Late 2014 Tablet Buying Guide: Screen Size, Hardware And Specs Explained

Laptops are so passe. These days, you want something that you can use standing up on the train into work, or on a long-haul international flight — and that means you need the versatility of a tablet.

How do you pick the right tablet, though, whether it's for work or play or a mix of both? It's a little bit of a guessing game until you actually have one in your hands to try it out, but there are a few guiding rules you can follow to help pick out a few front-runners from the crowd.

Great examples of laptops that are equally capable as tablets — we call these convertibles — include Lenovo's brand new Yoga 3 Pro, and Microsoft's evolved and refined Surface Pro 3. More out-of-left-field tablets can range from the HP Envy X2 to Android slates like the Sony Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact and, of course, the ever-present Apple iPad.

Depending on what kind of tablet you're after, picking the right one is a slightly different process — but whatever you're looking for, there are a few ground rules to follow that will make your decision a lot easier. Take a quick look through our hints as to buying the best tablet, and feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.


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What's In A (Touch)Screen?

When you're buying a tablet, whether it be a Windows convertible slate, or a mobile Android or iOS device, the most important feature by a long, long way is the quality of its touchscreen display. That screen is your main, and sometimes only, point of interaction with your tablet, so if you cheap out here then you'll have an entirely compromised experience.

There are a few major aspects to consider when you're buying a tablet based on its screen; the first of those is its size. Compact tablets all the way down to 8 inches exist, while the standard size is around the 10-inch mark, but if you're looking for a convertible laptop that can flip into tablet mode then something in the 11 to 13-inch range is far more usable. A 13-inch convertible tablet, as long as its bezels aren't too large and don't push its overall footprint out too far, is a great option.

Beyond screen size, resolution is similarly important. It's not quite as black and white as this, but as a general rule the higher a display's resolution is, the better. Higher-res screens can display more detail in images, can make video look better, and can fit more on-screen text or Web graphics without looking blurry or losing clarity. Looking for a Full HD 1080p display or better is a great catch-all rule. When you're looking at Windows 8.1 tablet devices, you can find some with better-than-full-HD displays, often with incredibly pixel-dense 3200x1800 QHD+ resolution — at the moment, these are the best tablet screens you'll find anywhere.

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Processing Power, Performance And Graphics

When it comes to a multipurpose tablet, hitting the right compromise between all-out performance and frugal power consumption is a difficult balancing act. It's important to not purchase a device that's underpowered — because that gets in the way of the tasks that you want to do every day, and even that little extra bit of lag when switching apps or opening up your Web browser can be frustrating — but at the same time, you don't want to have a heat-producing and energy-sucking laptop processor in your thin tablet.

Because of this, doing a little bit of research and finding a device with a modern, up-to-date processor can save you a lot of headache all around. They're more powerful than their predecessors, all while consuming less power during downtime and light-duty computing tasks. With Android devices, any of the most recent generation of Qualcomm's Snapdragon CPU family — we're talking anything with a model number higher than the Snapdragon 400, 600 or 800 series — is your best bet. If you're buying an iPad, it's simple — just get the newest generation possible, since it'll have the most advanced chipset to have come out of the Californian company so far.

Of course, Android tablets, as with Windows hybrids, can be bought with Intel's brilliant low-power Atom chips. Intel's mobile architecture chips are a newer development than ARM, and there’s an incorrect perception out there that Android doesn’t work well on Intel. The fact is, though, Intel works with Google on multiple levels to optimise Android for Intel Atom-based platforms, and almost all applications will run on Android for Intel-based tablets. Intel's working on getting that to include every app, too. There are Intel Atom chips in everything from single- to quad-core depending on how much power you need.

With Windows convertibles, it's a little less clear-cut. Taking Intel's Core processor family as an example, you'll be able to find thin-and-light devices with the entire range from entry-level Core i3, through to mainstream Core i5, and full-power Core i7 — the more power the better when it comes to everyday computing, since these modern chips are generally pretty frugal with their energy consumption when not running at maximum capacity. For an everyday tablet, though, make a special note to look out for the brand new Core M chips — they're mid-range performers, but are incredibly light on power consumption, giving you amazing battery life versus an otherwise equivalent Core i5.

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Battery, Inputs, Outputs And Everything Else

Beyond touchscreen display and internal processing hardware, a tablet's other features are essentially value-adds — you want the best you can get, and the more you can fit in under your maximum price tag the better. Extra features, like a larger battery or integrated stylus or better speakers, can drive up a tablet's price bracket, but don't spend any more than you're willing to commit, or wait for a sale to get a good deal.

If you're looking for a tablet that can function as a laptop and as an everyday work machine, more than one USB port is nearly mandatory, as is some kind of video output — ideally mini-DisplayPort or HDMI for a digital connection to a larger monitor. If you're working or travelling with a camera or camcorder, a SDXC or microSD card slot can come in really handy when you're short a USB data cable. If you can find a mobile tablet that charges over microUSB like your Android smartphone, that cross-compatibility will be more useful than you think, while the size of any Windows laptop-tablet's power brick can be the difference between portable and portly.

Battery life is one of those things that doesn't get enough attention when you're trying to differentiate portable tablets and laptops. The larger a tablet's battery, the better, as long as it doesn't increase a device's thickness past a reasonably portable point or make it too heavy. With a laptop, you're unlikely to find a tablet with a removable battery but not all Windows tablets are equal — check the Watt-hour rating or the number of cells in the battery to get a decent idea of its performance.

A tablet should get used just as much for portable gaming, music and video-watching as it does for everyday productivity, and to that end its speakers can be just as important as its screen. If you get a chance, test-drive a prospective tablet purchase with as much YouTube and Spotify listening as you can stand, to get as full an idea as possible of its audio quality. Similarly, there's no substitute for trying out a convertible laptop's tactile keyboard and trackpad to see whether they're appropriate for whatever task you might want to accomplish.

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