Small tablets – a buyers guide

Note: this piece originally intended for publication in late 2012.

Two years ago, Apple said its iPad’s chances were pretty good when facing the substantially smaller BlackBerry Playbook tablet that Research in Motion sold at iPad prices.

About a year later, months of disappointing Playbook sales drove RIM to drastically cut its prices. But other small tablets were coming to market.

A small tablet appeals to people who want a device that can do almost everything the bigger models can in a smaller, lighter, cheaper device that’s easier to stuff in a suit jacket pocket or purse.

So about a year after RIM’s Playbook price cut, Apple unveiled iPad mini, a model on which the screen measures 7.9 inches instead of the 9.7 inches of its big brother.

Now, aspiring iPad owners can own the mini starting at $329.00. But just as the Playbook could not compete at iPad prices with its smaller screen, it remains to be seen whether iPad mini can sell well in a seven-inch tablet market dominated by cheaper alternatives. (Well, it remained to be seen back in late 2012…)

Are you puzzling over which small tablet to buy? Consider how current models stack up against one another.

  • Amazon Kindle Fire HD
  • Apple iPad mini
  • BlackBerry Playbook
  • Lenovo IdeaPad 7” A1
  • Samsung 7” Galaxy Tab 2

Price

The least expensive iPad mini costs $329. More typical in this segment are the BlackBerry Playbook and Amazon Kindle Fire HD, which both start at $199, while Lenovo’s IdeaPad A1 goes for $249. Samsung, which prices its offerings in Apple territory, sells its seven-inch Galaxy Tab 2 for $349.00.

Weight and width

Seven-inch tablets clock in at less than a pound.

iPad mini, at 5.3 inches wide, will fit the fewest pockets. The Playbook measures 5.1 inches in width, while the remaining models come in at less than five inches wide.

Colours

Each manufacturer offers black or dark grey models. iPad mini comes in white as well, while Lenovo, former hardware builder for stodgy IBM, sells black, white, blue and pink IdeaPad A1s.

Operating system and app availability

With the exception of iOS on iPad mini and the Playbook OS on RIM’s device, each tablet runs some version of Google’s Android. Native third-party apps abound for both iOS and Android, while the Playbook’s application catalogue still lags.

Internal memory

Unlike computers, you can’t add extra memory to tablets unless they accept SD cards. If you plan to load lots of videos on your tablets, opt for 32 GB or 64 GB models.

Cameras

The Playbook leads the seven-inch pack, packing a 3 MP front-facing camera and 5 MP rear-facing camera. With the exception of Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and its lone front-facing camera, the other tablets also have two cameras.

Battery life

Manufacturers claim between eight and ten hours on a single charge.

Input/output

Each tablet features a headphone jack, built-in speaker and a port for synchronization with a computer. Look to models like the Playbook, IdeaPad and Fire for micro-USB ports, and even fewer models for micro-HDMI ports.

Wireless connections

The Kindle Fire HD offers only Wi-Fi. The other models also ship with Bluetooth standard. You may pay more for cellular access models.

Availability in Canada

When I signed in to my Amazon.ca account, the Kindle Fire HD didn’t appear when I searched for it. Like other Kindles before it, the Fire (and the abundant content options Amazon bundles with it) may take time making its way to Canada.

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