First posted: April 16, 2012
Last updated: December 30, 2016
Table of Contents
1 - Introduction
2 - Understanding Specifications
3 - Step by Step Guide to Choosing a Tablet Computer
4 - Which Operating System Is Right for You?
5 - Size (Weight and Dimensions)
6 - Specs and Features (inc. Battery Life, Wifi, Apps)
7 - Read Before You Buy
8 - Your Budget
A lot has changed since we wrote this article more than 3 years ago. William and Kate had two children, mankind landed a probe on a distant comet, and a Gauguin was sold for $300 million. But people still face the same problems when buying a new tablet PC. The task may be slightly harder now there are countless models to choose from and phablets are a viable choice for many people, but people fall into the same categories.
There are those who choose by picking a brand that suits their character or aspirations. There are those who care only about performance. There are gift-givers who are perhaps more interested in the overall user experience, and of course, there are bargain hunters who will maybe settle for a model that doesn't quite do everything they want, so long as they get 20% off. (If you're in the latter group, head over to our deals page and see what's on offer today!)
Why do people buy tablets, anyway? It's an important question. If it's for portability, make sure you don't end up with a gigantic iPad Pro. If it's to process videos on the train, don't buy something for under $200 (it won't have the power). If you want to play games, choose something light you can hold in your hand for hours.
This guide is aimed at helping people make an informed choice about buying a new tablet. If you've already got one, or have been interested in tablets for years, you might find some of the information rather basic. But for people new to the market, we think this is a pretty good place to start.
This is the information you get when you see one of our reviews or tablet comparisons:
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Intel Core i7 - 2.4 GHz
TFT LCD - 12.3 inch
2736 x 1824 px - 267 ppi
Front 5.0 / Back 8.0 MP
0.77 kg / 1.69 lbs
OS means 'operating system' - we explain that more in our step-by-step decision aid below.
The CPU is the brain of an electronic device. It does all the maths - a high GHz number means it can make more decisions per second. In other words, your tablet will run faster. You'll also come across phrases like 'dual core' and 'quad core' - that's the equivalent of having 2 brains or 4 brains. 4 brains are better than one!
Storage is rated in gigabytes and more is better - that's where your music, movies, and files are kept.
RAM is like short-term memory. You know when you're in a supermarket and trying to add up everything you put in your trolley as you go? If you had more RAM, that would be easier. For tablets, having more RAM lets you run multiple programs without everything getting bogged down.
There are many types of displays (ways of making touchscreens), and we have a whole section about display size.
The resolution of a tablet means how many pixels it can display. Basically the higher the better, because if the pixels per inch (ppi) is high, the image will look sharper.
Most tablets these days have a rear camera of 8 megapixels. Less than that and you aren't going to be able to take good photos and Skype/Facetime won't look very good.
Weight is a big deal. It's such a big deal we've given it its own section. The lighter the better, though.
Battery life - you want this as high as possible. The Surface Pro 4 gives 9 hours, which is very good. It means you could do a day's work on it before having to recharge it.
The release date is somewhat important - you generally want a newer tablet instead of an older one. It's more likely to have better specs and have the latest software. It's not essential though.
Now let's walk through all the steps involved in buying a tablet.
The OS is the Heart of a Tablet PC
People who are technically minded tend to think of the processor as the primary component of a piece of hardware. Most people would do well to think of the Operating System (OS) as their starting point.
Imagine buying a car with the engine of a McLaren F1 and finding it had the steering wheel of a 17th century sailing ship. Sure, it'd work just fine on the highway, but your experience would be one of almost constant frustration. A car with comfortable seats, electric windows, power steering etc will still bring joy to most drivers even with a weak engine.
The point is that not all operating systems are equal. The Apple iOS is normally quite intuitive - children learn it in minutes - and is built around the hardware, so sometimes will perform better than a rival tablet even if its specs are worse. All but the most rabid Apple hater would agree that Apple operating systems are well designed, logical, and user friendly. There are drawbacks, of course, the worst of which is the lack of personalisation. This is the price Apple users must pay to join a platform that is generally virus-free and without compatibility problems.
Apple also do well in user satisfaction surveys. In the latest ACSI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) rankings, Apple remained in pole position for the tenth year in a row. This in a year when satisfaction with personal computers (including tablets) dropped alarmingly.
The Android platform was created by Google and is freely available for tablet and phablet makers to use (including Samsung, LG, Acer and Sony). As such, it is the OS in most devices. It gives users the most options and freedom in terms of customizability - you can play around with the interface, install new keyboards, turn features on and off more easily than on Apple, and generally hack away to your heart's content. The risk for most users, though, is of messing up some setting. I'd guess most Android users in the world don't have their device set up for optimal performance - and how should they know what's best for them and their phone?
Some other considerations on the Apple vs Android question - while Flash is starting to die out, it is still used by many websites. It is not possible to use anything that needs Flash on any Apple device. Personally I would consider this unlikely to interfere with your user experience, but it's possible that one or more sites/games you rely on uses Flash. In that case, do not choose Apple.
Multitasking features including opening and running multiple apps in the background is something that is available on most tablets these days, but you might want to reconfirm this before you buy the tablet.
Is the Tablet Portable Enough?
The weight and size of the tablet are a major factor when it comes to tablet portability. In 2012, ten inch tablets were pretty much the standard size, but manufacturers started experimenting with larger and smaller sizes. The iPad mini (7.9") and iPad Pro (12.9") show that there's an appetite for tablets in all sizes.
Smaller tablets are great because they can fit in a jacket pocket or handbag, while modern screens are so good that they make e-books leap off the page and videos sparkle. Larger ones are the obvious choice for any kind of productivity - using Excel on a larger screen is much more manageable than on a 7 inch.
Advances in technology are allowing manufacturers to squeeze in more processing power and better battery life while reducing the weight of the tablet. Weight is a seriously underestimated part of the buying process. Every 50 grams of extra weight adds 10% more strain to your arm. That's a statistic that I just invented, but small differences in weight can make a huge difference in the handling comfort and minimize any strain on your palms or joints.
Engine and Battery Power
You guessed it right; this is typically what decides how fast or how efficiently your tablet runs various programs including your regular browsing, watching videos and running your favourite apps. If you're baffled by terms like dual core, quad core, 1.2 Ghz, 1GB Memory and so on, don't worry too much. These are just numbers that tell you how powerful your tablet is in terms of tech specs, something similar to how big your car engine is or how many pistons it has. In simpler words, the bigger the numbers, the better the tablet is in terms of its processing power.
However, there is a downside to higher processing power on your tablet. It may need more battery juice to keep it running optimally and the tablet may generate more heat as it starts to process more information. A look through the manufacturer rating on the battery power should give you a fair idea of how long the tablet is going to last. You need to look for numbers such as battery life in video playback mode and battery life in standby mode. Most tablets give 6+ hours of battery life when in constant use with some going up till 10 hours or more. This is one area where users are really starting to demand more from the manufacturers.
How Big is the Storage Space?
This is something which many customers ignore. Just to save a few dollars, you may buy a tablet with a storage space of 16 gigabytes (GB). While this may be sufficient for a few hundred photos, some videos, 2 or 3 movies and about 50 apps, you may find that you are struggling with memory space in a few month's time. 32 GB and 64 GB tablets are standard memory storage sizes with most manufacturers. However, if you anticipate your need for memory to be even higher, look for a tablet with expandable memory slots, though in most cases, 32 GB or 64 GB tablets will be more than sufficient for now. Future-proof yourself by buying 128GB - if you have the cash.
Tablets with USB Ports, Expansion Slots, and Other Slots
If you are an avid tablet user, you might like to have slots for every single thing; A slot for a USB, another for the SD Card, Micro HDMI Slots and so on. Depending on your personal needs, see what you are going to use the most. If you have a HD TV, you might most definitely want an HDMI slot out from your tablet that can be connected to your TV to view your photos or home videos, or stream a movie from the internet. While it is easy to get lost in the multitude of slots, think for a moment as to what you are going to really need. Chances are that you might use only a very few, which is why Apple devices have almost eliminated them. Still, many people need tablets with USB ports and you should check the model you are interested in has them before you buy.
Wi-Fi or SIM based?
Do not buy a tablet just because it has a SIM slot. Have you researched how expensive the browsing plans are on a SIM when you do not have Wi-Fi hot spots available? Does your tablet support 4G LTE? Will it be really useful for you and are these services available in your area? Ask these questions; find out how expensive it will be to go for either of these options. Not doing this research might set you back by a few hundreds of dollars in terms of browsing charges or additional SIM charges or the actual device cost.
Accessories and Safety
A tablet computer is a beautiful device, and most of us would like to keep it absolutely safe. Are there nice covers available that will keep the tablet safe in case of an accidental fall? Are screen guard protectors for the tablet you buy easily available? A keyboard is a very useful tool if you need to get a lot of typing done on your tablet. Does your tablet have any supported keyboard devices? Can docking stations be easily found for your tablet? Can your tablet PC communicate with other Bluetooth devices? While these may seem trivial when you buy the tablet, you will find that all these can become really important as your tablet starts becoming a part of your daily life.
Apps, Apps, Apps
If you thought that more apps means better tablet, you are making a mistake. While this is an important and essential factor, many of the apps available are those which you will never use, not even once. (Most apps in the various app stores have no downloads.) Before you buy a tablet, do some research on the apps that you think will be most important to you. For some, an app like Skype is very important and for some Microsoft Word is a must have. Check if this is available on the tablet you want to buy. If you are into gaming, see if quality gaming apps are available on your tablet.
Realistically, the most useful and important apps like Whatsapp are available on all the major platforms. However, it is feasible that the killer app, the very reason you're buying a tablet, is only on Apple or only on Android. Save yourself the frustration of finding out too late! Double check with a quick Google search.
Something that customers are more and more aware of is being 'tied to an ecosystem'. Once you've used Apple products for a year and decide to swtich to Android, you might realise that the device is so deeply entrenched in your life that it would be an enormous hassle to make the change. All those stored passwords, all those phone numbers, all those apps you already paid for, all those photos and videos you've got in the cloud... Most people end up sticking with the brand they are currently using. (Vice versa is equally true.)
The next arms race in the mobile and tablet world is who can make it easiest for rival customers to make the switch. Apple just announced a tool to help Android customers migrate painlessly to iOS. Will it work? Time will tell.
Nevertheless, for the moment you should consider your choices with care.
I love the 'Brand'
You will so often find people who are just so in love with a brand that anything sold by the company is blindly bought. You know those people who queue all night to be first in line? While, there is nothing wrong in being brand loyal, it probably pays to wait a while and let other customers find the flaws in the new product. Maybe the company can fix them with a software update, or maybe they can't. The only way to know for sure is to wait.
And even brand loyalists should check the specs and operating details of rival tablets. A little research might surprise you as to the range of tablets available at a lower than expected price. All the major brands produce devices with incredibly clever features - it would be a shame not to give them a chance to wow you.
Get online, read some reviews. Here at Tablet PC Comparison we do our best to post unbiased reviews of the major devices, it's still good practice to look around a bit. Check the reviews on Amazon, too. While you can take some complaints with a pinch of salt, 300 one-star reviews which all highlight the same design flaw is a pretty good indicator the device has a problem. Similarly, 8,000 rapturous 5-star reviews means you can safely ignore the handful of customers who had a bad experience (which is often related to shipping or packaging and not the product itself.)
Look and Feel
If there's an electronics store near you (or you're passing by an airport sometime in the near future!) it's handy to get an idea of the look and feel of a tablet before buying. Some look surprisingly good in person, while others just seem to snuggle into your hand and you don't want to put it down. It's surprisingly important how easily you can reach the top left/right of the screen and how the buttons react to your tiny/huge thumbs.
Having said that, if you buy a new model from a respectable brand you can expect pretty good build quality, a great screen, good battery life and a wonderful experience. The only factor left to consider, then, is the price.
How Deep is the Hole in my Pocket?
Most tablet buyers make the purchase an emotional decision rather than a logical one. If you have gone through the points above and followed them, you would have found out by now that the choice of tablets available is plenty, at prices that are significantly cheaper or different than what you may have estimated.
Depending on your needs of apps, resolution of the screen, quality of camera, ability to play back HD Videos and many other requirements, there is a tablet that fits almost every need. But remember, there is no such thing as the perfect tablet and technology is advancing all the time. So make the best decision you can with the information you have, and enjoy your tablet for the next 3 or 4 years.
We hope you found this guide useful!