How to buy a tablet
Tablets are becoming almost as essential as smartphones. Apple's iPad remains the market leader, but you’ll find compelling alternatives among an ever-increasing number of Android-based competitors, as well as Microsoft Windows 8-based tablets.
The features you need
Any tablet will let you email, browse Web pages, read books, play music and games, and watch movies and videos. And any tablet can run apps for handling everything from balancing your checkbook to writing the next great American novel. Before choosing a tablet, you should consider whether you’re already committed to a particular app and entertainment ecosystem. An iPhone user with a large iTunes library and an affinity for iOS apps, for instance, will probably want to stick with an iPad (despite its weight and other limitations).
If you’re not in that camp, consider how you’ll use a tablet. Are you a multitasker who needs to run several apps at once? That might be a job best left to Microsoft's Windows RT tablets. Do you use Amazon Prime services? The e-reading and integrated media-streaming capabilities of the Kindle Fire HD might eclipse that model's app limitations. Ditto for the Barnes & Noble Nook HD tablet, which delivers the highest pixel density on a 7-inch display we've yet encountered.
Most other tablets run some version of Google’s Android operating system. Keep an eye out for models that are Google “certified” and that have the Google Play store preinstalled. Most of the latest models run at least Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, though Google’s own Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 come with the most current version, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. Many Android tablets provide USB ports and expansion slots, as well as more built-in storage for the price, and more direct file-management capabilities than Apple's iPad offers.
What other specs should you consider? Here's our checklist.
The first thing to think about is the size of the display. Do you want a larger tablet that's less portable but has a screen that offers better productivity, such as for composing documents or presentations? Or do you prefer the more compact and unobtrusive size of a 7- or 8-inch tablet?
Next, look at the resolution of the display. For any given screen size, the higher the resolution of the display, the greater the pixel density—and the higher the pixel density, the smoother the text. For instance, you won't see pixelated dots on the 2048-by-1536-pixel Apple iPad as you will on the 1280-by-800-pixel Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1.
Some tablets have a bonded display. Tablets with optical bonding eliminate the air gap between the glass and the display; this, in turn, improves contrast and reduces glare. It's a good feature to have, especially if you plan to use your tablet for reading.
More is better. File sizes increase right along with resolution, and if your device has a fixed amount of storage, you’ll find yourself constantly swapping content between it and the cloud or your computer. Avoid tablets with less than 16GB of space. MicroSD card slots that allow you to add more storage are de rigueur on most Android and Windows 8/Windows RT tablets. You don't get a slot on an iPad, of course, so think hard about how much capacity you need before buying one.
Understanding this spec can be a challenge. Dual- and quad-core ARM-based processors dominate, but some platforms simply tout “multicore” technology without disclosing the precise number of cores available for any specific task.
Even within a processor family, you'll find no consistency. Nvidia's quad-core Tegra 3 processor has been a solid performer on some of our test metrics, such as graphics, but it's not as strong on others, such as Web browsing. And not all Tegra 3 chips run at the same speed or deliver the same oomph.
Samsung uses its own Exynos processor for its tablets, while Apple uses its own A5 and A5X chips. Texas Instruments’ dual-core OMAP4460 and OMAP4470 each have plenty of traction, and are found in Amazon and Barnes & Noble's tablets; however, TI has refocused its business away from mobile processors, so don't expect to see new models hit with OMAP. Qualcomm's quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro will appear in some new tablets, but likely not until 2013. Avoid tablets with single-core CPUs, since they aren't worth your money.
If you’re considering a Windows tablet, playing the processor game becomes far more critical. The CPU inside these tablets not only determines which version of Windows you get, but also governs what you can do with the tablet. A Windows tablet carrying an ARM-based processor, such as Nvidia's Tegra 3 or Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro, will be limited to running Windows RT, not Windows 8. Without Windows 8, you won't be able to run the same applications you use on a laptop or desktop PC. For that, you need a tablet with an x86-based CPU, such as one from Intel's Atom “Clover Trail” or AMD’s “Hondo” series of low-power CPUs, or one of Intel’s Core processors.
Most tablets come with 1GB of memory—consider that a minimum. Models based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro are expected to pack 2GB. The additional memory facilitates multitasking.
The iPad has just one proprietary port, and dongles (for HDMI, SD memory cards, and USB cameras) that attach to it are the antithesis of Apple chic. Other tablets offer a slew of ports, including some variant of HDMI and Micro-USB. Integrated HDMI ports are handy when outputting video from the tablet to an HDTV. Some tablets also provide a full-size USB port, which is convenient for connecting memory-card readers and USB flash drives.
A stylus is the perfect tool for handwriting notes, signing and annotating documents, and drawing diagrams and pictures. Aftermarket capacitive styluses lack the accuracy and palm-rejection capabilities of active digitizers, such as those from N-trig and Wacom. If such capabilities are important to you, give Samsung's 10.1-inch Galaxy Note a look. Some Windows 8 tablets also have digitizers, such as Lenovo's ThinkPad 2.
Some tablets offer an integrated dock-and-keyboard option that turns the tablet into a clamshell-style laptop, complete with a touchpad, an extra USB port or two, an SD memory card slot, and in many cases an extra built-in battery.
Planning to share your tablet with the family? Apple's iPad has Restrictions that provide a degree of parental control, but no profiles. Amazon's Kindle Fire HD series has Kindle FreeTime, an app for controlling a child's access to content on the tablet. But Barnes & Noble's Nook HD and Nook HD+ offer full-bore password-protected profiles for up to six users; and, these profiles have parental controls, too. Google has added profiles to its Android 4.2 operating system, but few tablets beyond Google's own Nexus series have 4.2 yet; and Google lacks the parental controls found on the Barnes & Noble Nook HD line.
Once you have a general idea of what you need in a tablet, follow these tips to score the best deal.
Look for bargains on previous-generation models: We can’t say “last year's models," because some outdated tablets are less than a year old—the tablet market is developing that quickly. You might find close-out deals on older models with dual-core processors running the Android 3.x (Honeycomb) operating system, for instance. These tablets can handle the basics, such as email and Web browsing. If you go for an older model, however, be sure to choose one at a particularly steep discount. After all, at this writing, Google's 16GB Tegra 3-based Nexus 7 sells for just $200, and the more useful 32GB model is priced only $50 higher.
Think twice about buying a connected tablet on contract: Many mobile carriers offer tablets at subsidized prices, but the up-front savings rarely pays off over the life of a two-year contract. Tablet technology is advancing so rapidly that you might be ready to sell or hand down your current tablet in a year—or even sooner. The Google Nexus 7 with WiFi + Mobile Data is the first mainstream tablet to ship with an unlocked SIM card slot, so you can use it with any HSPA+ GSM mobile data plan.
Pixel density matters: Higher pixel density, which is generally analogous to higher-resolution displays for any given size of display, is something you can see and appreciate every single time you use your tablet.
Look at the apps—and the media: Examine the Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google, and Windows app stores to see what's available, as well as what’s missing. If you know of specific titles, games, or arcane subjects for which you need apps, see if the ecosystem supports them. Are your favorite flicks or TV shows available?