Once just a niche luxury item, tablets are getting less expensive, more powerful, and more prevalent.
The tablet war is just as much a battle of ecosystems as a battle of hardware. Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Barnes & Noble are each offering a truly different user experience, and they’re each doing it on flagship devices of their own design. This is a boon for consumers, since we have more screen sizes, software platforms and price points to choose from.
What Screen Size Do I Want?
There are outliers, but almost every tablet now comes in one of two sizes: 7 inches or 10 inches, measured diagonally. 7-inch tablets have the advantage of portability — they’re light, you can usually fit one in your back pocket, and they’re comfortable to hold with one hand. This makes them great for reading books and articles online, but they still sort of just feel like big phones. 10-inch tablets (like the Surface and the iPad) are better for video and visual content like magazines and comics. You sacrifice that take-it-anywhere quality by choosing a 10-inch tablet, and reading can get more tiring because of the added weight. But when paired with a keyboard accessory, a 10-inch tablet turns into something that closely resembles a laptop PC. Keep this in mind: For many people, a tablet is a “couch computer” that very rarely leaves the home. 10-inchers are better in such a case. If you’re reading on the commute or traveling more often, a 7-inch slate might make more sense.
What About Apps?
All the tablets come with mail clients and web browsers, so you can start doing all the basic stuff right out of the box. Browsing the web on the iPad is great, and it’s excellent on Android devices. But if you go with Android, make sure you get a tablet that runs Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” or later, because that’s what you’ll need to run Google Chrome, the best browser (by a long shot) for Android tablets. Games, other apps and entertainment content you can add as you see fit. Apple still has the most mature selection of apps, though Android comes in a close second. Also keep in mind that the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet are Android devices, and can run the most popular Android apps. Microsoft’s tablet ecosystem is still young, and app selection in the Windows Store is pretty weak. But as Windows RT devices gain popularity, developers will release more apps for it. It could take several months for your favorite iPad app to land on Windows, though.
Do I Want Android, iOS, Windows…?
Look around at all your other devices — which platform are you already invested in? This is the key factor to choosing the right tablet OS. Do you own an app-filled iPhone, download music on iTunes and watch movies on your Apple TV? Then the iPad or iPad Mini is the way to go. Do you live your life in Google apps like Gmail, Docs, Calendar, and Google Talk? And do you already love your Android phone? If so, Google’s Nexus 7 and other Android slates will meet your needs. Do you use your Amazon Prime subscription to buy TV shows, movies and music, and do you gobble up Kindle e-books? You’ll get tons of enjoyment out of a Kindle Fire HD. Do you love your Nook e-reader? Consider Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablet. And naturally, if you’re a Windows 8 or Windows Phone user who swims in the world of Word, PowerPoint, Outlook and SkyDrive, then the Surface was made for you. Of course, many of us live with one limb in each of these worlds, and if you just want something to surf the web, catch up on TV shows and write e-mails, any of our Top 3 choices will serve you well.
The things that will matter most are the screen and the processor. Buy the tablet with the sharpest screen possible, and think twice before buying anything that can’t play HD video at full resolution. If you’re buying a tablet mostly to read books and online articles, Apple’s Retina display on the iPad can’t be beat for clarity and sharpness. Most tablets in the market right now use a dual-core chip as the primary processor — the same kind you find in top-shelf smartphones — and they offer plenty of performance for most everything you’ll be doing on a tablet. If you’re going to be playing a lot of games, pick a tablet with a quad-core processor. Storage capacity is also something you should consider. If you’re the type to load up on apps, or if you spend a lot of time away from a good Wi-Fi connection and you want to watch videos, 32GB is the minimum. Everyone else can get by with 16GB, or even 8GB if you mostly just stream via Netflix, Hulu, Rdio, Spotify, Amazon and the like. Don’t worry about a rear-facing camera. On a tablet, the quality of the front-facing camera is much more important, as it’s the one you’ll be using for Skype, FaceTime or Google Chat.
Photo illustration by Simon Lutrin/get-gadget