Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How to choose the right tablet

Having more choices is not always a good thing. Take tablets for example: When you could only buy the Apple iPad, it was a clear-cut decision. Now that there are numerous brands, different sizes and multiple platforms, it actually requires some work to find the best device for you. Here are some important points that you should consider when selecting a tablet.

The first question you should really ask: Do you need a tablet? As a device that falls between a full-fledged notebook and a smartphone, it's only natural for some consumers to believe that they can substitute a laptop with a tablet. Now, this could be true for some that mainly use their slates for browsing the Web or playing games, but it's not always the case.



For instance, you may be used to transferring files between computers with a USB drive, but few tablets have full-sized USB ports. This could mean adjusting how you do things or even not getting a tablet after all. Others may feel that tablets complement their existing phones and laptops and are worth buying because they are more appropriate for certain scenarios, such as reading a digital magazine on the couch.

Once you're sure that you need a tablet, you should consider what you're mainly using it for. Is it for work, such as taking notes at meetings and reading documents? Or would you be using it for entertainment, like watching videos and playing games? Most tablets can fulfill both roles pretty well, but there are some which are more suitable than others. Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet and the BlackBerry PlayBook are examples of slates that are marketed for the workplace and have additional features for their target audience.

Microsoft is also emphasizing the full functionality that you'll get with tablets that run its upcoming Windows 8 operating system. The software company recently unveiled its first Surface tablets and while they aren't available till later this year, they do show promise for users who want to do more than just consume content on their slates.

Tablets can start from a modest 5.5-inch display and go up to 13 inches. In-between, you'll find models with screens ranging from 7 inches to 9.7 inches. Obviously, the devices with the larger displays will be heavier and less portable--one can barely hold a 9- or 10-inch tablet for prolonged use with just one hand. A larger screen may also shorten the battery life or require a more powerful battery, which goes back to the issue of weight. The downsides of a larger display are why there's much talk about Apple releasing a smaller version of its iPad. On the other hand, you may need that extra inch for your favorite 720p HD movies.

Besides the size of the display, one should also look at the screen resolution. Here's where Apple has continued to lead the market with the Retina display on the latest iPad. Android slates from Acer and Asus have also upped the native resolution on their high-end slates to full-HD. You can find a list of tablets with high-resolution screens here.

Then, there's the aspect ratio to consider. Apple has gone for a 4:3 aspect ratio while the majority of tablets favor 16:10. The 4:3 aspect ratio may appear more suited for certain tasks, such as e-books, as we're used to this ratio in print format. In short, there's no right or wrong size, as it boils down to your individual preferences.

Buying a tablet is similar to getting a mobile phone. You're basically tied to the platform upon purchase, as there's no easy way to change the operating system like you do on a laptop. With this in mind, you should treat a tablet like an appliance. Out of the box, it should have all the features and software that you need. You should not get one with the expectation that it will improve in a future update. You can refer to this article to learn more about the different platforms.

For most consumers, the number and variety of apps available for their tablets is an important concern. A tablet may have a great operating system with built-in apps that do almost everything that you can think of, but a lack of third-party apps will still affect its viability in the market. This is because it's no longer just a contest of hardware specs--it's a constant struggle between platforms to attract developers to code apps for them. Just like consoles, if an app you really need is exclusively available on a certain platform, there's really nothing you can do, except to wait and hope that the developer will port it to your tablet's OS.

Currently, Apple's iOS platform continues to lead in the total number of apps, though Google's Android equivalent is rapidly catching up. According to the most recent official statistics from both companies, there are 650,000 apps on iOS compared with 600,000 on Android. While this gap seems pretty small, note that these numbers refer to the entire platform.

Specifically for the iPad, there are around 225,000 apps, of which you can expect a smaller number that are optimized for the Retina display on the new iPad--we have complied a shortlist of Retina display-ready games. Although most Android apps will run fine on both smartphones and tablets, there are no official numbers on tablet versions for Google.

Ultimately, it could all boil down to whether your favorite app is on the platform. Here's a list of excellent free apps (for both Android and iOS) to start you off.

As there are many vendors using the Android OS for their tablets, they have tried to differentiate their products in terms of software enhancements and hardware features. Hence, there are Android slates that come with full-sized USB ports while others have more radical designs, such as the Asus Eee Pad Slider. Other manufacturers, such as Samsung, have gone the software route with its TouchWiz interface on top of Android.

Some of the hardware features that you should take note of when looking at the specs include:
Processor (number of cores and clock speed)Screen resolution Camera (rear and front-facing)Ports, video outputs, connectorsWireless connectivity (3G/Wi-Fi)Stylus supportInternal and expandable storage
Apple's iPad has set a US$499 price for a 10.1-inch tablet that other competitors are finding hard to match. The company is able to source components, such as the high-resolution Retina display at better rates than its rivals due to its large number of orders. If you factor in the US$399 price for the older but still capable iPad 2, it's not difficult to see why the iPad has done so well. In other words, tablets of a similar size as the iPad should not attempt to price themselves higher than Apple's.

However, when it comes to smaller form factors, such as 7 inches, US$199 appears affordable enough to appeal to most consumers. The Kindle Fire, which was the first to reach this price point, was a success last year. Google's Nexus 7, which only became available this month, appears to be doing extremely well, too.

We end this guide with a summary of what you should consider before getting a tablet. As this is a rather personal computing device, we recommend going out to a retail store and trying them out, instead of relying solely on specs and reviews.
What do you need it for?Do you already have a smartphone or laptop? Do you intend to use it for work or play? Are there some tasks that can only be done with a tablet?What screen size to get?Weight, battery life and the apps you intend to run are the factors to consider. Screen resolution and aspect ratio are others.Which platform?Apps, apps, and more apps. Does it have the apps you require?Extra features? Dual cameras, keyboard dock, stylus input and full-sized USB ports are some features that vendors add to differentiate their products.  Which brand? Price is important. Warranty, track record, as well as service and support are things to consider when picking a brand. 

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