A Guide to Shopping for Tablet Computers

As more high-tech companies release tablet computers the buying decision becomes more and more complicated. A couple of years ago the Apple iPad was the only device worth considering. Since the introduction of the Amazon Kindle Fire and now with the arrival of the Google Nexus and Microsoft Surface tablets, there is more to consider when looking for the right tablet computer for you.

It is not as simple as merely going to your local electronics store and picking out a new tablet. You need to know the differences between them and what it means to you.

The price and size of tablet computers vary widely. If you buy the wrong one, it will end up sitting on a desk or shelf. Get the right one and it becomes your best friend. The most important question to ask yourself is, "How am I going to use a tablet computer?" This answer will guide you toward a solution that fits your life.

Replacing Your Laptop or Desktop

Are you planning to replace your current laptop or desktop computer with a tablet? Whether this is possible or not depends upon how you use your current computer.

If you primarily use your computer to surf the Web, watch videos and listen to music, then you can easily replace it with a tablet. These handheld devices are designed for those activities, as well as, viewing photos, reading e-books, and playing games. Tablets are only limited by the apps available for them and their input capabilities (touchscreen, virtual keyboard, and other input devices).

However, if you do serious computing, which may include something as simple as word processing or blogging, then replacing your laptop or desktop can be best described as awkward. As many people will insist, you can do pretty much anything on a tablet that you can do on a regular computer, but it's not as easy. With the exception of the Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro coming in January, none of the other tablets are built for full-on computer software (including the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT).

One-Handed Computing

The number one purpose of a tablet computer is one-handed computing. It is a mobile device which will perform apps without needing a desk to support it. It should be light enough to hold with one hand while poking the touchscreen with the other. As an acceptable alternative (or if it's a little heavy) the tablet may rest in your lap while sitting on the sofa or get support from your chest while lying in bed. But if you know that you will be in situations that require you to walk around while using the tablet, its weight will be a major consideration.

In my informal tests, I determined that tablets over one pound, which includes the iPad and virtually all comparable tablets with nine to ten inch screens, are a little too heavy for use while wandering at a construction site. Most of the smaller tablets with seven-inch screens are well below the one pound mark and are ideal for one-handed computing. This explains the enormous popularity of the Apple iPad mini which is already cutting into the sales of the regular iPad.

Key Tablet Computer Features

To evaluate tablet computer value, you need to understand what you're getting for your money. Knowing the meaning of the terminology is helpful when looking at tablet computer ads or reading the specs on the side of the packaging. The following is a guide to the features and jargon that you will encounter and what it means to your purchasing decision.

Tablet Computer Operating Systems

Our computers have made us accustomed to referring to operating systems. When looking at laptops and desktops we think of Windows, OS X (for the Mac), and Linux. They each have distinct meaning when related to the availability of software. While you can get software for each of these systems, they are not directly compatible. Often software will be available for Windows while it has never been ported to other computer systems.

The same is true for tablet operating systems, although the differences are less significant to the availability of the most popular apps. The reason for this is major applications (Netflix, Kindle, Dropbox, etc) are developed for all the tablets and are readily added to a specific operating systems. Tablet software is generally not as demanding as Windows or OS X software and needs to run in one gig of RAM (the amount of RAM available in most tablets).

Apple iOS

Apple's iOS operating system is synonymous with the iPhone and iPad. It was designed originally for the iPhone and became the platform for all the iPad tablets. It runs only the apps available through the Apple iTunes App Store of which there are literally hundreds of thousands. Many of the apps available for the iPad were written for the iPhone, but they will run without a problem on the iPad.

You can only install applications through Apple which may limit you a little, but it also protects you from some apps which would exploit your system. You will not be able to install apps written for other non-Apple tablets.


Most of the non-Apple tablet computers run the Android operating system from Google (or some version of it). A primary source of Android apps is Google Play which is Google's Android version of the Apple's App Store. Most Android tablets (and smartphones) will directly access Google Play.

However, note that while both the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble Nook tablets run a modified version of Android, they each have their own app store and don't directly access Google Play. There are ways to access Google Play apps on both the Kindle Fire and Nook. Kindle Fire has a setting for allowing the installation of unknown applications. This will let you install a Google Play app. With the Nook a special SD card offers access to Google Play while it is inserted.

Android tablets will not run Apple iPad apps. This is probably not an issue since it is now reported that there are about the same number of Android apps as Apple iOS apps available. The number of apps is not particularly significant since no one uses hundreds of thousands of apps. There are only a handful which are important, and they are probably available for all tablets, including the latecomer Microsoft Surface tablet.

Windows 8 RT

Microsoft has recently taken up the challenge of the tablet computer market by introducing Windows 8 and the Surface Tablet. Windows 8 tablets are not compatible with any other tablet on the market.

While Windows 8 comes in two versions, Windows RT (tablet only) and Windows 8 Pro (tablet and full Windows), the Modern interface found in both versions is considered the primary tablet interface. Special applications need to be written for the Modern interface which are not compatible with Apple iOS, Google Android, or traditional Windows Desktop itself. (There Windows RT apps will not run on other non-Windows 8 computers.)

It is estimated that there are about 150,000 Modern interface apps already available for Windows 8 tablets which is well below that of Apple iOS or Android. Most likely, the apps most important to you will become available. If there is an app critical to you, you may want to check the Microsoft App Store before going with a Windows 8 tablet.

If you just want a tablet computer, Windows 8 RT doesn't offer any advantage over other tablet operating systems. You will be stuck the Microsoft blessed apps found in the store without access to other sources of software. None of your Windows legacy software will run in Windows RT. If you want to run your Windows software, you will want a tablet with full Windows such as the Surface with Windows 8 Pro—coming in January. But then, it is as if you're buying an ultra-light laptop which can act as a heavy tablet (two pounds).

Tablet Size and Shape

With the introduction of the smaller Kindle Fire in 2011, the tablet market broke into two segments: the larger nine to ten inch screen market established by the original iPad and the mid-size tablet (between the iPad and smartphone) market with smaller screens and better more mobility. These lighter tablets fit into a purse and take up less room in a briefcase. Their less-than-one-pound weight makes them better for one-handed computing. The significance in this difference in size did not truly register until the introduction of the Apple iPad mini which has started to cannibalize the sales of its larger brother the iPad. While Apple introduced the mini to compete in the smaller market, Amazon and Google are now offering larger tablets with the Kindle Fire HD 8.9" and Nexus 10 respectively.

Screen Resolution

The most touted feature of the tablet screen—and possibly the most overrated—is the resolution. The iPad 4 with its Retina display has received rave reviews, yet the smaller iPad mini with a lower resolution is eating into iPad sales. The question is, "How important is screen resolution to the consumer?" Maybe the resolution on most tablets is just good enough that a little more improvement doesn't mean much. The Google Nexus 10 outshines the iPad Retina display in resolution, but will that make a difference in sales? At some point the detail offered by the screen goes beyond the capability of the human eye.

Screen Size

Of more importance is the physical size of the screen. It's been found that the smaller the screen the less people browse the Web. The smaller text size and links make it more difficult to read and navigate on the smaller screen (fat finger syndrome). This has less effect on games which are designed for touch (big buttons), reading books, looking at photos, or watching videos. You can enlarge Web pages with a reverse pinch, but that's a bit of a hassle. If your major activity will be Web browsing, then you may want to consider one of the larger tablets. Otherwise, you might prefer the lighter smaller tablets.

Price is always on the side of the smaller tablets and their smaller screens. Going with a lighter, more mobile tablet will save between $150 and $200 for comparable features.

Screen Shape

For browsing the Web, I prefer the boxy shape of the iPad. The almost square shape is more suited to the standard Web page. The elongated shape of some tablets such as the Kindle Fire makes Web pages either too short or too narrow, depending upon the orientation of the tablet. The iPad shape is also a little better for viewing photos, takes better advantage of the available screen space for standard images. The screen shape doesn't have much effect on reading e-books since e-books reformat according to your preferences.

If you're watching video, the wider HDTV format of many tablets may be preferable, often making the best use of the available screen. Of course, screen shape has no impact upon music.

Onboard Storage

Data storage on a tablet computer is quoted in gigabytes. Some models may have as little as 8GB. The iPad varies from 16GB to 64GB. How much you need will depend on what you're planning to store in it. The hogs of space are videos, music and photos, in that order. If those are your major applicaitons, then you may be looking for the max. If e-books are your thing, or you're watching Netflix from the Internet, then you will get by with a minimum of onboard storage.

Some of the tablets (e.g. iPad, Kindle Fire, Surface) offer Cloud storage on the Internet to augment your storage capacity, but it is usually pretty limited—and unusable when you don't have an Internet connection. There is a fee for increasing the amount of Cloud storage capacity.

Another option for the iPad is the Seagate GoFlex Satellite Mobile Wireless Storage 500GB USB hard drive. With this you can bypass the minimal storage of the 16GB model iPad. There is also the Kingston Wi-Drive 32GB USB 2.0 Pocket-sized Portable Storage flash drive for iPad and most Android tablets.

If a tablet has an additional USB port (separate from the port used to connect to a computer), then you can probably use a USB flash drive for extra storage. However, most tablets do not offer enough power to run an external USB hard drive. In that situation you will need either a drive with its own power or a USB hub with a separate power supply. However, be sure that the USB port is enabled for normal function. You can't use the Kindle Fire or iPad computer connection for this purpose.

Storage Expansion Slot

One of the better features found on some tablets is a Secure Digital (SD) card slot (usually microSD or microSDXC). This is a big plus on the Barnes and Noble Nook, many of the Android tablets, and the Microsoft Surface, but it's not available on the iPad, the Kindle Fire, or the Google Nexus. Getting another 32GBs of built-in storage can add $100 to the price of a tablet. But, since SD cards can be swapped out, one SD slot on your tablet makes your data storage capability unlimited. Look for this when shopping for a tablet.

Wi-Fi Versus 3G/4G

Virtually all the tablet computers offer Wi-Fi. This wireless connection has become our primary method for connecting with the rest of the world. A huge percentage of computer users have enabled Wi-Fi in their homes and it is the main Internet connection for tablet computers. If you don't have Wi-Fi readily available, then you should either reconsider even buying a tablet computer—that is unless you plan to sign up for a cellular data plan. Wi-Fi is available in so many places (McDonald's, hotels, airports, coffee shops) that it's usually easy to find.

However, if you're always on the move and need a constant connection (even in the car), then it may be worthwhile to find a tablet which is cellular capable. Then, just like a smartphone, you can stay always connected and Internet ready. The cellular 3G/4G capability is an option for all iPad models, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9", the Samsung Galaxy, and a few other Android tablets. The cellular data feature adds to the price of the tablet ($130 to $300), plus you need a cellular data package from a wireless provider (usually about $30 per month). Since I use my tablets at home (only occasionally on the road), all I need is the Wi-Fi. I suspect that's true for most people.

Standard USB Port

While most tablets support Bluetooth for adding devices such as keyboards and mice, some tablets include a full-function USB port which will allow you to plug-in flash drives and other USB devices. The problem is determining if the USB port listed on the box for a particular tablet computer will allow you to plug-in a flash drive to expand storage or a digital camera to download photos.

Many tablets will list a USB port in some form, but often they are only for recharging and computer connections. They don't work with other devices. The Microsoft Surface and Nexus 10, along with a number of other Android tablets, are supposed to offer full USB support, but, if this feature is important to you, check it out for yourself. Search the Web for specific information or plug a flash drive into a demo unit at the store. You don't want to wait until you get home to find out that the USB port has limited function.

Front Facing Camera

The purpose of the front facing camera is video conferencing (Skype or Facetime on the iPad). It is generally a lower quality camera than the rear facing camera, but it is now standard on most new tablets. If you don't care about making video calls then this feature will be of little interest to you—unless you just want to take pictures of yourself or just need a mirror. I couldn't find any data on how many people actually do video conferencing with their tablet computers, but you know if this is something you need.

Rear Facing Camera

Rear facing cameras are better quality than the front facing cameras because their purpose is to actually take photos. While they are common on many tablets, not all tablet computers have bothered to add cameras. I'm not sure how many people like to hold up a tablet to take a picture. I see plenty of people using their smartphones to record daily activities or a random odd sight, but I have never seen anyone holding up a tablet while clicking away. I use a digital camera myself, but then I don't own a smartphone.

Audio and Microphones

Tablet computers generally include built-in speakers and a stereo audio jack for headphones. Some include stereo speakers. It is difficult to see how these features can compete with a home audio system for music, but if you have used an iPod for your music collection, I would guess that plugging headphones into the stereo jack could be comparable. It certainly serves the purpose when traveling and watching videos.

Microphones are available on tablets with front facing cameras. When participating in a video phone call, the microphone is needed for audio communication.


Not many of the tablet computers offer GPS for navigation. Some use a Wi-Fi tracking system which can estimate your location based upon nearby Wi-Fi signals, but that can't be used for turn-to-turn navigation. The Nexus tablets include GPS navigation and the more expensive cellular models of the iPad have it. Since the only thing required for GPS is a satellite receiver and maps, you would think that more tablets would offer it.

I use a stand-alone GPS that talks to me with an Australian accent, warns me about red light cameras, and acts as my hands-free phone. It is definitely cool. I wouldn't mind having GPS in a tablet computer.

Pick the One that Fits You Best

I've listed some of the major features found on tablet computers. It's up to you to decide which are most important to you. Then pick the tablet that comes closest to your needs and fits within your budget. I found this tablet comparison chart at TabletNation.com which lets you pick various tablet comparisons. It will give you good overall information, but some areas are vague, such as the USB port category which doesn't show if the USB port is full functioning.


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Sunday, June 23, 2013 ×

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