Tablet Buying Guide: 8 Essential Tips

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The tablet has fallen on hard times recently, with falling sales and heated debate about whether we even need tablets in today's huge smartphone-driven world.tablet bg lead 2 23 16

But there are still plenty of good reasons to consider buying a tablet. Maybe you want a device to occupy your free time or to supplement your TV watching with Twitter. Maybe you don't need a full-fledged laptop, but need something that's bigger than a smartphone. Or maybe you're looking to buy an easy-to-use device for the technophobe in your life.

Whatever the reason, there's a tablet out there for you. Read on and we'll help you find the right one for your needs.

MORE: iPad Buying Guide: Which One is Right for You?

Convertible or Stand-Alone Tablet?

When it comes to tablets, you have a choice — do you go with a standard tablet or do you go with a “convertible” tablet?

Stand-alone tablets take the form of oversize smartphones: They consist of one large touch screen, a handful of buttons on the case, a charging connector and little else. They usually weigh between 1 and 2 pounds and are typically less than half an inch thick, so they're supercompact and portable. You control them using the touch screen, but you can usually pair them with a Bluetooth keyboard.

Convertible devices try to combine the flexibility of the PC with the convenience of a tablet. These 2-in-1 devices either come with a detachable keyboard or they're really just a full-size laptop that features a touch screen.

Detachables look and work like stand-alone tablets, but snap on to a specially designed keyboard attachment, and you can use them as laptop replacements. Some detachables come with the keyboard, while others require you to buy the keyboard separately, like with the iPad Pro and its $169 Smart Keyboard.

Microsoft's Surface Book takes the concept a step further, in that it's a full-fledged laptop with a detachable display that you can use as a stand-alone tablet.

Which Size?

tablet bg size

Tablet screen sizes range from 6 inches on the low end, all the way up to a gargantuan 18.4 inches on Samsung's Galaxy View tablet. You'll find that most tablets fall into the 7- to 10-inch range: If you're looking for something small and light that you can take with you anywhere, a small tablet such as the iPad mini or 7-inch Amazon Fire tablet is the way to go.

Tablets in the 10-inch range, like the iPad Air 2, provide a good balance between portability and productivity: They aren't as easy to use with one hand, but they're still plenty light and compact. Larger tablets, such as the Galaxy View or the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, are less portable, but they can make for suitable laptop replacements.

Notebook-tablet hybrids typically feature screen sizes around 11 to 13 inches, but they tend to be bulkier, so they aren't ideal if size and weight are your main priorities.

Which Operating System?

iOS 9

The latest and greatest version of Apple's mobile operating system is iOS 9. It powers all of Apple's current-generation iPad models (as well as smartphones). And it comes with a number of additions that give your iPad a little extra flexibility, thanks to new split-screen multitasking features.

Your hardware options are limited with iOS, relative to Android and Windows, since you have only Apple's iPad line to choose from. The options include the iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, iPad Air, iPad mini 4 and iPad mini 2. On the other hand, iOS users have hundreds of thousands of apps at their disposal through the App Store.

Android

When it comes to Android tablets, you have no shortage of options — both in terms of hardware and software.

While Android is, ostensibly, Google's mobile operating system, there is no unified Android. The company releases a new update to the OS every year or so, and some tablets get updated while others do not. Plus, most tablet makers customize Android to suit their needs, or add in features to differentiate their tablets from the competition. Samsung tablets, for instance, come with a customized interface that integrates a number of Samsung-specific apps and features. Amazon's Fire tablets run a heavily customized version of Android that Amazon calls Fire OS.

You also have a plethora of hardware options, too — from the aforementioned Fire tablets to Samsung's wide-ranging offerings to the Asus ZenPad series, to name just a few.

Windows 10

Windows 10, the newest version of Windows, builds upon the foundation Microsoft laid in Windows 8 and 8.1. The new OS is easier to use on traditional PCs than Windows 8 was, and it makes using Windows on a tablet much more seamless than before. Windows 10 offers several concessions to tablet users, such as large, touch-friendly window controls and buttons, a Tablet Mode (which expands the Start menu to fill the whole screen) and various touch-screen gestures.

Windows remains heavily oriented around the keyboard and mouse, though, so some apps and features may be awkward to use via a touch screen. It makes sense, then, that many Windows tablets are of the convertible kind.

MORE: Top 8 Windows Tablet-Laptop Hybrids

How Will You Use It?

tablet bg woman relaxAt Home

For general home use — such as Web browsing, email, listening to music and so on — most any tablet out there will fit the bill. You probably won't need to go with a superhigh-end tablet, so look for tablets that cost less than $300. The $179.99 Lenovo Tab 2 A10 is one of our favorites.

For Work

If you plan to use your tablet as a business machine — or as a laptop replacement — you'll want one with at least a 9-inch screen. The iPad Air and iPad Air 2, Google Nexus 9 and larger Samsung Galaxy models are all good choices.

If you have the budget, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro ($799 and up), Microsoft Surface Pro 4 ($899 and up) and Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 ($649 and up) are very good options. Each of these comes with handy multitasking features, optional keyboard attachments and pen-input support.

For Gaming

Since iOS is the center of the mobile gaming universe, an iPad is a good bet. The iPad Air 2 offers a good balance between portability and power, but starting at $499, it isn't cheap. Other options abound, however, such as the $199 gaming-centric Nvidia Shield tablet K1. This Android tablet is built around Nvidia's Tegra K1 quad-core mobile processor and features an 8-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel display and 2GB of memory.

What about Windows-based convertible tablets? Since these devices run full-fledged Windows, you can play a good many PC games on them. They won't keep up with high-end gaming rigs, but many are more than suitable for more casual PC gaming.

For the Kids

tablet bg dad son

With tablets for children, you'll want to consider size, price, durability and parental-control features. A 7-inch tablet will be more suitable for small hands, and given the risk of a broken tablet, you'll want to stay on the lower end — no more than about $250. The $99 Fire Kids Edition is a good choice, with its rubber bumpers, compact size, parental controls and kid-friendly interface. Plus, it comes with a two-year guarantee that says the company will replace it if your child does serious damage.

MORE: Kids' Tablets to Buy (or Avoid)

For Media Consumption

Any of the tablet ecosystems are good choices for watching movies or TV shows and listening to music, but if you're a true media junkie, the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9-inch may be for you. Not only does it feature a sharp 2560 x 1600-pixel display and Dolby Atmos speakers, but it also integrates nicely with Amazon's Prime Video content. Another great option could be the iPad Air 2, which integrates with iTunes and sports a 2048 x 1536-pixel screen.

What About Apps and Content?

All three major tablet operating systems provide digital storefronts from which you can purchase and download apps, music, movies and other kinds of content.

On iOS, the App Store is the only real way to get apps for your iPad. Apple keeps pretty tight controls over what apps you can buy through its store, which reduces the risk of downloading something malicious, but somewhat limits the sorts of things apps can do. The iTunes Store lets you purchase music, movies and TV shows, while the iBooks app manages all things pertaining to e-books. Meanwhile, the Music app lets you listen to your own tunes or stream music via the Apple Music subscription service.

Google Play is your official one-stop shop for getting apps, music and other content on your Android tablet. But Android's more open nature means it isn't the only way to get apps and other content, and Android device manufacturers sometimes bundle their own digital store on their devices.

tablet bg hammock relaxAndroid devices can also side load Amazon's Underground app store. It comes with $20,000 worth of Android apps, games and in-app purchases that are free. It's a curated — and thus smaller — version of Google Play.

Speaking of Amazon, if you're an Amazon Prime member, the company's Fire tablets come with built-in support for Amazon Prime content. That includes the Video streaming service, access to Prime Music streaming, Kindle e-books and more. They also come with a 30-day Amazon Prime free trial. Apps are available for download via the Amazon Appstore or via the Underground app.

On Windows 10 devices, you can purchase apps, music and movies through the Windows Store. Because this is Windows, however, you can download apps from just about anywhere. Still, certain software titles may only be available via the Windows Store, and since Microsoft vets everything in it, you're at a lower risk of malware infection if you go through the Store.

Which specs matter?

Tablet specs can be tricky to discern, since not all manufacturers fully disclose their devices' innards. Here's a quick rundown on what you might see, and what it all means.

Processors

Apple uses its custom A-series chips inside its iPads. Current models use either the A7, A8, A8X or A9X processors: Higher numbers denote a newer processor that offers better performance, and the X suffix indicates a more powerful version of a given processor. The A8 is newer than the A7, for instance, while the A8X is a more powerful version of the A8.

Android tablets pack processors from a variety of manufacturers. Samsung's Exynos chips and Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors are the most common: Look for the Snapdragon 800 series and Exynos 8 processors for better performance. Nvidia's Tegra processors are found on Nvidia tablets, and you'll find some Android machines with Rockchip CPUs.

On the Windows front, you'll find mainly Intel processors, including the Core m3, i5 and i7 processors. Tablets based on Intel Core processors tend to be higher-end devices, and will generally cost you more. Lower-cost Windows tablets and convertibles often use Intel Atom processors.

MORE: Intel's Core M CPU: What You Need to Know

RAM (Memory)

RAM isn't quite as big a selling point on tablets because of how iOS and Android manage memory. Generally speaking, however, the more you spend, the more RAM you'll get, and on most tablets, you can expect anywhere between 1GB and 4GB of memory. Laptop/tablet hybrids and other Windows-based convertible tablets, like the Surface Pro 4, typically offer more memory, sometimes up to 16GB of RAM. More RAM often equates to snappier performance.

Storage and Expandability

Stand-alone tablets typically come with 8 or 16GB of storage on the low end, and up to 128GB on the high end. Convertible Windows tablets often have storage capacities more in line with typical notebooks, so it isn't unusual to find one with 256GB of storage or more. Some tablets include SD card readers that allow you to expand your device's storage capacity. Unless you don't use your tablet much, you may find 8 or 16 GB to be a little too constraining for your needs, so you'll probably want to pay a little more and get at least 32GB of storage space — or look for one with an onboard SD card slot.

How About Battery Life?

tablet bg battery

Many tablets will get you all-day battery life, but as our testing shows, tablet battery life can still vary greatly. Lenovo's Android-based Yoga Tab 3 lasted more than 15 hours on a single charge in our Web browsing tests, but on average, the devices we tested ran for 8 hours and 45 minutes before their batteries ran dry. We recommend you look for a tablet that runs for no less than 7 hours on a single charge.

MORE: 10 Tablets with the Longest Battery Life

Is the Price Right?

You can pay an awful lot for a tablet — but you don't have to. Tablets range from more than $1,000 on the high end to less than $50 on the low end, so you have plenty of options, regardless of how much or how little you want to spend.

Less than $100

You'll find lots of inexpensive Android tablets for less than $100, as well as Amazon's entry-level 7-inch Fire tablet, a solid little device that goes for around $50. At these prices, though, you're limited to tablets with tight storage capacities and low-resolution displays, and you won't find many that have screens larger than 7 inches. You'll want to do your homework before you buy to make sure you're getting a decent device.

$100 to $200

If you're on a tight budget but don't want to delve into the bargain basement, the sub-$200 range is a good place to look. Most tablets in this price range hover around 7 or 8 inches and run Android, such as the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 4. Storage capacities are still limited, though, with 8 or 16 GB being the norm, but you'll find the occasional tablet with 32GB of onboard storage.

MORE: Best Tablets Under $200

$200 to $300

Pay a little more, and you'll get a little more power and added niceties, such as higher-resolution screens. At $269, Apple's low-end iPad mini 2 gets you a 7.9-inch 2048 x 1536-pixel display, but its storage capacity is limited to 16GB. At this range, you'll start to see larger 9- and 10-inch tablets as well.

$300 to $400

Here is where you'll start to see more of the larger, higher-end tablets. High-end 7- and 8-inch tablets live here, as do lower-end 9- and 10-inch tablets. For $319 you get a 32GB iPad mini 2, while $399 gets you either a 16GB iPad Air or 16GB iPad mini 4. Alternatively, you'll find the $399 Google Nexus 9 tablet and a wide selection of Galaxy tablets from Samsung.

$400 and up

The high end of the tablet market is a rather wide-ranging segment, but it's here where tablets go from being secondary devices to legitimate laptop replacements. You'll get faster processors, bigger screens, more features and, generally speaking, more storage space (though you'll still find some 16GB models here and there). You'll also find tablets with built-in cellular broadband here. Tablets in this range include the iPad Air 2, the iPad Pro, high-end Android tablets and the Surface Pro 4.

Add a comment
47 comments
  • Malcolm Says:

    Hi Revai,
    The first thing that you need to do is STOP SHOUTING. Now what was your question again?

  • Moira Keith Says:

    I am technically challenged but thinking of a tablet for listening to music, reading books and watching the odd movie/dvd (rather than buy a bedroom tv). Dare I ask what would be best for this type of use? Thank you.

  • Yula @hotmail.com Says:

    I want a tablet but my phone number is on the other side

  • Kemone Moore Says:

    I love these tablet and would love one for my son

  • Lev Raphael Says:

    I had a 1st generation iPad and after extensive research switched to a Samsung Galaxy S because many tech bloggers said it was better. Well, that's relative. The operating system is incredibly confusing, even after buying a Dummies book to help me figure it out. Just working with the home screen makes me want to throw the thing across the room--and this is after a few months. I'm going to buy an iPad Air 2 in the hopes that it's more user-friendly. Pretty much every time I open the Galaxy I have trouble with something. Yes, the screen is amazingly bright, but so what? It was a waste of time and money.

  • annah Says:

    i want the best tablet,that didnt give problems

  • callie Says:

    It so nice to have tablet for my self

  • Josh Lowe Says:

    kindle fire sucks like butt >:(

  • Thomas Dowling Says:

    I purchased the Sony Xperia Z2 10.1 inch Hd Tablet Wi fi with 32 Gb internal jmemory 3 Gb Ram. My First Name brand tablet. DID I do OK? I have had it now since October 14 and they just sent me the Android upgrade from Kit Kit to Lollipop. WOW How would you grade my choice? with the Sony Card And the special month long sale i was able to chop off $ 150 from the regular price of $ 599.00 down to $ 450.00. just wondering how I did with my choice and with cost?

  • Paul Pollock Says:

    I am looking at the market out there and need some recommendations. I DON'T sit around and play games on the computer, don't watch movies, etc on-line, mostly use my NOOK HD w WIFI when away from home, but think it's time to stop needing to piggyback, and need to be able to get on, on my own. What access plans are out there and what are your opinions on the current stash of tablets out there? Short and sweet, and maybe a website or 2 for info?

  • Bob Says:

    I'm a college student and i need a tablet for reading textbooks. I may need to open more than one textbook at a time and i want one that can switch between them fluidly. Which one do you think that is good and affordable ?

  • Robert Says:

    Stopped reading when I saw he recommend iPad for gaming... dude... I can run Oblivion, LoL, CoD MW, Civ 5, HoMM3,4,5, and many older desktop games on Venue 8 which is a budget windows tablet... Gaming is not only about the games in the store... Windows lets you play actual desktop games...

  • Bob Hougland Says:

    Hi, Anna! Great article. I hope it's not imposing on you to ask for some specific advice. Both my desktop and laptop are nearing the end of their lives, and I plan to get a desktop-replacement laptop to replace both of them. While I'm visually-impaired, but a long ways from blind, I'd like to get a large Android tabled (10+") with Windows OS so it will work with my Win PC and AT&T home and cell phone service. But, I have limited use planned: if it does nothing but let me load various versions of the Bible in large print, do basic internet browsing (hopefully with Firefox), and make routine phone calls, I'll be happy. No games, maybe some music (with external speakers). But, I have trouble dealing with dragging icons to make things happen...would rather just push them. It's hard for me to compare them online. Might you have any suggestions or directions I could go? Thanks for your great article.

  • lab443 Says:

    Just tried the recent Acer Aspire Switch tablet/laptop. Concept is great, but the technology fails miserably. Malfunctioned right out of the box- would not charge and worked for about 3 hours plugged in, then died. My advice? Look to better quality products.

  • K. H. Midwood Says:

    For those of us who live ordinary lives, a translation into well written, comprehensible English would be helpful. Main clauses , subordinate clauses, decent syntax, conjunctions, prepositions and an absence of jargon( unless with an interpretation). Ta!

  • pj doty Says:

    I have an android now can't get full TV shows on it is a windows better 10" thank u

  • Richard Says:

    Are there any 8" (or so in terms of size) windows 8.1 tablets that support cellular 3G AND\OR LTE built in? i know id need a SIM card.
    thanks

  • prioris Says:

    I agree with Gary's statement ...

    "I am finding out there is a lot of misrepresentation of App space on tablets. Or should I say no representation! "

    You articulated the issue very well. The misrepresentation and lies are widespread.

    This is no buying guide

  • prioris Says:

    So many reviews, specs and guides etc leave out the most important information.

    HOW MUCH ACTUAL GB AVAILABLE FOR APPS on Android Tablets.

    People will assume that after the space for the OS is taken into account, the rest is usable for ANYTHING. Not true. 8GB tablets are nearly useless unless one intends to load few if any apps on it.

  • gary R Says:

    I am finding out there is a lot of misrepresentation of App space on tablets. Or should I say no representation! I like your article very much. But many tablet prosective buyers should know how much space is alloted for Apps! I bought a 8gb tablet and was unaware that the Apps space was only 660mb. yup MB!. More than half of that was being used by Google apps I cannot get rid of. I'm Got Burnt!

  • JohnP Says:

    If you need/want battery life as the article says the LG is amazing.

  • jessmurray Says:

    NEW TABLET MODELS DECEMBER 2014

    Tab le t M a x x -- offers some Great Holiday Deals on new Tablets with a half of dozen new models released this month, all with the latest specs and premium features -- plus includes a $20 - 16GB MicroSD memory card free with all tablets.

    One model that stands out is the new mid-size 9" tablet, the Ramos i9s ($239) - powered by one of Intel's first 64-bit mobile processors and offers a premium build quality that compares to the Nexus 9 at nearly half the price... there's also the new Pipo P8 ($229) model which also matches most features of the Nexus 9, but with a more compact, 8-inch screen size.

    For Windows tablets, there's the new X90 HD - Windows 8.1 model ($269) - the only Mid-size, 8.9" Windows tablet available with an AMOLED 2560X1600 display - the same screen found in several premium Samsung devices; plus the X90 HD comes bundled with a case and Bluetooth keyboard.

    Other Holiday deals through Tablet Maxx include the 7-inch Venus Android tablet ($69) with a quad core processor and HD screen; plus an Ultra-size 12-inch model, the Ramos i12 ($259) - which also offers an optional case with keyboard to make a great tablet - laptop combination.

    Another deal-buster is a premium iPad case with Bluetooth keyboard for only $20 (regularly $59)

  • Revai Says:

    l need to purchase an ASUS memo pad HD 7,how do l go about it

  • Revai Says:

    L NEED TO PURCHASE AN ASUS MEMO PAD HD7,THE 7INCH ONE GOING FOR 149.99.HOW DO L GO ABOUT IT

  • sharon Says:

    I would like to buy my 6year old daughter a tablet that she can use the same apps that she uses at school she already has a kindle

  • diane Says:

    I was told to buy only a tablet or ipad with Sim Card...and SD slot....there are none in the cheaper range and not sure if there are any ipads at all made from Apple that have this.....i wanted to use outside of WIFI when away from home....Could you please let me know. Thank you .

  • Sharon Says:

    We are looking to buy a video recording device for our skating club to record and play back jumps, spins, etc. All we need is the videoing, as large of screen as possible and a durable case. We don't need apps or an operating system really. Is a tablet the best option? Other video cameras have such a small screen to watch on the spot!

  • fernando Says:

    extremely healthful thanks

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  • google Says:

    Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was extremely long)
    so I guess I'll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog.
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  • Prasanta Chanda , Maslandpur Says:

    I want to buy a Tab of Rs 11000/- (Max.) which have the facility of using the broadband sim card or more else can be called as mobile broadband and Windows , take good video.Give your suggestion. Thanks

  • Kathy Says:

    Is APPLE really coming out with another tablet to rival the I-pad AIr??

  • Ritesh Kamble Says:

    I want to purchase tablet.
    wich one a tablet i can buy rs.16000..with good brand

  • david hoffman Says:

    im wanting to buy a tablet but wifi at my house is not good.what should i be looking for in a tablet

  • Tammy Says:

    I'm thinking about buying a tablet so that I can work wherever I happen to be- but I have a disability and find typing difficult on the touchscreen because I can only type with my left hand (I'm not sure they make a Dragon Naturally Speaking program for tablets). I'm also an aspiring writer who loves Google Drive and uses it for everything. What tablet would you suggest for me?

  • Alpinmd Says:

    Great article. Im still not sure what I should buy to meet my needs ( professional and student, not a gamer). Lots of note taking, essays, math, meetings, plus email, music, surfing, reports, spreadsheets ( some but could do on laptop). Any clear direct purchase suggestions? No Apple products. Oh and I need the ability to print from tablet and Ive heard googles tablet cant do this. Im leaning towards samsung but dont know enough to know what I don't know. Any guidance would be appreciated. Tab or Note or? Id prefer not to spend more than $500 or $600.

  • vince Says:

    You have the wrong price for the nexus 7 32gb

  • matt Says:

    Kind of biased towards apple... :-P

  • Thiva Says:

    I am looking for a tablet which have the facility of using the broadband sim card or more else can be called as mobile broadband. Im looking for a low budget tablet. Whould u advise me the best solutions for it.

  • Glady Says:

    For kids, I would go for Kindle Fire HD. It offers great value for money and has very good parental control.

  • Park Says:

    "You won’t find a Windows 8 or RT device for less than $499. For now, these are premium devices."

    True for Windows 8 because its a full OS, but RT devices are usually cheaper than $499. Windows RT devices try to compete with iOS and Android tablets so they have to priced to do so. The Surface RT costs $349.

    Great guide otherwise :)

  • toilet burger Says:

    that was good and all but i want to know if you have to buy games or not? (i just got my tablet on pre-order so i dont have it yet D: )
    oh and is 7 inch good?

  • Rohan Trivedi Says:

    I am planning to purchase Asus X54C its with i3-500GB-2GB-15.6 Specs what do you suggest me is it good one ?

  • Vianne Liberato Says:

    I would like to chose Apple iPad Mini than iPad (10"). You can hold the iPad Mini in just one hand. If you will compare the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7" to Apple iPad Mini 7.9", then you must go with the iPad Mini.

  • Mario Espinoza Says:

    I want to buy my daughter a tablet, but it would have to be one of the cheaper ones and I just don't know if any of those would be worth even the reduced cost. Do you have a recommendation for one hopefully mostly used for reading and some games. Although she has taken to silly videos on youtube. I have seen a few on this week's Big Lots and wonder if any are worth it.

  • Nick Hall Says:

    I'm looking for a 7inch tablet which will take good video. Tried to make comparisons from the reviews, but still unclear - any thoughts?

  • Mary Brown Says:

    My son tells me to buy a Samsung tab 2 (3G) 7 inch
    Do you think that is a good one

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