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Keeping Up With Apple: The Best Sleek, Sexy Tablets and Phones That (Less) Money Can Buy

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Some budget-smart alternatives to the iPhone and iPad.

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The iPhone is sexy. As a non-iPhone user, I've found its sleek and simple design compelling ever since my first lucky friend got one. The feel of it in my hand, on my ear, as I make a call from my girlfriend's iPhone after my BlackBerry has died. The iPad is just as beautiful a device, with its crystal-clear display and oh-so-responsive touch. When it came out, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) marketed it as a "Magical and Revolutionary Device at an Unbelievable Price" (seriously, they called it magical). And going way back, there's the iPod, the mp3 player that changed the game and, after the burst of brilliance that was Apple's iMacs, cemented Apple's comeback and eventual rise to one of the world's most valuable companies.

The problem is that these devices are expensive, and for a recent college graduate/writer/actor like myself, the prices are restrictive. The fact is that lots of people want iPhones and iPads, but not everyone can have one...yet (see my story from last week about people in China buying fake iPhone signatures for a popular IM service).

Thanks to Apple being the vanguard for sexy smartphones and tablets, other companies have followed suit, creating products that allow those of us with limited budgets to follow the trends whilst daydreaming about the "magical" original.

Here are a few quality budget options to let you keep up with Apple:

Nokia Lumia 920
Coming in at No. 5 on CNET's year end Best Five Cell Phones list and with a price tag of $99.99, Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) Lumia 920 is the cheapest phone on that list. It is thick, bulky, and heavy, but it is also the most powerful, features-rich Windows phone yet. Powered by Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows 8, the phone also has wireless charging support and a highly sensitive screen that you can use with gloves, because taking your gloves off on a windy winter day to text is such a nuisance. In case no one has bought you those gloves meant for texting yet, the Lumia has that sensitive screen, and that reasonable price, going for it.

Google Nexus 7
In terms of competitors to Apple's iPad mini, this Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) tablet leads the pack, and it has a price tag starting at $199, compared to the iPad mini's $329. The device, which is only slightly smaller than the iPad mini, features a sharp screen, intuitive design, and competitive battery life. The tablet runs Android OS, which still needs more apps specifically optimized for the tablet platform, but overall, this is the most competitive and compelling device in the batch of iPad mini competitors.

Google Nexus 10
If you need to go bigger, Google's newest 10" tablet, the Nexus 10, costs $100 less than the iPad and, some may argue, it is a more well-rounded tablet. Some may be turned off by the Nexus' plastic design versus the cool aluminum of the iPad, but this Android device makes up for the plastic with a powerful processor and low price.

The "$100" Acer Tablet
There have been a lot of rumors surrounding Acer's (TPE:2353) "$100 tablet." The device has finally arrived, but with one hitch: It actually costs $130. Now, this might not seem like too much of a difference, but being $30 closer to the price of Amazon's Kindle Fire makes Acer's foray into cheap tablets seem less special. With 8GB of storage, 512MB of RAM, and Android's Jelly Bean OS, Acer's Iconia B1-A71 most closely resembles the Kindle Fire (but it has a .3MP camera, which is ridiculously weak). That being said, if you're gunning for a cheap tablet, this could be your new best bet, unless this next item takes off...

PengPod
In November 2012, Peacock Imports, a Florida-based importer of Chinese goods, began raising funds on Indiegogo, a Kickstarter-like fundraising site, to create its own $100 tablet. On December 2, 2012, the company surpassed its goal of $49,000, raising $72,707 from 500 contributors. The PengPod tablet was born. Anyone who had pledged $99 or more was promised a tablet, with an estimated delivery date for later this month. The tablet runs with both Android 4.0 and Linux (Android from internal memory and Linux from a bootable, removable SD card). This dual-booting really sets the device apart, and so does its price, if it ever comes to market. At the time of this writing, PengPod has a registration on its website where you can express interest in getting one of the devices, stipulating that the site will contact you for payment when the devices are ready to ship. If it works out, this could be the $100 tablet, and could also serve as a precedent for small business-based tech products in the future.

Apple
So why is Apple on this list? As of January 5, Apple has begun selling refurbished 15" retina MacBook Pros through its online store, offering $300 off the entry-level model and $550 off the fully-upgraded MacBook. Why Apple has begun doing this is unclear, but it definitely makes a major Apple product a little bit more affordable. You can find more cheap prices on MacBooks at Apple Insider.

The Cheap(er) iPhone
Moreover, according to this Wall Steet Journal story from today, by the second half of 2013, Apple is planning to launch a new low-cost iPhone, aimed particularly at vital emerging markets, like China, but also meant to help expand its scope in the US. Granted, stories like this have been percolating on the Internet for months, but given how much future growth for Apple is expected to come from countries like China, this may soon become a reality. The iPad mini as a cheaper alternative to the iPad has already become a sensation, particularly in China. A new, cheaper iPhone mini will follow suit and spread the iPhone's influence even wider.
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