How to Buy the Best Tablet

When the first Apple iPad and the Fusion Garage JooJoo were released within days of each other in early 2010, the world got its first real taste of tablets—and, what some might say, is an excellent summation of the breadth of quality future tablets would offer. At the high end, the iPad, and now the iPad 2, is the benchmark tablet to beat, with top-notch, seamless design paired with a robust app store. The now-discontinued JooJoo was a clunker—it lacked internal storage, often crashed, and basically didn’t have any apps, only some basic tools. In between these bookends lies the rest of the tablet field, with early Android tablets (anything running a version lower than Android 3.0) ranking closer to the JooJoo end of the spectrum and newer Android tablets like the Motorola Xoom and upcoming second-generation Samsung Galaxy Tabs taking aim at the iPad. Upon first glance, the upcoming RIM BlackBerry PlayBook also looks to be quite the competitor, with its own operating system and the ability to run some Android apps. So which of the plethora of deceivingly similar-looking tablets is worth your sizable investment? Let’s look at the key factors you need to consider:

 

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First Off: Do You Even Need a Tablet?
Simply put, tablets aren’t really filling any true need right now—they are neither replacements for full-fledged computers nor smartphones. A tablet is a touch-screen media device that is actually most similar to a very advanced portable media player—or an MP3 player with a much larger screen. Yes, many of them have mobile service features, but currently none of them make phone calls via a traditional mobile provider. And while you can get work done on a tablet, you won’t get a desktop-grade operating system, like you’ll find on a PC. Tablets are basically lightweight versions of laptops in every sense—they weigh less, and they’re lighter on features. The advantage they offer over laptops is an easy way to check e-mail, browse the Web, consume media, and play games—just like a smartphone. But with a tablet you get a much bigger screen with more real estate. The bottom line is, you probably don’t need one, but if you want a tablet, read on.

Operating System
First, just like with a computer, you must choose your allegiance. Apple’s iOS is the mobile platform used by the iPad, as well as the iPhone and iPod touch. By now, you’re probably familiar with iOS even if you don’t own an iPhone, seeing as the device is as ubiquitous in public as it is in television and movies. On the iPad and the iPad 2, iOS works very similarly to the way it does on the iPhone, with certain tweaks made here and there to take advantage of the tablet’s larger 9.7-inch screen. The built-in iPod app on the iPad, for instance, has an extra side menu for additional navigation options that wouldn’t fit on a 3.5-inch screen. Generally speaking, the great strength of Apple’s iOS is twofold: it’s incredibly easy to use, and the wide selection of iPad apps—more than 65,000 tablet-specific titles at the time of this writing—download easily and quickly and work uniformly well with very few exceptions.

Google’s mobile OS, Android, is a different story. There are several iterations of Android, but only one—Android 3.0, a.k.a. Honeycomb—is designed specifically for tablets. Right now, only one tablet offers Honeycomb—the Motorola Xoom—and that makes it the iPad’s most viable contender, for now. It is a showcase for Android 3.0, which features an improved, more visual multitasking bar than iOS, as well as superior e-mail notifications. Unfortunately, these two particular strengths, though legitimate, are not strong enough to topple Apple’s iOS when you look at the bigger picture. The home-screen for Honeycomb, for example, can get easily cluttered because there are so many different ways to organize, rather than just putting things in tidy folders as you can with iOS. The one you choose will largely depend on your personal preference, so if you can try before you buy, you should.

Apps
Android lacks a strong selection of apps. Even with the newly announced Amazon App Store, the number of Honeycomb tablet-friendly apps that work well is very low. We could linger on this section, but the bottom line is simple: if you want lots of apps for your tablet, right now, nothing out there beats the iPad. Apple’s App Store is well-curated and offers deep selection—no competitor can come close to claiming this right now, partially because apps made for Android tablets have to work across multiple screen sizes, while iPad apps are designed specifically for one device. It sounds simple, but the variation in size (and manufacturers) complicates things greatly. It remains to be seen what kind of options will exist for the BlackBerry PlayBook. Eventually, one hopes, the other app stores will catch up to Apple, but if a wide range of compelling apps is your main priority, Apple is currently your best bet.

Design and Size
This consideration is a bit obvious, but size—both screen real estate and storage capacity—is important to consider. First things first: When you hear the term “10-inch tablet,” this typically refers to the size of the screen, measured diagonally, and not the size of the tablet itself. Apple continues to offer the iPad in one size only (9.7-inch screen). The Xoom comes in one screen size too (10.1 inches), but Samsung just announced new Galaxy Tab models in multiple sizes (8.9- and 10.1-inches) in addition to the current 7-inch Tab and the trend for other companies seems to be: the more sizes, the better. In other words, you have plenty of options, but the higher quality tablets thus far have veered towards the larger end of the scale since they offer a better finger-centric, touch screen experience. The weight of a tablet is one definite advantage it has over a laptop—but let’s be clear, at around 1.5 pounds (in the case of the iPad 2) they’re not as light, as say, your cell phone. After you hold one on the subway for ten minutes, your hand will get tired. Setting it flat in your lap, rather propped up on a stand, is also a little awkward.

As for storage, the more the better—those apps, when combined with a typical music, video, and photo library, can take up a lot of space. Right now storage tops out at 64GB of flash-based memory, with many of the quality tablets we’ve seen available in 16, 32, and 64GB varieties. Larger capacity models can get as expensive as full-featured laptops, especially when you factor in cellular service plans.

Wi-Fi-Only vs. Cellular Models
Most tablets come in a Wi-Fi-only model or with the option to pay by the month for 3G (or eventually, 4G) always-on cellular service from a provider like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon Wireless. If you want to use your tablet to get online anywhere, you should opt for a model with a cell radio. Of course, this adds to the device’s price, and then you need to pay for cellular service. Generally, though, you can purchase data on a month-to-month basis, without signing a contract, and charges typically don’t exceed $20 monthly, as long as you stay within data-usage limits.

Another way to get your tablet online: Use your 3G or 4G phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your tablet—this won’t work with every phone/tablet combo, so you should check with the carriers before you buy in.

Cameras & Video Chatting
With the release of the iPad 2, Apple caught up rather quickly to its tablet competition and added front- and rear-facing cameras for stills and video. The Xoom has a higher quality rear-facing camera than the iPad’s lackluster offering, but the bottom line is: the cameras on all of these tablets are currently more toy than tool. None of them is a legitimate replacement for even a point-and-shot camera.

But the inclusion of front-facing cameras means tablets offer video chat features—but not all video chat apps are created equal. Google Talk for Honeycomb, which comes preloaded on the Xoom, is a top-notch app; simple to use, and it operates via Google accounts. You can chat with anyone who has a Google account. However, not all Android tablets are created equal—be wary of any tablets that lack access to the Android Market. It’s also worth pointing out that any Android tablet lacking Honeycomb, like the Dell Streak 7, is not running an OS intended for a tablet, and thus, its apps often offer a weak user experience. Despite its cameras and video chat capabilities, the Streak 7 utilizes inferior apps for chatting and cannot utilize the Honeycomb version of Google Talk. Apple’s FaceTime works similarly well, but is limited to certain Apple products, making it far less versatile than Google Talk.

Price
Like with most gadgetry, you get what you pay for, and tablets are no exception. If you spend anything less than $500-$600 (which seems to be the magic entry-range for Wi-Fi-only models like the iPad 2 and the Motorola Xoom), don’t say we didn’t warn you. The CherryPal Cherry Pad is a fine example of what $188 will get you in the tablet world—not a lot, including a low-quality screen and a serious lack of features. As for 3G (and 4G) enabled tablets, the pricing varies widely depending on manufacturer, capacity, and plan, but expect to pay at least about $20 per month on top of a higher up front fee—the lowest iPad 2 3G tablet price is $629 for 16GB, for instance.

Finally, before you buy, if you can, head to your local electronics store to get hands-on time with some different tablets, so you can see which feels and works the best for you. And for the latest lab-tested tablet reviews, hit our Tablet Product Guide.