It is just eight years since the late Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple, unveiled the internet tablet that he said would see off netbooks once and for all.
He was pretty much right – the demand for those under-sized, underpowered laptops fell through the floor with the release of the first iPad. But that was before we all had smartphones, and now that we do, it appears that the appetite for tablets is on the wane, too.
Apple still sells iPads, and they remain the best tablets on the market. But they are outrageously expensive for what are essentially now phones with bigger screens and without the ability to make phone calls.
The cheapest, with a 9.7-inch screen, costs £320, and that’s without the ability to connect to mobile networks when you’re out and about. If you want to do that, it’s another £90 plus your monthly tariff. The mobile connectivity is data-only; you still can’t make calls.
Android tablets – those using the Google operating system that runs nearly every non-Apple phone – have fallen out of favour. Google itself appears to have lost interest in its branded range, and there have been few new models from rival manufacturers other than Amazon, which sees tablets as a shop window to its own website and subsidies the cost of the hardware.
That has left a large part of the market to smaller brands, who can sell more cheaply without necessarily compromising on the specification. Consequently, that’s where the best buys are currently to be had.
At around £100, the 10-inch E1 by the British developer Neocore, is a decent proposition, with a four-core processor, high definition screen and 2GB of memory. The MediaPad M3 8, one of a range by the Chinese phone maker Huawei, boasts an eight-core processor and a generous 3GB of memory, all for £150. Its eight-inch screen is a reasonable trade-off between readability and unwieldiness.
It’s worth checking carefully the specification of any tablet in which you’re interested, because manufacturers, in order to cut production costs, have developed idiosyncratic ways of omitting features you would not otherwise have thought twice about. A few models, for instance, have no headphone sockets and require the use of battery-draining Bluetooth headsets for personal listening.
Conversely, others have features you didn’t expect at all. The 10-inch Yoga Tab 3 Pro by Lenovo has a built-in stand and the option of projecting the image on to a wall, rather than watching the screen. Used in conjunction with Netflix or the BBC iPlayer, for instance, it’s a lightweight, take-anywhere TV. It costs £390 on Amazon – a lot more than a Neocore but a serious alternative to an iPad.
At the bottom end of the market, Amazon’s own range of Fire tablets is impossible to beat for value. Last year’s seven-inch model is still available for just £30, and the current version, which adds integration with the voice-controlled “digital assistant” Alexa, is currently £40. An eight-inch version is £60.
At these prices, you are forced to swipe away what Amazon euphemistically calls special offers, but which are adverts by any other name, and you’re saddled with a proprietary version of Android that is heavily skewed towards Amazon’s own products. That means some regular Android apps are unavailable. You can pay an extra £10 to get rid of the ads, though not the other restrictions – but even in their locked-down state, they’re fine for general use.
And given that the jury is out on tablets generally, it makes more sense to buy one for a throwaway price than as investment for the future.