If you don’t already have a tablet, chances are you soon will. In fact, this year analysts at IDC expect tablet sales to surpass desktop PCs, and they’ll overtake laptops by 2014. Even if you do own a tablet, it’s nearly time for an upgrade. But do you go with the iPad, Android or Windows 8? And what’s the right size? We’ll help you answer these questions and more for you to pick the right device for your needs.
1. Which Platform Is Best for You?
It’s no longer a simple choice between Apple’s iPads and Android devices, now that Windows RT and Windows 8 have entered the fray. Here’s what you need to know about each of the big three operating systems.
iOS + iPad or iPad mini
You can now choose between the 9.7-inch iPad (4th generation) with fabulous Retina display or the 7.9-inch iPad mini, a more convenient size. Or budget shoppers can still pick up an iPad 2. And there’s a whole universe of accessories available for each device. But it’s the dead-simple interface and plethora of apps that attracts most fans to Apple’s platform.
Since the last, fully functional and popular iOS version, there haven’t been any major changes. But iOS 6 brought some handy little improvements to the already intuitive interface, including improved Facebook integration. Siri is smarter now, with the ability to look up movies and sports scores, as well as book a table at the restaurant you’ve been meaning to try. We also really like the new Photo Stream, which lets you share photos with friends who have Apple devices.
With a mind-boggling 275,000 apps designed explicitly for the iPad (800,000 total), Apple’s tablet app selection is clearly superior to anything else on the market. However, not all are a runaway hits. For example, Apple Maps had a few hiccups out of the gate and is still inferior to Google Maps.
Despite Apple’s clean and attractive OS, other operating systems are more dynamic and are easier to personalize. Android, for example, offers plenty of widget options, while Windows offers a colorful tile interface that updates in the background. By comparison, iOS 6 looks and feels static.
MORE: Top 10 Tablets Right Now
The world of Android tablets can definitely be confusing. On one side you have slates that offer a pure version of Google’s OS, such as the Google Nexus 7 and 10. Devices like this offer compelling features such as Google Now, which anticipates your needs and learns from what you’ve searched to present info at the right time. You also get offline voice and access to the Google Play store.
Meanwhile, other companies have skinned Google’s operating system with their own overlays to the point where the platform is unrecognizable, such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD lines.
In between are such tablets as the Samsung Galaxy Note line, which provides full access to the Google Play store but adds value with such features as note-taking capability and multi-window multitasking.
Google Play is similar to iTunes in that it offers music, movies, TV shows, books and magazines. However, while there are 670,000 apps in Google Play, many popular titles haven’t yet been optimized for tablets.
MORE: Top 10 iPad Alternatives
Windows 8, RT
Despite inventing tablet PCs, Microsoft lost the first (and second) round of the modern tablet wars to Apple. But with the release of Windows 8 and Windows RT, Microsoft hopes to win over shoppers. And by working with multiple partners, the world of Windows 8 tablet designs is much more diverse than the competition. You’ll find all manner of tablet-laptop hybrids as well as familiar slate designs.
The fact that there are two versions of Windows for tablets (8 and RT) will confuse some folks. Both offer Microsoft’s new Live Tile-based user interface, feature the new Windows Store, and lack the familiar Start button. You’ll also use the same swiping gestures to access various menus on both. For instance, you swipe in from the right to open the Charms menu, which offers access to Search, Share, Home, Devices and Settings. And you’ll swipe down from the top to close apps.
So what about the differences? Windows RT is only found on tablets with ARM-based processors, such as the Microsoft Surface. The OS doesn’t support traditional desktop apps, only those apps found in the Windows Store. But it does come with Microsoft Home and Student Office for free and should offer longer battery life than Windows 8 devices. In full Windows 8 slates, such as our Editors’ Choice award-winning Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, you can download both legacy desktop apps as well as Modern apps from the Windows 8 store.
The juvenile app store for Windows 8 currently has about 50,000 options. However, it doesn’t have everything we’d like to see, yet. That includes Facebook, HBO Go and all of Google’s Apps (Gmail, Google Drive, Google Plus, etc).
Bottom Line: Apple’s iPad line is still the king of tablets because of its ease of use, design and vast app selection. However, Android tablets tend to be more affordable, and on the higher end you’ll find unique features such as pen input in the Galaxy Note. Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets are best for those seeking devices that can balance work and play.
If you’re looking for a lightweight device that fits in a purse or bag and allows you to read and watch video on the go, you’ll want to consider a 7-inch tablet such as the Google Nexus 7 or a slightly larger device like the 7.9-inch iPad mini. Weighing less than a pound, 7-inch tablets are easy to hold with just one hand, but they don’t provide the most immersive experience.
An 8.9-, 10- or 11.6-inch tablet provides a bigger canvas for surfing the Web and watching video and more real estate for editing documents. With a typical weight of 1.2 to 1.6 pounds, larger slates aren’t quite as portable as their 7-inch siblings, but they easily fit into a bag or sleeve.
Bottom line: If you want something for reading, Web surfing and light video viewing, consider a small media-consumption tablet such as the Kindle Fire HD. If you want a tablet for productivity as well as entertainment, look to larger and more powerful devices such as the new iPad and Google Nexus 10.
Tablets are great for media consumption — whether you’re watching videos, reading ebooks or playing games — which is why the media stores baked into a slate should influence your purchasing decision. If you are partial to iTunes, you’ll want an iPad so you can easily purchase and enjoy music and videos from Apple’s store on your tablet. You can use that same iTunes account to purchase apps, books and magazines. And you can download apps to access your Barnes & Noble or Amazon books, as well as Amazon’s video service.
On the Android front you’ll have several options. There’s Google Play with its growing selection of music, movies, TV shows and magazines. This is the most common app store, found across most Android-powered devices.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD is uniquely compelling because it’s the only tablet that lets you access Amazon video on demand, as well as Kindle books, magazines, apps and music — all with a single account. And if you’re an Amazon Prime member you’ll also enjoy free access to the company’s ebook lending library and Prime video service. Note: you can access the company’s video content on an iPad as well.
Barnes & Noble offers its own multimedia array through its Nook HD and HD+ tablets, including the company’s new video service. But the bookseller doesn’t offer a music service of its own.
You can access your books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble on Windows 8 through Nook and Kindle apps, just as you can on the iPad. But Microsoft has media for sale itself as well, thanks to Xbox Music and Xbox Video.
Bottom Line: Examine where your existing content lives before making a new purchase. Apple’s robust app and content selection is still tops, but Amazon is a close second, especially if you’re an Amazon Prime member.
MORE: Top 25 Windows Apps
You can purchase a good 7-inch Android tablet starting at a very affordable $199, including the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. However, if you’re looking for a larger screen, the price range gets much wider, beginning with the $269 Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch all the way up to the $1,200 Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T powered by Windows 8.
If you require a lot of local storage for music or video files, you’ll pay a premium. For example, the 32GB Nexus 7 costs $299, instead of the 16GB, $199 model. Or, for the mega-size 128GB iPad, you’ll pay $799. You can economize by keeping your media files in the cloud and getting a device with only 8 or 16GB of memory.
You can spend much less on a full-size Android tablet than on an iPad or a Windows slate. The Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch with 16GB will run you only $269, for example, which is nearly half the cost of Apple’s full-size device, but you’ll have to live with fewer apps. You won’t find a Windows 8 or RT device for less than $499. For now, these are premium devices.
Bottom Line: Those on a tight budget will want to go with an Android tablet, while those who place a premium on apps and design will want to spring for an iPad. Microsoft expects shoppers to pay a premium for Windows RT tablets because of their productivity benefits, such as the included copy of Office.
So by now you’ve likely made up your mind on a platform and size, and it’s just a matter of deciding on an exact model. If you frequently need to use a tablet outside of an area with Wi-Fi, you can purchase a tablet with a built-in 4G radio. You’ll pay a premium to purchase a mobile broadband-enabled tablet.
For example, the 16GB 4G iPad costs $629, $130 more than the Wi-Fi–only version. Data charges vary based on the amount of data you plan on consuming. For example, Verizon charges $30 per month for 2GB and $50 for 5GB. AT&T, on the other hand, offers 3GB for $30 and 5GB for $50. And Sprint charges $34.99 for 3GB and $49.99 for 6GB.
Alternatively, Amazon offers a $50 data plan for the Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch with 4G LTE, but that gets you only 200MB of data per month, which isn’t a lot of bandwidth.
If you use a smartphone, you’ll find yourself paying for data on two different devices, which can add up to a huge monthly bill. However, data-sharing plans such as Verizon’s Share Everything or AT&T’s Mobile Share take some of the sting out of that cost. If you add a tablet to your existing smartphone Mobile Share data plan with AT&T, it will cost you an extra $10 per month.
A better solution might be to pay to use your smartphone as a hotspot for your tablet. AT&T and Verizon offer mobile hotspot functionality for free as part of their sharing plans, and T-Mobile does as well for its 500MB and 2.5GB plans. (It costs $10 for 2GB on T-Mobile’s Unlimited plan.) Sprint charges an extra $20 for 2GB of mobile hotspot service.
Some carriers also offer tablets at a subsidized price if you agree to sign up for a 2-year data plan. But considering the high cost of data over 24 months, these prices are hardly a bargain. For example, AT&T sells the 4G version of the ASUS VivoTab RT for $599 with a $30 per month/3GB contract. That’s the same price as the Wi-Fi-only version, but a $1,319 commitment over two years. You’ll need to think long and hard about whether that premium is worth it.
Bottom Line: Having 4G built in can be very convenient, but we would avoid contracts if possible so you can decide on a monthly basis whether you want to pay for data.