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The future of the US$200 tablet

JR Raphael | April 27, 2012
The low-end, under-$200 tablet market is on the brink of a transformation -- and that means you'll soon be able to get a lot more value for a lot less money.

Spending $150 to $200 on a tablet won't get you much these days: In most cases, you're looking at an off-brand Android product with a single-core processor, barely any RAM and a low-resolution, low-quality display. Depending on the device, you might not even have access to Google's app market or other basic services -- and while that approach may work with retailer-backed, limited-use products like Amazon's Kindle Fire, when it comes to more traditional Androidtablets, it doesn't usually lead to the best user experience.

It's a stark contrast from what you get at the high end of the tablet spectrum, where $500 and up will buy you quad-core processors, a full gigabyte of RAM and eye-popping screens. Even midrange devices, which tend to have last year's hardware, are capable of delivering decent results. But once you hit that sub-$200 range, it's like you've entered a different dimension -- one filled with glorified e-readers and sluggish, subpar slates.

Get ready, though: That dimensional difference is due for a change. A major shift is brewing, and it could bring about the biggest transformation we've seen to the tablet class divisions. Put simply, budget-conscious buyers are about to get a lot more bang for their buck.

The tablet class shift

The first signs of the pending tablet class shift showed up in January, at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There, hardware maker Asus showed off a 7-in. tablet powered by Nvidia's Tegra 3 quad-core processor.

"One size doesn't fit all," Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang declared, citing the need for "different strokes for different folks."

Asus and Nvidia described a tablet that would run Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich -- the latest version of Google's mobile operating system. An early prototype of the hardware featured a 1280-x-800-resolution IPS display; 1GB of RAM; micro-USB, micro-HDMI and microSD ports; and two cameras, including an 8-megapixel rear-facing lens. Hands-on reviews of the product were glowing: One blog touted the tablet's "blazing fast" speed, while another talked of its "bright, vibrant screen."

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, was the tablet's price tag: $249 -- a seemingly impossible cost for a device of that caliber. But this was no mistake.

"As we continue to see the volume of existing tablets increase, prices naturally come down on component cost," explains Nick Stam, Nvidia's director of technical marketing. "You'll see a number of devices coming out this year that will be lower cost than what you've been used to."

Indeed, $249 may be only the beginning. Rumors have been rampant that Google is working with Asus on a product similar to the 7-in. tablet introduced at CES, only with a price closer to the $150 to $200 range. Numerous reports suggest the tablet will run a "pure" version of Google's Android operating system, with no manufacturer modifications, and will be a joint effort between Google and Asus -- similar to Google's work with other hardware manufacturers when creating its Nexus and "Google experience" devices.


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