A complete tablet buying guide
Buying a tablet computer can present a dizzying array of options, and a lot of technical specifications!
And there are some misconceptions about those specifications. Using a tablet is a little different in practice, to how one might imagine it. And spending more doesn’t necessarily mean you get a better tablet. Bigger brands spend a lot of advertising, which you as a consumer end up paying for – there are some expensive tablets with issues, and there are cheaper tablets that are great user experiences. So what do you look for when buying a tablet?
The first and most important choice is the size and form of the tablet.
People tend to buy tablets with bigger displays. But that is not always the best choice.
There are advantages to seven and eight inch tablets, in that they can be used one handed, and are more portable. This adds to the convenience, which is a huge advantage of tablets over desktops. Bigger displays are better however, for highly graphical media.
So the question to ask yourself, is what is a higher priority? – portability and ease of use, or more screen real estate. Eight inch or eight point nine inch displays can offer a nice compromise between the two.
A lot of people favor metal backing on their device, and whilst that does make for a solid design, and looks nice, it also feels cold to the touch. I actually prefer plastic or rubber backing for this reason, or at least to always use the device inside a case.
While most people go for Android tablets, windows tablets have some advantages as well. They can be used as netbooks, laptops or even as full desktop computers – and as desktop computers, they can be cheaper than buying an actual desktop. And in running full desktop applications, there are more possibilities in the power of software, such as for writing music, playing games, or work based applications.
Android however has the advantage in touch – there are more touch optimized apps in Android, and the interface is strongly touch optimized. For windows, on smaller tablets, the buttons can be a bit smaller, and some applications, like games will need a game controller, or keyboard/mouse to run.
For more advanced uses or work, Windows is preferable. For basic everyday use Android is preferable. Some tablets have both.
The display is obviously very important in a tablet computer. But there are a few misconceptions around what is best. The first mistake, is that higher resolution always means a better experience. In some ways it is – the display is a very important part of a tablet, because it is mostly for viewing. There are a few reasons why this isn’t always true however.
Firstly, color reproduction and brightness are very important, and yet the numbers don’t tell you this. Secondly, older displays have a poor viewing angle, which is very important to a tablet. So look for more modern tablets, avoid tablets with ‘TFT’ or ‘resistive’ screens that have poor viewing angles, and require pressure to register a touch.
Secondly, a higher resolution screen demands more power. Both in terms of RAM and CPU (processing power, how fast the tablet is), and in terms of power from the battery. A device with a more modest resolution will have a longer battery life for the size of the battery, as well as a faster more fluid user experience for the CPU and RAM.
Thirdly, there is a limit to what the eye can see. The maximum resolution the eye can see is about 300 DPI at one foot. People tend to hold their tablet from about 1-2 feet from their face, and that maximum resolution roughly halves for every foot you add. So I have compiled the following tablet as a rough guide to the maximum visible resolutions:
7-8 inch screen
9.7 inch screen
As you can see, higher resolutions are only really visible if the tablet is held closer to your face. And beyond a certain point, you are using CPU, RAM, battery and paying extra, and getting nothing in return.
Power, is also equally important to the tablet using experience. And it’s a mistake that people make when they buy some cheaper or older tablets. A lower CPU speed, or less RAM, can mean that the device runs slowly, sluggishly. And for a tablet, where the main benefit is ease of use, this is the last thing you want.
You don’t really need to know what GHz and GB are.
What you do need to know is that an Intel chip, ‘quad core’, with roughly ‘1.3 GHz’ is fast enough, and anything ARM (that’s the standard for Android chips) from about ‘1.5 GHz’ and up is fast enough, quad core or octocore. However for android I find towards 2.0 GHz, or near to it is ideal, and an octocore chip runs very smoothly. Smaller might work if the tablet is for your kids. Higher is obviously better, although Intel chips are a bit faster.
For RAM, well these things interact with each other, CPU and RAM, and it’s not an easy thing to convey. If the screen resolution is modest, and the processor is fast, like an octocore processor, Android will run smoothly with 1 GB of RAM (unless you do a lot of multi-tasking, but most people don’t). Similarly with a modest resolution and a Quad core 1.33 GHz processor, Windows will run smoothly in live tiles mode, but not so much in desktop mode.
With more demanding uses, or higher screen resolutions, I really recommend 2GB of RAM. Windows gets benefit of more RAM than this, if you are running powerful desktop applications like Photoshop. But most will not need it. Android gets little benefit from more than 2GB of RAM, at this point, the software is not demanding enough (Unless you are a really heavy multi-tasker, and then you might notice a little difference). If in doubt 2 GB is the gold standard.
The last point on CPU is that like the display, the numbers don’t exactly tell the full story. If you want to accurately compare the power of a CPU chipset with another, I recommend CPUBoss. It’s also worth checking demos and reviews to see how smoothly the tablet runs.
The battery size is a hard thing to convey in numbers as well. Hardware makers may exaggerate the life of their batteries, and the milliamp/hour number whilst telling you the size of the battery, won’t tell you exactly how long the device will last. That depends on the CPU speed, how heavily you are using it, the display size and resolution, and whether you have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth running (both of which use a lot of battery power).
The best way to tell that battery life of a device, unless it’s a really high number, is to look for an impartial review on the internet. This will also tell you if there are any issues with the device.
For ports, it is very useful to have a Micro SD slot. This enables you to add a Micro SD card, and add extra storage space to your tablet, so you can store more files on it. ‘HDMI’ in some form, is also useful to have, so you can easily output the display to a TV or monitor.
GPS is useful if you want to use your tablet as a navigational tool, say in the car. But not essential. Bluetooth is good, but only if you use Bluetooth devices, such as a keyboard, or speakers. Also not essential, although common in devices.
Lastly, 3G or 4G network access is something some people might like. It allows you to use your tablet with a SIM card from a mobile network provider, and thusly, use it outside of Wi-Fi zones without teethering it to your smart phone. A lot of people actually primarily use their tablets at home or in the office, so this isn’t essential for everybody – and it costs extra to have the feature.
If you are likely to use your device a lot, in a mobile fashion (perhaps accessing the internet on the bus for example) you will want 3G or 4G access. 4G is a couple of times faster than 3G, but it’s only available in certain areas at this time, and 3G is pretty fast anyway. A good 3G signal loads most pages pretty quickly. For premium fast network access, for high mobile use, go for 4G. For more everyday mobile use, 3G will be good enough.
Lastly what kind of extra’s might one need with a tablet?
Well, again it depends on your use is. Almost universally, you will want a case for it, preferably one designed for the tablet. This protects the screen and body, and also acts as a stand.
If you want to input lots of text, you may wish to have a keyboard case or dock. If you’re running Windows there are a lot of little extra’s that might come in handy such as an appropriate HDMI cable, monitor, keyboard, mouse, powered USB hub - these together let you use your tablet as a desktop computer. And external hard drive or wireless hard drive or card reader (adds to your storage), stylus (for those smaller windows icons) and gaming pads can also be useful for Windows. Windows can use more peripherals.
In general you might like a keyboard option, and generally you will also get a lot of use out of a Micro SD card (I find pretty much universally, people end up wanting one). If you draw using your tablet, you may like a stylus. If you want extra storage a wireless hard drive, card reader or USB stick is good – but not everyone will want this, it depends how much media you wish to carry around with you. If you are big on media like movies, tv shows, magazines, photos, and want to share them, this would be an option you could look at.
A stand can also be useful, for the car, office or home, depending on how you use your tablet. Especially if you use your tablet for navigation.
The very basics are, I think, a Micro SD card assuming your tablet can take one, and a case. If you buy the tablet by itself, you will probably end up buying both of those later anyway.
Jamie Karl is a former IT professional, and current owner of Tap That, an online web store specializing in tablet computers.