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

Step 3: Features you’ll want in your tablet

When you get down to choosing your tablet, there is no shortage of choices, but you cannot trust store employees to know what they’re talking about. Here are some features that you should look for in your next tablet.

Screen Size: There are a wide variety of sizes for tablets, from 7 inches all the way up to 13 inches. The iPad is in the 10-inch category. There was an early wave of 7-inch Android tablets, but more recently we’ve seen a number of tablets that fall somewhere in between 7 and 10 inches. Everyone is different, but to us, 7 inches is a bit too small to not really be just a bigger smartphone and 10 inches can be a bit uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time. Try a few out though. The choice is yours.

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Resolution: Pay close attention to the resolution. For entry-level tablets, you want at least 1280×800 pixels for a decent experience. Tablets with 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) or higher resolution are much better. You might want to look for the PPI (pixels-per-inch) to get an idea of how sharp the picture will be. For example, the iPad Air 2 has a 2048×1536 pixel resolution which translates to 264ppi, whereas the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 has a resolution of 2560×1600 which is 339ppi.

Performance: If you want to run the latest apps and games smoothly, then go for a quad-core processor. Generally-speaking, the higher the GHz, the better. You’ll also want a decent amount of RAM, at least 2GB. The specs don’t tell the full story, though, so make sure you check out some reviews and look at benchmarks to see how tablets really perform. Apple is particularly good at getting better performance out of ostensibly lower end hardware. Ultimately, the more horsepower your tablet has now, the longer it will last before it starts annoying the hell out of you.

Wi-Fi only: If you can afford the premium price for a 3G or 4G LTE connection and want to pay a monthly data bill to a wireless carrier, then, by all means, purchase a tablet with a data connection (we recommend 4G). If you need to use your tablet outside of your home a lot, there’s a good reason right there. However, for the rest of you, opting for a Wi-Fi only model will save you a lot of money. You’ll just have to find a Wi-Fi hotspot when you’re outside of your house. (Not really a problem.) For the best Wi-Fi experience, look for dual-band support and the latest 802.11ac standard.

Upgrades: If you’re buying an Android tablet, you want one with Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or a clear date when an upgrade will arrive. If you’re buying an iPad, make sure it’s at least a fourth-generation model. If you opt for a Windows tablet then you may want to make sure that it can be upgraded to Windows 10. Unlike phones, tablets tend to get upgrades, so make sure your new tablet is, at least, on the current operating system when you buy it.

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Battery: Ask about this or look it up. The difference between a tablet with great battery life and a tablet with poor battery life is night and day. The iPad gets 10 hours of battery life, so that is the benchmark you’re looking for in any other device. Keep in mind that if your tablet cannot hold a charge for a few days when you buy it, it’s going to be much much worse in 12-18 months.

Connectivity: What you need will depend on how you intend to use it, but generally, the more ports and ways to connect it has, the better. Make sure it supports the latest Bluetooth standard. Expandable storage via SD (or microSD) could be nice, USB or MicroUSB is essential, and Micro HDMI is nice as well. You may want NFC support, and wireless charging could be worth considering for convenience.

Storage: You’ll often find that Android and Windows tablets offer expandable storage. Adding more space with a microSD card is cheap and easy. Apple and Amazon don’t support microSD cards in their tablets, so you really need to think carefully about what model to buy. If you’re downloading games and storing movies, 16GB can fill up surprisingly quickly. You can find some free cloud storage on each platform, but that won’t suit everyone.

Webcam: Only you know if a rear camera is important to you. If it is, you’ll probably want to get an iPad. We only recommend that you make sure it has a front-facing camera you can use as a Webcam. You never know when Grandma will learn how to Skype.

Keyboard: There are a host of Windows tablets that allow you to dock your tablet into a keyboard, so you can type more easily. If you want to replace a laptop, then that could be important. You’ll also find Bluetooth keyboards out there will work with any tablet. If typing is something you plan to do, then make sure the tablet you choose has a good option for an external keyboard. Few do.

Step 4: Enjoy!

Now you’ve worked out what you want, it’s time to shop! We have a list of the 10 best tablets you can buy and a list of the best Android tablets that we update frequently, and you’ll want to keep an eye on our tablet review section for the lowdown on all the latest releases.

Updated on 6-24-2015 by Simon Hill: Updated the text, updated the images, added Windows tablets, and storage section.

Article originally published 5-18-2012.

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