Consumers have taken a keen interest in the 7-inch tablet in recent months, and the size offers several advantages. Not only are 7-inch slates small enough to be portable yet big enough to be useful, but they often carry much smaller price tags than full-sized tablets.
The best budget tablet is no contest: Every single source we visited recommends the Google Nexus 7 (*Est. $200 and up), a sterling run rivaled only by various iterations of the iPad. In fact, several reviewers call the Nexus 7 the first and only worthy competitor of Apple's flagship tablet, saying it's an absolute steal for its $200 price tag.
What makes the Nexus 7 such a stunner? Being powered by a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor usually found in more expensive slates certainly helps, providing a blazing-fast response speed and gaming chops. Other budget slates almost exclusively rely on lower-powered dual-core processors. Despite its plastic exterior, reviewers say it has an attractive design and comfortable feel, highlighted by the vibrant 1,200-by-800-pixel HD display. The Nexus 7 also sports Google's smooth Android Jelly Bean operating system and gets faster access to updates than most Android slates.
Reviewers dislike the lack of micro-SD and micro-HDMI ports, but Google addressed early complaints about storage space by doubling the onboard storage to 16 GB while maintaining the $200 price tag. A 32 GB variant (*Est. $250) and 32 GB model with a 3G HSPA+ cellular radio (*Est. $300) are also available.
Other budget slates are appealing, but reviewers say the Nexus 7 simply outshines the competition as an all-around package.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 (*Est. $205) offers a solid Android experience and extras missing from the Nexus 7, such as a rear camera, expandable memory and an IR blaster that enables it to function as a home theater remote.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD (*Est. $200 and up) and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD (*Est. $200 and up) feature heavily altered interfaces and curated app stores tailored to highlight their respective niches. Experts call the Kindle Fire HD a superb media consumption device, albeit one tied heavily into the Amazon ecosystem. The Nook HD, on the other hand, is a decent tablet that doubles as a good e-book reader. Both offer robust parental controls. The original Amazon Kindle Fire (*Est. $160) has been beefed up and had its price cut, but it's underpowered compared to most competing 7-inch tablets. Like the Fire HD, it's also restricted to apps available through Amazon's own store.
Apple released the 7.9-inch iPad mini (*Est. $330 and up) in response to a surge in customer demand for 7-inch tablets. A few things set it apart from less pricey Android competitors like the Google Nexus 7, primarily its stunning build quality and access to iOS apps. In comparison, cheaper 7-inch Android tablets are typically made of flimsier-feeling plastics and most apps available in Google's Play Store are made for smartphones, not tablets.
Internally, the iPad mini boasts the same screen resolution and dual-core A5 processor as the iPad 2, which helps it offer similar performance. Like the fourth-generation iPad -- but not the older iPad 2 -- the iPad mini uses Apple's new Lightning dock connector.
Early reviewers rave about the iPad mini, but many say its comparatively high price can't be ignored. At $130 more than the 7-inch Google Nexus -- which also earns rave reviews -- experts say consumers must decide whether screaming quad-core performance and a lower price are more important than the iPad mini's higher build quality and more abundant app selections.