Start taking the tablets
Tablets have revolutionised how we use the internet, whether surfing the web, streaming movies or playing games. Thomas Kibwe reveals the important questions to ask when choosing the right tablet for you.
Apple all but single-handedly created the market for tablets when it unleashed the first iPad on the world in 2010. Seven years later, however, shop shelves are crammed to bursting with tablets of all shapes, sizes, software platforms, functions and prices. Though Apple founder Steve Jobs wanted to simplify computing with the iPad, it’s now harder than ever to pick a tablet from the multitudes available. To help you make your buying decision, here are the key questions you need to ask when you’re on the hunt for a new tablet in 2017.
What do I want it to do?
It sounds obvious, but it’s a question many people overlook in the rush to try the Next Big Thing. What do you want a tablet for? Do you want a device to carry with you, or to watch videos on the commute? Do you just want something to browse the web at home, and to prop up in the kitchen while you read online recipes? Are you sick of trying to negotiate a creaking old Windows PC when you just want to quickly check train times or sports scores? All of these are reasons to get a tablet – but your main answer will help determine which one is right for you.
But first, be sure that you actually need a tablet. If you just want to send emails, or negotiate complicated spreadsheets, then you should probably stick to a laptop – PCs are still better for typing long messages or navigating intricate PowerPoint presentations. There is a burgeoning category of productivity tablets with built-in keyboards that act as laptops when needed, but they come at a high price – see the sidebar overleaf for more details.
What software do you want?
This is important. There are three major software platforms for tablets: iOS, Android and Windows 10. The first is Apple’s operating system, available only on iPad Pro, iPad Air and iPad mini lines. It’s beautiful, fast and energy efficient, meaning iPads don’t have to be recharged often.
It’s also really easy to use, so if you’re a technophobe, an Apple tablet is worth the high price – you can even dictate your search terms so you don’t have to type (something that’s still quite fiddly on a large touchscreen), and tell your tablet what to do using its voice recognition service, Siri. There are millions of apps for iOS, ranging from games to professional music recording – there’s no doubt that iPad has the best tablet software. Apple is quite restrictive with what it allows on its App Store, however – it approves each and every app that goes on the store, and it can sometimes be quite prudish. Hackers will find its walled garden restrictive.
Android is Google’s software for smartphones and tablets, which has become hugely popular in recent years: there are now more than one million apps available to download from the Google Play store. Admittedly, many of these have been designed with mobiles in mind, and don’t look as polished on a larger screen as the polished iPad apps on Apple’s iTunes. Android is the only tablet software available to lots of different manufacturers, however, so it runs on almost every iPad competitor except Microsoft. If you’re looking for a low-price tablet, Android is effectively your only option, but that’s no bad thing: in recent years, it has become fast, feature-packed and easier to use than ever. Android 7 ‘Nougat’, the latest version, even lets you run two apps side by side on screen at once.
Android is much more flexible than iOS. You can install whatever you like and customise its layout to your heart’s content – and so can the companies who make them. As a result, there are lots of different types of Android tablets: ones you can draw on with a stylus, ones with huge battery lives, ones with keyboard covers that have built in extra battery life. Lots of innovation, in other words, but only if you’re prepared to work for it.
Finally, there’s Windows 10 – the same Windows you’re probably used to already is now available on tablets, chiefly in Microsoft’s own Surface Pro and Surface Book lines. It’s relatively easy to use, if not as foolproof as iOS, but its real benefits come from being able to run apps and games you’re already used to on your PC. For productivity rather than entertainment, this might be your best bet.
Watch out for screen resolution when shopping – a display’s size isn’t the only thing that counts. How many pixels it fits inside is important too. Typically, the cheaper the tablet, the fewer it has: 1024×600 is fine for video but leaves text looking blurry – you won’t want to read long articles or ebooks on one. Full high definition (1920×1080) or more is better. The Apple iPad Air 2’s Retina Display resolution boasts a dazzling 2048×1536 panel – it’s very hard to see the pixels at this point, and makes text look closer to paper.
Size matters. But what’s it to you?
Tablets range in sizes from smartphone to flatscreen TV but, broadly speaking, the market has now divided into two sizes: those with screens measuring around 7 inches (Amazon Fire, iPad mini) and those measuring 10 inches (iPad, Microsoft Surface Pro) or more.
That difference doesn’t sound like much, but in fact there’s a big difference in surface area and portability. Case in point: two Amazon Fire tablets will fit on top of one iPad – it’s only half the size, and will almost fit in your trouser pocket. Such small tablets are much easier to carry around, not to mention cheaper, so if you plan on using your tablet out of the house a lot, they’re a smart choice. The downside? Most can’t match larger tablets for battery life, and smaller screens aren’t great for using creative software such as drawing and writing apps.
Larger tablets such as the 9.7-inch iPad Air or 12.3-inch Surface Pro 4 have the capacity to hold much bigger batteries (and often more powerful processors, too) so they run for much longer between charges. Larger screens are better for watching videos, playing games and creating music and artwork. But they’re usually heavier: you won’t find yourself just chucking one in your bag before you head out. As a result, they’re better suited for those who plan on using a tablet on the sofa, not the train.
G or not 4G?
This question is all about connectivity. Every tablet, large or small, has built-in Wi-Fi so you’ll be able to jump online on your home broadband network or in Wi-Fi hotspots – cafés, shopping centres, hotels and so on – at no extra cost. If all you need is a tablet for the home, that’s enough.
If you plan on using your tablet for work and on the go, however, you could consider one with a mobile data connection (just like your phone) for surfing the web and sending and receiving email on the move. Most of the big-name tablets come with optional support for both high-speed 3G and 4G networks in many territories so you can be online almost anywhere (though availability varies). The catch: you’ll pay more for the tablet, and then more every month for a data connection. But if you’re a road warrior who has to open a lot of documents on the plane or train, that can still be worthwhile.
Top tablets for working on the go
Most tablets are great for consuming entertainment and passing the time, but these powerful computers can handle everything from animation to video editing and more.
1. THE WRITE STUFF Google Pixel C (from US$599)
This beautiful 10.2-inch Android tablet is made by the search company itself. With its slide-out physical keyboard it’s designed to compete with Apple’s iPad Pro, and is great for typing at length on the go.
2. FULL-STRENGTH APPS Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (from US$749)
Microsoft started the trend of pro tablets with keyboards and styluses, and the year-old Pro 4 is still on top thanks to its excellent hardware and true desktop software – some apps feel stripped back on mobile, but not here.
3. QUICK ON THE DRAW Apple iPad Pro (from US$599)
Available in two sizes: 9.7-inch and a pricier 12.9-inch. It’s super-fast, and there are great accessories available: as well as a Smart Keyboard cover case that lets you fold down and start typing, it works with Apple’s super-smart Pencil stylus. Perfect for sketching.
Androids aren’t equal
Tempted by an Amazon Fire tablet? There’s something you need to know first: the Kindle Fire software is based on Google’s Android operating system, which is technically open source and free for manufacturers to tinker with. Amazon has stripped the software of all of the major Google services, however – instead of Chrome you get its own web browser and, crucially, instead of the Play store, which provides more than one million apps, you get its own Amazon Appstore. In other words, the Kindle Fire is not quite an Android tablet. In theory, it means Amazon can provide a better experience, with clever technology such as its Mayday remote IT support for when you get stuck. In practice, though, it means that far fewer apps are available for it – I’m yet to be convinced that the trade-off is worthwhile, though the Fire’s low price makes it ideal for kids.
Top tablets to buy
Whatever your price range, needs and location, we’ve got you covered. These are the best tablets you can buy today.
1. PORTABLE BEAUTY
Apple iPad Air 2 (from US$399)
Apple ushered the tablet into the mainstream, and it’s still yet to be truly beaten by any of its competitors. The latest iPad is a stunning beautiful device, with a dazzling 9.7-inch Retina Display and a wafer-thin chassis, plus best-in-class battery life. How Apple managed to fit everything inside and keep the weight under 500g is anybody’s guess.
2. SLEEK CREATIVITY
Microsoft Surface Book (from US$1,349)
This clever device is both laptop and tablet, and masters both. Its brand-new Intel Core i7 processor ensures speeds as fast as most desktop PCs, but its unique hinge lets you fold the keyboard behind the gorgeous touchscreen or just unclip it entirely.
3. BARGAIN BUY
Amazon Fire (US$49.99)
This 7-inch tablet won’t set the world on fire, despite the name, but for the price it offers unmatched value. If all you want is a tablet for occasionally watching YouTube clips or reading comics – or one you don’t mind being handled by children – this is it.