Whether you opt for an Apple iPad or one of many Androids, choosing the right media-consumption tablet isn’t necessarily a snap. Here’s what you need to know before you hit the store.
It’s difficult to remember a time before tablets, but it’s been three short years since the original Apple iPad hit the scene, and the current tablet market was born. Since then, we’ve seen scores of manufacturers trying to snag a slice of the tablet pie, which so far, has been dominated by Apple, now on its fourth iPad iteration. Growth is so rapid in the segment that some analysts claim tablet sales are set to outpace laptops this year. There’s no denying that the tablet is here to stay.
But which tablet is right for you? Whether you’re eyeing an iPad, one of the many Android tablets available, here are the key factors you need to consider when shopping for a tablet:
First Off: Do You Even Need One?
Simply put, tablets aren’t really filling any true need—even three years in, they’re still neither replacements for computers nor smartphones. While you can tackle productivity tasks on a tablet, you won’t get a desktop-grade operating system, like you’ll find on a PC. Plus, since we’re talking about slates here, we’re talking about on-screen keyboards. Of course, there are plenty of worthy add-on hardware keyboards, especially for the iPad, but few will provide the same comfort you’ll experience with a laptop or a desktop. The main focus of the tablets we’ll discuss here is media consumption, not productivity. If you want a slate or convertible tablet for work, take a look at the top-rated Windows 8 tablets we’ve tested, but be prepared to pay laptop prices, many run around the $1k mark.
Tablets do have advantages over both laptops and phones, offering a more portable way to check email, browse the Web, video chat, watch movies, listen to music, and play games than your laptop can provide, but with a bigger screen than on your smartphone. Even so, you probably don’t need one, but if you want a tablet, read on.
Choose Your Operating System
Just like with a full-fledged computer, if you’re getting a tablet, you need to pick a camp. And just like with a computer, your decision will likely come down to your gut feeling. Right now, the top two contenders are Apple with its iPads and iPad mini, and Android with its many hardware choices from the likes of Acer, Amazon, Asus, Barnes & Noble, Google, Samsung, and others.
Microsoft recently entered the race with its Surface$699.00 at Microsoft Store tablet, running Windows RT, a slimmed-down version of Windows 8, which runs on mobile devices with ARM processors. We’ve also seen RT-based tablets from Asus, Dell, and Lenovo, but overall, the platform hasn’t really taken off, with some vendors like HP and Samsung canceling RT-based tablet releases to focus on Android and Atom-powered Windows 8 models.
Generally speaking, the greatest strength of Apple’s iOS, the operating system on the iPad and iPad mini, is twofold: It’s very clean and intuitive, and the wide selection of iPad apps that you can buy right on your tablet—more than 300,000 iPad-specific titles at the time of this writing—work uniformly well with very few exceptions. (For more, check out our full iOS 6.1 Review.)
Google’s mobile OS, Android, is a more complicated story. Besides having your choice of hardware from several manufacturers, at any given time, there are a few iterations of Android floating around on various devices. The latest version, Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean), is the best yet, with maximum configurability, a top-notch notification system, fast, smooth Web browsing, and seamless integration with Google applications like Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Talk for video chat. The latest Android version also adds support for multiple user logins so you can share your tablet with a friend or family member, a useful feature that’s missing in Apple tablets. The only problem: Right now, you can only find Android 4.2 on Google’s own Nexus tablets and a small handful of others including a couple of Transformer models from Asus.