Whether you're a first-time buyer or a seasoned tech-head, choosing between any of the dozens of tablets on the market can be a daunting task. Here are the important things to consider when you're considering picking up a new tablet.
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What Size Screen Do You Need?
For the most part, you can split tablet screens into three distinct categories. There's the small variety, for miniature tablets and even some large-screen smartphones, sitting around the 6.0-inch to 8.2-inch range. Most normal tablets have displays around the 8.3-inch to 9.6-inch range, and include both the smaller variants of the iPad (the iPad mini) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab family. Larger tablets can have screens from the 9.7-inch size all the way to 13 inches and above, although around the 12.2-inch point is a reasonable upper limit.
Most people will be perfectly happy with a mid- or large-screen tablet, because they'll mostly be browsing the Web and checking emails, looking around on Facebook and so on. If you have really specific needs, like commuting to work with a small purse or backpack, you might want a smaller screen, while a bigger display might take over from a laptop for impromptu presentations. And, naturally, the more detailed a screen -- the more pixels packed into its display area -- the better.
Other Screen Specs That Matter
One screen feature that you'll never find mentioned in specifications lists is the width of the bezel that sits around the edge of a tablet's screen. There are two schools of thought on this; one is that the smallest possible bezel is best, because then you don't have a bulky edge around the display that adds excess mass to a tablet, and the other is that a reasonable bezel size makes sense because it's something to grip with fingers and thumbs while you're reading and tapping away.
The brightness of a tablet's display is something rarely quantified, but always worth considering. Maximum brightness as high as possible is always a good thing, because it'll make your new tablet able to be read outdoors in bright light. Equally important, though, is a low minimum brightness to make night-time dark-room reading possible; and a good automatic brightness mode that can switch between the two is mandatory. Also worth considering is a screen protector or anti-glare coating for better all-round visibility.
What Processor Should You Choose?
The hardware that powers your new tablet is, after you buy it, one of those things that is set in stone; you can't change it like you can a desktop or (larger) notebook PC. Because of this, buying something a little overpowered for your needs is a good idea -- that way it'll last a few years into the future as your tablet's OS gets a little more demanding. Similarly, a more powerful processor will see your new little portable computer free of any annoying slowdowns when loading data.
Whether it's a dual- or quad-core processor doesn't really matter, but our recommendation is to opt for a higher-end CPU in your tablet from Intel or Qualcomm to ensure you know what you're getting and that you can quantify its performance by reading reviews and feedback from other buyers. Beyond that, just read around and do a bit of research on any potential tablet's other specifications to make sure it isn't gimped in a way you might not expect.
Other Hardware Specs That Matter
Storage space on a tablet might not seem as important as on a smartphone, but considering you'll likely using a larger screen for high-res movies and photo viewing, or for playing downloaded or streamed music through a Bluetooth speaker or in-home wireless audio system like Sonos, your tablet's internal storage will run out quickly. Make sure you buy one with plenty of extra storage, or at least a microSD card slot so you can add more as you like.
Beyond that, it's the small things that matter -- is your new tablet going to be waterproof? Is its chassis made from metal or plastic? Is the screen covered in smash-resistant Gorilla Glass or a similar high-tech material? Checking through the specs list and reading the manufacturers' brochures for half a dozen of your favourite tablets might give you the best idea of which hardware features you might want -- and then you can decide which you have to have and which you can compromise on.
What Operating System Should Your Tablet Use?
If you're picking up a new tablet, there are three legitimate choices for your new device's operating system. It's important to realise that your tablet is not like a laptop or desktop and for the most part you can't uninstall and reinstall different operating systems -- you're stuck with what you choose when you purchase it. Similarly, there's not really any variety of different operating systems to choose for any one tablet -- each tablet hardware has its own operating system, and apart from a very few exceptions there's no dual-mode slates out there.
Windows 8.1, Google Android and Apple iOS are your three mainstream choices for an operating system on your new tablet. As you might expect, each and every iPad, and only the iPad, uses Apple's in-house-developed iOS, so if you're buying an iPad then that's what you get -- it's definitely a good OS, and every app is screened for viruses, while it's not made for tinkerers. The vast majority of tablets out there run Android, the free and open-source OS from Google that is a little more Wild West in its approach to apps but has more of them at the same time.
Other Apps And Features That Matter
The three big tablet operating systems will all have the big-name apps like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn that you might expect, although they might be slightly different in the way that they approach those services. Because of this, it's always worthwhile trying out anything before you buy it by visiting a retail store and spending a bit of time getting to know the quirks between different devices.
Similarly, there are a few apps that are only available on one OS or on a limited number of devices. Foxtel, for example, has its Go app available on every iPad variant available but only on a limited number of Android tablets. Most of these are designed just for iPads, so if there's something specific that you'd like, make sure your potential tablet purchase includes it -- and an iPad is always an easy choice.