The Big Picture
Tablets are becoming almost as essential as smartphones. Here’s a survey of what to look for in these devices.
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 everything from balancing your books to writing the next great novel. Before choosing your tablet, you should decide if 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 will use your 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.
Most other tablets on the market run some version of Google’s Android operating system. Look for models that are Google “certified” and that have Google’s Play Store preinstalled. The latest models will run Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Google’s own Nexus 7 has an even newer version, Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). Many Android tablets provide USB ports, expansion slots, more built-in storage for the price, and better file-management capabilities than Apple’s iPad.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
The Specs Explained
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 memory. MicroSD card slots that allow you to add more storage are de rigueur on most Android tablets. You don’t get a slot on an iPad, of course, so think hard about how much capacity you need before buying one.
This spec is fraught with thorns. A mix of dual- and quad-core ARM-based processors dominate these days, 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 isn’t 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 employs its own A5 and A5X chips. Texas Instruments’ dual-core OMAP 4460 and 4470 each have plenty of traction, and Qualcomm’s quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro will appear in some new tablets soon. Be sure to avoid tablets with single-core CPUs; they just aren’t worth your money.
If you’re considering a Windows tablet, the processor game becomes far more critical. The CPU not only determines which version of Windows you get, but also governs what you can do with the tablet. A Windows tablet based on an ARM processor, such as Nvidia’s Tegra 3 or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro, will be limited to running Windows RT; it won’t run Windows 8. Without Windows 8, you can’t run the same apps that you use on a laptop or desktop PC. For that, you need a tablet using an x86-based processor, such as Intel’s Atom “Clover Trail” or AMD’s “Hondo” series of low-power CPUs, or one of Intel’s Core processors.
Most tablets have 1GB of memory — consider that a minimum. Models based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro are expected to pack 2GB. The added memory facilitates multitasking.
The iPad has just one proprietary port, and dongles (for HDMI, SD Cards, and USB cameras) that attach to it are the antithesis of Apple chic. Other tablets offer a slew of ports, including HDMI and Micro-USB. Some tablets also provide a full-size USB port, which is handy 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. But aftermarket capacitive styluses lack the accuracy and palm-rejection capabilities of active digitizers. If these features are important to you, give Samsung’s 10.1-inch Galaxy Note a look. Some upcoming Windows 8 tablets will also have digitisers.
Some tablets come with an integrated dock-and-keyboard option that transforms the tablet into a clamshell-style laptop, complete with a touchpad, an additional USB port or two, an SD Card slot, and, in many cases, an extra built-in battery.
Plan to share your new tablet with the family? Apple’s iPad has restrictions that provide a degree of parental control.
The Apple iPad mini
We can’t say last year's models because some outdated tablets are less than a year old — the market is developing that quickly. You might find close-out deals on older models with dual-core processors running Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), for instance. These tablets can handle the basics, such as email and web browsing. If you decide to buy an older model, however, choose one that has a steep discount. After all, in September, Google’s new 8GB Tegra 3–based Nexus 7 was selling for almost half the price of an iPad.
Many mobile carriers offer tablets at subsidised 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 within a year—or even sooner.
Check the Apple, Windows, and Google stores to see what’s available — and what’s missing. If you know of titles, games, or arcane subjects for which you need apps, see if the tablet's ecosystem supports them.