The 2013 tablet guide

Features James Hunt Feb 4, 2013

Is 2013 the year of the tablet PC? James Hunt takes stock of the market and helps you decide

It’s clear now that tablet PCs are no fad. Beginning with the launch of the high-price, low-powered iPad 1 in April 2010 and culminating with the release of the low-price, high-powered Nexus 7 in July 2012, tablets have gone from being a niche, luxury-only computing peripheral to the latest must-have accessory. To keep up with technology in 2013, you either have a tablet or you’re buying one soon.

However, the fast pace of the tablet world means you can be forgiven for struggling to keep up with the changes to software, hardware, pricing and manufacturing. Sometimes it seems like there’s a new tablet every other week, each better and more desirable than the last. Rather than leave you to fend for yourself, we’ve put together this six-page guide to tablets in 2013 - those that are on shelves now, those that are being released soon, what you might want to look for if you’re buying a tablet and what, if anything, you should avoid.

We’ll also cover the technology inside them. By the time you’ve read the next few pages, you’ll know your ARM from your Intel, your Apple from your BlackBerry, and your Gingerbread from your Ice Cream Sandwich. You’ll even know why we keep talking about desserts when this is supposed to be a computing magazine.

What are tablets?

In case you haven’t dipped your toe into the world of tablets properly just yet, we thought we’d start by explaining just what a tablet is. In fact, the term can be applied to a variety of devices, from low-power, almost pocket-sized 7” devices such as the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7, to huge, powerful devices such as the Asus EP121, a 12” tablet which can run Windows 7 on a dual-core Intel i5. Just as desktops and notebook PCs are defined by their form factor, so too are tablets.

There are several main attributes that you’ll find all tablets share. Firstly, they’re portable. This means they’re also battery-powered, lightweight and (relatively) low-cost. After all, you don’t want to shell out 2 grand on something that can be yanked from your hands in the street or left on the bus, and you certainly don’t want to have to plug it in every time you sit down in a café to read your emails!
In their quest for a compact design, tablet PCs also rely heavily on touch-screen input, rather than a more familiar keyboard and mouse/touchpad. Some use styluses, but the vast majority contain capacitive screens, which use the electrical conductivity of your fingertip to detect input.

Finally, tablets are all of a certain size. The phrase ‘portable touch-screen computer’ could essentially apply to a smartphone, so in order to be termed a tablet PC a device has to be substantially larger that those. The line is sometimes blurred by 5” devices such as Sony’s forthcoming Xperia Z, but the vast majority of tablets have screens somewhere between seven and 10.1 inches.

What are tablets for?

If you’ve yet to buy a tablet, you may (quite reasonably) be wondering what you might actually want one for. The only true response to that question is ‘whatever you want’, but obviously, there are more helpful replies we can give you.

For example, the internal hardware of tablets has far lower specifications than most desktop PCs, so you can expect them to perform best for lighter tasks, such as web-browsing and e-mailing, watching TV/videos, and casual gaming. If you’re planning to do a lot of typing or photo editing, they might not be the best choice, but even then it’s possible to make them work.

Where most PCs require you to buy and install applications with a degree of autonomy, tablet PCs come linked to specific online outlets called app stores. Here, you can download and install low-cost applications, which extend the capabilities of your tablet - perhaps by adding a fully featured word processor, or an audio-editing suite. If you’ve ever bought an app for your smartphone, it’s exactly the same as that (literally, in some cases.)

Ultimately, tablet computers are like any others: versatile and generalised, with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. You wouldn’t want to write a novel on a tablet’s touch-screen, just as you wouldn’t attempt to take your desktop PC on a long train journey. Of course, should you feel interested in buying a tablet PC, there are several areas you need to consider when deciding what type to purchase, so we’ll try to bring you up to date on those as well.

What operating systems are available?

Unlike their earliest predecessors, which resembled full-size notebook PCs squeezed behind a giant touch-screen, the current generation of tablets consists of truly mobile devices. This means that they most frequently run on custom-built or heavily modified operating systems. The most popular of these are Google’s mobile OS, Android, and Apple’s iOS, which together power over 90% of all tablets.

The rise of such alternative operating systems has chiefly been caused by two factors: the popularity of Apple and the lack of suitable x86-compatible processors. The reduced size, power and weight requirements of tablet computers means that manufacturers have turned to more compact mobile processors, such as the ARM Cortex, over traditional Intel and AMD chips. Apple’s popularity has helped create a consumer expectation that tablets don’t have to run Windows and, indeed, Microsoft has only recently placed significant focus on the tablet market with the release of Windows RT, a cut-down ARM-compatible version of Windows 8.

At present, the vast majority of tablets run iOS due to the strong sales of the iPad in its various incarnations. Since iOS is restricted purely to Apple devices, Android-based tablets occupy a strong second place, with multiple devices running various different versions of Google’s operating system. The remainder of the market is split between Windows and smaller, proprietary operating systems like BlackBerry’s PlayBook OS.

When you buy a tablet, you’re also buying the operating system, and unlike most other PCs, you’re effectively stuck with whichever one you choose, barring upgrades and updates from the manufacturers. Furthermore, any purchases you make will only persist while you use that operating system - you can’t run Android apps you’ve purchased on iOS, nor vice-versa.

Far from being a short-term, single-device decision, your choice today could inform your buying habits long into the future, especially if you want to retain access to the catalogue of software you’ve purchased on one device. For that reason, the choice of operating system is probably the most important one you’ll make when choosing a tablet PC.

The simple advice is that if you already have an iPhone or want an Apple device, iOS is your only choice, while if you’re buying any other type of tablet, you should look for the latest version of Android, which in this case is Jelly Bean - certainly, don’t go earlier than Ice Cream Sandwich. For a more in-depth look at operating systems, skip ahead to the ‘Portable OS Guide’, which covers all of the available options in more detail.

Does the processor matter?

When looking for a tablet, you can expect a number of other components as standard, but some vary from model to model or between manufacturers. The amount of memory and storage space often differs wildly, as does support for external devices and flash memory. Portability factors such as battery life, weight and screen size should also be considered. However, as with desktops and notebooks, the processor is perhaps the chief indicator of how a tablet PC will perform. The most popular tablets run on ARM-based Cortex chips, but a minority run on Intel chips, and there’s even variation within both brands.

Unlike Intel, which develops and manufactures its own processors, ARM Holdings only designs the chips, then licenses the designs for other companies to produce, meaning that there are often multiple variations of single architectures. The most popular chip at the moment is the Cortex-A9, which is the basis for the Apple A5 & A5X chips (used in the iPad 2 and iPad 3), the Nvidia Tegra 2 and 3 (used in the Google Nexus 7 and Microsoft Surface), and the TI OMAP 4 (used in the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD).

While it’s fair to say that devices based on the same chipset have comparable performance to one another, the actual speeds experienced by the user will of course depend on the hardware and software resources available - in particular, the amount of RAM or model of GPU. It is, however, fair to say that the A9 devices are better than the A8 devices, and that the next ARM model (the Cortex-A15) will similarly outclass them both when manufacturers are ready to introduce it later this year.

Although ARM processors undoubtedly have the edge, there are a number of tablets running on Intel hardware, and it’s usually Intel, since unlike the desktop market, AMD does not have a major foothold producing Intel-compatible chips for tablets. Intel’s low-power and portable chips allow tablet PCs to run Windows 7 and 8, although at speeds closer to netbooks than laptops. More powerful tablets may contain full-size Core i5 processors, of the kind found in desktops and powerful notebooks. The increased performance capacity makes for a better Windows experience, but they are less compact and consume more power than mobile chips, meaning a worse battery life and a larger, less portable form factor.

What screen do I want?

Tablet screens range in size from the near pocket-sized 5” versions to a comparatively colossal 12 inches on the largest devices, but it is much more typical for screens to be between seven and 10.1 inches in size. Note that this is a diagonal measurement, so a 7” screen is actually has almost half of the visual real estate of a 10” screen (hence the moniker ‘mini-tablet’ to refer to devices in the 7” to 8” device class.)

While it’s tempting to assume that 10” screens are automatically better for being larger, there are benefits to 7” devices. Not only are they more portable (it’s possible to comfortably hold them in one hand - something that may appeal to those planning to use a tablet as an e-reader), but they’re often able to make better use of their technical capabilities, because they’re managing fewer graphical resources.

Rather than the screen size, though, pay attention to the resolution. At a minimum, any device you consider buying in 2013 should have a resolution of at least 1024x768 (or similar), but the higher the resolution, the sharper text and images will be - especially when zoomed in. Apple’s Retina display remains the gold standard for tablets, offering a resolution of 2048x1536 on the iPad third- and fourth-generation’s 9.7” screen. The likes of the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD are better-performing in the 7” device class, however, with their 1280x800 resolution easily trumping the iPad Mini’s 1024x768.

What cameras should I get?

Most tablets come with at least one camera built in, and there are two distinct kinds: front-facing and rear-facing.

Rear-facing cameras are located on the back of the device and are intended to be used for taking actual photographs, of the kind you’d take using a cameraphone or cheap digital camera. An eight-megapixel camera can be considered above average, although at least one, the Xperia X Tab, has a 16.2 megapixel camera. Some have LED flashes too.

Rear-facing cameras are often omitted on cheaper or smaller devices, however, because they’re not as convenient to use as the cameras in smartphones and thus less of a priority for users. Don’t be surprised if your tablet lacks one - you probably wouldn’t use it anyway!

Front-facing cameras are generally a little worse than the rear-facing kind. This is because they’re not designed for taking photos, as such, but instead to serve as a webcam for making video conferencing calls over the likes of Skype, Google Talk or Apple’s FaceTime service. As little as 1.2 megapixels is more than enough, although the best go as high as the three-megapixel range. You wouldn’t expect a flash either.

Note that not every tablet has a camera, so check that the tablet meets your requirements before you buy one. The original Kindle Fire, for example, was notable for lacking a camera of any kind (although the Kindle HD has added a front-facing one). Our advice is to make sure you get a decent front-facing camera, and not to worry about the rear-facing camera - you’ll thank us the next time you see someone holding up their tablet in public trying to take a photo and looking like an idiot in the process.

How much storage is appropriate?

Storage is one of the most widely varying factors in the tablet market. Tablets use solid-state drives, which are compact, quiet, shock-resistant and less power-hungry than hard drives. That said, the expense of SSD memory means that tablets therefore have much less space than modern laptops and desktops - typically between 4GB and 64GB.

The amount of built-in storage cannot be changed or upgraded, although many tablets do have slots for memory cards (usually micro-SD), which can be used to add removable storage. Some notable exceptions to this rule are Apple’s iPad range, no model of which has any provision for removable storage, the Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7, which will only support SD cards and USB flash drives after a combination of software modifications and additional hardware purchases.

The lack of expandable space on such popular devices is something of a contrivance designed to push consumers towards the more expensive, higher-capacity devices. However, the relatively small amounts of storage on modern tablets, combined with their ubiquitous internet connections, has led to an increase in the popularity of cloud storage systems. Apps such as DropBox and SkyDrive allow tablet users to utilise the internet for storage of data, minimising the trouble associated with a lack of space.

Nonetheless, cloud storage is far from a perfect replacement, and even SD cards can prove fiddly. We’d suggest buying a device with at least 16GB if a model is available. That should be enough to last you the two to three years of the tablet’s life without becoming inadequate.

What connectivity is needed?

All tablets should allow you to access the internet through wi-fi (whether at home or using hotspots) but unlike laptops, you can’t count on wired connections: Ethernet support is virtually non-existent. If you want to access the internet without a wi-fi connection, you can buy tablets with 3G or 4G capabilities, although this means paying for a SIM card with a monthly data contract and limited bandwidth.

If you have a smartphone, note that many providers will allow you to turn your phone into a personal wi-fi hotspot or share the data connection over Bluetooth. This means you can access the internet on your tablet by effectively using your phone as a modem. It may cost extra, either for the additional bandwidth you use up, because a contract bolt-on is required to activate ‘tethering’ capabilities, but it’s normally cheaper than getting a second mobile data contract just for your tablet.

Note that it’s not uncommon for tablets to lack any data ports except a charge point (normally mini-USB) and headphone socket, although you can often attach external devices such as keyboards or speakers using a Bluetooth connection. Apple devices have a proprietary power/data port, which external devices can be connected to, but official peripherals are costly and the fourth-generation iPad uses a new ‘lightning’ port, which is incompatible even with previous models.

External data ports - USB or otherwise - are far from standard on tablet PCs, so don’t be surprised if you can’t find a model that has any. Support for certain technologies, such as HDMI-out are available in some devices, but these features tend to be missing from the most popular devices unless an adaptor is purchased.

Choosing a tablet ultimately comes down to a combination of the factors listed above, but there are several worth considering.

Budget or mini-tablet: Nexus 7

At the budget end of the market, there’s only really one device worth considering, and that’s the Google Nexus 7. This 7” mini-tablet device has 32GB of internal storage, a resolution of 1280x800, and runs on a quad-core Tegra 3 with 1GB of RAM. A 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera is more than capable of allowing video chat. It’s both powerful and modern, running the latest version of Android (Jelly Bean), and best of all: it costs only £199, which is staggeringly cheap for a tablet. Drop down to a 16GB model and it’s only £160.

The leading alternatives - the iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire HD - simply can’t keep up. The iPad Mini grants you access to Apple’s software ecosystem, but it’s £269 for the 16GB version and the screen, while slightly larger at 7.9 inches, has a poorer resolution of 1024x768. The Kindle Fire HD has similar specs to the Nexus 7, but a dual-core CPU rather than a quad-core and Ice Cream Sandwich rather than Jelly Bean. Access to Amazon’s streaming movie/music services helps it look a little better, but ultimately you get worse specs for the same price as a Nexus 7.

If there’s any left-field choice worth considering, it’s the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, which is a 7” tablet running Ice Cream Sandwich at purchase but capable of being updated to Jelly Bean. The internals are a shade worse than the likes of the Nexus and Kindle Fire HD (it is nine months old, after all) and the price is still fairly high at £185 for only 8GB of storage, but it does have a micro-SD port and three-megapixel rear camera. If those features are important to you, this is the one to go for.

High-end or full tablet: iPad 4

The choice ultimately depends on whether you want access to the Apple or Android ecosystems, but the iPad 4 and Nexus 10 are both excellent choices, especially at this time of the year when there should be a fair amount of time left in each before their next hardware refresh.

The iPad 4 (aka iPad fourth-generation) was a surprise release in Autumn 2012 to accompany the iPad Mini, featuring a faster processor than the iPad 3 and a new ‘lightning’ connection. The front-facing camera was improved (to 1.2MP) while the rear camera remains at 5MP. The screen remains a 9.7” 2048x1536 Retina display. Price-wise, it’s as costly as any Apple goods are - £399 for the 16GB model, but you can’t deny its slick performance and access to what is quite easily the best selection of tablet software available.

The Nexus 10 puts up a good fight, although confusingly, it’s not the same device as the Nexus 7, having a completely different manufacturer behind it (Samsung, not Asus). The Nexus 10 is priced attractively at £320 for the 16GB model, and its screen is (astonishingly) even higher resolution than the Retina display: a 10.1” 2560x1600. Although on paper it’s a definite win for the Nexus 10, in reality the viewing angle is worse than the iPad, brightness and contrast are poorer, and the colours are a little washed out, so it’s not quite so cut and dried. The Nexus 10’s rubber-like exterior is also strangely sticky-feeling and a bit flimsy. Still, it has micro-HDMI output and GPS functions, and cutting edge internals - a 1.7GHz dual-core Exynos with 2GB of RAM. Software-wise, it runs Jelly Bean, but Google’s app library isn’t anywhere near as good as Apple’s - something that really makes a difference on these high-powered, more versatile tablets.

Ultimately, the iPad 4 just edges out the Nexus 10, but the latter does provide a credible Android-based alternative.

What’s coming out in 2013?

2013 is sure to be a big year for tablets as the market crystallises even further, and Apple and Google go to war in outdoing one another, potentially leaving smaller manufacturers in their wake.

In particular, we expect to see a fifth-generation iPad at some point in 2013, but it’s hard to say whether this’ll happen in March/April around the time of the usual hardware refresh or later in the year due to the mid-cycle release of the fourth-generation iPad. There doesn’t seem to be any huge technological leap to make, so we’re betting the fifth-generation iPad won’t show up until the second half of the year at least, meaning you should be safe to buy a fourth-generation model in the coming months without worrying about impending obsolescence.

More imminently, the Microsoft Surface Pro will be out in the US in January, with a UK release expected soon after. A more credible laptop-alternative than most tablets, the Surface Pro will run Intel CPU hardware and the full version of Windows 8 Pro. The Surface RT isn’t much competition against the likes of the iPad 4 and the Nexus 10, but the Surface Pro is in a completely different class, If you’re thinking of buying a new laptop costing £700 or more, we’d advise you to hang on and see how the Surface Pro reviews. It could be a game-changer for laptop PCs, if not tablet devices overall.

There are, of course, plenty of other devices coming out in 2013. The Acer Iconia B1 is a 7” tablet expected to cost less than £100, and the Galaxy Note 7 - a mini-tablet version of Samsung’s big hope, the Galaxy Note 10.1, might yet give it the attention it’s been craving for. It’s clear that the tablet market isn’t going to slow down any time soon, so if you’re still not on board, now might be the time. If you’ve read this far, you should have all the information you need, so get out there and make a decision. Wait too long and all this will be out of date!