How to Choose a Slate or Tablet PC

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In about a week, Apple will likely announce its new slate device, and some are predicting we’ll be up to our armpits in these things by year end. Since most of you will probably wait until the end of the year to either ask for or purchase one of these things, you have a lot of time. But some of you will feel the need to buy sooner, and it is always best to think about what you want to do with one of these things before the feeding frenzy kicks in, when many people run out and buy something that they’ll either regret or never really use. The factors to consider are size, connectivity, battery life, book reading, application store, accessories, and price. Let’s take each in turn.

Screen Size Does Matter

The screen size for tablets will range from five inches at the low end (about 90% larger than an iPhone) to over nine inches at the high end of the spectrum. Five-inch products are the most portable; they can be carried on the belt, easily in a purse, or in a jacket pocket. If it has phone features, you can even hold it to your face without looking too geeky. Although they fit in pants pockets, like the iPhone, you risk sitting down and then standing up with a cracked or broken device if you put it in your back pocket. Seven inches is a “tweener” size, clearly too big for your pants, but still small enough for some jackets and nice in a purse. You will likely need a headset or speakerphone mode for calls, though. On a belt, you’ll look like a gun slinger. Stepping up to over nine ninches, you have something that transports like a hardcover book or a small laptop. You clearly need a headset for calls at this point, and may have a custom bag to carry the device. The larger the screen, the better it will render Web pages and multimedia, and the more likely it will render magazine content, textbook content, and newspaper content in native form.

So the larger the device, the more useful it is. But because it is large, you may not take it with you as many places. With my Kindles, I found that while the smaller devices are more portable, I enjoy the larger screen enough to go through the extra trouble to carry the device with me anyway. Most the folks I know, however, prefer the smaller Kindle.

Connectivity

It appears there will be several choices for connectivity on for this class of device: Wi-Fi, 3G WAN, and 3G WAN plus cell phone. These are connected devices, and clearly the 3G experience will be the best. However, the devices that have this capability will come with data plans costing in excess of $50 a month. If you are primarily going to use the device at home, or in a few known places where you have Wi-Fi access, then you may – and I use this word for a reason – be able to live with a Wi-Fi-only device. This is like choosing between the iPhone and the iPod Touch. The fact is, you’ll generally see many more folks using the connected features of the iPhone because the 3G network is always on.

Having a second phone doesn’t make that much sense to me, but I know a number of folks who have both a Blackberry and iPhone. The phone service does come at an extra cost, but if you can live with a wireless headset and will always have the device with you when you need a cell phone, then these phone features will, if you use them as your primary phone, keep you from having to buy two cell phone service plans. A lot of folks don’t like headsets, though I increasingly see folks talking to their phone in speakerphone mode.

These things consume a lot of data, and if you do go with a 3G data plan, you likely should consider a flat rate, as the data usage plans can get really expensive for a device in this class. Currently, I’m expecting data plan costs to come down sharply when 4G is wide spread in around 2013, so fortunately, things will get better.

Battery Life

Tablets use a lot of power, and it looks like battery life will range from around two hours to 10 hours, based on a combination of factors. Realize that everyone will likely be overly optimistic in terms of actual battery life. The rule of thumb with laptops is take what the vendor says and cut it in half for real battery life under normal use. It is too early to tell how far off the claims will be, but if you plan to use the device as an e-reader, make sure it has enough battery life to get you through a typical reading session for you. For multi-media use, you’ll want at least three hours, or long enough to get through one long movie and have something left over if you want to play a game or do something else.

Personally, for the first generation of devices, I’d really favor a replaceable battery just to make sure I don’t get stuck because I forgot to charge the darned thing.

Book Reading

There are a number of display types coming to market for tablets. Some will be better for reading than others, with electronic paper still the best display type for reading. If you read a lot and want this feature, try the device outside for at least a couple chapters and see if you enjoy the result and don’t get headaches. This can be as much a function of your eyes as it is the display, but if you intend to use this to read books, there is no point in getting a device that sucks at book reading. By the late fourth quarter, we should have devices that work well for both books and multimedia. Depending on your need to read, you may want to wait for some of them to show up before you buy into this segment.

Application Content Store

If you want to play games or perform other tasks on your device, which is likely, you’ll want to look into the related application store to see if there are things you find compelling. There is nothing worse than being locked into a two-year data plan with a device that doesn’t have the applications you want to play with. On the other hand, if you tend to just use the core stuff that your phone or PC ships with, and don’t load much, then you may want to focus on other areas to help make a decision. However, keep in mind that content is critical. If there is a shortage of easy-to-buy and use content for the device, it is likely to sit on your shelf and be a waste of money. Depending on how you intend to use the device, look for things you want to watch, read, or enjoy on the device to make sure there is enough stuff you want to enjoy to keep you interested.

Accessories

Often, accessories make the device. Charging stations, covers for protection, and accessories you can use to get more use out of the device are important to your being able to enjoy the device over a long period of time. Some vendors do a great job of this, most do not. These things allow you to use the device in the gym, extend the battery life, connect it to other things (like your car) and make it more portable. Accessories also suggest vendor commitment, and there is nothing worse than paying a lot for a device only to have the vendor abandon it a few months later.

Wrapping Up and Price

Recall that the first iPhone cost over $500, and was vastly more limited than the current iPhone, which runs under $200. The same will likely happen here: The first generation of devices will be very expensive and comparatively limited when compared to later generations. In a few years, the data plans for these devices will drop substantially as well, as 4G networks continue to roll out. If you are going to use the device heavily, it will be worth the higher initial price. I don’t regret buying any of my three Kindles, for instance, and many who bought the first iPhone enjoyed it greatly. However, if you expect to be a light user, you may want to wait, or pick a lower cost data plan to go with the device.

With two-year data plans, many of these slate or tablet devices will cost in excess of $2,700 over their two-year useful life. That’s a lot of money for something that sits on a shelf. But if you having a lot of fun with it, then an extra $100 a month isn’t that bad. Before this latest feeding frenzy starts, make sure you know what you want, and what you are willing to pay for it. That will help you with both when and what you will buy.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.