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Here's everything you should consider before buying a new tablet

Published by Business Insider on Sun, 14 Feb 2016

The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you'll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships so we may get a share of the revenue from your purchase.As a miniature TV, vibrant e-reader, mobile game machine, or embarrassing picture taking device, a good tablet is still a luxurious way to enjoy some entertainment. In some cases, they can also take some stress off your laptop. So, if youre thinking of picking up a new slate, either now or sometime down the road, weve put together a quick guide to help you come to the right decision. Regardless of how you plan on using your tablet, heres what you should know before making a decision.What is this for'As with most device types, the first thing to figure out when shopping for a tablet is how exactly youre going to use it. Whatever that consists of, itll likely have a direct correlation to how big a tablet you should buy.Smalltabletsare about portabilitySmall tablets, or those with 7- to 8-inch screens, are the most portable of the bunch. Theyre the most likely to fit into a handbag or pants pocket, and theyre the easiest to use with one hand if youre out and about. That makes them natural fits for those who intend on using their tablet like a beefed up e-reader. Theyre typically more affordable than any larger counterparts, too.The downside is that theyre usually weaker than their large-screen brethren. That, combined their lessened real estate, means they arent ideal for getting any serious work done. Youd get a small tablet if you want more space for casual media consumption than a big smartphone can provide, but still value some semblance of portability. Or, if you just have small hands. If youre shopping down here, though, it really is worth considering whether or not a large phone like the iPhone 6s Plus or Nexus 6P could suffice.9- to 10-inchtablets are the most well-roundedMedium-size tablets, or those with 9- to 10-inch screens, are generally the best choice for most people. Theres a clear distinction between them and so-called phabletsbrowsing the web, watching movies, reading magazines, and playing games is simply more luxurious with that much more space. If youve cut the cord and hope to treat your slate like a portable TV, this is the way to go. And if you stick to word processing or other lighter tasks, their (typically) stronger internals allow them to have some sort of productivity bent as well. (Though theyre not quite 1:1 laptop replacements.)Youll need to free up both hands to use them more often than not, but if you keep them around the house where they belong, thats not unbearable. Plus, theyre still tablets, so if you do have to stuff them in a bag, its not like theyll be bulkier than your average laptop. The added space typically comes at a premium, but the experience gains should be worth it if you use the machine with some regularity. Hybrids are a work-in-progress, but they're improvingAnything larger than 10 inches, and, with a few oversized exceptions, were pushing into hybrid territory. Devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or Apple iPad Pro are ostensibly designed to mix the freedom of a tablet with the power of a laptop, but up until now theyve mostly come off like compromised versions of the two. Oftentimes, theyre too big to use casually as a slate, too inelegant with a keyboard and mouse to use comfortably as a laptop. Add the fact that they usually start around $1,000, and theyre a hard sell for anyone looking specifically for a tablet.Now, these things have gotten better over the years, and, since this is the one tablet segment thats showing financial growth, manufacturers look poised to continue refining the formula as we move forward. And many hybrids are as strong as a full-on Ultrabook. I know people who swear by their Surfaces. But for now, theyre best seen as niche devices, something for those with money to burn, who dont stress their laptops too hard, or maybe need to sketch things out with a stylus (with which many of these devices integrate nicely). If you grab one to replace your notebook, though, just try to always have a desk in view. Pledging your software allegianceOnce youve figured out what you want to get out of your tablet, its time to look at which operating system youd like to pledge your allegiance to. You have four real options to choose from. None of them are perfect, but theres one thats generally superior for most peoples needs. iOS is easily the most completetablet OSAnd thats iOS. While the competition between Apples mobile OS and Android has tightened up on smartphones over the yearspersonally, I even prefer the latteriOS is far and away the most well-adjusted OS for the tablet form factor. It looks great, its as straightforward to navigate as it is on an iPhone, and, while its gotten more jittery with recent updates, it's still largely smoothon any iPad released within the last few years. Its the only place to go if youre still invested in iTunes. It supports the most accessories. It recently added split-screen support, making it more suitable for multitasking and productivity. (Though, again, its not Mac OS.) And since Apple controls both ends of the hardware-software equation, you never have to worry about being behind on a software update.The big differentiator here, as its always been, is app support. Its not the number of apps that separates iOS and Android on tablets so much as the quality. Googles clearly closed the gap, but iOS is still seen as the default in many waysif a major tablet app launches or makes any changes, youre virtually guaranteed to see it as soon as it hits, or at all, on an iPad. This is particularly evident when it comes to games.Plus, iOS easily has the most apps specifically designed to work with larger displays. With Android, youll too often see programs that look and behave like theyre on a blown-up smartphone. That might not sound too bad if youve never owned a tablet, but its simply unpleasant in person, and its always annoying to know that more effort has been exerted on another device. The iPad is usually that other device.Recommending a tablet for most people is uniquely simple in that, most of the time, Id say to just get an iPad. And while an iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 4 are certainly well-made and fast to run, iOS tablet dominance is the main reason for that.Android is the most varied optionStill, iPads arent cheap. Maybe youdont want to drop $500 on an iPad that you arent sure youll use all the time. Maybe you just dont want to support Apple as a company. Its cool; youll face more pain points, but you have other choices. Android is the most common one.If you've ever used Android on a phone, you have the general idea of what it's like on a tablet. That's both the best and worst thing about it. Google's OS supports the widest range of devices, across the widest variety of price points. If you buy a tablet for less than $250, itll probably run Android. Its still the most receptive to tinkering and customization, it has true multi-user support (iOS is only just getting to this), and if youre deep into Googles app ecosystem, itll play nicer with Gmail, Drive, Play Music, and so on. And while its issues with tablet-optimized apps are glaring, its overall selection is still miles more robust than those of Windows or Fire OS.Still, those issues are there. Then there are the usual bugbears Android has always had. Serving many manufacturers means that updates arent rolled out universally. It also means that some devices run software skins that are, more often than not, less enjoyable than the stock experience. (As with phones, Googles own Nexus devices are the most reliable in these regards.) Theres no native split-screen supportoutside of some Samsung devicesand in general the whole thing is geared toward media consumption than getting any work done. But again, if price matters, or you just feel at home with Android already, itll be fine enough.Windows 10 is still a desktop OSWindows 10 is a welcome return to form from Microsoft. It looks good, its fast, and it does well to not force you to use the touchscreen all the time. At its core, though, its still a desktop OS. Microsofts touch app support is noticeably weaker than that of iOS or Android, and the whole platform is still very dependent on legacy programs that just feel strange without a mouse and keyboard. So, while there are more traditional tablets out there that run Windows, the OS itself really feels like it belongs on a hybrid like the Surface Pro. That means you have to pay up to be able to use it effectively. If you do, youll find a platform thats both user-friendly and good for getting things done. But on anything cheaper or less featured, its lacking.Amazon Fire OS is convenient, if youre into PrimeAmazons Fire OS is technically a variation (or fork, in tech parlance) on traditional Android, but its distinct enough from the genuine article to deserve a mention. Like iOS and iPads, its exclusive to Amazons line of Fire tablets. And like a few of Amazons other gadgets, it exerts a lot of energy hoping you'll buy other Amazon things. Namely, it would really like it if you were an Amazon Prime member. This has its ups and downs. On the plus side, if youre already a Prime member, and you frequent services like Prime Video and the Kindle app, Fire OSs self-serving inclinations are convenient. All your Amazon-provided books, movies, music, magazines, and so on have their own homescreens, and you get little perks like Prime Video pre-loading your next episode before it even starts. Besides that, the Amazon Underground store nets you a variety of free games, Amazons parental controls run deep, and a Mayday feature lets tablet newbies directly contact a customer support rep.On the flip side, if youre not a Prime member, Fire OS can feel like one big Amazon ad. Youll be staring at a lot of features that you cant use to their fullest. Either way, you also have to useAmazons app store, which covers most of the essentials, but not all of them, and typically lags behind when anything gets updated. Its also missing anything Google, which means no YouTube, Gmail, Drive, and so on. You can always sideload the Play Store to rectify this, but thats not the smoothest solution. Still, if youre into Amazon, Fire OS is stable and helpful enough for casual users.The best tablets for each price rangeGenerally speaking, the more you pay for a tablet, the nicer its going to feel, the stronger its going to perform, and the less compromises itll have. In related news, water is wet. That said, a number of perfectly solid values have flown under the radar in the past year, and many of them could save you from paying for more tablet than you need. To help point you in the right direction, lets go through a few of the better options in each general price range.There are more ultra-budget, $50ish tablets floating out there than you might think, and just about all of them are slow, flimsy hunks of plastic. The one exception Ive used is the Amazon Fire, which is consistently usable for something this inexpensive. The usual caveats about Fire OS still apply, but if youre determined to spend as little as possible for a tablet you wont sink all your time into, its the best youll get.Moving up to the $150-200 range, the Nvidia Shield is tops. Its Tegra K1 chip helps it perform as strongly as many tablets twice as expensive, it has a great 1920x1200display, and it runs a near-stock version of Android, which is only enhanced by Nvidias unique gaming features. Its a stellar buy at $199in fact, given its speed and Androids tablet-related deficiencies, you could argue that its the only Android tablet worth considering. (Just dont download its latest update if you do pull the trigger.)Again, if you can go higher than that, you should get an iPad. Wait and see what Apple announces next month, but as it stands now the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 4 are the best medium-size and small tablets on the market, respectively. If youd just rather not, though, the Nexus 9 is an imperfect-yet-steady vessel for clean Android, while the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 makes up for TouchWizs okayness with a fantastic build and beautiful display.As noted above, theres a question to be had about whether or not any hybrid is worth it right now. If youre sold on the idea, though, the Surface Pro 4 comes closest to getting it right. The iPad Pro, meanwhile, isnt as good at being a laptop, but if you look at it like an ultra-powered, luxury version of existing iPads, its a great piece of tech.Other recommended tablets:Amazon Fire HD 8, $149.99, available at Amazon.Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 (8-inch), $169.99, available at Best Buy.Lenovo Tab 2, $179, available at Amazon.Asus Zenpad S 8.0 (32GB, 2GB RAM), $192.29, available at Amazon.Apple iPad Mini 2 (16GB), $220.85, available at Amazon.Dell Venue 8 7000 (16GB), $299, available at Dell.Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet (32GB), $679.99, available at Amazon.Sorting through the specsA tablet is nothing if not a big display, so any details about that are most important. Resolution wise, if you can afford it, a 1080p panel will look sharp enough to be pleasurable. Youll get even higher-res screens as you go up in priceor on cheaper exceptions like the Asus Zenpad S 8.0and while you dont have to go out of your way to get those, theyre nice to have. Most budget tablets stick with a serviceable 1280x800, but if you can do better, youll enjoy it. Remember that resolution doesnt determine how good a screen is, but its the most clearly separated aspect of display quality youll find without reading reviews or going hands on yourself.As far as internals go, try to get at least 2GB of RAM on any non-budget slate (and most budget ones, to be honest). At least 32GB of storage should be enough to keep you comfortable, but if your device supports microSD cards, 16GB isnt unmanageable. (For what its worth, the iPads lack of this support is likely its biggest weakness.) Processing power and battery life are hard to judge on a general basis, so again, look for feedback for a given device to get a general idea. The newer your Apple A(X), Qualcomm Snapdragon, Nvidia Tegra, or Samsung Exynos chip is, the better itll usually perform. Most devices with MediaTek processors have relatively low power. As far as other ports go, its hard to say anything is truly essential, but having a few USB, microUSB, or microHDMI slots rarely hurts. Same with supporting 802.11ac WiFi, or Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. You can pad some slates with 4G connectivity as well, but the monthly fees are probably only worth it if you really plan on carrying your device all the time.Finally, a good selfie cam is always nice for video chatting, but really, dont worry about taking pictures with your tablets rear camera. For everyones sake.SEE ALSO:Here's everything you should consider before buying a new laptopREAD THIS:These are the best cheap tablets you can buyDON'T MISS:12 weekend bags that double as work bagsJoin the conversation about this story
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