The introduction of Apple's new iPad last week signaled yet another revolution in full-size, high-quality tablets.
Not because of the new iPad, silly. Because of Apple's decision to keep the iPad 2 around and drop the price by $100 to $399 for the 16 GB Wi-Fi version. Or if you're willing to get a refurbished model, $349.
That decision exerts still more downward pressure on the iPad's Android competitors, meaning a person can buy a high-quality tablet that runs the latest version of Android, 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich, for as little as $299 for a refurbished model.
We've come a long way if you consider that a year ago $499 for the iPad 2 was by far the best deal to be had, with poor competition from a set of immature Android tablets that couldn't match Apple's quality and in most cases either equaled or were priced more than an iPad.
Not that the new iPad wouldn't be nice to own. At 2048x1536 pixels, it has the highest-resolution display of any computer, cramming 326 dots per inch of screen real estate. At that resolution, the naked eye can't see any individual pixels from a distance of a foot. Apple likes to call this a retina display, which first rolled out on the iPhone last year.
The new iPad also has a faster dual-core processor with a quad-core graphics chip to power the display, as well as better cameras, a new dictation app and is available in models capable of handling 4G LTE high-speed data connections. It's also slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2 to handle the new electronics.
But frankly I would be unmoved to trade up from an iPad 2. This new model, starting at $499 for a 16 GB Wi-Fi model just as its predecessor, has incremental upgrades that are so unexciting that Apple couldn't even label it an iPad 3 with a straight face—electing instead to call it the “new iPad.”
Indeed, other than the retina display, many other Android-based tablets either rival or surpass the iPad from a hardware point of view. And with Ice Cream Sandwich, Google's open-source operating system is finally competitive with Apple's iOS.
The one area where Apple will continue to lead for years is in what industry analysts and observers like to call an “ecosystem.” That refers to a tablet's overall environment: the number and quality of apps and accessories that are available for it, the number of developers actively creating apps for it, and the ease and seamlessness of consuming media like music, books and videos on it.
Where Android does lead is on price, and also with different hardware that might draw buyers away from the iPad: various sizes, starting with Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, at $199; and shapes, such as Sony's recent wedge and dual-screen offerings; tablets that blur the line with smartphones, like Samsung's Galaxy Note; or that blur the line with netbooks, like the Asus Transformer models.
It's the prices that are a particular draw right now.
One can buy a refurbished Samsung 16 GB Galaxy Tab 10.1, an Android clone of the iPad 2, for as low as $340, or for a 32 GB, $370 with a $25 media store credit; a refurbished Asus 16 GB Transformer tablet for $300; a refurbished 16 GB Acer Iconia Tab for $300; or a refurbished 16 GB Toshiba Thrive for $330.
These tablets are mostly similar in their basic hardware specifications, which rival or better the iPad 2: Typically they have an Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor running at 1 GHz, 1280x800-pixel display (the iPad 2's is 1024x768), 9-11 hour battery life, 16 GB RAM, a micro SD card slot for up to 32 GB of expansion memory, some type of USB and HDMI ports, Bluetooth, B/G/N Wi-Fi, GPS, compass, accelerometer, and front and rear-facing cameras. Most are closer to the original iPad in weight and thickness, except for the Galaxy Tab, which is close to the iPad 2's svelte form.
You might notice I keep mentioning prices for refurbished models. If you are looking for the best prices and the item is not a gift for someone else, refurbished/recertified models are a particularly good deal. There usually are no moving parts on a tablet computer to wear out; the odds of an electronic component malfunctioning are much greater in the first few days of use, when any manufacturing flaws get a chance to surface.
In this instance, view refurbished as giving a tablet an extended test period to ensure nothing will break down the line. As long as it's fixed by a factory repair facility, in most cases it's literally as good as new. I've purchased several refurbished electronics items over the years without a problem.
Here is a definition of refurbished electronics posted at Newegg.com, one of the large Web electronic retailers that offers them:
"Factory Serviced and Refurbished products are items which have been returned to an authorized factory repair facility for testing, inspection, and repair, or which have been repaired by certified technicians. Please note that some recertified items may have marks, scratches, or other slight signs of wear. All factory service products carry the applicable manufacturer’s warranty and the listed Newegg Return Policy."
Another large Web retailer that offers them is TigerDirect.com, which has the added benefit of charging no sales tax as long as you don't live in Florida, where it's located.
If you are looking for new versions of these tablet models, expect to pay around $50 to $80 more.