How to choose a tablet

Features James Hunt Jan 14, 2013

In a world gone tablet-crazy, James explains how you should go about choosing the one you want

It seems like the whole world has gone tablet-crazy of late. If you’re interested in buying a tablet, you probably have questions about how they work and why you might want one. Rather than explain everything from scratch, we have some practical advice: how do you decide which one to actually buy?

At present, the tablet ecosystem is heavily tilted in favour of the Apple devices, which make up the vast majority of the market, but there are plenty of alternatives. When you’ve decided whether you want to be an Apple drone or a free-spirited Android user, you then need to decide whether you prefer a device to have a larger screen, more storage or better software. And more importantly, you need to decide how much you’re willing to spend.

Of course, the first question you need to answer is whether you need a tablet at all. That’s harder to give advice about. Tablets are great for doing things like browsing, checking email, playing games and watching video on, but they’re less well-suited to any serious work. They’re super-portable, which means they compare favourably to laptops, but they’re also more expensive than similarly portable netbooks, and often not substantially more powerful.

Still, if you’re a fan of your smartphone or sick of lugging a laptop on holiday with you just to check your inbox once a day, there’s a lot a tablet can do for you. There’s a reason they’re popular, and it’s not just a fad. So once you know you want one, how do you zero in on your preferred choice? Hopefully, reading this guide will help you do just that.

How much should you spend?

Tablet pricing is all over the place at the moment. This is mainly a consequence of Apple’s high prices confusing its rivals, who were slow to realise that only Apple can get away with that sort of behaviour. It’s also led to other companies trying to undercut one another by putting out cheap, underpowered devices, and fast release schedules mean the power and capabilities vary wildly at every price level.

The short version is that you should probably look to spend around £200. Or, to be more precise, £199, because the Nexus 7 is so perfect an entry-level tablet that it’ll make all others look like little more than overpriced practical jokes.

However, there are legitimate reasons for spending more or less on a tablet. There’s no doubt that Apple’s iPad line is universally overpriced, based on the raw specs of the machine alone, but they also have an image that attracts consumers regardless, and (in fairness) slick interfaces that run like they’re on hardware twice as good as it is. If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, either as a Mac owner or iPhone user, the cross-compatibility of an iPad is worth paying a little extra for.

Apple devices are a special case, though, and if you want a 7” tablet, the market is completely stitched up by the Nexus 7, so what about 10” devices?

Once you knock the iPad out of contention, the least you should be spending on a 10” class tablet is about £250. This price will get you hardware equivalent (or better) than the iPad 2 for £50 less than it costs. If you want to get something that competes with 4th Gen iPads, then you really have to look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which retails at £400 and over. Not an unreasonable price, but certainly at the top end of what you’d want to pay.

Beyond that price range, you enter less familiar territory - not so much tablet PCs as desktops that have assumed the form of tablets. If you’re willing to spend as much as £1,100, you can buy a Samsung Series 7 Windows tablet with an Intel Core i5, 4GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD in it, but these are really designed for business users with more tailored suits than braincells. It’s not in any way a good deal, especially when you consider the type of laptop you could get for that money!

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

There are three, possibly four models that stand out from the crowd right now. The Nexus 7, manufactured by Asus and endorsed by Google, is a big success story, and the first tablet that might actually give the otherwise dominant Apple a run for its money. At £199 for a 7” screen, it’s smaller than most, but it’s fast, powerful, and runs the latest version of Android. Frankly, its specs pummel the rest of the Android competition into the ground, considering its price, and it scares Apple so much that it actually broke step and released the iPad Mini so that it had its own alternative to it - unless, of course, you believe Apple’s company line, which holds that it was a coincidence.

As a device, the iPad Mini is fine (if you’re an Apple user), but it’s also more expensive than the Nexus 7 and has all of the usual Apple hang-ups - reduced user agency and (we can fairly assume) a short life at the front of the queue.

Competing with both the iPad Mini and the Nexus 7 is the Kindle Fire and its newer sibling, the Kindle Fire HD. The vanilla Fire is looking rickety and is only really worth considering if your tablet budget is unusually low, but the Fire HD (which runs a heavily customised version of Ice Cream Sandwich Android) is reasonably nippy and has access to Amazon’s exclusive content, such as its own app market and the Kindle library.

For the 10” class, you only have a couple of real choices: The iPad 2 or 4 (both of which are 9.6”) or the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, which is a 10.1” device. We’d advise against the iPad 2 as a serious choice - it’s underpowered for the modern market, and only really aimed at people who want to get a cheap iPad. If you’re one of those people, the iPad Mini is a better choice.

The fourth-generation iPad is actually quite competitive in terms of power, and its high-resolution Retina screen is unparalleled in the field. Crucially, because it’s only just been released, now is about as safe a time to buy one as there will ever be. The Galaxy Note 10.1 is technically more powerful but costs a similar amount to the iPad and doesn’t yet run the latest version of Android, which is a shame when the Nexus 7 does. Samsung has also gambled on its so-called ‘S Pen’ interface (an optional stylus), which takes some getting used to. You can ignore it, but it’s a large part of the device’s uniqueness, even if it initially feels like a step backwards from purely touch-based devices.

What technology should you look for?

The primary distinction between tablets, aside from form factor, is the operating system. Apple tablets run on iOS, which only ever has one active version (so don’t worry about that), but Android-based tablets are part of an increasingly fractured market.

There are multiple versions of Android, named alphabetically after desserts. The latest is Jelly Bean, its predecessor is Ice Cream Sandwich, and if you see a device running Honeycomb or Gingerbread which looks attractive, remember that it’s the equivalent of buying a computer that still runs Vista. It started off looking a bit cobbled-together, but the latest versions of Android are definitely up to scratch, so make sure you get one that’s version 4.0 or over.

In terms of the screen, size doesn’t matter so much as resolution does. On 7” devices, 1280x800 looks amazing, 1024x768 is acceptable, and anything lower is worth avoiding. On 10” devices, nothing beats Apple’s 2048x1536 Retina Display, but 1280x800 should also be alright. Again, anything lower is worth avoiding.

The amount of built-in storage is also a big concern, not least because SSD storage is expensive, and thus easy to sacrifice. We wouldn’t look at anything with less than 8GB, but you want at least 16GB for a comfortable experience. 32GB and 64GB are the preserve of the wealthy only, but if you can afford that much it’ll make all the difference - not least to the device’s secondary market value.

Wireless technologies come in the form of wi-fi, 3G and 4G. Every tablet is compatible with wi-fi, but you can pay extra for 3G or 4G mobile data. We find this unnecessary in larger tablets, but if you don’t have a smartphone, it might be worth spending the money for a dedicated data connection on pocket tablets. That said, check if your smartphone can be turned into a personal hotspot - that’ll be cheaper, in a pinch, than paying for a second data subscription solely for your tablet PC which, let’s face it, is mostly going to be used in wi-fi enabled areas.

Is now the right time to buy?

It’s tough to say. On one hand, there’s never a good time to buy a tablet, because companies are churning out new models as fast as they can come up with abstract names for them. Similarly, just when you think the market is settling down, someone finds a screen size that hasn’t been utilised yet and every other company panic-releases their own competing versions. If you’re looking for a good time to buy, that’s not going to come until the market suddenly collapses or reaches a sustained capacity, neither of which is going to happen soon.

So in that sense, now actually is a good time to buy, because things won’t get better any time soon. That said, when timing your purchase we’d advise you to read up on what future models are actually expected for release and when they’re coming. If you’re looking into buying an Apple tablet, you can be reasonably sure that it will release a new iPad around 12 months after the last one, especially when Apple’s network of fan-sites starts talking in hushed tones about press conferencing schedules.

The same is broadly true of other manufacturers too. Keep an eye out for suspicious-looking keynotes and press invitations that fall around the anniversary of their last tablet’s release, because it’s a safe bet that they’re bringing out something new that’ll affect the price of the current model.

The good thing about the somewhat rabid turnover of goods is that there are a lot of cheap tablets floating around the market right now, which also makes it something of a buyer’s market. Of course, if you want a serious piece of hardware, you only really have to consider the Nexus 7, iPad or something from Samsung, but it’s nice to have other options available…

What are the technical constraints?

Most tablets run on the same class of processors as netbooks/nettop devices, so don’t expect performance miracles. Although seemingly built for browsing the web, they can be frustratingly slow to render pages. Higher-specced devices are getting better at this, but if you’re only spending around £200 on a device, don’t expect it to be substantially better than your smartphone.

Aside from computing power, the biggest complaints about tablets are their storage limitations. Lots of devices scrimp on SSD to save money, because it’s an expensive component that can easily be supplemented by cheap online storage or user-purchased micro-SD cards. Some tablets, like the iPad and Kindle Fire, don’t support micro-SD, though, which can make their low-capacity storage something of an inconvenience over longer durations of use.

Finally, battery life is a possible limitation. Most tablets will survive around eight to ten hours of active use, although seven isn’t unreasonable. You’re unlikely to find more than that, so if you’re looking for a tablet that’ll survive a 12-hour flight without being charged, your options are severely limited. Still, most will charge from any USB port (although they charge faster from a mains supply), so it’s not difficult to keep them topped up. Just remember that you’ll need to do it.

What’s the alternative?

There’s no denying that tablets are trendy right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only things that do what they do well.
If you want a tablet for its portable computing capabilities, for example, remember that netbooks aren’t dead yet. For the price of a 7” bog-standard Android tablet, you can get a 10.1” netbook with a hardware keyboard, built-in webcam and Windows 7 Starter Edition installed. If you’re hoping to do a little work, it’s potentially a far more convenient solution, not least because you can actually type on it.

Admittedly, the batteries last a little less time, and they take up slightly more space than a tablet does, but look at it this way: a netbook is more powerful and flexible than a tablet PC, it runs familiar software rather than a selection of half-baked apps, and at least you won’t be forced to endure the humiliation of your hardware being publically superseded by new releases every few months.
We won’t pretend that tablets haven’t eaten into a giant section of the computing market that once looked set to be the domain of netbooks, but even if they’ve fallen out of fashion, these unusual little devices still have their uses. If you can’t afford a tablet, or fancy a hardware keyboard or want to run a real operating system without spending laptop-prices, netbooks are still a good choice and will continue to be for some years yet.