When history professors come to look back on 2013, our strange and loving relationship with shiny technology is likely to be a big theme – and nothing has been bigger this year than tablets. Once solely the preserve of the flash, Apple-loving gadget fan who you'd always find standing in line overnight for the latest fashion accessory, now it seems every man and his dog is carrying a smooth slate of black glass on the train.
And the number of tablets is only set to multiply, as many companies are bringing out new ultra-budget devices in the hope that even more people will be able to take their internet browsing on the move. While a few years ago, you might have needed to wonder which of your children you could sell in order to afford the latest tablet, now you can pick one up at the local supermarket with your bread and milk.
There are any number of gadgets from random brands you've never heard of available for around £100-150 online. And if you need the comfort of a name you can at least pronounce, Tesco, Argos and even Aldi all brought out cheap Android devices for under £100 in late 2013, promising a low-cost entry route into the sector.
One firm, Datawind, even brought what it claims is the world's cheapest tablet to British shores. Based on the Aakash 2, which was originally designed to get students in India connected to the net, its UbiSlate 7Ci is now available in the UK for just £30.
But are these super-cheap slates worth the investment, or is it a case of buyer beware? If you're going for one of these gadgets, you obviously can't expect an experience in line with the most expensive iPad or Samsung Galaxy tablets, but what do you get for your money?
The performance stats for these gadgets, as you might expect, won't exactly set the pulse racing, but for many of them, they're not exactly being powered by a hamster wheel either. Tesco's Hudl, for instance, has a 1.5MHz processor, while Aldi's device has a 1.6Ghz quad-core.
What this means is you should be able to navigate the internet and watch videos without any major difficulties. So if it's just for light use, it could be a great budget option – though if you're expecting to run the latest games or complex work apps, you should get used to loading screens and stop-motion animations.
I need bigger drawers
Storage space, however, is often where these tablets do fall short. 8GB of internal storage is all you can expect to get here – though some are expandable with a microSD card and Tesco offers a fairly generous 16GB on the Hudl. Once you get the operating system and built-in apps out of the way, you might have five or six gigabytes to play with, which any reasonably determined music or film fan can fill in a few minutes.
When you consider that a typical full-HD movie can be around 4GB, while a 42-minute standard-definition TV show is 300-500MB depending on the format, any ideas you have about taking your entire collection wherever you go might be dashed.
The comforting feel of plastic
Design is an area that will be important to many buyers – after all, just because you've got something on the cheap, you don't want it to look cheap, and there's only so much disguising it with a pretty case can do. And on this front, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Reviewers have praised Tesco's Hudl for its surprisingly solid build quality, but Argos' offering has come in for criticism for its lack of robustness and noticeable gaps between the panels.
So should I get one?
How satisfied you'll be with a budget tablet depends on what you expect to do with it – if you just want to browse the web on a screen slightly bigger than your phone, it should be fine, while it can also be great for keeping the kids occupied. But for anything more substantial, you need to think very carefully – will you really be able to use it for work or entertainment without resorting to throwing it at the wall in frustration?
If these are concerns, there are some great reasonably-priced tablets if you're prepared to pay a little extra. For instance, Amazon's Kindle Fire HDX and Google's Nexus 7 are both under £200. These are both hugely impressive pieces of kit that offer great value for money without compromising on quality, so are well worth the extra investment – and you end up with something you can be proud to show off to your friends.