As e-reading becomes more and more common, and tablets become cheaper and cheaper, many people who haven’t previously been into e-reading but might be considering trying it out might be wondering what to get. Last night on Quora, I answered a question from one such reader who was looking for something that would read both e-books and PDFs. It seemed as though my answer there might be useful to such people in general, so I’m adapting it into a post here as well.

I wrote to that reader:

Your listed requirements are very sketchy. Most answers you get are probably going to be at least a little subjective, as people choose to tell you about the reader they like best, rather than the one that might be most fit for your purpose.

That being said, if you’re going to want to read both e-books and PDFs, you’re probably going to want a tablet rather than an e-ink reader. (And even though a lot of people do read with their smartphones these days, you’re going to want something tablet-sized for the best PDF reading.)

The nice thing about tablets is that they can run e-reader apps from pretty much any major or minor e-book vendor: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, etc. You’re not limited to just one store as you would be with an e-ink reader like the Kindle or Nook. And they can do lots of other things, too, like web browsing, social networking, and games. (Of course, if you don’t want to be distracted while you’re reading, that could be more of a drawback than an advantage.)

I personally favor Android tablets, because they accomplish the trifecta of being relatively inexpensive, extremely versatile, and minimally locked-down. (iPads only manage to accomplish one of those three things—the “versatile” part. Windows 10 tablets might be cheap, but they have such a miniscule marketshare that many of the best apps simply aren’t available for it yet. Give it a year or two.)

If you can, you want to get something on the order of a plain-vanilla Android tablet, with as little vendor software cruft as you can manage. Anything branded with the Google logo is your best choice in that regard. I have a 2013 Nexus 7 I’m very happy with, and even now, a couple of years on, it still performs really well and it’s still my primary daily-use tablet choice. It also holds its value really well—even now, those units left on the market still sell for $150 to $200, depending on memory capacity and refurbishment.

I do wish they’d come out with another 7″ tablet, but they seem to be concentrating on larger ones now—which is great for if you want to read PDFs a lot, but not so great for portability or single-handed use. If nothing Google-branded seems right for you, Asus and Samsung are the manufacturers who’ve previously made tablets for Google, so they’re also good choices. I’m personally a little leery of Samsung as they have a history of slow updates on their non-Google-branded tablets, but they’re still a reasonably good-quality manufacturer. If you’re planning to put serious money into a tablet, you shouldn’t just listen to me—read blog and user reviews before you leap to make sure you’re getting a good one.

If you want to err on the side of cheap, by and large I don’t recommend one of these $50 Chinese OEM tablets. They’re cheaply-made and generally sluggish. There are some that get decent reviews that you can try if you just want to figure out what plain-vanilla Android is like before you decide if you want to throw more money at it, but I’d just put that money toward a better more-expensive name-brand tablet instead.

Your better choice for a cheap but usable tablet would be the $50 Fire from Amazon. (Especially if you can find five other people who want some, so you can buy a six-pack and drop your price each to $41.67.) It’s got a reputable brand name, has a generally better level of build quality than the Chinese tablets, and is a gateway to one of the more popular digital content ecosystems out there. And it is, as mentioned, cheap.

The Fire is locked down to Amazon’s own app store, which is not really my favorite thing. Not only does Amazon not include Google’s apps, which are among the most useful apps on any Android tablet, but it also won’t let you install certain competitors to Android’s own services (such as third-party e-reader apps) even when it does host them in its own app store for plain-vanilla tablets to download.

On the bright side, it’s remarkably easy to install the Google Play app store on it so you can install all the things Amazon won’t let you have, or you can even root it outright to install a plain-vanilla form of Android onto it. Personally, I find mine useful enough with the Google Play stuff without having to go to the extra trouble of rooting to install a whole new OS. It means I can still use it as a native Amazon-ecosystem device, with all the privileges inherent to such a device, but can add Google-branded and other restricted stuff, too. Best of both worlds.

If you want to try out a cheap tablet before you decide if you want to drop more money on one, that $50 Fire might be your best bet. Once you put the Play Store on it, you can do most of the things you could with a more expensive Android tablet. And if it doesn’t work out, you’re only out fifty bucks.

Good luck!

(Adapted from


  1. Don’t write off iPads so easily. As a general rule, I never pay full retail for Apple products. I wait a few months after their release and pick up a refurb direct from Apple or wait a bit longer and pick up a third-party refurb. Some companies make a business out of the latter, refurbing themselves and offering a three-month warranty. Here, for instance is a iPad mini for $160.

    Don’t think you’re getting more than you need with that cellular data built-in. Apple has worked out multi-carrier, easy-in, easy-out agreements with cellular providers. Sign up with one for just the month of your summer vacation, use apps to find cheap gas and accommodations, and you’ll probably save more than the tablet costs. And with iPads, cellular means GPS, so you can use that iPad mini to guide your travel too.

    If you browse around A4C, you’ll find they also have Kindle tablets, including the original Fire for $50 and the Fire HD for $70. You’re taking a modest risk with a third-party guarantee, but at those prices it’s worth it. Here’s, for instance, the various Kindle Fire HD models A4C has for sale:

    Keep in mind why these third-party refurb companies exist. Amazon, Apple, and Samsung are selling millions of tablets, which means large numbers of returns with some fixable issue. They are brand name companies, so no returns can be sold as new. They may sell a few refurbs, but they don’t want to sell so many that it cuts into their new sales. So they sell those tablets to outfits like A4C, who fix and resell them at prices that are a fraction of retail. Since most consumers don’t know about that, those low prices don’t cut into their full-retail sales.

    There are other such companies and I have no connection to A4C other than as an occasional customer. I’m just a frugal, careful buyer who likes a good deal.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books

  2. I answered a question on stackexchange related to this and reached the conclusion that Google Play Books is the best cross-platform app, especially because it’s so easy to upload ebooks into the cloud. My belief is that 9-10 inches are better for most people because you can view most PDF docs well — and right now the Samsung 10 inches tend to be lower in price, but an old ipad 1 or 2 could probably do the job well enough.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail