At $499, the lowest-end iPad 2 is in many ways a steal. But it's also more expensive than a low-end laptop or desktop PC, even though it can't fully replace either.
Meanwhile, extremely cheap Android tablets sell for as little as $150, but they're slow and practically disposable. And their resistive, or pressure-based, plastic touch screens with styluses hearken back to the days of the Palm Pilot, rather than the iPad's glass multitouch screen.
Is there a happy medium, somewhere between the two price points? As it turns out, there are several.
Asus Eee Pad Transformer
Retailing for only $399, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer has a lot going for it. It's got an NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core processor, front- and rear-facing cameras and an HDMI out, which are standard for Android tablets. But it also has two unique features: MyCloud, and a keyboard docking station.
Asus' MyCloud lets you "remotely access and control any PC or Mac system," plus get to your music and movies from anywhere. You get a year's worth of free, unlimited online storage with the purchase on an Asus Eee Pad Transformer. Meanwhile, the optional keyboard dock accessory gives the Transformer its name, plus a total of 16 hours of battery life. And the included Polaris Office suite lets you put that keyboard to good use, plus Google recently released its own Google Docs app for Android tablets and smartphones.
The upcoming Toshiba tablet hasn't been released, and its actual name isn't known yet. A leak from Newegg says that it will be priced starting at $449, though, and also reveals its technical specs: That low-end model only gets you 8 GBs of storage, compared to the $499 16 GB model (equivalent in price to an iPad 2).
It has a full-sized SD card slot to read camera memory cards with, though, plus a full-sized USB port. And with 32 GB SD cards selling for right around $50, that 8 GB tablet could become a 40 GB tablet, for much less than the cost of an iPad 2 with comparable storage.
The Apple iPad
What's this? We're looking for tablets that are cheaper than the iPad 2.
As it turns out, the original iPad is, in fact, cheaper. You can buy a refurbished 16 GB original iPad for $349 from the Apple Store, when they're available. Other original iPad models are available there as well, all for less than last year's list price and several for under $500.
To Droid or not to Droid?
Even though I'm an Android fan, I'm not sure I'd recommend the two Android tablets on this list unless you've tried out Android "Honeycomb" in the stores, and know what you're getting into. There are plenty of Android apps on the Market, but few that are designed for tablets yet. And Honeycomb itself is more complicated than both the iPad's iOS and the normal version of Android, plus it's got a few bugs in it still.
Once Android tablets are a bit more mature and have more apps available for them, I'd probably feel more comfortable recommending them to lay buyers. If you're already an Android fan, though, you can buy a whole lot of tablet for less than $500.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.