Tablets for Students
If a device has a screen any less than 8", you'd think of it as a mini-tablet. These (generally 7") devices have been around for a couple of years now and have practically become the default size for tablets, which gives those looking to buy one a lot of choice. The market is also much wider: Apple's dominance doesn't extend to this end of the market in the way it does for full size (generally 10") models. For students, the benefits of mini-tablets are considerable. Primarily, they're cheaper and more portable, but they're also more discreet and compact when you're out and about - and easier to deal with in the limited space of a lecture hall (for example). Despite this, mini-tablets do have one disadvantage: they're generally too small to work on. Rather than buying a mini-tablet instead of a laptop, you're more likely to buy one alongside it.
1. Tesco Hudl
Although it's starting to age a bit, the Tesco Hudl was something of a surprise hit when it came out. These days the supermarket giant has compensated for the hardware's decreasing relevance with a ?20 price cut, but what that means is that you can get a reasonably convincing tablet for ?99, which is a huge bargain. The idea of a tablet by Tesco might not be particularly attractive on the surface, but in case you've missed the various reviews, let us reassure you: it's considerably better than anything else you'll find at this price or below. Designed as a 'household' device, the Hudl is sold more like a toaster than a computer. It comes in four colours and includes a book of Tesco vouchers, while you can use your clubcard points to obtain a discount of up to 50% off.
If you're a cash-strapped student, that could be an attractive offer. Hardware-wise, it's close in capabilities to some of the more expensive Android mini-tablets. It's got micro-HDMI out and a microSD slot, 16GB of internal storage and a 2MP front-facing camera. One suspects that at just 3MP, the rear-facing camera is a bit of an afterthought, but it's better than nothing. The speakers provide gloriously adeguate stereo sound and the resolution of the 7" screen has a decent viewing angle and a 1440 x 900 resolution. Although the hardware is good, what really pushes the Hudl into praise-worthy territory is its pre-loaded selection of Tesco apps, which includes Blinkbox movies and music. It's not much for gaming or working on, but whether you're playing music, watching a movie, reading Facebook or doing some online shopping, it's got all the capabilities of a larger, more expensive tablet without the price. Enthusiasts and committed tablet-users will doubtlessly want more out of there hardware, but if you're after a device that can give you portable entertainment and browsing at a low cost, it's ideal.
There are various reasons a student might not want it - it's really not a cool brand - but if you don't have a smartphone and want a portable smart device that won't cost a lot, it'll do the job nicely.
2. Kindle Fire HDX
The latest version of Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet, the Kindle Fire HDX features significant upgrades over the Kindle Fire HD. The screen is now full HD (1920 x 1200), the process or is now a much faster guad-core CPU clocked at 2.2GHz, and there's a built-in microphone as well as the all-important front-facing camera. At ?199, the Kindle Fire HD is still technically competing with extreme budget tablets like the Hudl, but the HDX model is really a salvo at the dominant Nexus 7. Unlike Google's device it doesn't have a rear-camera, although it is available with higher storage capacity. The smallest and cheapest version is a Nexus-matching 16GB, but it also comes in a larger 32GB variety and a Nexus-beating 64GB incarnation, though we find that one too expensive to recommend - it costs at least ?259, and as much as ?329 with 4G. In case you're wondering, the Kindle Fire HDX is also the tablet with that rather strange 'Mayday' feature you may have seen, which allows you to video chat (one-way) with an Amazon-trained helper.
Not something we're massively keen on doing, but certainly a feature that might intrigue those who have difficulties with tablets in general. While the higher-end varieties have increasingly little going for them, we can't help but be charmed by the ?199 version. Rear camera aside, it's almost as good as a Nexus 7. Amazon's free entertainment packages will definitely provide a way for students to save money, while the added video-chat capabilities give you a way to get in touch with home without spending loads of money on phonecalls. The only bad thing about the Kindle Fire HDX is that it runs on Amazon's proprietary version of Android, FireOS, which is dumbed-down and somewhat fiddly if you're used to an iOS or standard Android interface.
Another concern is over the release cycle. It's now getting on for 10 months old and rumours of a Kindle Fire HDX 2 have been circulating for some time. Buy one in time for University and there's a good chance that you'll find it replaced with a better version for the same price within a month. If you're willing to risk that (or wait for the successor) then the Kindle Fire HDX makes a great student accessory, even if it's only an average tablet.
3. Nexus 7
The Nexus 7 is the device that lit the fuse for the mini-tablet explosion, and while its latest incarnation (it was refreshed in 2013) is still going, there's a definite sense that it's struggling to keep up now that it's more than 12 months old. Still, while it's no longer the strongest choice for people looking for a cheap, light-use tablet, it's undoubtedly the connoisseur's choice of Android tablet, and remains a well-respected piece of hardware. Unlike cheaper tablets, the Nexus 7 is powerful enough for work and play as well as browsing, emails and video. Because it's maintained by Google (though manufactured by Asus) it also has a 'pure' Android experience, with no custom front-ends and little bloatware. The specs are pleasingly high: 2GB of RAM, a full HD 1920 x 1200 screen and two cameras: 1.2MP front and 5MP rear. Few similarly priced devices can get anywhere near it, even a year on from its original release. Like its close rival, the Kindle Fire, there's no HDMI-out or MicroSD slot. The latter isn't a huge problem because it comes with a reasonable 16GB by default, with a 32GB version available for the admittedly more substantial-sounding ?239.
The 32GB model does have the added benefit of coming in 4G variety, too - for ?299 you can get Internet access even without a wi-fi connection, and few 7" tablets offer that capability at any price. Where the Kindle Fire is aimed at families and novices, the Nexus 7 is aimed at people who want the full Android experience, with all the technical features that accompany it. The lack of a Nexus 7 refresh for 2014 has knocked our confidence in the device generally - if they'd come up with one we'd be endorsing it outright as the best mini-tablet - but rumours persist that a Nexus 8 announcement will take the place of a Nexus 7 refresh. Maybe you'll even know by the time you read this. Either way, whether you're buying a Nexus 7 or planning to wait, look out for that. It could be the kind of game-changer the Nexus 7 was.
4. iPad Mini
To keep matters confusing, Apple has two iPad Mini models. The cheapest, simply called the iPad Mini, is priced at ?249 for the 16GB model. It's the cheapest iPad that Apple sells, but the internals are broadly identical to the (full-size) iPad 2, which is now some years old. This cheaper iPad Mini has been superseded by the more powerful, more expensive device Apple calls 'iPad Mini with Retina Display'. For some reason Apple deems the original iPad Mini to be worth selling in today's market, although we wouldn't be surprised if it disappeared in the next refresh. Its screen resolution in particular (1024 x 768) borders on laughable for a device costing this much. Really, it's Apple's idea of what a low-end device looks like. The problem is that 'Apple' and 'low-end' don't really belong in the same sentence together. It's not just a bad piece of hardware, it's a bad investment all around. If you're that desperate for Apple hardware at a low price, a second hand one would make far more sense. The iPad Mini Retina (as we'll refer to it from now on) is an altogether different prospect.
Aside from a sky-high price of ?319 for the 16GB version, it's far more competitive - though as mini tablets go, that high price is hard to get past. The retina display (2048 x 1536) is easily the best screen you'll find in a mini-tablet, and its 64-bit Apple A7 is one of the best processors too. Larger storage capacities are available up to 128GB if you want to pay ?559, and you can add 4G onto any device for an extra ?100. The cost makes the iPad Mini Retina is strictly for those who want a small tablet for practical rather than financial reasons, and in that sense it's hard to recommend - particularly for students. The mini-tablet form is mainly attractive because of its ability to offer significantly lower prices in return for its compromised form factor, but if you're not bothered about low prices then you only have to spend ?80 more to get a 9.7" iPad Air of egual capacity and superior capability. What we have, then, are two devices that aren't of particular use to students. One iPad Mini that's massively underpowered and another that's massively overpriced. Access to iTunes U aside, the only reason you might want to go with one of the iPad Minis over any other mini-tablet is if you've already got an iPhone and want your apps and content to sync without any difficulty. If that's worth spending an extra ?50-?120 minimum to you, fair enough. We're not so sure it is.