Tablet Buying Guide: 7 Essential Tips
There's never been more variety in the tablet world. You'll find everything from a simple $99, 6-inch slate to powerful 12-inch tablets that can run four apps on the screen at once. Want a tablet that can double as a laptop? There are plenty of 2-in-1 devices available.
There are also plenty of choices for operating systems, with Android, iOS and Windows 8.1 all vying for your attention. So, where do you start, and how do you pick the right tablet for your needs? We have all the info you need.
How Are You Going to Use It?
Business/Productivity: You'll want to invest in a full-size tablet (8.9 inches or larger) and possibly an external keyboard. Windows 8.1 tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, come with Microsoft Office preloaded. Apple's iPad Air 2, with its free iWork suite, is another excellent choice. You might also consider Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, which offers pen input and enhanced multitasking.
Gaming: Apple's iPad should be at the top of your shopping list. The App Store offers the richest array of high-quality games. However, the game selection in the Google Play store is improving, and both the Snapdragon 805 and Tegra K1 CPU offer powerful graphics for Android tablets. Die-hard gamers will want to check out the Nvidia Shield Tablet. This powerful slate lets you play Android games, stream PC titles and is available with an optional controller to give you a consolelike feel.
Kids and Families: The first priority for a family sharing a tablet is protecting Junior from being exposed to inappropriate content, so you'll want sophisticated parental controls, like those found on Amazon Fire tablets. When you pick up the Amazon Fire HD 6 or 7 Kids Editions, you also get a two-year, worry-free guarantee and a full year of FreeTime Unlimited content specially curated for kids. You may also want to consider kid-focused tablets from Fuhu. Apple's iPad offers some basic protections, along with family sharing for app and iTunes purchases. Some Android devices offer the ability to set up profiles.
Media Consumption: For movie and TV buffs, as well as readers, the Fire HDX 8.9 is an excellent choice. An Amazon Prime membership for $99 per year gets you unlimited streaming of Amazon Prime Instant Video and Prime Music content, as well as access to the Amazon e-book lending library. Of course, you can also access that content on an iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3. Plus, through iTunes, you get access to a huge library of content. On the Windows front, you'll enjoy Xbox integration with your tablet.
What Size Would You Prefer?
If you're looking for a lightweight device that fits in a purse or bag and allows you to read and watch video on the go, you'll want to consider a 7-inch tablet such as the Dell Venue 7. Weighing less than a pound, 7-inch tablets are easy to hold with just one hand, but they don't provide the most immersive experience.
Stepping up to an 8-inch tablet like the iPad mini provides more real estate for apps, games and movies and is still quite portable. However, these slates aren't quite as easy to hold with one hand.
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A 10-inch or larger tablet provides a bigger canvas for surfing the Web and editing documents, making them the best choice for productivity. With a typical weight of 1 to 1.6 pounds, larger slates aren't as portable as their 7-inch siblings, but they easily fit into a bag or sleeve.
Which OS Is Right for You?
Apple's iPad and iOS have become synonymous with tablets, but Android accounts for nearly 68 percent of slates sold in 2014. Meanwhile, Windows 8 tablets are finally gaining steam, especially laptops that double as slates. Here's a quick platform breakdown.
Apple's mobile operating system powers several tablets: the iPad mini, iPad mini 2, iPad mini 3, iPad Air and iPad Air 2. And there's a whole universe of accessories available for each device. But it's the supersimple interface and plethora of apps that attract most fans to Apple's platform.
With iOS 8, Apple has infused its operating system with a variety of improvements and additional features, such as the integration of HealthKit for unified medical data, family sharing of content and a better camera app. Most compelling is the Continuity feature, which syncs iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite devices. You can answer a phone call from your iPhone on your iPad, or start typing an email on your laptop and continue on your iPad.
Notifications are easier to access and respond to, as you can now reply to text messages and Facebook from the home screen. The Touch ID sensor on the Air 2 and mini 3 can now be used with Apple Pay when you're shopping online. Plus, if you prefer a swiping movement for typing, you can use third-party keyboards on iOS now.
With a mind-boggling 675,000 apps designed explicitly for the iPad (more than 1.3 million in total), Apple clearly has the best tablet app selection.
Despite Apple's clean and attractive OS, Android is more customizable — both by tablet makers and consumers. Android offers plenty of widget options, as well as launcher apps that can change the look and feel of your device.
The world of Android tablets can definitely be confusing. On one end of the spectrum, you have slates that offer a pure version of Google's OS, such as the Google Nexus 9. Devices like this offer easy access to Android's latest features and new design, 5.0 Lollipop. Pure Android devices will benefit from the new operating system's improved performance and battery-life claims.
Similar to iOS 8, Lollipop improves cross-device interaction. It unifies your smartphone, tablet and smartwatch by syncing songs, photos, apps and recent searches. Android 5.0 also offers more actionable notifications, allowing you to open an app from the lock-screen alert.
Other companies "fork" Google's operating system with their own overlays, such as Amazon's Fire HDX 8.9. There are benefits to the Fire OS, such as advanced parental controls and unique features, like the Mayday button for live tech support. However, the platform lacks Google apps and Google Play store access, relying instead on Amazon's store.
In between are tablets like those in the Samsung Galaxy Note line, which provide full access to the Google Play store but add value with features like note-taking capability and Multi Window multitasking.
Google Play is similar to iTunes in that it offers music, movies, TV shows, books and magazines. However, while there are more than 1 million apps in Google Play, many haven't yet been optimized for tablets.
Despite having invented tablet PCs, Microsoft lost the first round of the modern tablet wars to Apple. But with the release of Windows 8.1, Microsoft hopes to win over shoppers. And because Microsoft has worked with multiple partners, the world of Windows 8.1 tablet designs is much more diverse than the competition. You'll find all kinds of tablet-laptop hybrids, as well as familiar slate designs.
Microsoft's Live Tile interface is dynamic and easy to customize. You'll find a Start button on the desktop, but it merely takes you to the screen with all of your apps. Windows 8.1 offers enhanced search capabilities compared with Windows 8, as well as improved multitasking via the Snap feature.
The app store for Windows 8.1 currently has about 300,000 options. However, it doesn't yet have everything we'd like to see, including HBO Go, several popular games and all of Google's Apps (Gmail, Google Drive, Google Plus, etc.).
What Kind of Apps and Content Do You Want?
Because content is king, the baked-in media and apps store should influence your purchasing decision. If you are partial to iTunes, you'll want an iPad Air or iPad mini so you can easily purchase and enjoy music and videos from Apple's store on your tablet. You can use that same iTunes account to purchase apps, books and magazines. You also can download apps to access your Amazon books and Amazon's video service.
On the Android front, you have several options. There's Google Play, with its growing selection of music, movies, TV shows and magazines. This is the most common app store, found across most Android-powered devices.
Amazon's Fire line is compelling because of its access to Amazon video on demand, as well as Kindle books, magazines, apps and music. And if you're an Amazon Prime member, you'll also enjoy free access to the company's e-book lending library, and Prime video and music services.
You can access your books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble on Windows 8.1 through Nook and Kindle apps, just as you can on the iPad. But Microsoft also has media for sale, thanks to Xbox Music and Xbox Video.
What Specs Do You Need?
Processor: On the Apple front, the iPad Air 2 packs some serious firepower with its A8X chip. Meanwhile, the iPad Air, as well as the iPad mini 2 and 3, feature a still-zippy 64-bit A7 chip.
On the Android front, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 805 is a superfast option as well. The Samsung Exynos line, especially the octa-core chip, provides snappy performance on Samsung's tablets.
Other options include Nvidia's Tegra K1 (in the Nexus 9) and Intel's Bay Trail chips (in Windows 8.1 devices and Android tablets such as the ASUS MeMo Pad 7). Intel's lower-end Clover Trail CPU exhibited lag on some Android tablets we tested, so think twice about buying a tablet with that processor. Some smaller brands, such as MediaTek, offer fairly strong quad-core performance on cheaper slates.
RAM: You'll definitely want at least 1GB of RAM in your next Android tablet, but 2GB would be better. For a Windows 8.1 slate, 2GB should be your minimum. Some tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, come with 3GB. The more RAM a tablet has, the more responsive it will be in performing the tasks you need it to. When you don't have enough, you'll find loading and closing apps, as well as switching apps, to be sluggish.
Internal Storage/Expandability: The internal storage of some Android or Windows tablets can be expanded with a microSD card. That can be particularly helpful if you plan to download a large amount of data. But for internal storage, you should look for a minimum of 16GB. We would recommend 32GB or higher, if you can swing it, for storing more apps and games.
How Important Is Battery Life to You?
If you will be using your next tablet on long plane trips or you're constantly running from one meeting or activity to another, the endurance of your tablet will definitely matter. On our test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, the average battery life for a tablet is about 8 hours and 40 minutes. However, the LG G Pad 10.1 lasted nearly 14 hours on a charge, and the iPad mini 2 lasted 11 hours. You should never settle for less than 7 hours.
How Much Do You Want to Spend?
The price range for tablets can vary wildly. From $99 for the Fire HD 6 to $1,299 for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, there are gems for any budget. Android tablets tend to be the cheapest, and Microsoft tablets tend to be slightly more expensive.
Less than $100: There are some exceptions, but most of what you'll find for less than $100 is not worth a second look — and if it's less than $50, it's likely too good to be true. All tablets in this range will come with 7-inch or smaller screens. But the Amazon Fire HD 6 earned 4 stars and our Editors' Choice award, so it's best to do your research before plopping down your cash.
$100 to $200: Most tablets in this price range are 7-inch Android devices (with the odd 8- or 10-inch model here and there), and there are some very good options. The $149 ASUS MeMo Pad 7, for example, offers a quad-core CPU, a 720p screen and 16GB of storage. For $199, you can pick up the Dell Venue 8, which features a 1920 x 1200-pixel resolution and includes a microSD card for additional storage.
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$200 to $300: For $299, the gamer-friendly Nvidia Shield Tablet is at the top of its game in this price range. It offers a powerful Tegra K1 chip and 2GB of RAM, and can stream PC and Android games that can be manipulated via the included controller. At $249, the original iPad mini is a very good value. You'll also find the least-expensive Windows 8.1 slates, such as the Toshiba Encore 2.
$300 to $400: This price range is where the premium tablets start to show their faces, offering top-end specs without breaking the bank completely. For instance, the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9, with its 2560 x 1600p display and Dolby Atmos audio, can be had for just $379. Or, for $399, you can grab the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4, with its awesome Super AMOLED screen and expandable storage.
More Than $400: At the top end of the price spectrum are tablets that are great for productivity and creativity. Options include the powerful yet light Apple iPad Air 2, as well as Microsoft's Surface Pro 3. These are the types of slates that could replace your laptop.
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