Apple recently announced next-generation iPads and again sent tech writers into fits of exultant exclamation marks. Thinner! Lighter! Faster! But new and improved tablets aren’t coming only from Apple. Microsoft just launched a new Surface model, and Nokia premiered the new Lumia 2520. Add to these well-regarded tablets from Samsung, Sony, Google, Amazon and others, and you’ve got a crowded market.
If you’re in the market for a tablet, how do you wade through the wide range of features, sizes, and price points? Here are some things to consider.
Operating system: Google, Microsoft, and Apple aren’t just battling to get their devices in your hands; they’re also competing for operating system domination. The OS matters for design and performance, but, for many end users, the difference is what’s available for these operating systems: apps, media and accessories. Currently, iOS offers the deepest library of apps and media. The downside is that iOS is available only on Apple products; Microsoft Windows Mobile and Google Android, in contrast, are available on devices from several different manufacturers.
Android offerings have improved dramatically in the past year and seem poised to continue on this trajectory. According to Strategy Analytics, Android was the OS on two-thirds of the 51 million tablets shipped in second quarter of 2013. iOS controlled 28% of the market, and Microsoft Windows Mobile had less than a 5% share. With such considerable market share, developers are racing to design products for the Android platform.
If you plan to use the tablet primarily to access email and the Web, all three of the major operating systems will suit your needs. But if you’re on the prowl for the buzz-worthy new apps and games, your best bet is with Android or iOS.
Hardware: Tablets generally in the 7-inch range or the 10-inch range. The smaller models sacrifice a degree of performance, but cost less and can fit in small bags.
Battery life: As you’d expect, battery life is less important if you’re using the tablet primarily from your couch than it is if you’re regularly trapped in coach on intercontinental flights. Most tablets from major manufacturers have batteries that last between 8 and 10 hours.
Storage space: If you plan to keep feature-length movies or your music library on your tablet, look for a model with 32 GB of storage or more.
Screen: For the most part, you can readily tell the quality of the screen by looking at it from different angles and judging its brightness. But if you’re a real graphics junkie, check out the Nexus 10 or the iPad Air. Both of these tablets have resolutions so sharp that the human eye cannot discern individual pixels.
Connectivity: All tablets are Wi-Fi-ready, but some can also connect to cellular networks. These cost extra for the technology, plus a monthly fee for the connection.
Price: Whatever your budget, you can find a tablet. A search of BestBuy.com found tablets ranging from $69.98 for the Azpen A701 to $1,929 for the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T. While price will generally align with the number and quality of features a tablet has, CNET warns that buyers should look beyond price. For example, Amazon takes a loss on each Kindle Fire sale, keeping its cost lower than its features would indicate. On the other hand, iPads may lack some desirable features but justify their cost with overall quality.
Beyond these core considerations, look at the extras and determine which are most important to you. For example, many tablets–though, notably, not iPads–have memory card slots and USB ports. Several tablet devices have front and rear cameras, and, if you are planning on using your tablet at the beach, some devices (the Sony Xperia Tablet 7, for example) are waterproof.
In any case, when choosing from among a bunch of different tablet devices, nothing beats trying them for yourself. Check how comfortable you are with operating system and how easy it is to do the kinds of things you plan to do with the device. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with your options, do a little research on your selected models. There are several useful tablet reviews available online (such as those from CNET and Engadget).
And be certain to check back regularly: The next new tablets are just around the corner.