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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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$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.