In only a few short years, the world has gone from having almost no tablets worth owning to far too many. Between iPads, the various Android tablets, and Microsoft's not-quite-laptop offerings, how do you know which ones are worth your money? With our handy guide, of course.
Right off the bat, we'll mention one key thing: whether or not a tablet is useful is hugely subjective. For some, a tablet is a cheap and robust productivity tool with plenty of worthwhile uses. Others might view it as little more than an entertainment device, and still others may have no use for them whatsoever. If you're content with your laptop and smartphone, this guide probably isn't going to change your mind. However, if you're in the market, there are a few questions you should address.
Which OS Should You Use?
One could be tempted to think that whatever smartphone OS you use should be what you get on your tablet. While synergy between operating systems is great, you don't necessarily have to stay with a particular platform. Whether or not you have access to all the same services in just the way you want them is up for debate (and a bit too complex for this piece), but each operating system offers its own unique advantages and disadvantages:
At the moment, the iPad line represents the most popular tablet operating system on the planet. (Android is outselling it worldwide, but not in Australia, and the established base of iPad users is easily the largest.) The iPad was also the device that kicked off the modern tablet movement. As a result, it offers the most mature tablet OS of all the ones on this list. That doesn't make it the clear winner for everyone, but it does have its perks:
- It has the biggest app selection: From the moment the first iPad launched, iOS has emphasised development of apps specifically designed to make use of the extra screen real estate. Because of the way iOS handles app submissionss, there are fewer apps overall than Android (a distinction we'll get to in a bit), but more apps that are optimised for the tablet form factor. According to Apple. that number runs to around 500,000 apps.
- The hardware selection is simple and high quality: Outside of the iOS world, you can find cheap tablets as low as $100 or overpriced devices that can't do much for over $1000. The iPad selection is simpler and you don't tend to find much junk. The iPad Mini and iPad Aire are both high quality and well-reviewed devices. You have to go out of your way to buy a bad iPad.
- iPads hold their value fairly well: One of the curses of mobile devices is that they iterate fast and update slow. A laptop purchased five years ago may be able to run modern software, but tablets -- no matter what the OS -- tend to taper off in support after 2-4 years. With iPads, however, selling your old hardware can result in a higher return than other devices.
- iPads aren't cheap (unless you buy used or refurbished): Part of the reason you don't find junk iPads is because they're not cheap. The cheapest brand new iPad you can get is $349 (and that's for the mini variant). While you can buy older devices, the fact they hold their value means you could end up paying too much for an older design that is close to losing support. (The original iPad can't run iOS 7, for instance.) Refurbished devices are a good option for cheaper Apple devices, but you can still end up paying more for a refurbished iPad than you would for a brand new tablet from another platform.
- There are only two hardware choices: While both iPad models are high quality, that's also all you get. One 10" tablet and one 8" tablet are the only available options. No smaller devices, no in-between sizes, no tablets with styluses, kickstands, lasers or portals to other dimensions.
Google's operating system has dominated the smartphone market, but it hasn't yet done the same with tablets. However, Android still has some exciting things to offer if you want to get a slate from the Google-ish camp.
- Android tablets come in a wide variety of sizes: You wouldn't think that there would be a huge difference between a 7" tablet and an 8" tablet, but someone has a strong opinion about everything. If the Nexus 7 is too small for you, but a Note 10. seems superfluous, you can try out an 8.3" LG tablet.
- There are lots of unique features and options: Because Android tablets start with a common ecosystem, manufacturers have to find different ways to stand out. Samsung has the Note line that come with styluses and drawing/writing software. ASUS offers tablets that dock into keyboards to turn into makeshift laptops, as well as phones that dock into tablets for a single device that changes form factors. They're not all winners, but if you want to try something different, Android is where you'll find it.
- The OS is incredibly flexible: The biggest downside to using mobile OSes is that they can't do as much as a laptop. Android gets the closest, though. Between native support for mice and keyboard accessories, floating apps, and remote desktop services, you can get the best of both worlds by having a tablet that can do almost anything a desktop can .
- Cheaper options are available: While some Android tablets are expensive, there are a number of devices that cost under $300, without sacrificing quality. The Nexus 7 began the tradition, and a few other manufacturers have followed suit.
- Some Android tablets suck: There are a lot of good choices out there if you want to buy an Android tablet and get some bang for your buck. There are also a lot of junk devices. The race to make them cheaper and cheaper has resulted in a flood of crappy devices that aren't worth the cost of the box they come in. We'll come back to how to identify which ones suck later in the article.
- There aren't as many tablet-oriented apps: Android has a robust ecosystem on phones and most of those apps can run on tablets without much modification to the code. That doesn't mean they're good, though. Even some major apps like Twitter and Facebook can technically be installed on tablets, but because they're not optimised for the extra space, they look crappy. While the situation has improved in recent years, it's still not perfect yet.
There are actually two different versions of Microsoft's tablet operating system. Windows RT is a pared-down version of Windows 8 that's designed solely to run on tablets (and can only run 'Modern' apps, not older releases -- no Chrome on RT!). Meanwhile, the full version Windows 8 is equipped to handle touchscreen input, but can also run regular desktop apps. Windows RT is typically used in cheaper Windows tablets (most notably Microsoft's own Surface), while Windows 8 is used in more expensive pro models and laptop/tablet hybrids (including the Surface Pro). As you'd expect, Windows 8 is also much better at replacing a laptop, since existing apps and hardware are supported.
- Windows 8 has the most robust collection of apps: Not all of Windows 8's apps are optimised for tablet usage, but with a keyboard and mouse connected, you can install Steam, download Bioshock Infinite and take on Comstock from your tablet. No other platform boasts that level of compatibility.
- Pro tablets can have much more powerful hardware: Because Windows 8 has been written for x86 architectures, you can find Windows tablets or convertibles running on hardware that's considerably more powerful than the ARM-based tablets that mobile OSes like Android and iOS are built on.
- Microsoft Office: In addition to the existing library of software that Windows 8 tablets can share with desktops, both the regular Windows 8 and Windows RT have robust versions of Office available. This might not be the most exciting feature, but if you want to use your tablet to actually do any work, Office can be a huge benefit.
- Windows RT tablets are underpowered (and might be dead anyway): Windows RT tablets have a lot going for them, but app selection isn't one of them. The market is fairly sparse, at least compared to Android or iOS. On top of that, Windows RT hasn't performed very well and it's unclear if Microsoft even intends to keep RT as a long-term part of its OS plan.
- Some of the best Windows 8 tablets are as expensive as laptops: It's not impossible to find a Windows 8 tablet that's worth your money, but you start to run into the same problem you have with laptops: the ones that are cheap can be pieces of junk, while the ones that are worth the money can cost so much that there's no price benefit over a laptop. If that's in your budget, great, but if you're looking at tablets as a way to save money over the alternative, it can be hard with Windows. Of course, if you're already planning to buy a laptop, that's one less thing you have to buy, so the expense may be worth it.
What Size Should You Buy?
What size tablet you want to get is largely a matter of opinion. If you're looking for something to read books and browse the web on, a 7" tablet might be useful for you. If you want to get any work done or connect accessories and dock your tablet at a workstation, a 10" device or larger might be more appropriate. The best way to find out which size you prefer is to go to a store and try them out. Take care to note not just the screen size, but also the weight, as it will be putting a lot of stress on your wrists.
A Note About Android Apps
There is one area where the size of your tablet plays a huge role in how you use it that goes beyond personal preference. As stated earlier, due to the unique way that Android handles apps, a developer can change a single line of code and apps will scale to fit the display they're on. On 7-8" tablets that are designed to be used in portrait mode, this can result in what are essentially scaled up phone apps. When you get to 9-10" tablets or above, they typically start getting used in landscape mode instead of portrait. At best this results in horrible, unusable experiences for unoptimised apps (like Facebook), and at worst, apps that are incapable of displaying in landscape and force you to rotate the device to use them.
This is both a blessing and a curse for Android tablets. If you don't mind apps that are less-than-perfectly optimised, you may not even notice the difference with a smaller, portrait-oriented tablet. However, getting a larger device is more likely to result in disruptive and annoying incompatibilities. You can check out our collection of Android tablet apps to get an idea of what the selection of tablet-optimised apps are like.
Which Tablets Are Worth Buying?
If you're looking into getting an iPad, you don't have any choice in which models and manufacturer you go with. However, in the Android and Windows world, there are certain criteria to consider if you want to avoid the junk.
- Read professional reviews: Reviews may not always be necessary , but when it comes to tablets, the best way to distinguish between trash and treasure is by professional opinion. Comparing specs isn't nearly as important as you might think, but a professional review can highlight issues you won't encounter in a store.
- Stick to devices with recent software: This is more of a problem with Android, but tablets should ideally last a bit longer than, say, your phone. For that reason, if you buy a tablet that's two or three versions behind the most current OS, you'll probably end up left behind in terms of updates sooner than you'd like. Nexus devices in particular are good about receiving timely updates.
- Pick your hardware features carefully: Both Android and Windows 8 offer some unique hardware features that are worth factoring into your decision. The Note line as well as some Surface models offer robust stylus support. The Transformer line of tablets also offer battery-boosting keyboard docks. However, these features should be evaluated independently of the tablets themselves.
When Should You Buy?
Due to the rapidly updating nature of mobile devices, there are good times and bad times to buy tablets. Apple tends to release tablets on a fairly regular schedule, while Android and Windows manufacturers launch new devices year round. While there's always something new right around the corner, there are certain seasons to watch out for.
When to Buy an iPad: When it comes to when to buy any Apple device, iPad or otherwise, your one, best resource is the MacRumor's buyer's guide. The site will tell you how long it's been since the last refresh, when Apple usually updates the product line you're looking for, and whether it's a good idea to buy now. Apple's behaviour isn't totally consistent, but it still remains relatively predictable.
When to Buy an Android Tablet: Picking the right time to buy an Android tablet is a bit harder because Google releases new versions of Android roughly every six months, but they don't always come through on new tablets. For the last two years, though, Google I/O -- which usually happens around May or June -- has seen a new Nexus 7 tablet. If you're looking for a tablet around autumn, it's probably a good idea to wait it out.
When to Buy a Windows Tablet: Windows is on a yearly update cycle. The plus side is that if you're looking for a full Windows 8 tablet, you probably won't go too far wrong. However, you can still follow some of the same rules you would for buying laptops -- there will typically be sales at Christmas, followed by new models announced at CES in January.