Tablet buying guide: everything to know before you buy a tablet

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2
So you need a tablet, and you need it now. Maybe this is your first tablet or maybe you’ve already owned a few. Perhaps you are looking to replace your laptop, or maybe you’re just looking for an extra screen to use when you’re on the toilet or sitting on the couch. Whatever the reason, fear not. There are a lot of good options out there. Below is a quick (very quick) guide to help you navigate the basics of tablet purchasing.

Related: Our picks for the best tablets and all of our tablet reviews

Step 1: Figure out what your needs are

What do you need to do on this tablet? Are you hoping to watch movies? Store it in your purse? Type documents? Read articles? Use photoshop? Does it need a keyboard? A stylus? A Webcam? Much like smartphones and laptops, there are a ton of differently sized tablets on the market with a varying set of capabilities. Figure out what matters most to you and write it down. What you need your tablet to do will entirely determine what model you buy. Your decisions here will affect everything that is to come.

Step 2: Choose an operating system

Android and iOS (iPad) have dominated the tablet scene in recent years, but the Windows tablet category is growing. There are also some good tablets offered by Amazon and a few others that run heavily modified versions of Android. Here’s a brief look at the difference between the platforms:

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Android: Developed by Google, Android has a robust apps and content market called Google Play and comes with a huge suite of services from Google including Google Now, Hangouts, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, free turn-by-turn navigation (our favorite), YouTube, Google Photos, Chrome Browser, Google Drive, Play Music, and more. Basically, if you like Google services, Android is a good option for you. Although many of these services are also available on iOS and other platforms, the integration is smoothest on Android.

Android also boasts support for multiple user log-ins, which is handy if you want a family tablet for everyone to share. And it’s highly customizable. The latest version of the platform, Android 5.0 Lollipop, is slick, stylish, and very user-friendly, but not every tablet will be running it (most are still running Android 4.4 KitKat). Unfortunately, the selection of apps made to specifically take advantage of tablets on Android is lacking. There’s no division between Android smartphone apps and Android tablet apps, so the quality of the experience can depend on whether the developer has optimized for tablet displays. On the plus side, if you’ve already bought an Android app for your phone, you won’t have to pay again to get it for your tablet.

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iOS: The iPad runs on iOS. The iPad has more than 725,000 apps custom built for it and is currently the market leader in every way. It is still the tablet to beat in terms of quality and it has the most impressive selection of apps and accessories. If you own other Apple devices, or enjoy services like iTunes, the iPad may be a good option for you. If you don’t, well, it may still be the best option for you. The user interface is accessible and very slick, but it doesn’t allow for much in the way of customization.

Comparatively, the iPad and iOS apps are more expensive than Android. There’s also a lack of support for multiple users and parental controls. If you have an iPhone and you’ve already purchased an app, you may have to buy it again to get it on iPad (some apps are universal and work on both devices, some don’t).

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Windows: Windows tablets come closest to offering a traditional computing experience, like you might find on a PC or laptop. You’ll be able to run full versions of software like Microsoft Office on a Windows tablet, so it may be the best choice if you plan on using your tablet for work. There are also more than 200,000 apps in the Windows Store, designed to be touch-friendly. Windows offers support for multiple user accounts, and boasts a robust set of parental controls.

As a touchscreen tablet experience, Windows is still significantly weaker than Android or iOS. Part of the problem is that it still feels like a hybrid between the old, familiar PC platform and the new tablet one. The app choice is also comparatively limited, pricey, and not as high quality.

Kindle Fire HDX Game

Others: A few years back there were more competitors in this space, but the BlackBerry Playbook flopped, and Barnes & Noble has stopped making Nook tablets. You may still be able to pick up both on the cheap, but we wouldn’t recommend it. That leaves Amazon with its Kindle Fire range.

Amazon’s tablets run a forked version of Android which means they don’t have the Play Store or any of Google’s apps and services on board out of the box. Instead, Amazon wants you to buy apps from its own Appstore, where you’ll find more than 300,000 apps to choose from. Amazon’s tablets are designed to be affordable entertainment devices, and if you’re a Prime customer they’re well worth considering. They have a great set of parental controls built-in, multi-user support, and they’re easy to use. You’ll also find excellent customer support through the Mayday feature.

On the downside, there’s not such a great choice of apps, and the quality of what is there is generally lower. There are also limitations in terms of customization, and the user interface is not as stylish, or well-designed at its three competitors.

Next page: Pick the right tablet features

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