Are heavily discounted tablets like the Surface or Playbook worth buying?

Tablets are the latest trend to sweep the world of tech by storm. Smartphones may be reaching saturation in some places, but tablet sales are going strong. According to IDC Research 49.2 million tablets shipped in the first three months of 2013, that’s more tablets than were sold in the first six months of 2012. It would appear that people are deciding against a new desktop or laptop in favour of a shiny new tablet.

The iPad led the way, but the market is now dominated by Android tablets of various shapes and sizes. There are options beyond the big two players, though. In fact BlackBerry and Microsoft are both trying to gain a foothold in this market and they’ve been offering some serious discounts. The question for many consumers is whether heavily discounted tablets like the Microsoft Surface RT or the BlackBerry PlayBook are actually worth buying. Can you get a real bargain or is it a purchase you’ll end up regretting?

Discounted for a reason

New tech always comes at a premium for early adopters and it inevitably drops in price as it ages. The PlayBook and the Surface RT have dropped faster than you would expect and there are various reasons for that, but the main one is unexpectedly low demand. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad products (although it probably does). Much depends on what you are looking to get out of them.

Microsoft may be paving the way for a new Surface line with the 30% price cut it applied earlier in the summer, dropping the 32GB Surface RT from £399 to £279, but there’s no disguising that the Surface RT has not been well-received and consequently has not been selling.

BlackBerry is in all kinds of trouble, with a declining subscriber base, and a lack of interest in the new Z10 and Q10 smartphones featuring the revamped BlackBerry 10 platform. The PlayBook has been around since 2011 and it has been discounted several times since then. The last discount saw it drop to just £109 for the 16GB version. If you shop around now you’ll find deals even cheaper than that, but since it was discontinued, stocks are finally dwindling and they won’t be replenished.

Let’s take a look at what to consider to decide whether either one is right for you.

Microsoft_Surface_RTMicrosoft Surface RT

The hardware is solid. The Surface RT has a good design, the kickstand works well, and the magnetic TypeCover is clever (though it does cost an extra £100). It has a big 10.6-inch display with a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, and inside there’s a 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of RAM. You’ve also got basic 1.2MP front and rear cameras, and 32GB or 64GB of storage with a microSD card slot offering room for more. Battery life is also decent at around 8 hours.

So far, so good, so what’s the problem? The sluggish software is the problem. The Surface RT will only run apps from the Windows Store. Take a look at what’s on offer in there and you’ll see that the choice is seriously limited compared to Android or iOS. In terms of support going forward it is hard to imagine that Microsoft will produce anymore tablets running RT, and developers are not likely to target the platform, so the choice is unlikely to grow much.

BlackBerry PlayBookBlackBerry_PlayBook

The PlayBook already looks dated. It has a wide bezel around a 7-inch screen with a 1024 x600 pixel resolution.  There’s a dual-core 1 GHz Cortex-A9 processor inside with just 1GB of RAM. Storage is 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB, and there’s a 3MP front-facing camera and a 5MP rear-facing camera. The battery life is good.

It would be fair to say that BlackBerry’s future is uncertain. That means that there’s unlikely to be a successor and it’s anyone’s guess what a buyer will do with the company, should it find one. The BlackBerry 10 platform is not as limited as Windows RT for apps, but that’s largely because a lot of Android apps have been ported over. There aren’t very many quality apps that are actually optimized for the PlayBook.

Worth a punt?

Even with the discount it is close to impossible to recommend the Surface RT. It was grossly overpriced to begin with, considering you could buy an iPad for the same price, or a Nexus 10 for significantly less. You can still get an iPad Mini or a Nexus 7 for less than the discounted Surface RT, and the advantages will far outweigh the smaller screen size for most people. As a work tablet, you could be tempted by the inclusion of Office. If you don’t care about downloading a lot of apps and games, then maybe it’s worth a look for you, but remember that the Type Cover is an extra £100.

As for the PlayBook, you’ll struggle to find any, although there are a few refurbished deals well under £100 floating around. Even at that price it’s tough to recommend over a cheap Android tablet which will match or surpass the specs and give you access to so many more apps and games.

Ultimately the answer to our original poser is no. Unless your needs are limited you’ll find you get a lot more for your money elsewhere.

About Simon Hill

Simon is an experienced tech writer with a background in games development. He has been covering the world of mobile technology for several years now and writes for a variety of popular websites.