today will likely dictate the products you'll have to choose from in the future when new models come out.

Leaving Apple's world isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many developers offer apps and games on multiple platforms. But you should be aware that in terms of tablet apps, Apple is still the leader and it tends to have the more popular apps and games. Android and its Google Play store also offer a wide range of choices and are likely to have the same games and apps as Apple. But you will likely be more limited in terms of the content you can access from the Amazon Fire and other platforms, such as the LeapFrog, Nintendo or VTech brands.

Here's a quick look at some of the Apple iPad alternatives worth checking out if you're looking for a tablet for kids.

The Amazon Fire is a solid choice for kids if you're looking for the most popular mainstream games and you also plan to stream movies and music and read books on it. It's incredibly affordable. This year's 7-inch Fire HD goes for about $140. But you can also get a used first-generation Fire for less than $50. The one thing I'd caution you about is that the Fire products use a version of Android that is customized by Amazon. This means that the device is not compatible with the Google Play store. This could limit the games and apps you will be able to access for this tablet.

Other manufacturers, such as Samsung and Asus, also make affordable tablets that use the Android operating system. These tablets can access the full Google Play store, which is likely to have all the same apps and games that you could get from Apple, but in an Android version. You can get the 7-inch Nexus 7 tablet made by Asus with 16GB of storage for around $199. Samsung's Galaxy Tab 3, a 7-inch tablet that is made for kids, can be had for $169. (It only comes with 8GB of storage.)

Another option is to go with a pure "kids" tablet from a maker such as VTech, LeapFrog or Nintendo. They have some great parental controls and often come in a rugged design, but these devices are really geared toward small children and they are limited in the apps and games that can be used on them. So if you have kids of all different ages and you want this device to grow with your family as your kids get older, I wouldn't recommend these devices.

The bottom line

If price is your chief concern and you want a device you can easily replace without breaking the bank, then I'd consider taking the plunge now and buying an iPad alternative. I've always been a fan of the Google Nexus products, so I would say look at the Nexus 7. If you are already an Amazon Prime customer and own a lot of Amazon content and you don't mind the limited app library, the Fire is also another good option.

But if you're willing to shell out a few hundred dollars, and you trust that your kids won't use the new tablet to play hot potato, then go with another iPad. Your best bet is to either buy the lowest-priced new device from Apple or get a certified pre-owned iPad. You'll easily save at least 20 percent over buying new, and you'll have the peace of mind that it will actually work. Unless you are buying a used iPad from someone you know well, I'd steer clear of buying a used device from eBay or on Craigslist. It's just too risky.

I hope this advice was helpful. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. 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.