Computers / Buying Guide

Tablet Computers


What is a tablet?

It’s a keyboard-less computer embedded in a portable touch screen that syncs to a larger computer and can connect to the Internet.

Why choose a tablet instead of another type of computer?

The first point is that a tablet is always on and ready go. Not everything you do requires sitting at a desk or typing on a keyboard. In fact, considering how much personal entertainment is available for streaming from the Internet or played from storage in the tablet, a portable, lightweight and thin-screen device may be all you need. You can also use a tablet for email, browsing, playing games, viewing photo galleries, listening to music and reading digital books or magazines. In fact, considering how many apps have been developed for tablet use, there’s little you can’t do. Still, tablets are meant to coexist with—not replace—other computers.

What are basic considerations in choosing a tablet?

As with other computers, it’s a matter of how comfortable you are with the software and hardware. Tablet operating systems are dominated by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. If you’re familiar with iTunes on your Windows or Mac computer and own an iPod or iPhone, you’ll be synching an iPad in no time. Though Apple has a monopoly on iOS tablets, a variety of manufacturers offer Android-based tablets. The more advanced such tablets use the Android Honeycomb operating system, also known as Android 3.0, and above. Other manufacturers offer Windows-based tablets.

Apple’s iOS devices have the largest number of apps available, but Android apps are catching up. So, if you’re looking to use a particular app, make sure it’s compatible with the platform you’re running. Similarly, if you expect to attach a particular accessory, check to see if it’s offered for the tablet you have in mind.

Another way to narrow your selection is to identify whether you’ll be using the tablet mainly as a media player or to be productive. If the emphasis is on consuming entertainment, you probably won’t miss a physical keyboard. Nevertheless, it’s an option for iPads and some Android devices. Windows tablets are more likely to be equipped with hideaway keyboards. The category is sometimes referred to as a Tablet PC. (See Should I consider a hybrid tablet?below.) 

How do I judge the screen?

Though bigger is better when it comes to a TV or computer screen, it’s a burden in terms of portability, usability and battery life. Tablets start at about seven inches, but most manufacturers have settled on 10 inches or so as the optimum for screen diagonal—somewhat less than a sheet of paper or magazine page, but considerably larger than the screen on a personal media player or phone. Compared to the monochrome, non-backlit and mostly hard-button controlled screens on dedicated e-book readers, tablets’ screens are in color, can be used in the dark and are multitouch controlled.

Screen resolutions are typically either 1024 x 768 for the iPad and iPad 2 or 1024 x 600 to 1280 x 800 for Android or Windows tablets. (For seven-inch tablets, resolutions range from about 800 x 400 to 800 x 600.)

How much storage capacity do I need and can it be expanded?

Unlike a netbook, notebook or even a pocket media player like the iPod Classic, tablets are not equipped with hard drives. They use solid state memory—one reason why a tablet can be more expensive and contain fewer gigabytes of storage than other types of devices.

Since an iPad contains neither a memory card slot nor USB port, you’re at the mercy of whatever internal memory capacity you selected when you bought it. So, choosing between the 16-, 32- or 64-Gigabyte version will directly impact how much content and how many apps you’ll be able to accommodate at once. Video, especially high-def video, consumes more space than music or photos, so if you plan to store lots of movies, you’ll want a higher-capacity model. The Android-based models are more likely to have ports to accept memory cards and USB storage devices, shifting the burden from internal memory alone.

How does the tablet communicate with the outside world?

Every tablet comes with a USB cable that enables you to copy content from your computer. The rest of the time, you can access the Internet through Wi-Fi or a cellular network. While Wi-Fi is freely accessible on your home network and in certain public locations, a cellular plan carries a monthly fee. If you’re choosing a tablet with the intent of subscribing to a data plan, make sure to choose a 3G or 4G model rather than one that is Wi-Fi only. Most tablets have Bluetooth built-in for connecting wirelessly to a variety of peripherals including keyboards, speakers and headphones.

Will I need a built-in camera?

It depends. Most tablets now come with front- and rear-pointing cameras for taking photos, capturing video and letting you chat by video via the Internet. Still image and video qualities vary by tablet manufacturer, so check the specs if you care. While you probably won’t replace a dedicated camera with a tablet, there may be occasions when a tablet is the only device you have on hand to take pictures and record video.

How much battery run time can I expect and how can I extend it?

While internal battery time varies by model, tablets with 10-inch screens typically run up to 10 hours before requiring a recharge. Car charging adapters are available, but one way to increase the tablet’s self-contained power is to get an external battery that plugs into the tablet’s dock connector. Such batteries are sometimes built into a slim case that wraps around the back of the tablet.

What are some other features to be aware of—just in case I might want them?

While almost every tablet will auto-adjust its display to portrait or landscape orientation depending on how you hold it, less frequently seen features include Adobe Flash media support, an HDMI output for sending the tablet’s picture and sound to your TV and a built-in kickstand so that you don’t necessarily need an accessory stand.

What are some crucial accessories?

You should get a protective case for transporting and storing your tablet. 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 type display. Another crucial accessory is a set of headphones. Unlike iPods, iPads and other tablets are not shipped with earphones. (At least the audio jack is in place.) While tablets all have speakers, there will be times when sharing the sound won’t be cool. At other times you may want to attach more robust speakers precisely for widening the sound field.

A real keyboard can be another desirable accessory. While typing on glass expedites a first visit to a URL, writing email or taking notes without the tactile feel of depressing keys could send you packing to your desktop prematurely. Keyboards typically connect to tablets via wireless Bluetooth technology, so you have the flexibility of typing at a comfortable position and distance from the screen.

Also, if you’re a photographer in the market for an iPad or iPad 2, you may want to get a camera-connection kit for the convenience of transferring images by cable or memory card reader when you’re away from your computer. If you’re getting a Windows-based tablet, you may also be able to add a USB-attachable DVD reader/writer or hard drive.

Should I consider a hybrid tablet/notebook or dual-boot tablet?

Several manufacturers have introduced Windows-based notebooks or netbooks with keyboards that can be swiveled out of the way and stored against the back of the screen. Since the display is a touch screen, the resulting device looks and acts like a tablet, and the computer often comes with a digitizing pen or stylus. For some people, it’s the best of both worlds—a fully-functional portable computer with the ability to run Word, Excel and other familiar Windows applications and the instant convertibility into a Windows tablet. While iPad and Android apps are not for Windows, there are media players, handwriting-recognition programs, drawing tools and customized applications available. Also, some people—especially mobile workers—like the flexibility of using a stylus pen to do data entry on a tablet-based spreadsheet rather than typing in numbers or guiding a mouse. For them, it’s the ultimate clipboard. A variation is the dual-boot tablet (not a hybrid) that lets you start up Windows or Android.

The Takeaway

  • Since a tablet can replace books, magazines and newspapers; play music, movies and photos (stored locally or streamed globally); and enable you to browse the Internet, send email and conduct video chats; you’re unlikely to run out of ways to use one.
  • Choose a tablet by size, weight and operating system. A 10-inch screen on a device weighing 1.5 pounds or fewer amounts to a sufficiently large canvas for conveying personal entertainment and information. Smaller and lighter tablets are also available.
  • Consider whether you can live by Wi-Fi (and synching to your computer) alone or desire the assurance of cellular data, too. Tablets equipped to connect to the Internet wirelessly using a built-in cellular modem cost more up front and incur optional monthly charges.
  • If you plan to load lots of video or a huge music and photo library into your tablet, 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.
  • Your choice of tablet will likely come down to an iPad from Apple or an Android device from a variety of manufacturers. If you’re interested in a specific app, check its platform compatibility.
  • Alternative platforms include Windows.
  • Important accessories not supplied with the tablet include protective cases that double as stands, earphones and keyboards.

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The RIM Blackberry Playbook is another tablet computer to consider seriously.  Its 7-inch display gives portability and weight advantages, and the pricing is very keen - only $200 to $300 for 16 GB to 64GB models.  Built-in Office light software, a growing library of productivity apps and a Bluetooth keyboard make this a contender for business and home office use. 

nice article and very informative. a comparison of some tablets will add to our knowledge.