Tablets buying guide
If you're in the market for a tablet, CNET's buying guide will set you on the right path.
Editor's note, November 13 2014: This article was originally published on November 23, 2013. It has been updated to include the latest buying advice.
In the market for a tablet? You can start between the iPad Air 2 and Nexus 9. It all depends on what you want. Apple's tablet has stellar performance, the deepest software catalog and a fantastic ecosystem supporting access to an incredible number of apps, games, music and video.
If you prefer Android, the Google-branded Nexus 9 is for you. It's a speedy 8.9-incher that boasts top-notch graphics performance. Google's growing ecosystem is confidently catching up to Apple's -- yet still lacking in tablet-optimized apps. Either way, you'll likely be satisfied, but there are other options available.
For a user- and family-friendly experience the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 is another worthy challenger. It has a fast processor, Amazon's robust catalog of movies and TV shows, and unique features, like Mayday instant customer service and Firefly item-recognition software.
If price is a concern, there's a vast selection of bargain tablets to peruse, however the Nexus 7 remains one of the best budget options and provides a pure Android tablet experience. Check out the rest of our top tablets for more options.
Before you start shopping though, here are the most critical things to think about.
Three rules for buying a
1. Know your needs
There are plenty of important questions you should ask yourself before you plop down cash for a tablet, but the most important is, "What are you planning to use it for?"
Are you looking to replace your PC, or do you simply want a device to indulge your movies and TV-watching impulses while traveling? Either way, the specific needs you have for a tablet will factor heavily into your choice. Will you require constant Internet access? Is the ability to expand your storage capacity important to you? What about HDMI? IR blasters? GPS?
2. Price doesn't tell the whole story
Just because a tablet is expensive doesn't mean you're getting a quality product worthy of your dollar or pound. Conversely, not all cheap tablets are worthless throwaway devices with screens designed to induce glaucoma.
There's usually a good reason behind the price of each tablet. By taking a loss up front, Amazon can offer its powerful Kindle Fire HDX 7 tablets at affordable prices. Also, despite the fact that the iPad Air 2 has no native HDMI or storage expansion support, Apple's flagship can justify its $500/£400/AU$620 starting price, thanks to its fast performance, incredible app support, refined interface and robust ecosystem.
Look beyond the price; think about everything you're getting in terms of hardware and software.
3. The manufacturer matters
Choose your tablet manufacturer wisely. Computers aren't perfect, and tablets in particular can be even less perfect. If there are problems, you'll want to make sure you've chosen a vendor that will address said issues with frequent and effective patches. Also, if you'd rather avoid frustration, you might want to choose a manufacturer whose tablets aren't known for requiring frequent and effective patches.
If you're planning to buy an Android tablet, choose a vendor that has a reputation for updating to the latest version of Android in a timely manner. Google tablets get the fastest updates, but Asus is usually quick on its feet; some other vendors, not so much.
Research a particular manufacturer's reputation for supporting its tablets before you buy.
Tablets come in familiar sizes, but a variety of sizes. Here's a breakdown of the different form factors.
6 to 8.3 inches (small)
These are tablets with screen sizes measuring 6 to 8 inches diagonally across the screen. Tablets of this size are usually cheaper and typically underpowered compared with larger tablets. However, small tablets are much more portable and usually fit more easily into purses and small bags. Some can even fit into pockets, depending on their width.
Since they can easily be held in one hand, 7-inchers make much better e-reader alternatives compared with larger tablets, especially if you like to read in bed.
For people with smaller hands, limited space, or if you simply don't want to carry around something larger and potentially heavy, 7-inch tablets are the best entry points into the market.
8.9 to 10.1 inches (medium)
This is the category most mainstream tablets fall into. Medium-size tablets offer larger screens and higher resolutions than their 7-inch counterparts. Larger screens are better suited to movie watching, and certain games will benefit from the increased real estate as well.
Medium-size tablets for the most part sport faster processors, and because of their larger screens, they provide a unique experience that isn't quite matched on smaller tablets. Games feel more interactive; movies and TV shows more immersive.
Though I'd much rather read a book on a 7-incher, for movies and games, medium is where it's at.
Over 10.1 inches (large)
There are currently very few tablet-only devices that meet this criteria, but a few Windows 8.1 hybrids do. Hybrids are both tablets (portable, touch screens) and PCs (full Windows 8.1 compatibility, faster processors). These tablets usually start at just under $1,000, £750 or AU$1,200 like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and top out at around $1,500, £1,000 or AU$2,000.
Depending on what you're looking to use your tablet for, you can splurge on a high-end stunner, choose a mid-range model, or even settle for an affordable basic buy. Whether it's for work or casual use, there are plenty of configurations available to appease everyone.
You'll only find the A8x on the iPad Air 2 right now and while it's not a huge step above the A8, it features better graphics and faster performance than its predecessor. It's an unusual triple-core CPU; in addition to the two CPU cores found in the A8, the A8x adds a third, clocking in at a max of 1.5GHz. This extra boost makes the A8x one of the fastest mobile chips available and consequently, positions the iPad Air 2 as one of the best performing tablets.
Nvidia Tegra K1
The 64-bit Tegra K1 system-on-a-chip made its debut inside Nvidia's own Shield tablet. Its one of the most powerful mobile chips on the market and its state-of-the-art graphic performance lends itself to a great gaming experience. The Nexus 9 is the latest tablet to house the Tegra K1, in a dual-core version, and it's one of the main reasons the Google-branded tablet is in the top of its class.
Samsung's proprietary Exynos processors usually don't disappoint in the speed department, but their battery life hasn't typically set the world on fire. The latest is its Octa 5, and instead of just throwing in a bunch of cores to inflate the chip's performance, Samsung has instead attempted to establish new levels of power/performance efficiency. In other words, Samsung wants to make your tablet's battery last longer without gimping the device's speed. The company also appears committed to making sure the chip doesn't fall behind the competition.
The Snapdragon 800 can be found in a number of tablets, though the Amazon Fire HDX 8.9 offers the latest Snapdragon 801. It's no joke when it comes to games and overall system performance, but doesn't quite catch up to the lightning fast performance of newer configurations.
You say you want a sharp, bright screen with fantastic viewing angles? Such qualities are dictated by the screen's resolution and panel type. The highest-resolution of any tablet screen is 2,560x1,600 pixels and the higher the resolution, the sharper the images look on the screen.
Panel type will determine whether images maintain their quality when viewed from off angles or how bright the screen can get. A tablet's panel type will also dictate how vibrant and accurate colors are.
When choosing a tablet, make sure the panel is an in-plane switching (IPS) or plane-line switching (PLS) screen. Anything less and the difference in quality will be readily apparent. If screen quality is king, take a look at the tablets with the best screens.
Operating system and software platform
Since its inception in the first iPhone, iOS has been the software powering Apple mobile devices. iOS thrives thanks to a deep media ecosystem that allows for sharing across devices, a gargantuan app catalog, and its very simple, user-friendly interface. The latest version, iOS 8, adds a slew of subtle tweaks for a more seamless user experience.
Though developers tend to roll out apps to iOS first, Android has definitely made strides of late with its media ecosystem. Movies, TV shows, magazines and games, in particular, have seen vast improvements in quantity and quality of selections. Also, expect a more customizable OS than any other. Android's freshest version, 5.0 Lollipop, can be found on Google's flagship devices and will roll out to other ones soon.
The new Windows has a learning curve that will discourage some people; however, if you're willing to put some time into it, once you get the hang of things, it proves an elegant and powerful tablet interface. Its built-in music-streaming service is great and has rich support for movies and TV shows. Apps selection has improved since launch, but compared with the competition, it's still lacking. Windows RT still exists, but it's slowly fading out and Windows 10 is the latest OS Microsoft is pushing.
Amazon's Fire OS
Running only on Kindle Fire tablets, the carousel-based interface sorts your content by category and has the deepest support for books of any tablet. Amazon Prime members benefit from free streaming of its entire video catalog as well as access to its lending library of books. Don't expect nearly as many apps as Android and iOS have at their disposal, however.
The Fire HDX tablets also have access to near instant customer service via video chat, thanks to Amazon's ambitious new feature called Mayday, and the 2014 edition of the 8.9-inch model includes item recognition software Firefly, which can otherwise only be found on the Amazon Fire phone.
Content is an integral part of the tablet experience. Whether it's movies, music, games or books, for many people, content is the only reason to own one of these slates.
My point is, you're going to need a place to store said content. Capacities typically start off at 8GB and are doubled from there, increasing in price each time storage is doubled.
Some tablets include storage expansion options like microSD cards, which can allow you to increase your storage capacity at a fraction of the cost. Others include a limited amount of free cloud storage with purchase. Also, be aware that the tablet's OS can sometimes take up a good 20 percent of its capacity. So, 8GB of storage is never really 8GB of storage.
Tablets are extremely tactile devices, and you'll want to make sure yours feels great in your hands. Weight and dimensions play a large part in this, but also balance. Two different tablets can share the same weight, yet one somehow feels lighter. Thanks to care being taken to evenly distribute its internal components from the very beginning of the design stage, well-designed tablets can feel better in your hands. If you can touch a tablet before you buy, you'll greatly increase the likelihood of making an informed purchasing decision.
Also, make sure there are no jagged edges or sharp corners that tend to dig into your palm while holding the tablet. For smaller tablets, you may want to confirm that the tablet will fit into your pocket or purse, or that it's light enough for your kids to handle without fear of them dropping it.