You can find tons of cheap, sub-$200 or even sub-$100 tablets for sale. What you can't find is very many tablets in this price range that will provide more fun and usability than frustration. Most are marred by outdated operating systems; slow processors; and/or low-resolution and relatively unresponsive touch screens. That said, there are some very notable exceptions.
Until recently, the Google Nexus 7 was the slam-dunk choice in this category. That changed in late October 2014 as Google discontinued that small tablet, leaving the new Nexus 9 (Est. $400 and up) as it's only tablet offering. If you hurry, however, you may still find the Nexus 7 in stock at retailers.
Instead, that role is now being filled by inexpensive yet surprisingly capable tablets from the likes of Dell and Asus. Up first, the Dell Venue 7 (Est. $150) and Dell Venue 8 (Est. $200) get solid reviews for their price class. (Note that if you buy these directly from Dell, they are known as the Dell Venue 7 3000 series and the Dell Venue 8 3000 series, respectively.)
The key differences, aside from an extra inch of screen real estate and a $50 higher price tag, is that the screen resolution is higher on the Venue 8 -- full HD, 1,920 by 1,200 pixels versus 1,280 by 800 pixels on the Venue 7 -- and that the processor is a bit faster -- a 2.1 GHz dual-core Intel Atom Z3480 on the Venue 8 versus a 1.6 GHz dual-core Intel Atom Z3460 on the Venue 7. Both have 1 GB of memory and 16 GB of storage, which can be expanded via a microSD memory card. Some reviews state that the Dell Venue 7 runs on the older Jelly Bean version of Android, but it's since been upgraded to KitKat; a further upgrade to Lollipop is more distant, if it happens at all. One positive -- the Dells run the stock Android operating system, not a manufacturer modified version, and is thankfully free of extraneous, pre-loaded software (bloatware).
Despite the more powerful processor in the Venue 8, performance for both slates is surprisingly similar in some benchmark testing, with the Venue 7 occasionally outperforming its sibling. William Harrel at ComputerShopper.com speculates that the demands of the Venue 8's high-definition display accounts for that. "It would take considerably more oomph to display and continuously refresh the significantly larger number of pixels on the 8-inch tablet," he says. With just 1 GB of memory, some crashes and lag are almost unavoidable, but if you are diligent about closing background tasks, performance is quite good for this price category. "To be sure, there were a few hiccups like crashing apps and delayed touchscreen response, but not persistent enough to hinder the user experience," says CNET's Xiomara Blanco.
Reviewers are nearly unanimous in praising the value of the Dell Venue tablets. "The Dell Venue 7 and 8 offer the rare treat of bloatware-free vanilla Android with performance stable enough for everyday use, like checking email, surfing the Web, and binging on Netflix series," says Blanco. Laptop Magazine names the Dell Venue 7 the Best Small Tablet. "Dell's Venue 7 isn't just a great choice for those looking for a small tablet, it's perfect for budget-conscious shoppers as well," says Mark Spoonauer. However, it reserves its Editors' Choice award for the Venue 8, thanks in part to the full HD screen. HotHardware.com grants the Venue 8 an Editors' Choice award as well as "a solid device that punches above its weight class given its price." CNET likes both, but leans toward the Venue 7 for its pure value as Blanco feels that there is stronger competition in the 8-inch size.
Some of the Venue's stiffest competition comes from the 2014 version of the Asus MeMO Pad 8 (Est. $150). The latest ME181C configuration features a more-powerful processor than either of the Dell Venues -- a 1.33 GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3745. Most of the rest of the hardware line up is the same, including 1 GB of memory and 16 GB of built-in storage, plus a microSD memory card for expansion. One area in which it trails the Venue 8 is in its display, which offers a resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels. The other difference is in the operating system. It, too, ships with KitKat, but Asus layers its own custom user interface, ZenUI, on top of that. A few reviewers mind, but most don't. "Compared to a few other skinning facades, such as Samsung's heavy-handed TouchWiz, ZenUI is modest and minimalist," Harrel says. "It consists mostly of flat, textureless icons and interfaces, and it doesn't have much in the way of animations or other nonessential customizations to bog things down."
If you are willing to trade down to a smaller, 7-inch screen in exchange for a smaller price tag, the Asus MeMO Pad 7 (Est. $125) is another top consideration. The 2014 configuration (ME176CX) has the same processor, memory and storage as the MeMO Pad 8, and identical performance according to reviews. PCMag.com has some issues with some of the benchmark tests it runs, but Eugene Kim says "Real world performance was mostly positive, with speedy app launches, smooth scrolling and animations, and playable frame rates in games like Asphalt 8." Other reviews are solid as well. Laptop Magazine and ComputerShopper.com give both the MeMO Pad 8 and the MeMO Pad 7 Editors' Choice awards.
We lean toward the Dell Venue 8 as the top choice in this category because of its full HD display and pure Android user experience, but depending on what you need, want, or can budget for in a cheap tablet, any of these are worth considering.
Amazon offers an impressive array of tablets, ranging from the Amazon Fire HD 6 (Est. $100 and up) to the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 (Est. $380 and up). All offer good build quality, excellent performance and lower prices than their closest competitors. But there's a catch, and it's a big one.
Amazon uses a heavily-modified, or "forked," version of Android -- changed so much that the underlying Android OS is essentially unrecognizable, and users of Amazon Fire tablets have no access to the Google Play store. Fire OS 4, code named Sangria, offers a greatly simplified, easier-to-master user experience compared to Android, but it is also one with limited customization options. It also allows for unique features not found on other tablets, such as Amazon's Mayday support on its higher-end HDX-series devices, with one-touch access to live customer service and tech support 24/7.
Of course, one of the chief reasons that Amazon Fire tablets exist is to help users consume Amazon-sourced media -- movies, books, music, and apps all come from Amazon. The selection is broad, but not as broad -- especially when it comes to apps -- as available via Google Play. The interface also does a good job keeping you in touch with your Amazon content -- both recently accessed content and new things that you can buy or download.
The Amazon Fire is an especially good option for those who are members of Amazon Prime (Est. $100 per year). Prime membership gives users access to a Netflix-like (but smaller) library of streaming movies and TV shows (some of which can be downloaded for viewing off line), one free book per month from a curated lending library, and unlimited ad-free music streaming. You also get free two-day shipping from Amazon.
The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 (Est. $180 and up) is unchanged from 2013, but is cheaper; it's also the only Amazon tablet to keep the Kindle brand in its name, according to Amazon's web site. The hardware lineup is still competitive with or better than what's found in other tablets in this price range, including a 2.2 GHz quad-core processor and 2 GB of memory. The base configuration comes with 16 GB of storage, or you can upgrade that to 32 GB (for $20 more) or 64 GB (for $40 more). There is no microSD card slot for adding additional storage, but Amazon offers free cloud storage for Amazon-sourced content. You can also add LTE connectivity via AT&T or Verizon for an additional $100, plus service. The display is the same resolution as the 1,920-by-1,200-pixel one found on the Dell Venue 8. Most are impressed, though CNET complains of "a yellowish quality to the white."
The Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 (Est. $380 and up) holds the price from last year, but was refreshed in late 2014. Reviews are positive, including an Editors' Choice award from Laptop Magazine. "With Amazon's Fire HDX 8.9 you get a brilliant screen, long battery life and great parental controls for less money than the iPad Air 2, says Anna Attkisson.
The hardware lineup includes a 2.5 GHz quad-core processor, 2 GB of memory and 16 GB of onboard storage. You can increase the storage to 32 GB for an additional $50, or to 64 GB for an additional $100. Once again, free cloud storage is included for Amazon content, but there's no memory card slot. LTE connectivity (via Verizon or AT&T) is $100, but can only be added to versions with 32 GB or 64 GB of storage. Perhaps the most impressive piece of hardware is the screen, which outdoes Apple's Retina displays with a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels. The HDX 8.9 is also one of the first tablets to incorporate Dolby Atmos, which adds a new "dimension" to a surround-sound field by placing some effects overhead.
Amazon's Fire HD tablets are lower priced and lower performing -- though still very competitive with other cheap tablets, including those with bigger price tags. They are also terrific options for someone looking for a near perfect tablet for their child. One reason is that Fire Sangria's parental control options are widely lauded. For more reasons, see our discussion of the Best Tablets for Kids.