How to Buy a Tablet
It’s time to face the inevitability of a tablet in your life. They’re no longer luxury items. These slab computers play a critical role in travel, leisure, second screen and productivity computing.
More than 71 million people own them in the U.S. alone, according to the Online Publishers Association. One in 10 around the world will own them by 2016. In other words, we’re not going back. It’s really only a question of which tablet to buy and why.
It’s not that complicated. Sure, there are lots of choices, including a variety of sizes, but if you break it down into some essential questions, you should come up with the answer for: Which Tablet is Right for You?
Today’s #tablets range in price from under $150 to over $800. What’s remarkable is that the level of functionality does not differ as much as you’d think between, say $200 and $600. What price does typically define is tablet size and overall power (internal components like storage space and connection options).
There’s a growing collection of solid-to-excellent 7-inch, $199 tablets from #Amazon, #Barnes & Noble and #Google. #Apple‘s 7-inch option, the iPad Mini, (actually 7.9-inch) bucks the trend and asks consumers to pay $329 for a base model. If you love Apple above all other things, however, this is the small-size tablet for you.
Under no circumstances should you buy a $140 tablet from a no-name company. You’ll likely be disappointed.
If your budget is flexible, however, you can make your choice based on some other factors.
Your Tablet Plan
Okay, we know you want a tablet (or give one as a holiday gift), but do you know why? What’s your plan? Reading? Web Surfing? Currently tablet owners spend much of their time viewing video, according to the Online Publisher’s Association, and it’s likely you will, too. Tablets are, by design, perfect content-consumption devices (that’s what 94% of current tablet owners do, said the OPA), and they’re also great for web browsing, e-mail and getting your daily news fix. Assume that, if you buy a tablet, or get one for someone else, they’ll do all these things with the device.
If, however, the thing you want to do most is read books, they you may be able to save a fair amount of money by selecting an e-reader. These E Ink-based devices are still quite popular and cost a fair amount less than even the least expensive tablet. In 2012, Amazon and Barnes & Noble both delivered E Ink readers with built-in reading lights (great for late-night reading that does not disturb your partner), the Kindle Paperwhite and Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight, respectively. They’re both excellent devices that cost roughly $120. You can get more details on these ereaders here:
What you want to do with the tablet could also help define your size selection. Readers may gravitate toward smaller 7-inch devices. TV and video watchers, as well as those who plan on getting more done with their tablets may opt for a screen in the 8.9-to-10.6-inch range. Virtual keyboards are a lot easier to use when you can fit both hands, side-by-side over them. Microsoft’s new entrant, the Surface, was designed with productivity in mind (wide screen and a cover that doubles as a keyboard) and, as such, comes across as more of a hybrid device than a pure-play tablet.
If you’re a gamer, you’ll not only want a larger tablet — you’ll want to look for a slate with ample graphics-processing power. The iPad Fourth Generation’s quad-core GPU is hard to beat in this area.
For One or Many
Here’s another important fact about tablets: They’re typically shared devices. Parents often hand the tablet to their children, but they have to change all their settings every time they do it to prevent junior for accessing, say, shopping apps or the wrong part of the web. If you plan on sharing the tablet or maybe you want to give it to someone under 12, you’ll want to find a device with some level of parental controls.
Amazon now has a FreeTime app that lets you add and edit profiles. Barnes & Noble’s Nook HD puts profiles front and center and covers not just children, but family members of all ages. Apple also includes a less sophisticated set on “restrictions” that allow you to block access to virtually all content and critical tablet functions, but there’s no concept of multiple profiles.
Size and Weight
Regardless of size, today’s tablets ably perform a vast array of tasks. In other words, you won’t sacrifice much of anything if you choose a 7-incher over a 9.7-inch device. That said, larger tablets are heavier, take up more room in your bag and put a bigger strain on your arm. 7-inch tablets like the Kindle Fire HD 7 and Google Nexus 7 weigh 12 ounces or less. Apple’s new iPad Mini is the lightweight champ at just 10.68 ounces (E Ink readers are significantly lighter, but essentially perform just one task — reading).
Full-size tablets weigh almost twice as much as most 7-inchers, but the extra screen real estate (and, in some cases, power) is usually worth the cost. Barnes & Noble’s 9-inch Nook is, at 18 ounces, the weight champ. Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9 is 20 ounces, while the Google Nexus 10 sits at 21 ounces and Apple’s powerful iPad Fourth Generation tips the scales at nearly 23 ounces. Microsoft Surface, which is one of the large tablets, weighs 24 ounces.
Apple didn’t become the global leader in tablets be delivering mediocre designs. From the very first-generation iPad to the new iPad Mini, there’s no better tablet design on the market. Apple gets the shape, weight, ports and buttons right. Not having a home button on the Kindle Fire HD (7 and 8.9) is an endless frustration. Google’s Nexus tablets put the buttons on the edge, but I still think consumers like a home button front and center. Microsoft splits the difference, offering a virtual , but always present , button (the Windows icon) on the face of the tablet.
Here’s the thing screen resolution: Virtually every tablet on the market today offers an HD screen. Apple calls its industry-leading display Retina to indicate that it’s at the upper spectrum of what the human eye can perceive. For the record, Apple’s iPad is no longer the resolution leader — that title goes to the Google Nexus 10, which bests the iPad’s 2,048 x 1,536 screen with a 2,560 x 1,600-pixel display (although the Nexus 10 has comparatively fewer apps optimized for such a high-resolution screen). Lower down the scale, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD offers 1,920 x 1,280 and the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD is 1,920 x 1,200.
To compete, manufacturers like Microsoft (the Surface is 1,366 x 768), Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Nook) are all “laminating” their screens to decrease the space between panels and cut down on glare. These are still backlit screens, though, and most suffer in direct sunlight. In any case, the rule here is no one should settle for a lower-resolution screen — even on 7-inch devices. HD squeezes more pixels on the screens, which also results in more information. There’s no downside to that.
Pay more money and you’ll get more storage. I recommend you start at 16 GB. Some tablets, like Microsoft’s Surface and the Nook HD, add an upgradeable storage option via microSD slots (a necessity in the case of Surface, which gives up half its storage space to the pre-installed apps and the Windows RT operating system).
Ease of Use
Tablets are, by their very nature, easy to use. They’re all designed for touch, and almost every tablet on sale today requires little to no training. On the other hand, some interfaces are better than others. Overall, you have two basic options: Apple’s iOS platform and its app-centric interface metaphors, and Android.
The Android side is a bit more complicated. Amazon and Barnes & Noble run Android, but place custom interfaces on top of them. Of the two, Barnes & Noble is the easiest to use: It’s bright, colorful, clear and, as I mentioned, offers easy-to-setup profiles. Google’s Nexus 7 is unvarnished Android Jelly Bean. It looks good, but is not always the most user-friendly. If you like Android devices, though, this may be the tablet for you (at 7 or 10 inches).
Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD interface is super-clear, but not as attractive as iOS or Barnes & Noble’s Android interpretation.
Apple’s iOS is the most widely recognized tablet interface, and I know its quirks so well that it’s my personal preference. It’s also incredibly intuitive.
Tablet manufacturers are all over the map when it comes to cameras and video. Apple is all in with HD cameras on front and back. Barnes & Noble doesn’t think tablet consumers need cameras and leaves them out completely. Amazon Kindles feature one front-facing camera. Surface has a camera on front and back (720p). None of these cameras is truly practical for point-and shoot photography, but virtually all shoot HD video and can be useful if you don’t have your also-shooting-HD-smartphone handy.
If you imagine taking lots of pics with a tablet and/or doing a fair amount of video chatting, choose a tablet with at least a front-facing HD camera.
All tablets offer Wi-Fi. Apple juices its offering up with dual-channel support. However, virtually all modern tablets support 802.11n, which is plenty fast for most users (yes, it can handle streaming video). You can spend more for 3G, and now 4G LTE, for always-on connectivity, but keep in mind that you will pay extra for the cellular radio in the tablet and for monthly data fees. If you plan on using the tablet mostly in a Wi-Fi saturated home, school or the local Starbucks, save yourself a chunk of money and skip the cell option.
If you absolutely must have #mobile broadband, you can cut the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD, Google’s Nexus 7 and 10 and all Nook HD models out of your buying decision.
If tablets are taking over the technology landscape, they still have to share space with our most dominant portable technology: the smartphone. Which smartphone you own, more specifically, what platform it’s on, could help steer your tablet choice.
There are some benefits to sticking with one platform: shared apps and shared data.
The big-brother iPad closely mirrors the iPhone interface design (they both run iOS) and some of your data — mainly calendar, mail, notes and photo streams — can be shared across devices.
Plus, if you choose, say, the iPad and your family owns iPads and iPhones, you can easily use Apple’s video-conferencing platform, FaceTime.
Likewise, if you own an Android phone (Droid Razr, HTC, Nexus, Galaxy S III, etc.), they you may be familiar and more comfortable with Google’s slightly busier interface, and the Google ecosystem, which is typically (though not always) tied to your Gmail address.
Microsoft’s big pitch is that Windows is at the core of its Windows phones, new Windows 8 computers and its own home-grown tablet, the Surface. As a result, the devices all share some interface characteristics and apps built for one can easily be ported to another (which may mean faster delivery of more apps down the line.)
Apple now boasts 275,000 curated iPad apps. That sounds awesome, but the reality is your only need 20-30 good ones (most tablet owners download 22 apps, according to the Online Publishers Association — PDF link). Microsoft’s Surface is a bit behind the curve on this front, as I had trouble finding a decent drawing app.
Android tablets occasionally suffer because Google Play does nothing to separate tablet and phone-sized apps. Don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of Android apps, it’s just a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to finding apps that fit your 7- or 10.1-inch tablet screen.
Barnes & Noble and Amazon, on the other hand, do a great job of curating apps for their tablets. It’s one of the main reasons I’d gravitate toward their tablets over Google’s offerings.
A World of Great Choices
Bottom line, the market is now filled with great tablet choices. Use the guide above to weed out the tablets that don’t match yours or your recipient’s needs, and let us know how the buying process goes in the comments below.