Tablet Buying Guide 2014: 7 Essential Tips

tablet buyers lead

This is how quickly the tablet market has grown. Nearly half of all computers sold in 2014 will be tablets, and there’s never been a wider variety of options. You’ll find everything from sub-$150, 7-inch slates to powerful 12-inch tablets that can run four apps on the screen at once. There are also plenty of choices for operating systems, with Android, iOS and Windows 8.1 all vying for your attention. So where do you start, and how do you pick the right tablet for your needs? We have all the info you need.

How Are You Going to Use It?

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Business/Productivity: You’ll want to invest in a full-size tablet (9 inches or larger) and possibly an external keyboard. Windows 8.1 tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 2, come with Microsoft Office preloaded. Apple’s iPad Air, with its free iWork suite, is another excellent choice. You might also consider Samsung’s Galaxy Note line, which offers pen input and enhanced multitasking.

ipadair

Gaming: Apple’s iPad should be at the top of your shopping list. The App Store offers the richest array of high-quality games. However, the game selection in the Google Play store is improving, and both the Snapdragon 800 and Tegra 4 CPU offer powerful graphics.


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Kids and Families: The first priority for a family sharing a tablet is protecting Junior from being exposed to inappropriate content, so you’ll want sophisticated parental controls, like those found on the Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HDX. Also consider kid-focused tablets from Fuhu. Apple’s iPad offers some basic protections, and some Android devices offer the ability to set up profiles.

kindlehdx

Media Consumption: For movie and TV buffs, as well as readers, the Kindle Fire HDX is an excellent choice. An Amazon Prime membership for $79 per year gets you unlimited streaming of Amazon Prime Instant Video content and access to the Amazon lending library. Of course, you can also access that content on an iPad Air or iPad mini. Plus, through iTunes, you get access to a huge library of content. On the Windows front, you’ll enjoy Xbox integration with your tablet.



What Size Would You Prefer?

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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. 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.

MORE: 7 Inch Tablet Reviews

Stepping up to an 8-inch tablet like the iPad mini provides more real estate for apps, games and movies while still being quite portable. However, these slates aren’t quite as easy to hold with one hand.

A 10-inch or larger tablet provides a bigger canvas for surfing the Web and editing documents, making them the best choice for productivity. With a typical weight of 1 to 1.6 pounds, larger slates aren’t as portable as their 7-inch siblings, but they easily fit into a bag or sleeve.



Which OS Is Right for You?

tablet os

Apple’s iPad and iOS have become synonymous with tablets, but Android is expected to account for 65 percent of slates sold in 2014. Meanwhile, Windows 8 tablets are finally gaining steam, especially cheaper 8-inch and 10-inch options. Here’s a quick platform breakdown.

iOS 7

Apple’s mobile operating system powers a few tablets: the iPad mini, the iPad mini with Retina display, the iPad 2 and the iPad Air. And there’s a whole universe of accessories available for each device. But it’s the supersimple interface and plethora of apps that attract most fans to Apple’s platform.

With iOS 7, Apple has given its operating system a colorful and modern design upgrade. A new Control Center menu (accessed by swiping up) makes it easy to toggle various settings, and Apple added better multitasking.

With a mind-boggling 475,000 apps designed explicitly for the iPad (800,000 in total), Apple clearly has the best tablet app selection. However, not all those apps are runaway hits. For example, Apple Maps had a few hiccups out of the gate and is still inferior to Google Maps.

MORE: Apple iPad Buying Guide: Which One is Right for You?

Android

Despite Apple’s clean and attractive OS, Android is more customizable — both by tablet makers and consumers. Android offers plenty of widget options, as well as launcher apps that can change the look and feel of your device.

The world of Android tablets can definitely be confusing. On one end of the spectrum, you have slates that offer a pure version of Google’s OS, such as the Google Nexus 7. Devices like this offer easy access to Google Now, which anticipates your needs and learns from what you’ve searched to present info at the right time.

Other companies “fork” Google’s operating system with their own overlays, such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX. There are benefits to the Fire OS, such as advanced parental controls and unique features, like the Mayday button for live tech support. However, the platform lacks Google apps and Google Play store access, relying instead on Amazon’s store.

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 more than 1 million apps in Google Play, many haven’t yet been optimized for tablets.

MORE: Top iPad Alternatives

Windows 8.1

Despite inventing tablet PCs, Microsoft lost the first round of the modern tablet wars to Apple. But with the release of Windows 8.1, Microsoft hopes to win over shoppers. And by working with multiple partners, the world of Windows 8.1 tablet designs is much more diverse than the competition. You’ll find all kinds of tablet-laptop hybrids as well as familiar slate designs.

Microsoft’s Live Tile interface is dynamic and easy to customize. You’ll find a Start button on the desktop, but it merely takes you back to the Start screen. Windows 8.1 offers enhanced search capabilities compared with Windows 8, as well as improved multitasking via the Snap feature. Note that Windows RT 8.1, found in the Surface 2, can download apps only from the Windows Store, not desktop apps.

The app store for Windows 8.1 currently has about 145,000 options. However, it doesn’t yet have everything we’d like to see, including HBO Go, several popular games and all of Google’s Apps (Gmail, Google Drive, Google Plus, etc.).

MORE: Top 8 Windows Tablet-Laptop Hybrids



What Kind of Apps and Content Do You Want?

tablet apps

Because content is king, the baked-in media and apps store should influence your purchasing decision. If you are partial to iTunes, you’ll want an iPad Air or iPad mini 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 Amazon books, as well as Amazon’s video service.

On the Android front, you 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 line is compelling because of its access to Amazon video on demand, as well as Kindle books, magazines, apps and music. And if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you’ll also enjoy free access to the company’s e-book lending library and Prime video service.

You can access your books from Amazon or Barnes & Noble on Windows 8.1 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.



What Specs Do You Need?

tablet cpu

Processor: On the Apple front, the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display pack serious firepower, thanks to their 64-bit A7 chip. But that’s far from the only chip on the market. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 is a superfast option as well. The Samsung Exynos line, especially the octa-core chip, provides snappy performance on Samsung’s tablets.

Other options include Nvidia’s Tegra 4 processor (in the Surface 2 and several Android slates) and Intel’s Bay Trail chips (in Windows 8.1 devices now and Android soon). Intel’s lower-end Clover Trail CPU exhibited lag on some Android tablets we’ve tested, so think twice about buying a tablet with that processor. Some smaller brands, such as MediaTek, may not offer zippy performance, so be sure to check our reviews before buying.

RAM: You’ll definitely want at least 1GB of RAM in your next tablet, but 2GB would be better. Some tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, even come with 3GB. The more RAM a tablet has, the more responsive it will be in performing the tasks you need it to. When you don’t have enough, you’ll find loading and closing apps, as well as switching apps, to be sluggish.

Internal Storage/Expandability: The memory of some Android or Windows tablets can be expanded with a microSD card. That can be particularly helpful if you plan to download a large amount of data. But for internal storage, you should look for a minimum of 16GB.



How Important Is Battery Life to You?

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If you will be using your next tablet on long plane trips or you’re constantly running from one meeting or activity to another, the endurance of your tablet will definitely matter. On our test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, the average battery life for a tablet is about 7 hours and 30 minutes. However, the iPad Air lasted nearly 12 hours on a charge, and the Google Nexus 7 lasted 8:26. You should never settle for less than 7 hours.

MORE: 10 Tablets with the Longest Battery Life



How Much Do You Want to Spend?

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The price range for tablets can vary wildly. From $150 for the ASUS MemoPad 7 to $899 for the Microsoft Surface Pro 2, there are gems for any budget. Android tablets tend to be the cheapest, and Microsoft tablets tend to be slightly more expensive.

Sub-$100: You’re unlikely to find much worth buying for less than $100. All tablets in this range will come with 7-inch screens. The Walmart-exclusive Hisense Sero 7 LT did earn 3 stars, but for that, you only get 1GB of RAM and 4GB of onboard storage.

$100 to $200: Most tablets in this price range are 7-inch Android devices, and there are some very good options. The $149 ASUS MeMO Pad HD 7, for example, offers a quad-core CPU, a 720p screen and 16GB of storage. The Kindle Fire starts at just $139 for the 8GB model, but those who plan on downloading lots of apps may want to opt for the $169 16GB version.

MORE: Best Tablets Under $200

$200 to $300: For $229, the Nexus 7 is at the top of its game in this price range. It offers a powerful Qualcomm S4 chip, full access to Google Play and its operating system will stay up to date since it runs unaltered Android. At $299, the original iPad mini is a very good value. You’ll also find the least-expensive Windows 8.1 slates, such as the Lenovo Miix 2, in this range.

$300 to $400: As you move up the price ladder, you’ll see more versatility and more capabilities. For instance, the Windows 8.1-powered ASUS Transformer Book T100 comes with a keyboard dock. You can also pick up the latest iPad mini with Retina display, which features a zippy A7 chip. Or, you may be tempted by the note-taking extras in the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.

More Than $400: At the top end of the price spectrum are tablets that are great for productivity and creativity. Options include the powerful yet light Apple iPad Air, as well as Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2. These are the types of slates that could replace your laptop.

AUTHOR BIO
Anna Attkisson
Anna Attkisson
A lover of lists and deadlines, Anna Attkisson covers apps, social networking and accessories. She's proud to say she loves each and every one of her phablet, three tablets, three laptops and desktop. She joined the Laptop Mag staff in 2007, after working at Time Inc. Content Solutions where she created custom publications for companies from American Express to National Parks Foundation.
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  1. Mary Brown Says:

    My son tells me to buy a Samsung tab 2 (3G) 7 inch
    Do you think that is a good one

  2. Nick Hall Says:

    I’m looking for a 7inch tablet which will take good video. Tried to make comparisons from the reviews, but still unclear – any thoughts?

  3. Mario Espinoza Says:

    I want to buy my daughter a tablet, but it would have to be one of the cheaper ones and I just don’t know if any of those would be worth even the reduced cost. Do you have a recommendation for one hopefully mostly used for reading and some games. Although she has taken to silly videos on youtube. I have seen a few on this week’s Big Lots and wonder if any are worth it.

  4. Vianne Liberato Says:

    I would like to chose Apple iPad Mini than iPad (10″). You can hold the iPad Mini in just one hand. If you will compare the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7″ to Apple iPad Mini 7.9″, then you must go with the iPad Mini.

  5. Rohan Trivedi Says:

    I am planning to purchase Asus X54C its with i3-500GB-2GB-15.6 Specs what do you suggest me is it good one ?

  6. toilet burger Says:

    that was good and all but i want to know if you have to buy games or not? (i just got my tablet on pre-order so i dont have it yet D: )
    oh and is 7 inch good?

  7. Park Says:

    “You won’t find a Windows 8 or RT device for less than $499. For now, these are premium devices.”

    True for Windows 8 because its a full OS, but RT devices are usually cheaper than $499. Windows RT devices try to compete with iOS and Android tablets so they have to priced to do so. The Surface RT costs $349.

    Great guide otherwise :)

  8. Glady Says:

    For kids, I would go for Kindle Fire HD. It offers great value for money and has very good parental control.

  9. Thiva Says:

    I am looking for a tablet which have the facility of using the broadband sim card or more else can be called as mobile broadband. Im looking for a low budget tablet. Whould u advise me the best solutions for it.

  10. matt Says:

    Kind of biased towards apple… :-P

  11. vince Says:

    You have the wrong price for the nexus 7 32gb

  12. Alpinmd Says:

    Great article. Im still not sure what I should buy to meet my needs ( professional and student, not a gamer). Lots of note taking, essays, math, meetings, plus email, music, surfing, reports, spreadsheets ( some but could do on laptop). Any clear direct purchase suggestions? No Apple products. Oh and I need the ability to print from tablet and Ive heard googles tablet cant do this. Im leaning towards samsung but dont know enough to know what I don’t know. Any guidance would be appreciated. Tab or Note or? Id prefer not to spend more than $500 or $600.

  13. Tammy Says:

    I’m thinking about buying a tablet so that I can work wherever I happen to be- but I have a disability and find typing difficult on the touchscreen because I can only type with my left hand (I’m not sure they make a Dragon Naturally Speaking program for tablets). I’m also an aspiring writer who loves Google Drive and uses it for everything. What tablet would you suggest for me?

  14. david hoffman Says:

    im wanting to buy a tablet but wifi at my house is not good.what should i be looking for in a tablet

  15. Ritesh Kamble Says:

    I want to purchase tablet.
    wich one a tablet i can buy rs.16000..with good brand

  16. Kathy Says:

    Is APPLE really coming out with another tablet to rival the I-pad AIr??

  17. Prasanta Chanda , Maslandpur Says:

    I want to buy a Tab of Rs 11000/- (Max.) which have the facility of using the broadband sim card or more else can be called as mobile broadband and Windows , take good video.Give your suggestion. Thanks

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    extremely healthful thanks

  21. Sharon Says:

    We are looking to buy a video recording device for our skating club to record and play back jumps, spins, etc. All we need is the videoing, as large of screen as possible and a durable case. We don’t need apps or an operating system really. Is a tablet the best option? Other video cameras have such a small screen to watch on the spot!

  22. diane Says:

    I was told to buy only a tablet or ipad with Sim Card…and SD slot….there are none in the cheaper range and not sure if there are any ipads at all made from Apple that have this…..i wanted to use outside of WIFI when away from home….Could you please let me know. Thank you .

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