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Tablets buying guide

If you're in the market for a tablet, CNET's buying guide will set you on the right path.


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This is a great place to start.

(Credit: Xiomara Blanco/CNET)

In the market for a tablet? Your first choice should be the iPad (4th generation). It has the best performance, the deepest software catalog, and a fantastic ecosystem supporting access to an incredible number of apps, games, music, and video. However, if you like the idea of a high-performing tablet, but you're not one for adding more cash to Apple's already substantial coffers, the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 might be up your alley. With its beautiful screen, overclocked 1.7GHz Tegra 3 CPU, storage expansion slot, and Micro-HDMI, it succeeds in offering a viable 10-inch alternative to the iPad. If price is a concern, or you simply want a smaller tablet, the $200 Nexus 7 is powerful, comfortable, and, thanks to its support for Jelly Bean, provides one of the best Android tablet experiences yet. Check out the rest of the top tablets for more options.

 

Three rules for buying a tablet

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?"

 

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Are you looking to replace your PC or do you simply want a device to indulge your movies and TV show watching impulses while traveling? Either way, the specific needs you have for a tablet will factor heavily into your choice. Will you need constant Internet access? Is the ability to expand your storage capacity important to you? What about HDMI? IR blasters?

 

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. 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 HD tablets at affordable prices. Also, despite the fact that the iPad has no native HDMI or storage expansion support, Apple's flagship can justify its $500 starting price thanks to its world-beating performance, incredible app support, refined interface, and robust ecosystem.

Look beyond the price.

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 headaches, you may want to choose a manufacturer whose tablets aren't know for requiring frequent and effective patches.

 

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

If you're planning to buy an Android tablet, choose a vendor that has a reputation for updating to the latest version of Android on a timely basis. Asus and Motorola have good track records with this; Samsung, not so much.

Research a particular manufacturer's reputation for supporting its tablets before you buy.

 

Tablet sizes

7 to 7.9-inches (small)

These are tablets with screen sizes measuring 7 to 8 inches diagonally across the screen. Tablets of this size are usually lower priced and under-powered 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.

 

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

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 those 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.

 

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Medium-size tablets by and large 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 tablets that meet this criteria, but many upcoming Windows 8tablets will. Thanks to their larger size and hardware keyboards, manufacturers have started calling these "hybrids," in that they're both tablets (portable, touch screens) and PCs (full Windows 8 compatibility, faster processors). It should be interesting to see where prices land for these large tablets, but if the 13-inch Toshiba Excite is any indication, they won't land cheap.

 

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Key considerations

Processor

Apple A6X
The current fastest processor available on any tablet is only available on the 4th generation iPad. The A6X drives the iPad's apps to load faster than their Android brethren. Also, games run faster thanks to the chip's quad-core PowerVR SGX 554MP4 GPU. Compare it with any current tablet processor and it's clear the A6X is in a class all its own.

 

Nvidia Tegra 3
Nvidia's flagship mobile chip is a piece of complex, quad-core machinery capable of driving speedy navigation and high frame rates in games. Some games even sport Tegra 3-specific optimizations, allowing for graphical effects not seen on any other CPU. The problem is that from a gaming apps perspective, not enough app developers have made games that really take advantage of its power, and with newer faster processors debuting every few months, Tegra 3 may have missed its opportunity to turn the Android platform into a gaming powerhouse. A version of the chip, clocked at 1.7GHz, allows the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 to display a high-resolution, 1,920x1,200 screen with little compromise to navigation performance; however, it's not always fast enough to prevent low frame rates in high-end games like N.O.V.A. 3.

(Credit: Nvidia)

Samsung Exynos
Samsung's proprietary Exynos processors are fast, rivaling and sometimes besting the Tegra 3 in performance. The latest quad-core Exynos 5250 pummels the Tegra 3 in games performance and succeeds in driving a fast, smooth interface for the Nexus 10.

Texas Instruments OMAP 4470
This one currently powers the Archos 101XS and soon the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 and Nook HDline. It sports a PowerVR SGX544 GPU and delivers smooth frame rates, even taxing 3D Android games. Its performance currently outdoes the Tegra 3 in polygon-pushing power.

(Credit: Texas Instruments)

Qualcomm Snapdragon 4
Currently running on very few tablets, the dual-core processor uses an Adreno 225 GPU. Based on its performance in the Lenovo IdeaTab S2110, it outperforms Tegra 3 when it comes to calculating the placement of triangles and rendering them as fast as inhumanly possible.

 

 

Screen quality

You say you want a sharp, bright screen with fantastic viewing angles? Such qualities are dictated by the screen's resolution and panel type. Currently, the Nexus 10 has the highest-resolution screen of any tablet at 2,560x1600 pixels, with the iPad directly behind it at 2,048,x1,536 pixels. The higher the resolution, the sharper the images look on the screen.

 

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

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.

 

Operating system and software platform

iOS
Ever since 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 your iPhone, a gargantuan app catalog, and its very simple, user-friendly interface.

 

(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)

Android
Though it doesn't offer as many apps as iOS, Android has definitely made strides as of late, with its media ecosystem. Movies, TV shows, magazines, and games, in particular, have seen vast improvements in quantity an quality of selections. Also, expect a more customizable OS than any other. Android's freshest version, 4.2 Jelly Bean, officially runs on only the Nexus tablets.

Windows 8/RT
The new Windows interface has a steep 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 UI solution. Its built-in music-streaming service is great and has rich support for movies and TV shows, but it needs tons more apps and a native books and magazines platform.

 

(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)

Amazon
Running only on Kindle Fire tablets, the carousel-based interface sorts your content by category and has the deepest support for books than 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 app as from Android and iOS, however.

 

 

Storage options

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 from $50 to $100 each time storage is doubled.

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Some tablets include storage expansion options like microSD cards, which can allow you to increase your storage capacity at a fraction of the cost (32GB microSD cards go for around $20). 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.

 

Design

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. Some tablets are heavier than others, but they somehow feel lighter. Thanks to care being taken to evenly distribute its internal components from the very beginning of the design stage, a heavier tablet 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.

 

(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

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 they'll fit into your pocket or purse, or that they're light enough for your kids to handle without fear of them dropping it.