Everyone is feeling the pinch at the moment. We've all stared down the barrel of the penny jar, emptied it onto the rug and scrambled around looking for something silver, hoping to cobble together enough small change for a single sheet of 1ply toilet paper.
But even in this 1ply toilet paper world, we still yearn for the latest toy to keep us entertained, to distract us from this modern dystopia of meal deals and miserable commutes. The latest toy in 2013 is the tablet PC. However, if you want to roll with the big boys by brandishing your tablet's Apple logo then you need a really, really big penny jar.
For those who would rather impress the bank manager than strangers on public transport, there is a plethora of cheap non-branded tablet PCs flooding the market.
So are they any good? Is it worth saving a few pennies but (in some cases) gaining hours of frustration? Can you really skimp on major purchases like this? Well, we've assembled an unruly group of cheap misfit tablets and put them under the microscope. Here's what we found.
Acer Iconia B1
The Acer Iconia B1 is the 7-inch pretender, the upstart, the promising intern - the tablet with stars in its eyes and a dual-core processor in its back pocket. It's a tablet that looks, feels and functions like a mid-range tablet such as the Google Nexus 7, iPad mini or Samsung Galaxy Note.
It's built to last but sacrifices on aesthetics. The solid black frame feels like it could survive a few rounds with one of the Klitschko brothers, but it also looks like it's had a few rounds with one of the Klitschko brothers. The border around the screen is unnecessarily thick and verges on intruding, which gives the tablet a cheaper overall look. The thick frame is probably the reason it weighs in at a whopping 789g (1.74lbs) - almost double that of the Nexus 7. A heavyweight in the truest sense of the word.
Running Android Jelly Bean 4.1.2, the wannabe houses an ARM 1.2GHz dual-core processor, 512MB of DDR2 SDRAM and 8GB of onboard memory, with an SD card slot. Those are reasonable specs, but when you consider that the Acer Iconia B1 will cost £100 / US$150 / AU$150, it's a pretty solid deal.
It's quick, doesn't suffer from much lag and can happily play videos on Netflix and switch back to browsing without blowing up. The 1200 x 600 resolution, too, means you'll get a reasonably clear and sharp image.
This is a device that's marketed to entry-level tablet users or kids, but in reality it's just fine for people who aren't looking to do anything too serious. If you want something to read books, watch some films and browse the internet on, but you're on a budget, this is probably the best sub option at this price point.
It doesn't come with the connectivity that other cheaper tablets in this list come with - much like the bigger brands, it's simply USB and headphone-jack. Everything else is wireless, which, in our opinion, isn't a plus point. A good reason to buy one of the cheaper, lesser-known brand tablets, is because of their ability to transform into more than just a tablet. With HDMI and multiple audio-out ports, your tablet can operate as an entertainment hub and a smart box for your TV.
The Acer Iconia B1 is essentially at the high-end of the low-range tablets. It's bulky and isn't the most attractive tablet out there, but it does the job. The job being providing you with a quick, clear and rage-free tablet experience.
If you're looking for a tablet for less than £100 (US$150, AU$150) that won't embarrass you in front of your big spending friends, this is the device for you.
(Thanks to eBuyer for sending us our review sample.)
Cambridge Sciences StarPad 7
Price: £100 (around US$155/AU$160)
Don't let the nutty-professor-like name of Cambridge Sciences put you off - the tablet does that all by itself.
At 7 inches it shares some kinship with the brilliant Google Nexus 7, but that's where the similarities end. The 8GB Wi-Fi-only model that we reviewed comes with a standard definition 800 x 480 screen resolution that looks pixelated, stretched and generally not appealing.
You might think £99 (around US$155, AU$160) is a fair price given the spec, but as you'll see from the Acer Iconia B1, you can get more for the same cash.
The multi-touch capacitive screen is responsive and you won't find yourself touching links or apps multiple times for it to action them. There is, however, a problem with resizing web pages using the stock browser that comes with Android Jelly Bean.
Web pages fail to resize themselves correctly and, in some cases, the page will get stuck in this continuous loop of resizing attempts that makes it look like it's going into anaphylactic shock. This means you'll be stuck waiting for the web page to load for up to 30 seconds, or not at all.
Web pages generally seem to load slowly, and the Wi-Fi connection isn't as strong as other tablets we tried that are in the same vicinity. Although the speed of the internet connection is questionable, the actual speed of the device is reasonably quick, which is surprising, given that it's running off a single-core 1.5GHz processor. Switching between a web browser and Netflix and a game didn't present any immediate problems.
The build quality is solid, so it will definitely withstand an outing with the kids, and it comes with multiple connections such as a microSD card slot, HDMI, USB and a microphone port, which adds extra functionality to the device (plugging it into your TV or adding extra storage) that some of the bigger brand tablets don't include.
The 2MP rear-facing camera is predictably poor and reminiscent of early camera phones, but with 8GB of onboard memory you'll be able to take plenty of pictures without taking up too much room.
The Cambridge Sciences StarPad 7 is one of the cheapest tablets on the market, and the connectivity options make it an attractive low-end tablet. And, as an added bonus, it comes with Flash 11.1 built-in, which is a contentious issue for other tablets.
But there's no escaping the StarPad's obvious flaws - the ugly screen, questionable Wi-Fi connection, web browser resizing and the fact that it randomly switches off will irritate and infuriate in equal measure. If you're looking to casually browse the net or read a book, you'll be sorely disappointed. At this price, you're better off with an Acer Iconia B1.
Price: £120 (around US$190/AU$195)
The Zoostorm PlayTab epitomises the word 'budget'. From its plastic casing to its Duplo design, it feels like corners have been cut at every opportunity. For a 10.1-inch tablet it's surprisingly light, and for all of its faults it does boast an impressive range of ports, slots and connections.
The TFT capacitive multi-touch screen has a resolution of 1200 x 800, which is just slightly worse than reasonable for a 10.1-inch screen. Running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, pictures and browsing look stretched and washed out, but it's not a complete nightmare.
The screen is responsive and navigating between tasks is quick. The plastic screen, however, is unusually abrasive on the fingers, which makes it feel like you're trying to run your thumb down a dry car window.
The most striking shortcoming is the sound playback through headphones, which is tinny and has a constant crackling sound. We tried watching a video on YouTube, listening to music and watching a couple of episodes of Arrested Development on Netflix, and found that the problem persisted throughout.
It's difficult to describe how offensive sound playback truly is. Expect to find yourself grimacing from searing ear drum pain when you switch between applications that require sound, because the sound levels aren't equalised. Oddly, playback through the speakers sounds absolutely fine, but as a mobile device you're more than likely going to rely on plugging headphones in to properly immerse yourself.
Sporting HDMI, microSD and USB ports, the Zoostorm PlayTab offers some good connectivity, but the copied display on an HD TV isn't flattering.
Unfortunately, the casing clearly needs some work. The review device we were supplied with is split down one side and it looks like it could easily be plied apart, which is something children will undoubtedly do at the first opportunity.
This is one of the cheapest 10.1-inch tablets on the market, but it may be a false economy because of the Zoostorm PlayTab's glaring drawbacks, namely the sound issues.
If you're dead set on a 10-inch tablet, and you're put off by some of the higher prices quoted by Apple and Google, this is not a suitable budget replacement. Hold out for a better quality, better built, low-end tablet such as the Archos 97 Titanium.
Versus TouchTab 9.7DC
Price: £135 (around US$210/AU$220)
The plastic casing that has "made in China" emblazoned on it pretty much sums up the Versus TouchTab 9.7DC's design. The black matted rough plastic makes it feel like one of Lenovo's early business laptops - cold and business-like. There's also a strange thin rubber strip, which runs along the back, that seems to have been stuck on after production - classic after thought.
It is, however, surprisingly slim, especially if you consider that it houses five different types of connections - HDMI, TF, earphone and two USB ports. The uninspiring design is compounded by the fact that the Versus TouchTab 9.7DC is heavy, at 650g (23oz).
Unfortunately the exterior is also representative of the 9.7-inch tablet's abilities. Under closer inspection, you can see a very average tablet yearning to break free. The 1.6GHz dual-core ARM processor makes for an average experience, with a slight delay in movement and a very sluggish scroll on web pages.
Navigating around applications, especially more labour-intensive ones such as Netflix, is a slightly less than average - verging on deflating - experience that grows tiresome quite quickly.
Using Chrome and the in-built browser is a chore, and watching videos on YouTube via either browser is not straightforward. As with the StarPad 7, videos aren't resized automatically to fit the screen, and there seems to be a lot of fiddling to correct the problem. This isn't made easier by a screen that isn't very responsive to touch, despite being a 5-point capacitive multi-touch.
The saving grace of the Versus TouchTab 9.7DC is its reasonable 1600 x 1200 resolution that looks, well, average - especially on the Android Jelly Bean 4.1 operating system that it runs.
It's slightly blurred, but at a price of £135 for 10 inches of screen, you couldn't really ask for much more. Well, you could, but you wouldn't get it.
The exceptionally cheap price makes this one for the kids, since they won't mind the lag or the ugly design. It's also rugged enough to fend off multiple Kidzilla attacks.
The Versus TouchTab 9.7DC's wide range of connections also gives it an edge over other similarly priced tablets, but it's hard to see this acting as the nucleus of your home entertainment setup.
Archos 97 Titanium
Price: £200/US$250 (around AU$325)
If you've never had a strong physical attraction to an inanimate titanium device, the Archos 97 Titanium will pluck your cherry. It's no coincidence that it has been designed by a French company, they know all too well about seductive design (just take a really close look at the Eiffel Tower).
As the name suggests, it's a square hunk of titanium that looks like it could survive nuclear war and still glisten in the sunlight.
Under the hood, you're getting some reasonable bang for your buck. The 9.7-inch screen has a 1600 x 1200 resolution and a 10-point capacitive multi-touch system - or, in other words, it's pretty darn sharp. It's a genuine pleasure to stare longingly at the tablet's crisp multi-coloured panelled background.
It has the sharpest screen of all the tablets we're reviewing in this list, so it's no surprise that it's also the most expensive.
Running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, one can't help but feel that the dual-core 1.6GHz processor isn't up to scratch when it comes to supporting such a powerful display. There's definitely an issue with lag, and switching between applications is slightly delayed at best.
What's more concerning is that the screen lag is this bad when the device is straight out of the box, so that after some use and app downloads it verges on unusable. One of our major gripes is the lack of response from the menu button - expect to find yourself mashing the screen with every extremity available in a vain attempt to get it to respond.
This truly is a gorgeous tablet that has some impressive specifications, including an SD card slot, crisp sound playback and front and rear 2MP cameras. It's built to last, and if you're interested in looking the part, this will fit nicely into your repertoire of shiny things that people look at.
But the lag lets the Archos 97 Titanium down, and it will become increasingly frustrating as you load more and more content onto it. At £200 / US$250 (around AU$325), however, you'd be hard-pressed to find a similarly priced 10-inch tablet with these specifications. If your heart is set on a 10-inch tablet but your wallet is looking thin, this is definitely your number one option.
- Read our Hands on: Archos 97 Titanium review