How we test tablets

Amazon Fire HD 10
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

Buying a tablet is quickly becoming as difficult as buying a PC. The market is still small, but there are already dozens of choices. It takes a bit of research, and if you go into a store without a strong idea of what you want, you may end up with a device that won’t make you happy. That’s why we’re here to help.

At Digital Trends, we write our product reviews to provide you with insight into both a product’s technical performance, and its usability. To that end, we go beyond specs and measurements by placing emphasis on the user experience. Tablets aren’t quite as personal as phones, but they’re still a far more intimate and portable device than any desktop or laptop PC has ever been. Much like with phones, that means we must take a close look at all the small things that, taken together, make the difference between a tablet you can live with and a tablet you’ll love. Here’s how we test the tablet PCs we get in for review.

Unboxing

The first thing we generally take a look at, but rarely report on, is a tablet’s packaging. We check how well the tablet is boxed up and what cables and doodads the manufacturer has included in the box. Usually, it’s just a charge cord, but occasionally, manufacturers get generous. Unboxing does not heavily factor into the review process unless a vital component is missing or inadequate.

Design and feel

After getting a tablet out of the box, we note how good it looks and how well it appears to be constructed. We attempt to decipher what materials the casing and other components are made out of, how sturdy (and reflective or fingerprint resistant) the screen is, how heavy the entire tablet is, how easy it is to access the battery (if it’s possible at all), and the general placement of key buttons, ports, and other physical attributes. If, for example, the speakers are poorly placed, it may be difficult to hear sound from the tablet. We also look at common problems like poorly placed power and volume buttons or a physical frame that’s difficult to hold, uncomfortable, or displaying any number of other problems. We try to look at all these factors to determine if your several-hundred-dollar investment looks and feels as good as it should and will hopefully last.

Hardware specs

We note the internal specifications of the hardware as best we can based on information from the manufacturer, from other sources, and from the device itself. While listing off specs is not helpful for everyone, they are helpful to some of you. More importantly, though, we try our best to examine how those specs affect the experience of using the tablet. Tablets range from small7-inch mobile devices to 13-inch behemoths, sometimes with keyboards or other things attached. As such, the range of what they can do and how they can be used continues to widen. We try to shed a light on what you might expect to be able to do with each tablet and how the internal hardware will help or hinder those goals. Publicly available benchmark tests like Quadrant are also used to provide a bit of context for those who like numbers.

Operating system

Having a tablet that looks good or super thin is wonderful, but if it’s running a poor or outdated operating system, then it might as well be $500 paperweight. We’re intimately familiar with the growing number of tablet operating systems, from Android to iOS to webOS, and even BlackBerry and the upcoming Windows 8. We know them all, and we can trace back their origins to smartphones, MP3 players, and older computer operating systems.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

We note changes made to the operating system and how those changes may affect your experience using the phone. Some operating systems (Android) allow every manufacturer to tinker and toy with the way the OS looks and works, creating subclasses of operating systems with names like Samsung TouchWiz and HTC Sense. We tell you when a particular modification may get in your way or not deliver on its own promises. Manufacturers and wireless carriers also regularly install a number of apps on tablets. Some are useful, but others are installed simply to make a few quick bucks. We note when it’s possible to remove this ‘bloatware’ and which of it may get in your way.

When the operating system is affected by external factors, for example, a touchscreen that is unresponsive or overly reflective, we note this as well.

Camera

While a tablet camera certainly doesn’t compare to a DSLR, the third-generation iPad has put an emphasis on camera quality and we expect other manufacturers to follow Apple’s lead. Currently, it’s a joke to pull out a tablet and record video or take pictures with it, but that may change in the future. As such, we’re ramping up our testing of tablet cameras. We have a standard set of shots that we take with each device, including macro, landscape, portrait, outdoor, indoor, night, low lighting, and shots with the LED flash (assuming the device has one). We also examine our shots on a PC to look for things like red-eye reduction, detail, and color saturation. We note the speed of the shutter, accuracy of autofocus, how well the camera app operates, special options available, and record some video to make sure that it records moving images just as well. The front-facing camera is also tested, as it may actually be used more than the rear camera on a tablet for video chatting.

Data speeds

Though we currently encourage users to adopt Wi-Fi only tablets because of the savings involved, if a data connection is available on a tablet, we test it using benchmarks like Speedtest.net. Can it connect to 4G LTE, 3G, HSPA+? Does the Wi-Fi connection work? Are there other options? We find out.

Battery life

We currently do not perform specific battery rundown tests, but instead try to see how well a tablet performs in real-world usage. When we review a tablet, we use it as our secondary computing device for a few days (or longer) to see how long it can hold a charge while on idle, when using navigation (GPS) services, using data intensive apps, on Wi-Fi, streaming content over Bluetooth, and many other tasks. While this is not a scientific test in a lab, our goal is to use the tablet moderately to see how long the battery holds up.

Price

Price plays a small factor in our reviews, particularly when an item is especially expensive or cheap. We tend to evaluate more expensive models on a higher scale. If they cost more money, they should live up to a higher standard. Having said that, a cheap tablet that doesn’t provide adequate features or performance is no better. As much as we wish we didn’t have to factor price into the equation, it plays a role.

Overall

After evaluating each section of a tablet, we note the major positives and negatives in the final section of the review and provide our opinion on whether the device is worth your time and money. We attempt to grade each device on its own merits, but if there are other devices that provide better functionality (maybe for less money), it is our job to inform you of better options.

As always, we value reader feedback and will take comments, requests, and questions into consideration as we continually refine our testing processes.

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