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Cheap Tablets and Phones: Penny Wise, Tech Foolish

If you bought a craptastically cheap mobile device in the past year, I have just two words for you: I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you've had to carry a piece of unresponsive, slow-moving junk with you when you could have either spent a few more dollars  or waited a few months for prices to drop. On second thought, I take back my apology. You got what you deserve. If it looks like a cheap gadget, it is, and you get what you pay for.

There's simply no good reason—other than a unique combo of impatience and stupidity—to buy a bargain-basement tablet with performance issues. Last Wednesday, we learned about the $199 Amazon Kindle Fire, which, with its dual core CPU and extra-bright screen, should hammer the final nail in the coffin of tablet pretenders such as Coby, EFunPandigital, and Vizio. But even before the discovery of Fire, there was no excuse to throw good money after bad slates.

Imagine how bad you'd feel today if you bought an Archos 7 tablet last year. Sure, it gave you Android for less than $200 at a time when a $500 iPad was the only other consumer slate out there, but you'd break your finger trying to tap the resistive touchscreen and the back was hot enough to sterilize Kevin Federline.

Fast forward a little more than a year. How would you feel now if last fall you'd foolishly purchased the Viewsonic G Tablet, whose slow-poke Tap n' Tap (and tap and tap and tap) UI and bulky plastic chassis made it feel much cheaper than its $399 price tag? Today, an Eee Pad Transformer with a gorgeous Honeycomb UI and a dual-core CPU costs $399 or less.

Purchasing a feeble phone such as the small-screened Sharp FX Plus is even worse than buying a bargain-basement tablet, because you have to pay for data and carry the handset with you every day for a minimum of 1.5 to  2 years. Meanwhile, you'd be paying the same data fees per month for a state-of-the-art handset like the Samsung Galaxy S II.

Serving 18 to 24 months with a slow, low-res phone is worse than doing that time at the state pen with an overly affectionate cellmate. Over the course of 24 months, the typical wireless plan on one of the major four carriers will cost you anywhere from $1,700 to $2,400. So why on earth would you compromise on features or performance to save $100 or even $200, when the cost of the phone itself is less than 10 percent of your investment and you plan to use it every single day?

I can't help but think about a friend who, in 2009, chose an HTC Droid Eris over a Motorola Droid, because the Eris—which had a much slower processor and lower-res screen—was free and the Motorola Droid cost $200. She's been regretting her decision ever since, as her underpowered phone crashes constantly and makes molasses seem fast, but in 2011 she's stuck paying for service on that clunker until the contract is up. 

This month's hot superphone is next month's low-cost sale item. So why not take advantage? While you're gawking at the $79.99 LG Enlighten with its pokey 3G connection, low-res 480 x 320 screen, and slow 800-MHz CPU, both the HTC Thunderbolt and the Samsung Droid Charge—big-screened LTE phones which cost over $200 when they came out in spring—are available for free on  You'd have to be huffing screen wipes behind the Verizon store to choose a brand-new budget phone over a slightly older flagship device. 

The golden rule for electronics purchases is this: If you want a gadget and can't afford a decent one, either splurge or wait for a price drop. Never compromise on something you plan to use every day.

Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch oversees the production and content of LAPTOP’s web site. With a reputation as the staff’s biggest geek, he has also helped develop a number of LAPTOP’s custom tests, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. Catch the Geek’s Geek column here every week or follow Avram on twitter.