How-to: Buy a Tablet

How to buy a tablet

Tablets are starting to mature. Android’s new 4.1 release dramatically improves the user experience. Apple’s iPad is now on its third iteration and continues to dominate the market. Microsoft pushing hard with Windows 8 RT, which is likely to inspire a range of new models. The tablet market is growing and looks continue on the back of the iPad’s stunning success.

The question is now what to choose: large or small, iOS, Android or Windows?

Form Factor

What size of tablet do you want? Most tablets have a display around ten inches( corner-to-corner, daigonal). But 7-inch models are cheaper, the most popular of which are the Kindle Fire and Google Nexus 7.

A smaller tablet will be lighter and easier to carry, also easier to hold for long periods like when reading e-books. Both the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 start at $199.

Tablets with larger displays are better for  video and playing games and educational programs which are making a niche with busy parents.

Battery life

Larger tablets usually come with a  larger battery, but then they need it to power the larger screen. That doesn’t mean they’ll give longer use between charges than a small tablet (small battery but small screen). Power consumption varies enormously, so check the stats on battery life then check with reviews and existing users what the realistic battery life is. Most small tablets give out after 4 to 6 hours of demanding use (such as gaming or watching a movie).

Operating System

The operating system is an important choice. Android and iOS dominate. Windows tablets are set to make a splash.

Android 4.1 is available on numerous devices, so there is a choice of manufacturer. Watch out for older and ‘off-brand’ tablets running Android 2.x  designed for smartphones, not tablets.

Android has  widgets and many other options to tweak and customise, multi-tasking and easy integration with Google’s services.

Apple’s iOS may be smooth, consistent and trustworthy, but it sits within Apple’s walled garden; cusotmisation is limited and the app selection strictly controlled by Apple. The App Store is significantly better than Google Play. This operating system is tightly integrated with the iPad itself, which at this point is the leader.

Windows 8 RT looks interesting, as it is a familiar Windows interface, but not directly compatible with Windows 8 desktop for PC’s and laptop’s but we’ll have to see how the full release works out. There will be Intel-compatible Windows tablets  coming in future.

All on ARM

Current tablet hardware is all based around processors using the ARM instruction set (with a few exceptions), and vary in the specifics. Two 1 GHz processors perform differently if they use different architectures. That said, there also is not a massive gap between the best and worst – unlike desktop processors, all tablets are running similar hardware specification because of the form factor, display types and batteries available.

The key criteria  is display resolution as measured in pixels-per-inch. More pixels packed into the same size display will improve sharpness and make text easier to read. You’re holding it very close and maybe for hours at a time.

Storage

Tablets don’t have hard drives; they all work on flash memory which will be the basic figure of 4GB, 8GB, 12GB or 32GB storage given in the specs. Bear in mind this has to hold the operating system, applications AND your data. Find out how much usable storage you have left after the operating system and core applications have taken their share. The usable storage after that may not be all that useful if you instend to install a lot more apps and doownload masses of music and video.

Fortunately most tablets also have an additional SD memory card slot to expand storage for data (generally not primary storage to run extra apps, though)

Connectivity

The connections available depend on the tablet hardware. If you want to connect external keyboards and display, you willneed to find a tablet with the appropriate ports. Android tablets are known for offering better connectivity. Many, but not all, of them come with USB ports, HDMI-out and an SD card slot for additional memory. Apple tends to limit connectivity to its own proprietary ports and purchase purpose-builtiOS peripherals or  adapters are expensive. Fortunately the iPad add-ons market is extensive. Watch out for keyboard docks as these are proprietary formats on many models.

Windows 8 RT is similar to Android in including HDMI and a USB port. Standard Windows compatible devices may not be compatible work with Windows RT on ARM as they are Windows desktop in Intel chipsets. Those that do will have to use drivers designed specifically for RT.

Wi-Fi and SIM cards

All tablets have Wi-Fi of more or less the same capability on 802.1n standards. Be aware that Wi-Fi can drain the battery super fast.

Most, but not all tablets also have a SIM card slot for mobile data over 3G and 4G. Check what data speed and SIM card formats a tablet supports and how much mobile data you can afford to use on a contract or pay-as-you-go SIM every month.

Conclusion

The Apple iPad 3 remains the no-brain recommendation if you are happy to live in the Apple eco-system. The new Google Nexus 7 is impressive and starts at just $200. It’s an obvious choice for a budget tablet and for users who prefer the 7-inch form factor. Don’t ignore the Kindle tablets, even though they are not as general-purpose capable as iOS and Android devices

No matter what you buy, you should focus on the basics above. The extras that are often advertised, such as free cloud storage or keyboard docks, are usually relevant to a niche.

The average consumer should focus on buying a tablet with a form-factor they find comfortable, a great high-resolution display and a large battery. Connectivity can also be an issue, but tends to be all-or-nothing. Either a tablet has the connections you want, or it doesn’t.

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