Apple's iPad has been so successful that it's pretty much a byword for the term 'tablet' with much of the general populous not even knowing that alternatives exist. Exist they do though and whilst it took a while for serious contenders to appear, tablets like the Nexus 7 proved that Google's Android platform could offer a competitive additional choice. So far, big players like Samsung and Sony and the sea of unknown, but very cheap Chinese brand tablets have failed to knock Apple from its perch, but something must be changing, as new players are stepping into the game. And they're not the companies you might expect.
Christmas 2013 seems to be the year Android has managed to gain foothold and people are starting to realise that you don't have to spend upwards of £300 to get a good tablet. At the same time, increasing takeup of digital services has meant that companies are willing to sell their devices at closer to cost in the hope that profits will come later as people start to buy and rent movies, music, e-books etc.
So why do I think 2013 has been so significant? Now, at Tesco, you can pick up a Tesco 'Hudl' 7" android-tablet alongside your Tesco paracetomol, Tesco non-biological wash and Tesco multivitamins.
At only £119 - and far less if you are a fan of hoarding Tesco clubcard points (the one I'm playing with now effectively set my Uncle back only £60) - it is cheap enough for gifting at Christmas, or taking a chance on yourself, with a big and trusted UK brand backing it up. I can see this selling like Tescos hot-cakes.
Before we ask whether the Hudl is any good, we need to ask an equally important question. Is it cool? Well, it's not uncool, but I don't think it will appeal to those who have their heart set on an iPad. The iPad is a sea of glass and aluminium with near obsessive attention to detail and a screen so sharp and vivid you could cut your finger on it. The Hudl, although well made, is not a device for the hipsters. That said, it comes in a range of attractive colours on its tactile behind to try and stand out that may appeal to youngsters and I think they would decide it was pretty cool. Besides, Tesco may not just be targetting the very young or the very hip.
Okay, so a Tablet from Tesco was never going to be iPad cool, but Amazon's first Kindle wasn't cool at all and look where they are now. Fortunately the Hudl is much more attractive than Amazon's first attempt at an e-book reader. It's a friendly rounded tablet that will appeal as a family device for those who don't want to see a £500 wonder gadget covered in jam-sticky-fingers (I shudder everytime I see a two year old with a iPad - SUCH a big risk!) and it feels well made and solid. Tesco sell a range of accessories that wisely include rubberised cases that look nice and will also protect it from the odd drop and will hopefully see it have a good innings in a house full of children.
Switch it on and there are two pleasant surprises. First, the screen is very nice for a device of this price. It's sharp enough to enjoy a Kindle book on, the web via Google Chrome is a good experience and photographs and video look great. It won't survive a side by side comparison with the best on the market, but it would only be in those comparisons that you would notice. It's a good screen. The second happy discovery is that Tesco have held back from stamping their brand all over it. This is a standard Android setup, but with a 'T' button always available at the bottom left of the screen to take you to a list of Tesco online services. I do wonder if some of their buyers would have expected a getting started guide or something, but you're expected to fend for yourself. Android is easy to pick up, but fiddly in some areas.
Tescos are pricing these very competitively, but not just because they want you to buy and enjoy a cheap tablet. They're hoping that you will press that 'T' button and use some of their online services from time to time, earning a few more quid for their shareholders. Whilst you can avoid this altogether, I would suggest it's worth taking a look at what they offer, as some of it is pretty good, most notably Blinkbox.
Blinkbox is a music, TV and film service that Tesco bought up recently. They allow you to buy or rent the above (there's some free content too) without having to pay a subscription. With the good screen and a pair of stereo speakers on the back, the Hudl is a very convenient bordom killer or kid silencer on long journeys and the prices are competitive with similar services, all of which are available to you online if you'd rather go somewhere else. I tried the BBC iPlayer and it did an excellent job.
In terms of raw specification, the Hudl is offering mid-range performance at budget prices. It is no powerhouse, but all things are relative and you do not need huge amounts of computing horsepower to do most things that people do with their tablets. Whilst gaming fans who want to play the latest 3D 'console-like' extravaganzas may want to look elsewhere (at this price Advent Vega Tegra Note 7), the Hudl can take pretty much everything else in its stride. Social networkers will be happy that there are both front and back cameras for taking and sharing pictures, talking face-to-face online over services like Skype and Google Hangout and the Google Play Store is there for trawling through the hundreds of thousands of available apps that will allow the Hudl to turn its hand to almost anything. My Uncle loves his planes and had hours of fun using the plane tracking apps to watch my cousin flying back from Poland amongst the thousands of others that are over Europe at any one time. It's incredible what can be done with such a cheap device. The Hudl even includes a GPS and compass, so could be a great travel companion too.
With all those apps available, I was initially concerned that although marketed with 16GB of storage, there was only around 12GB of that available (the rest already being used by Android and the bundled apps), but I was pleased to find that the Hudl will take memory cards which greatly extend the storage should you need. The battery life is also not class leading, but with around 9 hours of use per charge, it should get a couple of days between socket connections and be plenty for most.
So, should you buy a Hudl? Well, if you want the best Android tablet on the market, then no. That crown, I think still rests with the Google Nexus 7. At £199, it's £80 more than the Hudl but for what you get it's worth it. For what you need? Well, if you see your tablet spending much of its time in the living room being used sporadically for picking up emails, checking social networking and entertaining the kids, then the Hudl is superb value. It's the best tablet I've used at this price. If your tablet is going to go everywhere with you and you're going to plumb the depths of its functionality, then a bit more on a Nexus 7 may be worth the extra investment. If you're still reading, but still thinking Apple is the one for you, the Apple iPad Air is still the best tablet on the market bar none, but it did just get a bit harder to justify.