Aug 26 2013

How To Choose A Tablet

This article originally appeared at Living on the Cheap.

It wasn’t too many years ago that the number of laptops sold passed the number of desktops sold. Three years ago, Apple launched the iPad and now laptops are in second place. More web traffic is now generated from tablets than smartphones. Do you see a trend here?

Although tablets were originally viewed as devices on which to browse the Web or watch movies, they have become so good at other things that you may not even need a laptop anymore.

It all points to how mobile we have become and a shift in our computer consumption habits. If you are one of those people who have not joined the tablet crowd, you may be feeling more than a little overwhelmed by the vast array of choices out there. My goal today is to help you figure out which one suits your needs.


Screen size

A tablet is all screen. This display is the window to the world behind it, the place where you will tap and swipe and collect fingerprints. Although bigger is generally better, you do need to keep in mind that a larger tablet sacrifices portability.

Tablets fall primarily into two basic categories: Ten-inch displays and seven-to-eight inch displays, measured diagonally from corner to corner. They also fall into two general shapes, or aspect ratios: Apple uses 4 by 3; pretty much every one else uses widescreen (16 by 9, or 16 by 10) formats.

To make it simple, Apple is closer to square than everyone else. This tends to be better for web browsing as all computer monitors used to fall into this shape. Widescreen is better for HD video since it will fill the whole screen without any black bars.

In either case, a bigger display means you can fit more on the screen. If you are writing an email or reading a long article, this means less scrolling, which is more productive. Of course, none of the 10-inch tablets will fit in a pocket, so if portability is important to you, a seven-inch version is more likely to travel with you wherever you go.



Weight goes hand in hand with display size, but if you are planning on carrying a tablet everywhere, even a few ounces can add up. I am much happier carrying around a seven-inch tablet, which you can cram in a large pocket or handbag.

Wireless vs. cellular service

It is nearly impossible to buy a tablet without WiFi. The real question: Do you need Bluetooth or cellular?

Cellular service adds complexities and some expense on an ongoing basis. You will have to pay for monthly service and might have to sign a contract to get a deal on a tablet. Unless you are going to consume lots of data and be away from WiFi a lot, I think you will be better off with a basic tablet and a hotspot from a provider like FreedomPop.

Bluetooth really comes down to what you want to do with a tablet. If you want to watch movies and use it as an e-reader, it is not important. If you want to use your tablet as a laptop substitute, then Bluetooth is critical as it is the best way to connect a keyboard to a tablet. So, basically, if you want to get some work done, make sure the tablet has Bluetooth.

Operating system

Google Android, Apple or Microsoft? Which way to go?

Take a deep breath here. This is pretty much a personal preference issue, at least on the Apple/Android side of things. Each has literally hundreds of thousands of applications available for its platform. These range from games to serious productivity tools; most applications are very inexpensive.

Android is a bit more open. You can connect a USB drive with a cable and copy files. Apple doesn’t allow this but the huge range of accessories out there makes it quite appealing.

Windows RT is behind on the software front with around 10,000 apps, but is well represented on the game and entertainment side. It also has an actual USB port on it making it very easy to interface with the outside world.

Bottom line: If you own a smartphone, you are better getting a tablet with the same operating system since most apps can be shared across the platforms with no additional charge.

Expansion capabilities

This Tablet Comparison Chart lists the internal storage capacity for each tablet. Keep in mind that the operating system and packaged software take up part of this space, so you have a bit less to work with. As a reference point, an HD movie can easily tie up two gigabytes of storage. Data adds up quickly, so a table that has a storage card slot is a very good thing. The Amazon tablets give you some free space in the cloud and Apple allows you to keep media you have purchased in its cloud, so you get a bit more effective space out of those platforms.

Camera function

You are going to look really silly if you use your tablet as a camera. As long as there is a front-facing camera to use it for Skype and FaceTime, you are covered.

Getting a good deal

Tablet manufacturers have compressed the pricing to the point that it’s hard to find a good deal floating around out there, but there is always an angle.

Apple has a refurbished store. Everything I have ever bought there has been indistinguishable from a new product. Last year’s model will do everything you need it to do, in most cases.

Microsoft just dropped the price by $150 on the Microsoft Surface RT to $349, and most brick and mortar stores are matching that price. If you have Best Buy Reward Zone points, you can double dip a bit on this.

Amazon’s tablets are priced in this chart at the “Special offers” price. This means that you will see ads pop up on your screen, but this minor annoyance gets you a lower price on the tablet — about a 10% savings depending on model and version.


There are a ton of cheap, knock-off Android-based tablets on the market but they don’t make a lot of sense for serious use when there are such great options for so little money.

At $139 for the baseline model, the HP Slate 7 checks off all of my boxes for getting something done, but the extra money for the Nexus 7 is worth the added expense for its better screen resolution.

If you are already an Amazon Prime member (currently, $79 a year) the Kindle HD is almost a no brainer as you can take advantage of its lending library for books and streaming video.

On the larger tablet sizes, I would lean towards the Surface RT if it had a little bit more app support, but until that happens I think the budget choice would be a refurb of the iPad2 or the previous generation Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 at $299.

The best tip I can leave you with is this: The latest and greatest will come at a premium in the land of tablet computing. If it serves your needs, it does not matter whether you buy new or used.

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