Top tips for buying a tablet

Buying a tablet is becoming an increasingly complex task with more and more tablets entering the market. We walk you through the decisions you'll need to make before you part with your cash.

Whether you're thinking about an iPad for the kids, a PlayBook for work or a Honeycomb tablet for a little bit of both,then chances are you are one of the millions of tech lovers in the market for a tablet computer this year.

Apple's iPad is the dominant player in 2011, but should you think a little harder about your tablet choice before you leap in to Apple's ecosystem? We break down the decisions we'd make in purchasing a new tablet this year.

Which OS?

This decision is probably the most important and it will likely dominate how you use your tablet once you've bought it. At the time of writing, the choice is really between three systems: Apple's iOS, Google's Android and the BlackBerry Tablet OS. You can also buy tablets running Windows 7, but we're yet to see an example of this that has really impressed us.

Your choice of OS will then inform the other important decisions you need to make when differentiating between the growing number of tablets on offer. Click through to the second page of this feature for a comparison of the major tablet platforms.

Size and weight

Screen size and weight are two very important factors for portable devices, and finding the right balance between a big screen and a weight you are willing to hold for long periods of time is essential. As you will see later in our OS comparison, only Android tablets really offer a choice of screen size, as the Apple and BlackBerry tablets only offer a one-size-fits-all solution.

Screen size is the main factor that determines the weight of a device, as a large portion of this heft comes from the glass used to cover the LCD panel. In the table below you can see how doubling the diagonal screen size of a tablet can triple the weight of the device overall.

Tablet Screen size Weight
Dell Streak 5-inch 220g
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7-inch 380g
BlackBerry PlayBook 7-inch 425g
Apple iPad 2 10-inch 607g
Motorola Xoom 10-inch 730g

Connectivity

You'll also want to consider which connectivity options you'll need to make the most of your tablet computer. Will you need 3G for internet on the move? Will you use an HDMI port to deliver presentations to clients or share movies on a big screen TV? Are you a photographer who needs access to an SD card slot on the device to share your work with clients? Today's tablets often offer one or more of these solutions and it'll be up to you to buy the model with the slots and sockets to meet your needs and budget.

Connectivity checklist: does the tablet you're looking at have the following?

  • 3G or Wi-Fi only
  • HDMI, and does it come with a cable?
  • Micro or mini USB
  • Full-size USB host port
  • MicroSD memory expansion
  • SD card reader slot

Beyond these major considerations there is still plenty that separates the best tablets from the worst. The Lenovo ThinkPad , for example, comes with a capacitive stylus, while the HTC Flyer offers one as an optional extra. Samsung's tablets have an 8-megapixel camera, while the iPad 2 only has a 1-megapixel camera.

Maybe you're actually looking for a netbook? Checkout our tablet or netbook comparison here.

As we mentioned earlier, Apple has a substantial lead on its competitors. With a head start to market, some analysts predict Apple could have as much as 75 per cent of the tablet market share at the halfway point of 2011, a figure that has spurred on an enormous amount of developer interest.

Apps

The result is probably the most compelling feature of the iPad, with Apple claiming over 60,000 tablet-specific apps on the Apple App Store, plus access to several hundred thousand more apps compatible with both the iPhone and iPad.

Available screen sizes

  • 9.7-inch only
  • The weight of the iPad 2 is 607 grams

Connectivity

Ports 3G HDMI Micro USB USB host MicroSD Memory card reader
Available X - - - - -

Apple's iPad has a single proprietary input socket, which is used for charging and all connectivity. If you need a tablet that connects to a secondary monitor via HDMI or can read information stored on an SD memory card you will have to pay extra for Apple-designed adapters. At AU$40 and AU$50 a pop, the cost of these additions can add up.

The downsides to iOS and the iPad is the lack of general options. There is one tablet, in one size, with one feature set and no options to customise the iPad to suit your specific needs.

Google released the Honeycomb build of Android in late 2010 to give manufacturing partners a platform to design tablet-sized devices on. A year on and we have seen an explosion of slate-style devices from a range of manufacturers, including several PC vendors who have had no or little input in the mobile space beforehand.

Apps

The Android Market has over 250,000 apps at last count, but the number of tablet-optimised apps is far lower and pales in comparison to the number of high-definition apps for iPad. There are some excellent games available to download, but some of the main social media and productivity apps are still waiting for an update.

Available screen sizes

  • 5-, 7-, 8.9-, 10.1-inch options
  • Device weights range from 400 to 900 grams.

Connectivity

Ports 3G HDMI Micro USB USB host MicroSD Memory card reader
Available X X X X X X

Android tablets run the gamut of connectivity options; with some sporting iPad-like minimalism in options, while others have everything from HDMI to standard and microSD memory expansion and USB ports for connecting keyboards and mice. Typically, tablets designed by PC vendors like Asus, Lenovo and Toshiba tend to have more connectivity options than those designed by smartphone makers like Samsung and HTC.

Even with 12 months under its belt Android tablets are still lacking the support of developers that the iPad has enjoyed from its initial release. There's still plenty of reasons to choose Android, though; the devices this year have been extremely well built with loads of options at no extra cost.

Research In Motion has put a huge amount of investment behind the BlackBerry Tablet OS. Unlike iOS and Android, which share the same DNA as their smartphone-sized counterparts, the BlackBerry Tablet OS is a new system entirely, built from the ground up to deliver a multitasking-focused workflow on a larger display. The result is a powerful platform with an outstanding user experience.

Apps

Apps are the foil of the PlayBook in the early days since its release, with there being a far smaller pool of developers committed to PlayBook apps than those working on iOS and Android. There are about 3000 PlayBook-specific apps currently available, though this number is growing all the time.

Research In Motion has one very significant ace up its sleeve, however. The PlayBook OS as a system is similar enough to Android to make it possible to execute Android apps on a BlackBerry PlayBook. In the coming months RIM will also release an Android App Player that will make this possibility a reality. Android developers will still have to resubmit their completed Android apps to the BlackBerry App World before users can download them, but this move has the potential to take the PlayBook's 3000 apps total to tens of thousands in a very short space of time.

Available screen sizes

  • 7-inch only
  • Weighing 425 grams

Connectivity

Ports 3G HDMI Micro USB USB host MicroSD Memory card reader
Available - X X - - -

The PlayBook offers the middle ground between the have-everything-approach of Android and the single port of iOS. PlayBook users can connect their tablet to a big screen with HDMI and sync files with a PC using micro USB. The PlayBook doesn't have a 3G data option or expandable memory, however; features that many will find they cannot do without.

Tags:
Tablets
About the author

Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies.

 

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