Holiday 2012: An Overview of Tablet Computers
Why do I want a tablet?
Mobility and versatility are the leading reasons to choose a tablet. With a size and weight factor between computer and smartphone and the ability to deliver entertainment and information with equal dexterity, today’s tablets are windowed panels on the world that millions of people now carry. With ample storage and a multi-touch display, a stand-alone tablet is already a useful tool.
Assisted by Wi-Fi and cloud-based streaming, it becomes even more powerful. Whether you use one to watch movies and TV shows, read books and magazines, surf the Internet, check email, use social media sites, play games or video chat with distant friends, a tablet can be extremely beneficial.
How does a tablet stack up against a notebook?
Few office workers who rely on computers can imagine substituting a tablet to do their jobs or trade a desktop system’s performance and expandability. But tablets are becoming an increasingly attractive alternative as a second computer, a position that has been notably occupied by notebooks. The firm NPD DisplaySearch forecasts that tablet shipments will surpass notebooks by 2016.
Tablet sales are rising because of such conveniences as instant-on capability, long battery life and extreme portability, according to NPD. Still, if you can’t live without a real keyboard, the tablet manufacturers themselves as well as accessory makers offer a variety of hardware options for most models. See What are other crucial accessories? below.
What are the most advanced features I should look for in a tablet?
The newest-generation tablets may incorporate high-resolution displays and faster processors. Some displays now approach the resolution of a high-quality color print magazine but with the advantage of you being able to enlarge text or an image by pinching and parting two fingers. That confluence of pixels on a 9.7-inch display is even more remarkable considering that it can be better than Full HD resolution on a big screen TV. The resolution on cutting-edge tablet displays is only likely to increase. Currently, screen resolutions vary from 800 x 480 pixels to 2048 x 1536 pixels. Screen sizes range from about 7- to 13-inches, but the vast majority are either 9.7- or 10.1 inches.
By choosing a tablet with an advanced processor, not only can you expect an app to load faster and screens to change with more snap, but the processor and OS may also support multi-tasking in which several apps can run at once. With a quad-core processor on a tablet with a multi-screen capablity, you may be able to run two different applications side-by-side. So, for example, you can be watching a video on one side of the screen while using the sketch pad on the other or copying content from a Web page on the left that you paste into a note pad on the right. While multitasking in Windows on a computer is something we take for granted, that level of performance is relatively new on mobile devices.
What are "apps" and why are they important in choosing a tablet?
App is shorthand for a small, specialized application loaded onto a mobile device. The app could be as entertaining as a Netflix player, as informative as a public radio station player, as specialized as a Sotheby’s Catalogue, as specific as a remote for a particular brand of smart TV or as comprehensive as the B&H Photo Mobile Shopper. Many apps are free, while others might cost a few dollars.
While there once were many more apps for the iOS platform (supporting Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod touch) than the Android platform (used in tablets and phones from a variety of manufacturers), the app gap is closing fast. As of last summer Apple’s App Store stocked more than 800,000 apps, of which 250,000 were designed specifically for the iPad. (Many apps designed for the iPhone run on iPads, too, but they don’t occupy the full screen unless you touch the 2x option to enlarge the app, at the expense of resolution.) There are about 600,000 downloadable apps available to an Android-based tablet with access to the Google Play store (formerly Android Market). Before committing to a tablet, you may want to peruse the App Store or Google Play to see if the categories or titles you’re interested in are available. If you’re looking at a lower-end Android-based device, make sure it has access to Google Play and can run the app you might want to add.
What should I know about the operating system?
Tablet operating systems are evolving. Apple uses ascending numbers, Google (Android’s creator) uses numbers and names mostly of calorie-laden sweets. Apple now uses iOS 6, its next generation operating system. iOS 6 debuted on the iPhone 5, and you can download it to the latest iPod touch, the iPad 2 and new iPad (iPad 4th Generation) as well. Compared to iOS 5, iOS 6 has more than 200 enhancements. One of them, Siri, the iPhone’s voice commander, is available on the iPad 3rd and 4th Generation using iOS 6.
Unlike Apple, Google’s Android upgrades come out over several months and are targeted at specific models. The latest version, Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) was first available with the Google Nexus 7” Tablet from ASUS. The OS version currently installed on the largest variety of models offered by B&H is Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)—more than 27% of all Android devices use ICS. This is followed by Android 3.2 (Honeycomb). Older Android versions, sometimes still used in the least expensive Android tablets you can buy today, include 2.3 (Gingerbread), 2.2 (Froyo) and 2.1 (Éclair). Keep in mind that a new app or a recently upgraded app may require a minimum OS level for compatibility, so make sure the tablet you’re considering will support an app you deem essential.
You can also buy a tablet running Windows 8. Windows 8 is Microsoft's newest operating system, and has been optimized for touch-screen computing, and supposedly it handles apps and graphics much faster than Android. A rare breed of tablet is a dual-boot model that supports both Windows and Android.
What wireless capabilities should I look for?
Since so much tablet activity depends on an active Internet connection, virtually every model has a built-in 802.11n transceiver and embedded antenna for use within a Wi-Fi network. The most flexible Wi-Fi compatibility spans a range of protocols. The “n” standard by default is backward compatible with the older 802.11g and even older 802.11b schemes, but some models are also compatible with 802.11a, an older but robust protocol developed to support video streaming.
Another commonly built-in radio frequency protocol is Bluetooth for control and communication between the tablet and such peripherals as wireless keyboards and speakers. Bluetooth technology lets you share voice, music, photos, videos and other information wirelessly between paired devices. Setup is nearly automatic since Bluetooth devices are programmed to discover each other.
Built-in GPS is a feature you don’t normally buy a tablet for, and not all tablets have it, but benefits include finding your position on a map and embedding location data when taking a picture.
The most important wireless decision you’ll make in terms of overall cost and convenience is whether to get a tablet with built-in 4G cellular data capability. Not only does the feature add about $130 to the purchase price of an iPad, for example, but you’ll be paying a monthly charge to a carrier for data usage. (Luckily, there doesn’t have to be a contract, so you can wean yourself off 4G or pay for extra data usage at any time.) All tablets come with the ability to get on a Wi-Fi network, so turning on a tablet’s cellular option is always your second choice since Wi-Fi use is more likely to be unmetered. If you plan to use the tablet in or outside your home in locations with Wi-Fi access, 4G capability may be superfluous. However, if you envision the need to get online in places where free and reliable Wi-Fi access isn’t available or there’s no Wi-Fi at all—but there is cellular reception—the extra cost may well be worth your peace of mind.
Wireless connectivity is great, but what about physical connections?
Aside from an earphone jack, plugging anything into an iPad must go through Apple’s proprietary 30-pin docking port, or on the newest generation of products, the Lightning port. The included cable gets you to your computer for iTunes content synching and battery charging or directly to an AC adapter for faster charging from a power strip or wall outlet. The port attaches the tablet directly to a variety of accessories including speaker docks and auxiliary battery power. But you won’t find a memory card slot, USB port or HDMI output on an iPad itself.
Apple’s competitors have been more generous with I/O. On Android and Windows-based tablets you’ll often find an SD card slot and a USB port, and perhaps an HDMI output as well, though typically in mini or micro versions of the standard port sizes in order to keep the tablet as thin as possible.
How many cameras should the tablet contain: Two, One or None?
A tablet is an awkward device to use as your primary camera. You may as well be holding a sheet of paper in front of your face to take pictures or videos. Still, if it’s the only device you have with you, a tablet is the best camera to use. To take snapshots or record video of the environment around you, a tablet’s rear camera is appropriate. If you’d rather take pictures of yourself or chat by video while seeing the person at the other end of the conversation, you use the front-facing camera. You can use the one camera facing you to shoot other things, but framing will be guesswork since you won't see the display until playback. Conveniently, the majority of today’s tablets come with rear- and front-facing cameras. The rear camera will offer as much as 5 Megapixels for stills and up to 1080p resolution for video capture, while the front camera (used for such activities as Skype or FaceTime video chat) will offer lower resolution. Some tablets contain just one camera, while the most inexpensive tablets may have no camera at all.
How much storage capacity do I need?
Tablets can contain as little as 4 Gigabytes of solid-state storage and as much as 64GB or more. How much you choose will be directly related to how many apps and how much content you’ll be able to store at once. The biggest memory hog is high-def video, so you might want to opt for a larger-capacity model if you plan to store a bunch of movies. If the model has a memory card slot or USB port, you should be able to expand capacity by simply plugging in an SD card or USB storage device. As described above, Android-based models are most likely to have the expandability to accept memory cards or USB storage devices. Still, if you have an active Wi-Fi connection to the Internet, you don’t necessarily need a lot of memory in the tablet to simply stream content from cloud-based (remote) storage. Likewise, if you’re at home, the tablet should be able to stream content stored elsewhere on your home network. And if you’re traveling, a portable wireless flash drive can serve up documents, photos and videos to several nearby client tablets or smartphones at once without the user necessarily copying files into their tablets. Streaming, unlike downloading, doesn’t gobble up tablet memory, but it does deplete the tablet’s battery more quickly since you can’t turn off the tablet’s Wi-Fi transceiver as you could if playing content stored in the tablet itself.
Are there tablet designs that might surprise me?
Yes. There are tablets that transform into notebooks, ones that incorporates two screens and a third that’s built to take a beating. Some Android-based tablets work with an optional docking station to transform into a notebook complete with real keyboard, multi-touch pad, SD card reader, USB port and additional lithium-polymer battery that supplies bonus hours of power. Some tablets start out as notebooks complete with keyboards and mutiple ports, but you can swivel the keyboard onto the back of the screen so all you see is a touch-screen tablet.
There's also a full-size tablet that folds in half, resulting in dual 5.5-inch touch panel displays, each with 1024 x 480 resolution. You could use one of the screens as a virtual keyboard or one screen for entertainment and the other for productivity. Or you could use the dual screens as the equivalent of one display.
Another tablet features a built-in carrying handle and an extra tough frame. It's also one of the few tablets that enable you to change batteries using twin hot-swappable Li-ion battery packs. The manufacturer has traded svelte design for extra sturdiness, resulting in more weight than the typical tablet.
What are some other crucial accessories?
Protecting your investment with a reliable case for carrying and storing your tablet goes without saying. Choose a case that’s made for your model so that the tablet will fit properly and controls and ports will be accessible. Also, many cases double as stands for hands-free entertainment or photo-frame-like display.
Audio has its own social demands. That’s why another useful accessory is a set of earphones. Unlike iPods, iPads and other tablets are not usually shipped with earphones. While tablets all have speakers, there will be times when private listening is appropriate. At other times you may want to attach more robust speakers for sharing the music.
A real keyboard can be another desirable accessory. While typing on glass expedites a first visit to a Web site or a short reply to an email, power note-taking or lengthy writing is best accomplished using tactile keys.
A stylus isn’t a necessity since tablet computers are finger-friendly. However, a stylus affords more precise placement on the screen—not just because it enables a thinner touch point than any finger width but also because it doesn’t obstruct your view of the touch-down area as much as a finger. If you draw, sketch flow charts or write notes in long hand, nothing does it better than a stylus. Also, a stylus won’t leave greasy fingerprints on the display. Can you say the same about a pair of multi-tasking hands?
- A tablet fills the niche between computer and smartphone. It lets you enjoy books, magazines and newspapers or play music, games, movies and photos while at home or on the go. It enables you to browse the Internet, send email and make video calls.
- Content can be stored internally, streamed from a computer on a local network or accessed globally from the Internet.
- You should choose a tablet by size, weight and operating system. Screen sweet spots range from about 7- to 10-inches on devices weighing from about 12 oz to 1.5 lb.
- Consider whether you can live by Wi-Fi alone or want the option to connect through a cellular (4G or 3G) service, too. Tablets equipped with a built-in cellular modem cost more up front and incur optional monthly charges. Such location-free spontaneity for Internet connectivity may or may not be important to you.
- If you plan to load lots of video or a huge music and photo library into your tablet at once, consider a larger-capacity model. If you start with a 16GB model, you may find yourself synching the tablet to your computer more often than you’d like simply to move content in and out. The same model may also be available in 32GB or 64GB versions.
- Your choice of tablet will likely come down to an iPad from Apple or an Android or Windows device from a variety of manufacturers. If you’re interested in a specific app, check its platform compatibility.
- Important accessories not supplied with the tablet include protective cases that double as stands, earphones, keyboards, styluses, speaker docks, car power adapters and external batteries.