The Shanzhai tidal wave
If there is one thing you can count on is that Apple products are not priced for everyone. You are paying for polished aluminium, oversimplified software, and entry into Mac Fanboy-dom. For those that want to get into the tablet experience the good news is that shanzhai electronics will give you options at all price points. The release of the iPad spurred a tidal wave of competitive products. You want an iPad tablet but can't afford it, how about an ePad, aPad, WoPad, or even a gPad instead?
For the frugal industrious shopper you can get a super low price MID Tablet experience (and avoid iOS too).
Take me Home? You are so precocious little tablet.
Android makes it happen
Google has been developing a smart phone operating system for a while now and it goes by the name of Android. It is free to use and as you can imagine is really gaining in popularity. All of these shanzhai tablets run Android so you get an operating system that has major backing and in no way is a bootleg copy of something. It is straight up legit. Plus with the introduction of Flash to Android 2.2 you can browse any site. Strike two iPad.
Some features to consider
Since navigating knock-off electronic sites gets a bit confusing, (the shear amount of Engrish and conflicting technical specs really pushes patience) The following specs were important for me to get straight:
Capacitive vs. Resistive Touch Screen - If you want to do things like pinch to zoom and other multitouch gestures you'll need a capacitive screen. Many commentors report that the resistive touch screen is less responsive under your fingers and really requires a stylus to work properly.
Battery Life - One thing that the iPad has going for it is an absurdly long battery life (reports say up to 10 hours of use) Any tablet device you consider should have a decent battery or you won't have much fun with it. You'd want something that would at least provide 3-4 hours of use.
Version of Android and Update potential - You'd want a device that ships with Android 2.x. Now ideally 2.3. Android gets more interested the further along the development path it goes. Getting the newest version will help get the newest features. You also want to make sure that the device is not stuck at the version it ships with, you'll want the potential to upgrade. You'd also want to check to see if there is good support online from users of the device. That way you can count on lots of homebrew and other hacks you can use.
Processor Power - Most often you'll get some version of an ARM chip, which is a tad bit different architecture then the standard x86 found in your desktop. If you can manage you might want to look for an Intel Atom based machine. That way you have x86 hardware, and you could do something like easily install Ubuntu or some other operating system on it. The good news is that 2011should see a flood of new Atom tablets hit the market (source).
I/O Ports - Shanzhai tablets have different approaches to which I/O ports they come with. You can count on standard things like headphones and power adapter plugs, but outside of that you need to check the stats. Not all of them ship with USB ports (iPad doesn't have one) or RJ45 plugs.
Form Factor - Most tablets come in a 7" or 10" variety. If you get the 10" prepare to keep telling people: "No this isn't an iPad, no I didn't want to buy one. Maybe I could fix your computer, what exactly is wrong with it?"
Tablets as a Popular Form Factor
It is tough to say if the tablet is going to be a form factor that takes off. Strength of sales of the iPad indicate that the tablet is gaining ground plus with RIM developing the Playbook and Dell's release of the Streak big companies are throwing support behind it. For passively consuming web content without the need of typing or other input, the tablet is a great idea. The safe bet is to say this will become another member to the line up of personal electronics in the home. I'm not ready to say that a tablet would replace a laptop or desktop computer.
These things remind me of Picard in TNG walking down a hallway and then getting passed a PADD from a Yeoman which he casually signs off on.
"My facebook app tells me 'It's complicated'. Now I really don't have a shot with Diana Troy."
Tablets in Libraries?
Tablet lending in the library is a no brainer. You preload it with eBooks, links to library resources and virtual reference and then pass it along to users. With Android you could probably develop anything your library desires, plus with a sub 200 USD price tag they clock in fairly cheap, and not so painful to write off if broken. If you get real ambitious you can create some sort of subsidized purchase plan with patrons so that they could buy one for the family.
Where to next?
I'd start with shanzai.com and browse some of the videos and reviews. When you are ready to shop ebay is a good place to start. You might want to also check out an online discount Chinese electronics website. Most offer free shipping. My favorites are pandawill.com and dealextreme.com
If this video doesn't motivate you I don't know what will. The classical score alone should have you running to break out your credit card.