How to Buy a Tablet

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Once upon a time, laptop PCs were considered to be the lightest, fastest mobile devices available. This was back when laptops weighed almost eight pounds and were about two inches thick when closed. Along came cellular phones, which also, at their inception, weren’t that portable either. As technology progressed and microchips became faster, lighter, and more energy efficient, cellular phones became smartphones, and laptop PCs became netbooks. And while consumer thirst for “smaller, lighter, faster” grew, the devices continued to shrink, until lo and behold, tablet computers suddenly became the rage—and their share of the mobile market is growing.

A number oft stated in the industry is that by 2015, almost 70% of the computing market will be tablet based. We’ve certainly seen moves in that direction—many PC makers that have invested in the Ultrabook™ category now offer hybrid PC/tablet convertibles that attempt to serve two purposes. And almost everyone who’s been around a commuter train, classroom, or Internet café has seen someone use a tablet.

A majority of that market saturation is thanks to the wildly popular Apple iPad. The original iPad sold almost 15 million units, accounting for almost 75% of all tablet sales at the time, but the competition has definitely heated up. The Google Nexus 7 broke records when they were introduced in 2012, and have put a serious dent in the tablet market. Other major players came to the table last year as well, like Samsung, Sony, Acer, and ASUS.

But let’s get back to you, the average consumer. You want a tablet. You want it to be feature packed without breaking the bank. You may want it strictly for entertainment purposes, or you may want it with some productivity features. You want applications that enrich and educate, or you may just want to play Angry Birds on a bigger screen than your smartphone. Either way, the tablet you pick should fit your needs. And here’s what you should look for.

Size

Size matters, but bigger is not always better. Some of the most popular-sized tablets lately have been in the 7-8” range. At 7 or 8”, what you get is a slightly-larger-than-paperback tablet that’s comfortable to hold in one hand. It is perfectly designed for e-reading, but can handle movies and music as well. The most popular tablets in this size range are undoubtedly the iPad mini with Retina Display and the Google Nexus 7. Both come with a ton of features to enjoy, and coincidentally, both are available with outstanding screen resolution (check it out below). The major difference between them is the operating systems, processing power, and price.

At around 10” and larger, Apple once again makes a showing with the 9.7” iPad Air. But here is where the competition has made a much stronger showing. From the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Sony Xperia Tablet Z to the ASUS Infinity and Microsoft Surface Pro 2, these tablets are solid performers, equal to the tasks that the Apple iPad can perform. They set the bar high, limited only by price and operating system. Face it—if you prefer iOS and don’t like Windows or Android, no amount of cajoling or comparison is going to get you to switch.

Your Choice:

  • 7” Class

Used mostly for entertainment, perfect for daily commutes, plane rides, or car trips; you can read comfortably, it’s ergonomically suited for one-handed use, and it is very portable. It will easily fit into most jacket pockets, purses, and bags.

  • 10" Class

Larger screens mean more immersive and comfortable movie watching. However, reading books on a larger screen is not as intuitive as it is on the smaller models. Privacy is also impeded by a larger screen; your seatmate on a cross-country flight will probably peek at your entertainment selections.

Processor

Once you’ve picked your screen size, the next consideration will be the power of your processor. Not all tablet processors are the same. Most will use ARM-based processors, which power about 75% of all mobile devices today. But even within the ARM class, there are differences.

The major players in the tablet market include the ARM Cortex series, Qualcomm, NVIDIA Tegra, AMD, and Intel®. While each processor has its own limitations and strengths, there are some that you should consider, and some to avoid. Processor speed is also a consideration in most cases. Like PC processors, you want something with a high frequency rating. For instance, the Tegra processors by NVIDIA are optimized for gaming. The new Tegra 4 quad-core processors can handle graphics handily—but how do they handle productivity software? When choosing your processor, look for high CPU speed and the latest chipset in their class. Why settle for a Tegra 3 processor when the same model may come in a Tegra 4 configuration?

Rising in popularity is the Intel Atom™ processor. Traditionally, the Atom class got a bad rap because of their association with Netbook computers—a slow, cumbersome misfire among mobile power users—but the new Atom processors are designed for speed and lower power consumption, so they should definitely be considered. The Samsung Exynos processors are also built for performance and speed while maintaining low heat production and less power drain. Any speed above 1 GHz usually means a significant power drain when using the CPU for high-end activity, like watching videos or gaming.

Also, the new Snapdragon, Tegra, and Exynos are all quad-core processors, which means that they can handle more significant tasks per cycle than a dual-core or single-core processor. But don’t expect high levels of multitasking—even at their best levels, most tablet computing cannot handle excessive workloads. To improve on this, the Apple iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display both feature powerful A7 processors with an M7 motion co-processor to handle all the information received from the integrated sensors. By delegating tasks to separate processors, the engineers at Apple have assured us that these iPad models are able to perform twice as fast as their predecessors, with up to twice the graphics performance as well.

Your Choice:

  • Intel Core i5 or i7 – best for Windows productivity, multitasking
  • Apple A7 chip with M7 co-processor – multitasking powerhouse also improves battery life
  • Snapdragon 8, Tegra 4, Exynos 5 Octa – gaming, entertainment

Screen

What good is a tablet if you don’t like the way your graphics look? Until recently, we were satisfied with very little in the way of screen resolution and construction, until, once again, Apple changed our minds. With the introduction of Retina Display, they raised the bar for visuals. Fortunately, on non-Apple tablets, the actual construction of the screens took a leap, going from standard LED-backlit screens to high-definition screens, some of which also support IPS technology. The standard high-definition resolution is 1366 x 768 pixels—and we say standard because 85% of users don’t need anything more. But the last 15% of power users who will really see the difference shouldn’t settle for less than Full HD, or 1920 x 1080 resolution. 

Movies, gaming, and reading will be sharper, cleaner, more distinctive, and simply beautiful. And then we get into the Retina Display resolution range—2048 x 1536—and it just becomes showing off. But some tablet manufacturers are even improving on that, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10, with a resolution of 2560 x 1600, which makes the standard 1366 x 768 resolution look like comparing stick figures to Monet’s "Water Lilies."

The next thing to consider is screen construction. Once upon a time, there were resistive display screens, but those have given way to the much more touch-sensitive capacitive displays. Resistive requires your finger pressing on the screen to complete a circuit, while capacitive screens use your fingers as electric conductors that complete a circuit with touch rather than pressure. The standard capacitive displays used to be LED backlit screens. But about two years ago, IPS (in-plane switching) became the new thing. IPS technology makes for sharper viewing at wider angles. You can see and view (and most importantly, share) the screen from farther to the left or right. IPS claims viewing angles of 178°. IPS screens do a better and more accurate job of color saturation as well.

Your Choice:

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1    2560 x 1600
Toshiba Excite Write  2560 x 1600
Apple iPad Air      2048 x 1536
Apple iPad mini with Retina Display   2048 x 1536
Apple iPad 4                        2048 x 1536
Apple iPad 3        2048 x 1536
Acer Iconia Tab A700       1920 x 1200
Sony Xperia Tablet Z       1920 x 1200
ASUS Transformer Infinity      1920 x 1200
HP SlateBook x2      1920 x 1200
Google/ASUS Nexus 7 FHD        1920 x 1200
ASUS MeMoPad FHD 10        1920 x 1200
Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro      1920 x 1080
Acer Iconia W700         1920 x 1080

Storage

When you purchase a tablet, you may be surprised by how fast the internal storage is eaten up by programs, applications and files. An 8GB tablet will only hold five or so high-resolution movies, and that’s only if your other files (books, music, etc) don’t take up too much room.

Unfortunately, many tablet makers sought to forgo the addition of larger drives for good reason: larger drives add weight, cost, and heat to a tablet, but they also sought to leave out a very important storage amenity. The omission of an SD or microSD card slot is inexcusable, once you consider that the addition of a microSD card slot not only adds almost infinite storage possibility, but is also one of the most low-cost additions to a tablet.

That’s why your decision to purchase a tablet should also take into consideration its storage-expansion possibilities. If there’s a tablet you're considering, but it’s running third or fourth on your list, it may make the jump to number one if it has SD storage. Think about it this way: a typical tablet manufacturer probably has models ranging from 16GB to 64GB, and in some cases it may cost you $100 for every 16GB of additional storage space, whereas a 64GB microSDXC card will cost only about $30, and will triple the amount of storage space. When you run out of room, you just add another card. Trust me—64GB of extra storage capacity goes a long way.

You also have the option of purchasing third-party storage solutions, like portable external hard drives. Some drives, like the G-Technology G-Connect, will even connect wirelessly to your tablet and home network, which makes transferring media and documents to your tablet a breeze. Portable drives are great solutions, except for the fact that they cut into the portability of your tablet, which was the reason you bought it in the first place.

Your Choice:

You’re going to pay more for additional Gigabytes of storage, so consider a tablet like the 16GB Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, which includes a microSD card slot that supports cards up to 64GB—and you can collect as many 64GB microSD cards as you need. And definitely try and avoid tablets with less than 16GB of internal storage unless they have a memory card slot.

Applications/OS

The next feature to consider is the tablet’s operating system. Why is the operating system so important? Basically, the type and number of applications available will depend on the operating system. Different operating systems also offer different user interfaces, so it’s important to pick an operating system you feel comfortable using. As a rule, you should avoid any proprietary OS, like those found on cheaper tablets, or specifically targeted devices like the Amazon Kindle (it uses the Fire operating system, which is a modified, specialized Android deviant, and works brilliantly with Amazon’s infrastructure, but not so well outside of it). The three biggest operating systems for tablets right now are Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android (which is about 75% of the tablet market), and Microsoft’s Windows 8, which works brilliantly with Intel-based CPUs.

The only caveat to consider when buying a tablet based on the OS is that the applications made for that OS work only with that OS. For example, Apple’s app store has more than 1 million apps. Google Play, which supports Android apps, closes in at around 1 million as well, although in both Apple and Google’s cases, the numbers are wildly dependent on what you would consider an “app.” Netflix is a real app—downloading an app that makes cricket sounds when you shut down your tablet is not.

Windows is far behind in the race for apps, although developers are always trying to get more apps out there for Windows mobile users. The advantage Windows has over the other options is its productivity software. Native Microsoft suite software and other programs made for Windows 8 will most likely be accessed by Windows 8 mobile operating systems.

Another warning: make sure the Android-based tablet you’re looking at has at least the Android Ice Cream Sandwich edition, and can be upgraded OTA (over the air). Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) was the most significant Android operating system update in recent years. It added security fixes, more seamless application integration, and ironed out other bugs as well. A tablet sold with anything before ICS is suspect, and if it can’t be upgraded, it will affect your user experience. As of this writing, Android has upgraded its OS twice, first with Jelly Bean and most recently with their Kit Kat OS.

Your Choice:

Apple iOS – One of the best user experiences, and especially appeals to consumers already entrenched in the Apple ecosystem. Clean, well-integrated apps, and lots of them.

Android – If Apple isn’t your thing, you’ll appreciate the scope, breadth, and ease of Android. Its greatest appeal is its instantaneous power-on and its fluid handling of widgets and applications. This kind of seamless handling is something that Microsoft had hoped to emulate with Windows 8.

Windows 8 – It’s trying. It really is. Windows 8 is the best operating system if you want to get work done and your laptop, smartphone, and work PC also run Windows. It’s also great if you’re looking for something more than just an entertainment device. Almost 30% of consumers use tablets as their primary computer and, rest assured, those power users are looking for Microsoft to provide a productive atmosphere.

Connectivity

Basically, any “real” tablet will have Wi-Fi. Period. However, there are different levels of Wi-Fi technology. Tablets access Wi-Fi with varying degrees of difficulty—in the first release of the ASUS Transformer line, there were serious problems with both accessing Wi-Fi and global satellite positioning (it had something to do with the receptors being blocked by the tablet’s casing). Now tablets do anything they can to improve their Wi-Fi reception. The new Apple iPad Air, for instance, uses MIMO multiple antenna technology to drastically improve its reception, compared to previous iPad generations.

Then there are 3G and 4G LTE options. Basically, these options let you access a signal regardless of your access to Wi-Fi, much like your smartphone does. Since almost 37% of tablet users spend two or more hours on their tablets (again, according to a recent Google survey), having access to a constant signal may be in your “I want” category. But a 3G or 4G LTE enhanced tablet is going to cost you quite a bit more—not to mention the data plan you’ll have to purchase to keep that service active on your device.

For the 80% of users who use their tablet at home, using your wireless home network Wi-Fi signal should be all the Internet access you need. However, when you do leave the house, there are thousands of free Wi-Fi hotspots that exist all over cities and towns in places like airports, coffee shops, hotels, bars, etc.). Plus, if you pay for a wireless hotspot through your smartphone provider, you can turn that on if you need to get your tablet connected to the Internet when you’re away from home or any other available free Wi-Fi zone. Tablets that support 3G or 4G LTE mobile broadband are usually only needed when a customer needs remote web access on their tablets at pretty much all times—no matter where they are. It’s also worth noting that all 3G and 4G LTE-equipped tablets also have built-in Wi-Fi, so when you’re at home you can use your home wireless network. You don’t always have to rely on your mobile broadband connection.

Your Choice:

Wi-Fi Only – Readily available in most homes, and in most hotspots around your neighborhood.

3G or 4G LTE + Wi-Fi – If you can afford it, you might as well get it. Otherwise, stick with a less expensive Wi-Fi-only model.

Target Age

Not everybody will use the same tablet for the same reasons, nor do all users want the same experience.  Buying a tablet for yourself is easy; you know what you want. Buying it for someone else is a whole different situation. You should reach that decision based on these criteria:

  • User’s age
  • User’s need
  • Budget

The user’s age is important, because some manufacturers aim their tablet at specific age groups.

Your Choice:

Kids – Nabi and Ematic make the Nabi Jr and the Ematic FunTab, respectively. These tablets are designed with age-appropriate software and apps, parental controls, and monitoring. They’re made specifically for young children and 'tweens.

Students – Samsung makes the 16GB Galaxy Tab 2 Bundle that includes the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1” tablet, Polaris Office app, wireless Bluetooth keyboard, and a desk dock. Tablet bundles like this are absolutely perfect for high school and university students. They can enhance a student’s note-taking abilities in class and spark their creativity through artistic apps. They offer great gaming and entertainment possibilities as well.

Techies – For any techie, creative professional, or power-user spouse, the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display are perfect tablets. Their intuitive iOS 7 operating systems support a seemingly endless list of apps, and they each feature a modern aluminum aesthetic, brilliant Retina Display, powerful multitasking A7/M7 processor chips, and a laundry list of other features that should make either Apple model the perfect choice for techies and power users.

Non-Techie Users – For grandma or grandpa, something a little lighter and less expensive, like the Nexus 7 FHD, is a great budget-friendly choice that is also easy to set up and simple to use.

Your Experience May Vary

While we can always suggest a tablet for you, or at least give you a leg up when making a decision, your experience may vary. The best way to make a decision is to visit a retailer, like the B&H SuperStore, and get some hands-on experience with a variety of tablets. With the information provided above, you should be able to—at least—know what tablets you should be considering.

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The chart and text neglected to include the Apple iPad 2 which is still a current product and at $400 is the best choice for casual users and seniors who don't need a higher resolution screen and especially because the Apple operating system is probably the most intuitive for the non-technically proficient users compared to the other OSs. It is also especially a good choice for even young kids because, even if it is a significant budget investment, they will grow into using it for more advanced educational activities with the availability of the sheer number of excellent apps and books from Apple's superior App Store and their iTunes University.

This is a superlative review and very, very timely for me. I am a "dumb phone" user and a young-thinking, pragmatic senior looking for a tablet. Up to now my research has been limited to Consumer Union's ratings and reviews of tablets. Price is not a problem but value is very important to me.Since
I do not use a smart phone with a monthly contract and most of my computer time is spent in front of my PC. However for traveling, a tablet offers many advantages in keeping in touch with friends, associates, clubs, books and magazines, entertainment and the internetWith Chris Silvestri's lucid article, I am much better equiped to make a sound tablet purchase to fit my needs.
Thank you again for a great article.

The other consideration is what Smart Phone you use. This immediately determines your OS choice. If you are an iPhone user the integration between devices on iCloud is a critical decision point. I cannot imagine any one in their right mind getting a Android Tablet if they have an iPhone and vice versa.

Thank you for this very good article. I already knew some of the very basics, but you did a nice job covering all aspects about tablets. I changed to Apple products about 4 years ago and found only a few things I'd like to see changed, but overall I love Apple and would never go back to PC. However, after my expensive IPad was lost I bought an inexpensive Coby. Oh brother, what a change. I could not deal with this as a major electronic device so I am now back to the IPad and would rather go broke than switch to an Android. I don't know a thing about the Google tablet, but it does look interesting. Had it been around when I lost my IPad I would have possibly looked into buying one, but I depend on my APPS from Apple so maybe it would not have worked out anyway.

Really a good article. I have been looking for information on tablets that explain all the kinds and what would be my best selection and this information really provides what I was looking for. Thanks and it is what I expected.