The 8 best small tablets of 2014: what’s the best compact tablet?
If you’re in the market for a compact tablet, the sheer variety on offer can seem daunting. Not only is there a vast number of devices to choose from, but every manufacturer also offers something slightly different, with features, screen technologies, operating systems and prices all varying dramatically between rival tablets. See also: the best tablets of 2014.
The key difference – and one from which all other differences stem – is the price, which runs the full gamut from laptop-rivalling bank-balance smashers, to bargain-basement impulse buys. At the top end you can expect to pay more than £300; there’s a middle band of tablets costing around £200; and a selection of cheaper devices that come in at just over £100.
You may wonder why there’s such a big price difference between these tablets, since at first glance there isn’t a huge difference in size and appearance. Plus, they all do essentially the same thing, right? Well, that’s not entirely true.
Best small tablets 2014: build, design and screen quality
For starters, build and design does vary quite significantly as you go up the price scale. The lower-priced models will usually have chunkier, creakier designs, with cheap plastic chassis that exhibit a lot of flex if handled roughly.
Shell out a bit more and chassis begin to look sleeker, and employ more expensive materials for a sturdier build quality.
It’s a similar story for displays. A good screen is absolutely essential for a tablet, compact or not.
You’ll have difficulty finding a compact tablet display that isn’t at least IPS, so viewing angles will always be good; the differences concern quality and resolution.
With a compact tablet, you want the screen to be as bright as you can get it and contrast to be as high as possible. The brighter the screen at its maximum setting, the more likely you are to be able to read it outdoors in bright sunshine. Aim for around 400cd/m2 and above. For contrast, anything from 700:1 and up is pretty respectable.
Resolutions vary hugely, too. At the top end of the market, you’ll find pin-sharp 1,600 x 2,560 screens. At the bottom end you’re limited to 800 x 1,280. Don’t assume that higher is always better, however, since there’s a limit to the level of detail the human eye can resolve.
Best small tablets 2014: core hardware and battery life
You can never have too much power, however. The faster your processor, the more responsive your tablet will feel in general use. The faster its graphics chip, the smoother it will play demanding games.
So which chips should you look for? Most modern tablets employ processors designed by British company ARM, but there’s a profusion of different models. Currently, the fastest models are the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800/801, Samsung’s Exynos Octa 5 and Apple’s A7.
The slowest and most sluggish performers tend to come from lesser-known manufacturers such as Rockchip and MediaTek. You’ll find these in tablets at around the £100 mark. Tablets with these chips will experience more slowdown when downloads, installations and updates are happening in the background, or when many apps are running simultaneously.
Then there’s Intel, which is slowly beginning to muscle in on ARM’s territory. The latest versions of the firm’s Atom chips, as found in the Asus Memo Pad 7, deliver performance that’s comparable to the fastest current ARM processors, both in gaming and non-gaming scenarios – and from the hardware we’ve seen so far, the cost isn’t prohibitive. However, the problem with Intel-powered Android tablets is that not all apps and games on Google Play are compatible with them.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that a tablet’s core hardware will have an impact on battery life. Once again, the latest ARM-based processors come up trumps here: we’ve found that tablets powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800/801 processors tend to deliver the longest battery life in our tests.
That isn’t the only factor at play when it comes to stamina, though. With more pixels to power, an ultra-high-resolution screen may sap the battery quicker. And the capacity of the battery is also important in determining how long a tablet will last between charges: the higher the mAh rating of the battery, the better.
Best small tablets 2014: other features
Not every tablet has one, but a microSD slot is useful. It allows you to transfer large files quickly to your tablet, and keep them stored locally without impinging on your main storage.
An HDMI video output is worth having, too – it’s by far the easiest way to display the screen of your Android tablet on a TV or monitor. However, dedicated outputs are rare on compact tablets. These days it’s more common for devices to deliver video output via either MHL or SlimPort.
Finally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the camera specifications. Not every compact tablet has a rear camera and the low-megapixel units tend to be, without exception, awful. Even on the more expensive models, which can shoot decent snapshots, don’t expect smartphone levels of quality.
Best small tablets 2014: operating system
What you can actually do with your tablet, and the selection of apps available, is mostly determined by the operating system it runs. If you want to get a feel for the differences between the three main operating systems – iOS, Android and Windows 8 – then head on over to our guide here: what’s the best compact tablet OS?”
Price when reviewed: £170 inc VAT
The Nexus 7 has reigned as our A-list compact tablet of choice for over a year now thanks to its beautiful design and screen, powerful hardware and reasonable price.
2. Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7in
Price when reviewed: £199 inc VAT
A durable, attractive and powerful compact tablet with a fantastic screen, hampered only by the limitations of Amazon’s proprietary OS.
Price when reviewed: £319 inc VAT
A pin-sharp retina screen, gorgeous design and high-performance specs make the iPad mini an excellent addition to Apple’s impressive roster of tablets.
Price when reviewed: £120 inc VAT
Boasting higher performance scores than we thought possible for a tablet this cheap, the Memo Pad 7 is a bargain.
Price when reviewed: £200 inc VAT
Though high-performance and good-looking, the Lenovo Miix 2’s poor screen, lack of video outputs and unremarkable build quality let it down.
Price when reviewed: £319 inc VAT
A great, if pricey, compact tablet, with a top-quality screen, fast performance and superb battery life. There’s no doubt that the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 is an excellent Android tablet, but there are too many little niggles to secure a place on the podium.
Price when reviewed: £119 inc VAT
Time hasn’t been kind to the Hudl and while still a competent budget tablet, younger contenders like the Memo Pad 7 are beginning to edge it out.
Price when reviewed: £125 inc VAT
The inclusion of 3G support in such a cheap compact tablet is enticing, but the Vodafone Smart Tab 4 simply doesn’t offer the same value for money as the Hudl or Memo Pad 7.