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Tablet Buying Guide

BY: PETER HOPKINS | 3.8.2017 |

woman using a tablet

For a device that’s meant to simplify your life, there’s nothing easy about buying a tablet. For instance, do you go with an iPad because that’s what most of your friends have? Say you have a Samsung Galaxy smartphone—will a Samsung Galaxy Tab be easiest to use? What size screen do you need? Does it matter?

To answer all these questions, our editors have compiled a step-by-step guide to narrow down the nitty-gritty based on your needs and lifestyle, helping you choose the best tablet for the money.

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Operating System

Tablet brands and operating systems

First, let’s stare deep into the soul of a tablet: its operating system (OS). There are many operating systems out there, but you’ll find these four running on the majority of devices:

  iOS ANDROID WINDOWS FIRE
DEVICES iPad, iPad mini, iPad Air, iPad Pro  Google Nexus, Samsung Galaxy Tab, ASUS Transformer Microsoft Surface, ASUS Vivo Tab, Dell Venue Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD, Kindle Fire HDX
APPS 2.2 million+  2.6 million+  600,000+  300,000+ 
WIRELESS STORAGE PLATFORM iCloud Google Drive OneDrive Amazon Cloud Drive
PERKS Connect and share with other Apple devices  Many Android tablets have memory-card slots for added storage  Often available with laptop-class hardware, such as full-size keyboards and dedicated graphics cards  Good for sharing, since family members can create separate profiles with personalized apps and settings 
 

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Once you’ve chosen an operating system, the second step to buying a tablet is figuring out which technical specs will be most important to you.

Screen Size and Portability

Tablet screens typically range between 7”–10”. Which size is better for you depends on what you’ll primarily be using your tablet for:

  • 7 inches: about the size of a paperback novel and almost just as light, making it ideal for one-handed reading. If you intend to use your tablet on a train or plane, for instance, a 7” screen will be sufficient while still keeping your tablet easy to store and carry.
  • 8 inches or more: better for watching games and movies, as they provide a more immersive viewing experience—albeit at the price of a little extra weight.

Resolution

Tablet screen size and resolution

As a tablet’s resolution increases, you’ll enjoy richer color, contrast, and clarity. This has some obvious benefits, namely that photos and videos look sharper and more vibrant. High resolution comes with subtler perks as well, though, such as smooth text that’s easier to read at smaller sizes.

What to Look For

The best tablets support at least Full HD resolution, which saturates the display with more than 2 million pixels and gives you about the same image quality as an HDTV. Look for this resolution (or higher) if you’ll be using the tablet primarily for movies or games.

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Storage

Apps, music, movies, and games all require storage space. The more you have, the more stuff you’ll be able to fit on your tablet at one time, and the less likely you are to run out of space while shooting photos or video. When talking about storage, there’s one important distinction:

  • If You Mostly Stream Your Media… base-model storage might be the best tablet for the money. Since streaming doesn’t require much native storage, you should still have no problem firing up Netflix or YouTube.
  • If You Need Access to Your Media Offline... you’ll need more storage space to handle the high file sizes of MP3s, movies, and photos. This chart gives a rough estimate of how much can fit on common tablet storage sizes:
STORAGE SPACE PHOTOS MP3s HD MOVIES
8GB 1,000 2,000 
16GB 2,000  4,000 
32GB  4,000  8,000 
64GB  8,000  16,000  12 
128GB  16,000  32,000  24 

Pro Tip: Don’t forget apps. While the average size of a mobile app isn’t too bad, many—especially games—store additional data on your tablet as you use them. If you plan to use apps for messaging, games, or note-taking, err on the side of larger storage.

Processor

Everything you do on your tablet—from streaming music to beating your Candy Crush high score—is made possible by the processor (a.k.a. CPU). And the faster the processor, the more you’ll be able to do at once. When evaluating the performance of a tablet, consider how many cores the processor has:

  SINGLE CORE DUAL CORE QUAD CORE
IDEAL USER Buyers on a budget Most users Multi-taskers
BEST FOR
Browsing the web
Social media, email
Video chatting
Movie streaming
Casual gaming
Video editing
Playing modern 3D games

Wireless Connectivity

Almost every tablet should be compatible with WiFi, but some can also connect to cellular networks such as 4G LTE—just like a smartphone. This lets you stream movies, download apps, or stay on top of developing work situations even where there’s no WiFi.

What to Look For

If you want your tablet to work on the same network as your phone, you’ll need to find a compatible model. Most cellular-capable tablets come in different versions for the major carriers—i.e. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Just pick a version that matches your existing plan.

Tablet Accessories

Tablet accessories

Even the best tablet can be made more useful—or more fun—with the right accessories. Always check for compatibility, however. Some tablet accessories will work with a wide range of models (most styluses, for example), but others, such as cases or keyboards, may be limited to a specific model or brand. Here are a few popular accessories:

Cases with built-in keyboards

While a tablet’s on-screen keyboard is fine for typing in your Netflix password, a keyboard case is a must-have if you plan on using your tablet for any long-form writing. Equipped with large physical keyboards, these cases make typing up long emails or term papers just as comfortable as it would be on a laptop.

Stylus

With a stylus, you can jot down notes, sketch out ideas, or idly doodle just like you would with pen and paper. They’re available in a wide range of styles, with different sized nibs for everything from drawing fine lines to emulating the undulating shape of a watercolor brushstroke.

Microphones

Looking to start a podcast or record a track-by-track remake of Trout Mask Replica? An external microphone transforms your tablet into a miniature recording studio, capturing much richer audio than a tablet’s built-in mic can.

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