I’ve seen tons of cheap tablets recently. Literally tons. Part of my role at iFixit is working with students in our Technical Writing Project. There are a lot of students involved in the project—and we scour electronics recycling facilities, looking for devices that our students can take apart and learn to repair. Every visit to a recycling center shows me piles and piles of cheap, off-brand tablets awaiting the shredder. Why so many e-waste tablet towers at recycling centers? Well, it’s not necessarily because they’re broken. There are lots of cheap Android and Windows tablets on the market—but some of them are so low-quality that their owners return them or discard them.
Entry-level tablets are a compromise of parts and price—some have piddling amounts of system memory and low-powered processors. The result: sluggish performance and poor video playback. Low-end tablets are also plagued by low-end battery life—sometimes just 2 or 3 hours. Many of them run ancient or unsupported versions of Android OS that don't have access to Google’s app store. These bargain tablets seem great … until you find that you can't load any apps, and can’t watch a movie without topping up the battery. At fifty bucks, the tablet’s not worth the trouble—so into the trash it goes.
Cheap tablets are the consumer electronics equivalent of candy bars stacked at a check-out stand—ready and waiting to be your next impulse buy. This makes these tablets prime Black Friday sale fodder. So how do you find a great deal but avoid making a purchase that will prematurely join the piling mountains of e-waste?
For one, research. Look before you buy. Check out retail sites like Amazon for product reviews on a potential purchase. Sources like Cnet, The Wirecutter, and Android Authority have ongoing best-of lists, and they will seldom pull their punches when reviewing a bad product. Some quick digging in our own Answers forum can also let you know if a particular device is prone to misbehaving.
When in doubt, check the box! When looking at entry-level tablets, look for one with a quad-core processor and at least 1 GB of RAM. Anything less than that will leave you with a slow home screen and sluggish performance in apps and games. While you’re at it, make sure the device has at least 8 GB of onboard storage (apps, games, and media can fill up a device pretty quickly).
If you’re looking at an Android tablet, make sure it comes preloaded with either Google Play or the Amazon Appstore—otherwise you’ll be stuck without access to the growing library of Android apps. If the specs aren’t on the box, it’s a good sign that the manufacturer isn’t proud of them. Put that tablet back.
Of course, you can also try fixing a broken tablet that you already own. Check out our gift guide for the parts and tools you’ll need to fix your broken device. Imagine saving a tablet from that pile of e-waste rather than adding to it. If you’ve already got the tools and parts you need, we’ll help you with the repair.
However you spend the rest of the fall, have fun, eat some pie, and check in with us when you need to fix something. Just please, stay away from the crappy tablets.